Features I by I 25.05.16

Moogfest takes on politics, technology and the bathroom bill to make a play for the East Coast’s best festival

Moogfest has become one of the USA’s most forward-thinking festivals since its first edition in 2006, using live music, workshops, installations and debates to explore the intersection of music, art and technology. Brad Stabler headed to Durham, North Carolina to find hardware fetishism sidelined in favor of big ideas about identity, anatomy and the future.

With the passing of HB2, or the “bathroom bill”, a state law that effectively makes transgender discrimination legal by making all public bathrooms gender specific, North Carolina’s priorities appear to be mixed up. To see just how poorly thought out and poorly timed this law is, you don’t need to search further than Interstate 85. Upon crossing the Virginia state line en route to Moogfest, the highway spectacularly falls apart, switching to one lane in both directions, flanked by billboards that read “hysteria brings recessions”. And the state wants to fix the bathrooms. Fittingly, Moogfest in 2016 – and its host town, Durham – wanted nothing to do with discrimination or infrastructural incompetence.

Politics, technology, identity, and the fluid lines between the three stood at the forefront of this year’s Moogfest. Named after the late synthesizer architect Bob Moog and originally held in honor of his birthday, this was Moogfest’s first year away from the sleepy, picturesque town of Asheville, where Moog’s factories are based. New possibilities were the focus of this year’s festival, which this year saw a rebranding of not only what the festival stands for, but how it functions: a new town, a new approach, a new identity. Hardware and software mechanics were squeezed into the sidelines, and in their place was a festival that prioritized transhumanism, Afrofuturism, virtual architecture and personas, and above all else, gender fluidity – all underlined by sets from artists like Larry Gus, Laurie Anderson, Blood Orange, and Oneohtrix Point Never.

Photography by: Carlos Gonzalez for Moogfest

Language and expression of identity was at the forefront of many of the most powerful moments of the festival

In terms of innovation, bringing the festival to Durham was a choice move. The city has undergone a boom as of late, partly due to its involvement with the tech industry, comfortably intersecting Duke University and Moog’s businesss. This weekend welcomed an even distribution of wide-eyed out-of-towners and locals, who were quick to point out that the Durham we saw was, for all intents and purposes, brand new. The hotels, the skyscrapers, the coffee shops and galleries: all have only been in existence for around five years. Signs opposing HB2 could be seen in every window, and bathrooms declaring “we don’t care” – or the wonderfully cheeky “Gender Neutral (Milk Hotel)” – were scattered in venues across the city. Elsewhere, Prince symbols replaced gender logos.

But symbolic and institutional acts of protest only go so far, and while Moogfest’s programming had an extra poignancy due to the timing, what you get from the festival depends largely on what you bring. ‘Musical Language, Musical Brains,’ a performance helmed by DIY inventor Onyx Ashanti, was a stunner. Locking his hands and head into his home-brewed gear (“Always buy your parts on eBay”, he advised), he created squalls of noise with his hands via tools that looked like rinky-dink skeletons, complete with strobes, keypads on his fingers, and a mouth piece, all the while projecting a 3D map of his mental state. “Verbalized language isn’t the most efficient language if you have a musical brain,” he concludes.

Language and expression of identity was at the forefront of many of the most powerful moments at Moogfest. At the keynote speech, titled ‘The Future of Creativity’, Dr. Martine Rothblatt, creator of Sirius satellite radio and a key member of the Human Genome Project, laid it bare: “There is no battle between mind and machine – a human mind running on a processor is still human.” For a festival interested primarily in electronic music, it’s amazing how that one sentence snaps Moogfest’s vision into focus. The statement echoed through other lectures and performances, with drone and noise artist Tim Hecker concisely summing up a similar idea during his panel on production with fellow musician Ben Frost. “Using your body as an interface to make machines do things,” he offered, “if it resonates with your intent and the urge to create, you get the sense that it’s personal and alive.”

Moogfest - Hieroglyphic Being
Photography by: Eric Waters for Moogfest

As a political and technological platform, Moogfest has emerged as a compelling and positive voice

Jamal Moss (aka Hieroglyphic Being), Janelle Monae, Chuck Lightning, and Reggie Watts offered a counter-argument in ‘Do You Remember the Future?’, a panel discussion on Afrofuturism, the strand of thought which merges history, science fiction, fantasy and art with contemporary issues faced by the African diaspora. “It’s important to embrace you,” said Monae, “and not be a slave to your own interpretation of what you identify as.” In that sense, the panel was a sound rejection of labels, from being African-American to being an Afrofuturist. Monae’s producer and collaborator Chuck Lightning, born and raised in Nigeria, stressed the contrast between labels in Africa versus America: in the former, you were labeled by your tribe; in America you’re labeled by your skin tone, sexuality, music interests, fashion taste. Labels upon labels, most of them unnecessary. Moss, a house producer from Chicago, then led us to the “elephant in the room”. “This is nice,” he said, “but is it possible to have an outreach to the youth, the ones with the anger, ages six to 16? It would be nice to have everybody here.” Speaking of everybody, Durham’s locals certainly didn’t seem to know that Moogfest was happening.

For attendees, it was possible to contextually and physically get lost or too hectic once things ramped up at night. Thursday and Friday were remarkably relaxed, with lectures, workshops, and shows evenly spaced out. Saturday was a crapshoot with simply too much going on, while Sunday was tumbleweeds, with performances and panels lacking in impact. There were some problems with communication, security, and programming as well. Mykki Blanco and Skepta both dropped out. M. Geddes Gengras was supposed to have a DJ battle with IBM’s Watson supercomputer, but heard nothing from the promoters and was eventually replaced with YACHT. The all-volunteer staff, both at the main stage at Motorco Park and the Carolina Theatre, were overwhelmed and overworked. Sometimes things were double booked, and if you went the wrong way, the staff’s help only went as far as a flat, repeated “nope.”

Moogfest - Sunn O)))
Photography by: Ryan Sides for Moogfest

Despite this, Moogfest’s approach was largely successful. With the big political and scientific narratives presented throughout the day (and I haven’t even touched on the presence of virtual reality, with exhibits ranging from virtual spas to using your own body to remix songs by Grimes), it was easy to forget that Moogfest has always been a damn good music festival, and this year it was extraordinary. Special mention needs to go to the Pinhook, which hosted some of the most forward-thinking acts in a tiny, comfortable dive bar (which finally got its act together once the sound guy figured out he should probably turn up the volume and the bass at the eleventh hour on Saturday). The venue’s lineup was the most solid by far: Rabit denied his audience any tradition drop (as he does) and the effect was sound design at its finest. Kyle Hall was remarkable, as were Laurel Halo, Karen Gwyer, and Via App. Over at Motorco, Floating Points and Sunn O))) both delivered some of the best live performances you’re ever going to see, with Grimes, Grouper, Dawn, and GZA (he’s still got it) coming up right behind them.

All complaints feel small in the wake of the awesome mission Moogfest managed to accomplish in Durham this year. As a political and technological platform, the festival has emerged as a compelling and positive voice, with the excellent artist curation bringing up the rear. If all the kinks are smoothed over by next year, it could take over as the East Coast’s best festival. It already has what it needs to make it, and that’s not even spending a paragraph talking about the scones at Ninth Street Bakery. Still, there remained shadow over the festival: HB2. Throughout Moogfest’s four days, one point was repeated again and again, most astutely by Rothblatt, a transgender woman herself, in her talk on creativity: “Identity is about autonomy, not anatomy. Identity starts with the mind, with the mind and soul being the font of all creativity.”



Share Tweet