A few months before Felix Laband dropped his much anticipated Deaf Safari (2015) album, he played an early evening set at the 2014 Sonar Festival in Cape Town. The venue was packed as one of South Africa’s undisputed electronic masters showcased his latest work. The performance was accompanied with his collage artwork, which mixed up images of porn, politicians and eerie car drives through the depopulated urban fringe. The combination of the subtle music and jagged imagery was at once alluring and disturbing. And it contrasted sharply with the other acts that night. At one extreme were various bro-step EDM acts, trying to disguise their unimaginative beats with gaudy masks and blinding light shows. On the other end were ambient producers, whose wholesome soundscapes seemed clinically designed to induce sleep. Mindless hedonism vs self-indulgent introspection. The guiding aspirations to make a background soundtrack to take different drugs to, rather than any kind of engagement with the wider world. This lack of content was especially glaring because of the setting. Under the roof the Apartheid-era Good Hope Centre, a brutalist block of concrete in the centre of one of the world’s most socially unequal societies.
By combining personal obsessions with the tabloid visuals, Laband’s work came for an entirely different stream of electronic music than the rest of the night’s entertainment. It put him in a lineage of artists who have used synthesisers and samples to make out the dark corners of power, perversity and violence. A twisted family tree which might include post-punk extremists like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, confrontational industrial artists Einstürzende Neubauten, Skinny Puppy and Ministry, the insurgent techno collectives of Underground Resistance and Atari Teenage Riot. Currently, artists like Fatima Al-Qardiri and Vatican Shadow soundtrack geopolitical dread. In SA, the theme of revolt is central to Angel Ho’s production, while much of Gqom speaks to a sense of being trapped in an urban maze. Music that speaks of broken bones and riot shields, burning cities, forbidden pleasures.
With his visual collaborator Kerry Chaloner, Felix’s is plunging into this dark water of inspiration. Chaloner is an accomplished painter and visual artist, whose work wrestles with similar topics. As she put it an evocative personal statement for one of her shows ‘I think about learning how to make gunpowder and the alarms of the terrorist drills and not understanding and crawling under our desks. I think about the ash from the next-door hospital incinerators blowing onto our sports day doughnuts.’ They got in touch after Laband was impressed by the ‘bravery and naturalness’ of her video work. As artists they share a fascination with both the darker aspects of life which society tries to sweep under the carpet and the raw power of nature. ‘Our collaborations are about embedding our life in the work. We’re both nerds, big into film and watching wildlife and history documentaries, ’ says Kerry. ‘We’re also both interested in filming things in nature for fun, like playing around with spotlights to make ordinary trees and gardens look suspicious. Then we make mashups of our footage with found footage.. nature-horror-porn.’
Their collaboration coincided with Felix rediscovering his personal interest in visual art. While promoting his last album, he found himself increasingly bored with the limited format of playing for people in nightclubs, and wanted to stage more live striking performances. Having already incorporated his own collages into his show, Kerry’s input allowed him to focus exclusively on the music, while she conducts the visuals. Instead of just pummelling the audience with beats, they are working to create fully textured sonic experiences. Their ultimate goal is to further bridge art and electronic music, with a focus on performing residencies and bringing live vocals into the mix. A key influence for them both is the American avant-gardist Laurie Anderson, whose long career has spanned performance, pop music and film. Felix is planning to upgrade the practical scope of their performances ‘we’re focusing on buying more equipment, making the musical productions more ambitious.’
They don’t just want to make dry conceptual art. Instead they want to say something about what Kerry calls an ‘extremely tense’ global political situation, by looking at the things society would rather repress. The weight of history is something which intrigues them both. Felix’s father is an historian, and growing up in a house surrounded by history books he developed a fascination with how the effects of war and conflict linger on in the present. As an artist, Kerry is conscious of how colonialism and apartheid continue to structure South African life ‘anyone who comes from this middle class, white background must think of how to deal with this history. It subconsciously affects us in so many ways.’ Felix’s interest in the politics of pornography also speaks to this theme of repression, but it’s not without its tensions. ‘We’ve had a lot of fights about it because Kerry comes from a strong feminist perspective and wants to ensure that we always use it in a critical way.’ Kerry argues that ‘I want to make sure that it is not about being salacious or exploitative. It’s more about the politics of what people don’t want to see.’
A further point of convergence is their shared personal histories, as they both grew up in Pietermaritzburg, a small city where the weight of colonial history is especially glaring. ‘Growing up there shapes people artistically’ Felix remembers ‘it has this strange lost colonial outpost feel. But it has produced a lot of really good artists. I haven’t been there in a long time but I’ve been talking with Dave Southwood (photographer) about doing a project about it.’ Kerry also has vivid memories of the gothic strangeness of the KZN midlands ‘Pietermaritzburg was like Twin Peak with more race tension. There was a lot of beauty, trees, parks and mist, but also a real dark side. We both spent many hours as kids and teenagers in the same romantic forests, cemeteries and botanical gardens. There wasn’t much in the way of radical youth culture in Maritzburg… especially pre-internet. If you felt different you had to invent your own.’
Along with excavating the recent path they both have ambitious plans for the future. Kerry is continuing to focus on disruptive paintings and video art. Felix wants to take his next recordings into some unexpected places ‘I’ve always had this dream of recording sounds at World War Two genocide sites in Russia… I wonder does the earth sound different in Babi Yar?’
For the immediate future Felix will be touring the EU at the end of July, and is prepping an EP for release on Compost Records later this year. While other South African electronic artists have their sights fixed on a dimly lit dancefloor, they are keeping their eyes on the ominous skies above.
More of Kerry Chaloner’s work can be seen here.