Unsound Festival 2020 – Interview Gosia Płysa

Gosia Płysa (Unsound): “I am certain that this difficult year will result in lots of great new art and music”

Instead of traveling to Krakow this fall, Unsound Festival fans from all over the word had to go digital this year and follow the Corona substitute version of their favorite Polish festival. Which as it turns out, was not too shabby. Gosia Płysa and her team came up with so many great talks, experimental pieces and musical performances.

Gosia Płysa was kind enough to answer some questions by Thomas Venker

Gosia, what was your experience of Unsound’s 2020 edition?
Gosia Płysa: Personally, I feel like it was on one hand one of the more challenging editions of the festival – in terms of practical realization, communication challenges and finding new technological solutions with dramatically limited resources. On the other hand, it has also led to many profound realizations and discoveries – artistic and personal.
I am happy with the final shape of the online programme, although, I can’t say I would be satisfied with this way of putting on events on a regular basis. I miss the club music element, which has always been a big part of Unsound and the experience of collective listening and dancing and all the fun aspects of the event taking place IRL. The main observation of this years festival and all work around it, is the fragility and interdependence of the ecosystems we all function in, as humans, as members of the society, and also regards the state of the arts and culture in general – what are we depending on in order to survive? Who do we want to work with and support? But also what kind of socio-political reality will we find ourselves in when the crisis hits.
And while there has been so much turmoil, what has been lifting my spirit was the extensive support network we have managed to find ourselves in, connecting with artists, audiences, different partners.
Also, I have to admit, it has been hard to focus on work and going on with planned announcements and activities looking at the political situation in Poland. Firstly with the rise of hate speech against LGBTQ+ people, then the shocking anti-abortion legislation and all the protest that keeps on following while the new cases and death toll is breaking new horrific records.

How was the feedback from outside: from artists, their teams and the audience?
That’s the most frustrating thing about the online edition – while you can measure the success by the amount of views or social media reactions or get lots of great feedback via email or phone, it’s still so much better to interact with people in a physical space, see and hear the reactions as they are taking place. I miss that element of the evaluation and fun. At the same time, we have managed to reach much further and access more people than we would if the event was taking place IRL only, so that’s amazing and possibly something that will stay with us for longer, adding to the accessibility of the festival. It was also important to engage people – artists, their teams and audience in something, supporting each other in this really difficult period.

Screenshots from the first unsound lab meeting

Do you remember when you first heard about Covid-19?
Yeah, my mum was monitoring the news in January and was warning me against going to Australia in February as there was already a lot mentioned about the virus spreading in China and other countries. I ignored her but noticed there were a lot fewer tourists from China in the usual spots we went to. Even few days before the lockdown started I don’t think we were anticipating the scale the pandemic would take. But at the same time, I am afraid it’s the beginning of a much larger crisis and the effect of climate change humans are bringing onto this planet.

When did you realise how long this all might endure – and what that might mean for the festival in 2020 (and maybe even 2021)?
I think as soon as we have arrived to Poland, in early March and lockdown measures were being implemented, it started looking grim and risky. I remember being surprised by the sudden decision of Dark Mofo (Tasmanian festival run by Mona museum in Australia) to cancel their June edition where we were planning to present one of our projects. But then, doing a risk evaluation – which in the pre-pandemic times was already high for any festival of bigger size –, we thought it would be just crazy to try and produce an event “like before” with so many things we can’t be sure of at that stage. This plus the 60% cut in our main source of funding added to the decision that this will definitely have to be a different year. And back in March we weren’t sure if that’s a one-off situation or something that will take longer. We are still not certain, but with the vaccine development looking so positive, I would allow for cautious optimism as for 2021 looking a bit better, even though definitely a recession hitting us all hard and all the depression that will follow with so many sick and dead people.

Some festivals decided to go for a hybrid model – meaning they produced performances and editorial content exclusively for the net but also hosted some more or less small events in the “real world”. You did not – or did I miss out the „real world action“? Was that because of the legal restrictions or other reasons?
It would be just too complicated, stressful, risky and unsafe to go for a hybrid version of Unsound. Our budget, after the cuts and not being able to rely on the ticket income, was much smaller, so, instead of risking and producing a limited version of Unsound, without club music which is a vital part of Unsound every year, we thought of dealing with the challenge more creatively. We have invited artists who already felt comfortable in the online environments and their work transgresses different genres and means. We also didn’t want to produce streams of live performances – if you want to do it really well, you need a proper film budget and more time to produce it than we had. Both me and Mat (the artistic director of Unsound) and the other curator, Michał, were keen on focusing on bringing discussions to the forefront of the program. Also by introducing our first publications – a commissioned book of essays addressing lots of issues mentioned in the discourse around this year’s program and artworks presented within the online space. There is also a record and digital album coming out, but slightly delayed again.
Apart from the online Unsound, we have also managed to organize a small version of the new initiative we started in – Ephemera Festival, which has a more interdisciplinary focus and part of the program was possible to take place outdoors or in a strict disciplinary regime. So it was an actual event, not a hybrid, but different to Unsound and much smaller in scale and local.

Unsound Festival, 2019: Wixapol (Photo: Helena Majewska)

This digital edition of Unsound seemed to me as extensive as the regular editions of the last year. Did you adapt pretty much everything to digital formats?
I feel that initially we had a much more limited program scope in mind, when we started drafting it out. But there have been so many interesting ideas coming along the way – from artists, partner organisations and independent curators that we kept on adding, ending up with quite a wide and diverse program, despite the practical limitations.

You didn’t archive all of the panels and performances, why was that?
All of the discussions we have produced are archived and available, but a lot of artistic works were available only for a limited period of time, as per artists requests. Also the workshops, even if some of them are registered, we have decided not to publish or stream.

Czarnobyl (Photo: filip-preis)

Are you happy with the digital audience numbers in general – people attenting the events via website and social media and archive visits? I ask as to me it seems a lot of well established festivals are having a hard time to attract their audience for the digital programing – which is totally understandable as they are primarly live events and not a media outlet.
Yes, I feel that we were able to reach a much wider audience than we would normally – which is great –, I think we are at around 160k “attendees” at this point. But at the same time, it is still hard to establish how engaged was the participation. We have consciously decided not to build any new digital media platform and build it in within our website, as there was no time to do it, but also this way we could widen the access through our existing social media reach, using the platforms which parasite on our content. We probably wouldn’t do that again to that extent, but it was definitely an interesting experiment allowing us to see how many limitations in access there is if you are not willing to pay a lot of money for additional promotion, but also how dependent we are on these platforms and their nontransparent policies. We have probably saved some carbon footprint by not building a new platform and streaming our content this way, so that’s good.

That said I feel like that Unsound had a different staring point than others as to me the festival was already very digital in its attitude towards arts and future – is this something you would subscribe and you feel this was helping you handle the situation?
Well, we have actually been quite resistant in documenting or streaming our events in the past, which has resulted in having really little of archived material to share, when everyone was doing that. But while I wouldn’t want Unsound to become a low-budget TV, I think there a different interesting ways of using or hijacking existing technologies and platforms in an interesting and engaging way. Which lots of the artists we have invited have presented within the program – lots of them using digital technologies and virtual worlds in an interesting way, transgressing the genres and idea of what a music festival can be.

Czarnobyl (Photo: filip-preis)

I suppose the next and even bigger challenge is to keep this digital audience with you. We normally just stroll from one stage to another at festivals, in the digital world we switch channels and lose focus even faster. How do you approach the digital audience?
Well, being aware of the limiting attention span of audiences and ourselves, we were encouraging artists to create either very short, dynamic pieces or do quite the opposite – focus on in-depth conversations or commission longer, meditative pieces or texts, which require different kind of attention. I guess you need to try much harder to grasp the attention, but I do feel positive and lifted by Unsound’s core audience’s ability to engage and focus, demanding a bit more ambitious offerings.

What were the main lessons from this year’s festival?
Practice non-attachment. But also, as banal as it sounds, every challenge comes with an opportunity. Which, in case of my work, is a general ambivalence towards the festival as the best model of participation in culture. This means there was an opportunity to start thinking about this model differently, reshaping it and also consider completely new approaches towards the future.

Do you feel supported well by local and state authorities? You already mentioned the brutal budget cuts…
While there has been a lot of harphazard decisions and chaotic support plans made, the culture sector has been really vocal about the challenges it’s been faced with this year but also lots of unresolved issues that have been boiling for too long. I don’t think enough has been done yet – especially to individual artists and freelancers, but also with lockdown continuation the scale of crisis in the culture sector will most likely deepen further. We were relatively lucky, despite the first cut from our local council, to secure the funding for the 2021 edition from our local council and to be a beneficiary of a government rescue fund for companies and organisations from culture sector. The help came really late though and I am worried it might be too late for some. There is still no contingency plan for individual artists and cultural workers, but what’s even more worrying is the shocking state of Polish public health system, which leads to the country ranking highest in the level of new cases and deaths. So, while I think there is raising awareness of the value of culture sector as a part of Polish and European economy, I am worried the actions require more effort than it has been given so far.

Unsound Solidarity, 2019: Emybw (Photo: Jakub Knera)

You ask for donations – is this a significant part of your funding now or just symbolic?
I am extremely grateful to all the individuals supporting us through donations or Patreon, even though it’s not a huge group of people.

I guess you do watch a lot of the activities of other festivals like Sonar, Mutek, Atonal, c/o pop…. Can you name some of the events / formats that catched your eyes? And tell why so? Have you been inspired by any of them?
I don’t think anyone, ourselves included, has cracked the online format yet, so it’s equal to the intensity and fun of the festival IRL, sadly. But I am sure we’ll get there at some point and I am impressed with so many festivals that are trying to do something, knowing how difficult it is. I liked the quality of Mutek and Sonar’s new streaming platforms they have created to host their events, but also loved the amazing chaos and offerings of digital Nyege Nyege program. Going to Jinja again was in my also cancelled plans for 2020. I think CTM’s first program announcements look very interesting and I am excited to participate in it online.

Unsound Festival, 2019: PARADE (Photo: Helena Majewska)

For quite some time it hasn’t been simply a single Unsound – besides the mothership in Krakow, you have several satellites all over the world in New York, Toronto, Adelaide and London. How did you experience 2020 regards the communication between the teams?
There has been quite a lot of communication between us and our NY team in particular, but also partners in London and Adelaide and Melbourne. This online format was actually a great way to connect and support each other’s ideas.

How different have been the roll outs of the festivals been?
I feel like we have worked much more, even though “only” the online edition has happened, but we have also planted seeds for a new event in Warsaw, Ephemera Festival, which I hope will grow further presenting a more interdisciplinary and local approach to the event. One thing I am certain of is that this difficult year will result in lots of great new art and music which often goes together with dramatic experiences and shifts in socio-political realities.

Unsound Festival, 2019: Monster (Photo: Helena Majewska)

And now? How are you planning for 2021 – does the news of a vaccine and faster and cheaper rapid covid-19 tests make you feel positive that Unsound will be able to get back on the regular track in 2021?
I don’t know if “regular” festivals will or should be possible. I guess we need to rethink the shape Unsound should take considering the world in which the festivals will take place, is going to be different. One thing I am certain of is that this difficult year will result in lots of great new art and music which often goes together with dramatic experiences and shifts in socio-political realities. And I think in terms of Unsound in October 2021, just like we were sure October 2020 will not happen, I am certain that we will be able to pull of a form of Unsound IRL in 2021. What will be the exact form – it’s still to be discussed but we have lots of great ideas and will also implement some plans we have started shaping in early 2020, so they will not get wasted.

Right now you are in Australia for one of the Unsound satellite events. How is the situation there? What do you expect from the edition?
We are not planning a whole Unsound here yet, but we are in discussions with our partner of many years, Insite Arts, whom we have produced last two Unsound editions in Adelaide with. We are also deep in conversations with our partners in Melbourne – Liquid Architecture whom we are planning with a continuation of a highly successful online program around the ideas of Machine Listening but also other programms. Our frequent collaborator, Robin Fox and his MESS studio are also doing amazing things, so now that we might be here a bit longer than usual we’ll come up with some interesting ideas.
In terms of pandemic and other events taking place in Australia, just up to few days ago it seemed as if the country was free from new covid cases (for more than 40 days), but there has been a new cluster of around 38 cases in Sydney and everything seems to be changing rapidly. Yet, when it comes to live music and festivals, it seems like they are coming back already – Sydney Festival, Mona Foma in Tasmania are planning their editions to take place in January and everything is slowly creeping back, which is great. Even with the few cases up, apart from the summery weather which helps with the mood towards the end of this horrific year, it seems like Australia remains this weird wonderful bubble, Truman show-like, where due to the vigilant policies implemented, pandemic has been handled really well so far. Hopefully this will last.

Last question, as music is the healing force in all of this: what is your favorite track / song in 2020 so far?
I have been listening a lot to Antonina Nowacka’s beautiful “Lamunan” album. Very healing.

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