Pictured: DAWN. All photos by BlanketPile
I’m on the dance floor at Moogfest venue The Artery in mid May, dancing to Detroit techno originator Robert Hood, trying to process the emotional buzz of feeling happy for hours upon hours on end. In the past two days I’ve seen the dudes from British ambient house pioneers The Orb joke around about plunderphonics, heard writer/musician Claire Evans lecture on the history of cyberfeminism (yes, Evans of YACHT, the band who recently blundered that sex tape thing, who won me over regardless after her first minute at the mic), and seen sets by Grouper, Julia Holter, and headliner Grimes.
Well before night two at Moogfest, my own glowing vibes have been running interference with my expectations of a festival experience — typically a nightmare in which I’m lucky to be engaged or inspired by a single set over several days and pissed off three times as often.
Pictured: Robert Hood
Coming from Toronto, a city that’s struggling to figure out how to be supportive (or even tolerant) of live music, I find the partnership between city and festival impressive.
Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer and legendary sweetie pie, passed on in 2005, but he’s everywhere here, the festival’s happy ghost. At the Carolina Theatre, Julia Holter tells a story of the time Bob Moog visited her high school electronic music class, adding, “I usually feel weird at festivals. I don’t feel weird here — it’s nice, actually.” I’m not the only one who’s caught off guard by good feels.
Flyers for Electronic Voyager, a Bob Moog documentary by the Canadian filmmakers behind I Dream of Wires
Moogfest launched to celebrate its namesake’s company’s 50th anniversary in NYC, moving in 2010 to Asheville, North Carolina, the city Bob Moog spent his final years in, and home of Moog factory, where the fest stayed until this spring. (Moogfest is run by AC Entertainment, the same company behind Bonnaroo and Toronto’s WayHome.)
This year, Moogfest broke in its new home of Durham over four days and three nights. The city is quick to let out of towners know they are in the other tech hotspot of the south — but unlike Austin, there’s no SXSW-style everything-goes chaos in the dozen-ish city blocks Moogfest spans. Curation is tightly wrapped around complementary themes like Art & Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism, Afrofuturism, Hacking Sound, and Technoshamanism, while branding is, not surprisingly, focused on Moog and its storied history, coupled with the city of Durham itself.
If Moog’s legacy is the friendly ghost of the festival, Durham is making the most of his haunting. The city’s enthusiasm boils over at times, with circuit board graphics on the pavement bearing slogans like “America’s most tolerant city” (“gee honey look, a place that will tolerate us!” — dream big, Durham), but coming from Toronto, a city that’s struggling to figure out how to be supportive (or even tolerant) of live music, I find the partnership between city and festival impressive.
Pictured: Julia Holter
Post-festival I’ll phone chat with Durham’s Conventions & Visitors Bureau’s PR Director Sam Poley, who will tell me his org has been working closely with the festival for months, mobilizing its force of 3500 volunteers, and using their organizational know-how to “meet the festivals needs and wants in a proactive manner” for “background channel” details, from hotel room hookups to volunteer rustling to media interaction. Think of a less shady version of Toronto’s own Music Office (Tory and Tanner should be flying to North Carolina instead of Texas).
There’s a clear sense of collaborative identity. Durham is into tech, Moogfest is into tech, and the two aren’t just thinking about the “Future Thought” and “Future Sound” as rando hype themes but because they’re living them: Moogfest because its base of electronic musicians and producers are thirsty for innovation; Durham because its three adjacent research universities — the “Research Triangle” — are situated in a state whose politics are currently being dominated by cruel HB2 “Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act,” which demands trans folk in North Carolina use public bathrooms according the gender they were assigned at birth.
HB2 hangs over the entire state. On the way to visit the beaches at Cape Fear, NC, I stop at a Walmart to gawk at their pink gun selection but end up more haunted by the omnipresence of the signs for the men’s and women’s washrooms. (Inside the women’s, wall decals read “All things are possible if you believe.”)
Moogfest was clear from the beginning about their stance in opposition to HB2, writing in part “We will have spaces dedicated to education and dialogue around these issues and we will take every step possible to ensure that Moogfest remains a safe and welcoming space for all festival-goers, especially the many LGBTQ artists and speakers joining us this year.”
Pictured: Moogfest Bathrooms at 21C Museum Hotel
Boycotting a state doesn’t do anything. It makes a lot more sense to be on the ground — to actually affect change, go to the place where you want it to change, and make your voice heard.
“I don’t fucking support that shit,” Monae replies crisply. People and artists, she says, need to speak out.
Pictured: Afrofuturism panel featuring Hieroglyphic Being, Christian Rich, Reggie Watts, Janelle Monáe, and Kimberly Drew
Moogfest programmer Josh Segal will echo these sentiments when we chat via phone after Moogfest, and I ask if there was ever any talk about moving the festival out of North Carolina.
“We never once thought about that,” Segal will answer. “Staying in North Carolina is a much more important gesture. Boycotting a state doesn’t do anything. It makes a lot more sense to be on the ground — to actually affect change, go to the place where you want it to change, and make your voice heard.”
Before we broach the topic of HB2, though, Segal will be eager to talk technical futurism — and for gear obsessed, Moogfest’s gear-focused programming and Modular Marketplace, a popup “electronic instrument bazaar,” must have been a dream — but I’m skipping nearly all of it, shaping my own schedule around activism, dancing, and weirdness. And still there’s often too much to choose from.
Scanning the modest yet overwhelming program of talks, shows, screenings, and installations, there’s a sense of more than my tastes being anticipated, but of my priorities being acknowledged, that a power bigger than me is on my side. Here Wondaland Records’ Janelle Monae can take a whole day to talk about her career (the three sessions, including Can You Remember the Future?, a panel where the meaning of and need for the term Afrofuturism was hotly debated).
It’s possible to spend entire days and nights at Moogfest exclusively engaging with work and appearances by women, LGBTQ, and/or radicalized artists. Headliners and keynote speakers include weirdo Canadian electronic queen Grimes, artist and composer Laurie Anderson, and transgender CEO Martine Rothblatt.
Nothing’s perfect: at Pinhook, Veronica Vasicka has a densely packed crowd losing their minds on the dance floor at 7PM (Durham is turnt for Moogfest — crowds form each night on the street outside barricades at the Motorco parking lot mainstage where acts like Grimes, Sunn O))), and GZA perform). But after Vasicka’s divine hour, the mood in the bar turns awkward when Laurel Halo begins her minimal, experimental original electronic set that’s mixed too quiet and would have made much more sense across the street at the Carolina Theatre, where an all male lineup of Halo’s peers — Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never — are performing to a sit-down audience.
Pictured: Laurel Halo
The Grimes interactive “REALiTi” installation is another oddity. Microsoft designers, who’ve previously done similar projects with artists such as Matthew Dear, are super stoked on their use of Kinect technology to create sensors connected to touchable, interactive mesh netting that trigger changes in the 20 stems they’ve been given by Grimes, but the tent outside the Carolina Theatre turns the outside area into a strange experiment in durational listening, even if employees do seem pretty cheerful despite having to listen to the same (banging) track over and over in slightly different iterations over four days.
The possibility for sound manipulation inside is more basic and cheesey than I’d like, a complaint I also hear about Moogfest installations like Mammal Music, though it may be that these exhibits are aimed at people who’ve never interacted with music in a sampling/mixing/mastering way before.
Pictured: Grimes' "REALiTi" installation
Finally, I don’t know how to describe the Church Of Space’s Hypnotique Scéance, a meditation session hosted by five dudes in lab coats who appear to have founded a religion based on theoretical physics, ghosts, and '90s-style text graphics. The whole thing doesn’t fit the Moogfest aesthetic — a religion run by these slightly creepy dudes is probably not the future — though the session is not not fun. (Later at a party I ask one of the lab coat guys if the COS is a real religion, and he cryptically asks if he’d spend all that time on something he “doesn’t believe in.” That is not an answer, COS dude.) You can watch the whole séance below.
In total these complaints are the pettiest I’ve ever had at a festival, and the sweet moments win them over: Tri Angle Records signee and Durham native Hanz cold approaches me and my photographer in a park to invite us to his Pinhook show because we “look cool” (aww), and I get to see cyborg artist Moon Ribas, who has a WiFi-connected chip implanted in her arm that senses real time data of all the world’s earthquakes, drum every earthquake to happen in America in the past hundred years chronologically. Ribas’ concentrated reading of the score she’s composed from earthquake data, sometimes thundering for several “years,” sometimes softly rumbling, is spellbinding and a profound reminder that the earth is never still.
Pictured: Moon Ribas
Ribas is telling complex yet concise stories as an artist: what might the future hold for human beings, technology, and the planet? And what can art, dance, and music tell us about each?
Festivals, too, present narratives, through curation, aesthetics, and the ambience on site. As the market oversaturates with music festivals, these narratives will have to become more refined. At Moogfest, it’s the deft weaving of technological ideas with inclusivity that communicates so well. Themes I think about daily are represented and elevated here. It’s not just good marketing, but present programming: a sampling of forward thinking experimentation that spans communities, geography, gender, and race.
I’ll be surprised, post fest, when Segal tells me he thinks most of the lineup’s inclusivity happened by chance, but it becomes clear the sensitivity of the Moogfest team, which Segal will describe as an “amazing, weird, diverse crew of people with a bunch of big ideas,” steered it away from becoming the modular-bro-down it could have been.
“It was a very happy accident. We have to be conscious [of booking women and racialized people] but when we took a second to think about this, we were like ‘oh, well, good!’”
After Segal tells me about Moogfest’s more forward efforts to bring the people of Durham together with free, all-ages programming like public interactive art installations and an Electronic Music for Children and Experimental Adults event featuring DJ Lance Rock of Yo Gabba Gabba!, Bootsy Collins, and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, I’ll ask Segal what other festivals can to do to arrange for similar “happy accidents” when they assemble their own teams.
“There’s no good programming for dummies book,” Segal will joke. “I’d say... start with the weirdest stuff you can think of.”