This year’s GAMMA festival is a celebration of experimental music and techno in a disused brewery in St. Petersburg. FACT’s John Twells heads to Russia to take a closer look at a fast-developing scene.
Saint Petersburg has been lodged in my memory since 2003, when I saw Alexander Sokurov’s ambitious single-shot epic Russian Ark. Set in the vast Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, the film guided me through the corridors of Russian history assisted by two central characters, an unseen Russian narrator and a flamboyant 19th century French diplomat known as “The European”. The European plays the role of the critical outsider and dances through pivotal Russian events with an air of disdain. “Peter, the man who ordered his own son’s execution,” he says of St. Petersburg’s storied founder, “The same man who taught the people to enjoy life. It’s funny.”
Peter The Great was known for Westernizing Russia, leading a cultural revolution that brought the country to international prominence. But Russia’s contribution to the global art canon has long been criticized, as Russian Ark’s antagonistic European constantly reminds the narrator. “Russians are so talented at copying, and why,” he scoffs. “Because you don’t have any ideas of your own. Your authorities don’t want you to have them.”
From a 19th century French diplomat, this statement should be viewed through a lens of anger and jealousy – Russia exhausted and broke Napoleon’s forces in 1812, permanently damaging his Grande Armée and leaving him unprepared for upcoming battles – but the words feel contemporary, something Sokurov no doubt intended. Now, almost two decades later, these words strike an uneasy chord, as mainstream Western minds brim with foggy questions about hacking, radioactive poison, fake news and electoral fraud. We are taught in the Western world to believe that we possess a rare freedom, and that Russia, controlled by ex-spymaster Vladimir Putin, remains in shackles. But are Russia’s powerful oligarchs that different from those controlling and influencing policy in London, Paris or Washington DC?
I admit, I was curious to see what a dance music festival in Russia might look like. Techno and house music are genres rooted in African-American free expression that traditionally thrived in queer spaces; it is music that has historically been produced and promoted by nonwhite, queer and trans people. In Russia, rights for queer people aren’t simply a given; the country is staunchly socially conservative and while it’s not illegal to identify as queer and it is possible to change your state-assigned gender, the country remains unremittingly hostile to the community. Same-sex marriage isn’t legal, but anti-queer discrimination is. Last month in St. Petersburg, well-known LGBT activist Yelena Grigoryeva was stabbed to death after having her name published on a website inciting vigilante action. The site was quickly banned, but the publishing and its tragic aftermath highlights a problem in Russia that isn’t disappearing – in fact, it’s getting worse.
After last year’s edition of St. Petersburg’s GAMMA Festival, CTM curator Oliver Baurhenn said on camera that “St. Petersburg could be the new Berlin.” Strong words, no doubt referencing the spread of empty industrial buildings and warehouses that surround the city and St. Petersburg’s status as the unofficial cultural capital of Russia. But Berlin thrived because it provided places for queers of various flavors to congregate, celebrate each other, escape from reality and, well, fuck. A dance music scene that exists without queer freedom is suspicious, to say the least.
On my first day in the city, I immediately use my free time to wander to the Hermitage, which isn’t far from where I’m staying. The imposing structure is immediately impressive and heaving with endless crowds of ambling tourists. This is to be expected – it’s one of the country’s most popular attractions and the world’s second-largest art museum after France’s Louvre. My friend Anastasia Markelova, a local promoter and curator, guides me around the labyrinthine structure, but we only manage a few rooms before it closes for the day. It’s hard to express just how large the museum is to someone who hasn’t been; vast spaces follow vast spaces and staircases reveal infinitesimal floors and rooms. We think we find the ballroom from Russian Ark‘s most famous scene, but it’s hard to be completely sure with only a small image for reference. I’m awed by not only the scale and the unending collection of treasures, but by the colors and shapes. This isn’t a mere facsimile of European style, it’s something different, something audacious painted in pink, turquoise, green, red and gold. I’m also pleased to notice a small number of queer couples holding hands and publicly showing affection. It’s not much, but it’s something.
As night falls, I’m escorted to the Museum of Sound, a tiny exhibit-cum-venue that sits at the top of a cluster of arts spaces, cafes and galleries. I’m a sucker for these kind of units and this one doesn’t disappoint; I make my way up staircases daubed with colored paint, logos, tags and designs and wander past artwork that looks pointed, if not revolutionary. There’s a permanent Beatles exhibit, and stone faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo stare at me blankly from an imposing archway. Inside the venue, the museum itself – a selection of curious hand-made sound objects and instruments – has been covered up for the night, and Argentinian musician Agustin Valero fills the small room with drones, alongside local curator and composer Ilya Symphocat. Afterwards, we stalk the streets and inspect the local bars, as horses wander by (“Russian Uber!” one drunk local shouts to me, perched precariously on a saddle). We seat ourselves in one hip spot, and I drink syrupy Armenian tarragon soda; Markelova recognizes some of the eccentrically-dressed patrons – local poets, philosophers, painters and musicians.
The next day, I visit another cluster of bars, restaurants, art galleries, venues and studios overlooking the river. I’m told that one bar shows Alejandro Jodorowsky continuously, on a loop, and sure enough, when we enter El Topo is playing on a small screen. Another spot is decorated with what looks like decades of curious clutter and here I’m introduced to local experimental musician Victor Kudryashov, who gives me an overview the local scene. He’s traveled exhaustively and has no shortage of perspective; he sees St. Petersburg for what it is, and knows it is lagging behind Berlin or Amsterdam, but he’s hopeful for the future. My friends take me to the most “local” place they can think of – Mayak, a taste of another era, where we’re served pickled fish and bright red, tart barberry soda and everything costs pennies. Even the locals are surprised how cheap it is; St. Petersburg isn’t a place to go if you’re on a budget, eating isn’t cheap and the tourist attractions cost real money. But if you want reasonably priced food and booze, there are still traces of another world hidden between flashy glass-and-gold temples to the global oligarchy.
Before GAMMA’s main event, there are two days of conferences billed as GAMMA_PRO. This is the festival’s opportunity to communicate with the wider global festival culture, much like CTM, MUTEK or Unsound, with panels, presentations and discussions on culture and social innovation. The venue for these conferences is a gigantic abandoned gas tower that’s been fitted up inside to look as if it could host any number of international trade events. Outside are food trucks, a DJ booth and small coffee bars to keep attendees awake and active. Inside the gas hall, I’m treated to a talk about artificial intelligence from Sony Computer Science Lab’s Michael Spranger and no end of chatter about the global festival network and its cultural relevance.
This year, the European SHAPE platform is hosting its yearly non-EU showcase at GAMMA, so its representatives are given a chance to introduce the network and its importance. Last year, their showcase was at Uganda’s Nyege Nyege festival and this year GAMMA gets to host a selection of the year’s 48 hand-picked European artists that are shuttled through their network of festivals, including Norway’s Insomnia and France’s Les Siestes Électroniques. “We are not the mafia,” they explain to an intrigued crowd as they break down European funding and festival partnerships. I agree, unless the mafia have recently shifted focus into experimental electronic music, but who would want to compete with Boiler Room?
During the conference, I’m told by Anastasia that she and Victor Kudryashov have set up an impromptu show at a small bar across the city. It’s last minute, and Kudryashov will perform live with me playing afterwards. I’m dying to see what the city’s regular venues look like, so I agree, before checking out the night’s single live performance: Kazuya Nagaya and Ali M. Demirel’s AV show in a planetarium nearby. I’ve seen Nagaya before at last year’s MUTEK.MX and it was one of my highlights, but it resonates in the huge building and the morphing, almost-psychedelic visual display adds another dimension. Then I hop in a car and head across the bridge to the other side of the city.
The venue is situated across a dockyard area pocked with new-looking bars, restaurants and empty warehouses. As I walk into the venue, Kudryashov is already performing, singing deadpan while hovering over a table of synthesizers and drum machines. The small venue has recently relocated to this sparkling new space, a Twin Peaks-esque unit with vases of flowers placed haphazardly on top of ornate rugs, and ample space for dancing. I play my usual fare – emotional, anxious slush with bubbly rhythms – and try and see what locals react to; people seem to appreciate the change of pace. Afterwards, everyone I meet seems happy that the outside is looking in, but I don’t have much time to hang around – at 1:00AM the bridges that connect one side of the city to the other are raised, so I rush off and grab a cab just in time.
Back at the Lumiere Hall the next day, I watch presentations about museums as a festival environment, the message behind music in a contemporary setting and experimental cultural production, and I’m introduced to a few of the artists that will be performing later in the festival. Moscow-based artist Helena Nikonole explains her jaw-dropping AI-led projects, one of which she will be performing at the festival, while ::vtol:: (aka Dmitry Morozov), an experimental musician and instrument builder, explains his process and talks us through some of his fascinating machines.
Tonight’s A/V performance comes from Italian artist Michela Pelusio, who astounds the audience with her exceptional command of light and sound. The awe generated by Pelusio’s bands of vibrating, colored light is almost physical – it feels like being at a fireworks display with a better soundtrack, and illustrates the sheer power of A/V performances when done right. This isn’t a live set with an arbitrary visual element, rather Pelusio’s performance is A/V first and uses the room, the light and the cavernous nature of the venue as part of the show. It’s breathtaking.
Afterwards, we head to JOSH, a cafe in the city that’s being used as the de-facto base for GAMMA and the first afterparty is already underway. Russian artist Blain is performing when I arrive, but it’s awkward and stiff, a little like an office party; people don’t seem sure whether to dance or mill around awkwardly, drink in hand. Thankfully, French DJ MYAKO livens things up slightly with a breathtaking set that fuses contemporary d&b with bassy sounds from the global dance continuum.
Anastasia has word that a friend of hers, Prisheletz, is playing a set at a nearby club, so we dip and walk across the city as light cracks through the clouds again. It’s a beautiful time of night, and St. Petersburg’s ornate churches look even more imposing at this hour. We walk past the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, a baroque building filled with mosaics, and turn into a run-down parking lot filled with clubs. There are disheveled revelers everywhere, taxis dipping in-and-out and groups smoking and socializing outside various mysterious venues. Anastasia and I make our way past broken concrete and reflective pools of rainwater to Mosaic, a small club hidden in an abandoned corridor. Inside, familiar bass-heavy electro rings through a pitch-black venue decorated with neon tubes; it’s real shitbag raver hours, so those left are either drunk or subsisting on amphetamines. We watch men wobble and circle the small number of women left, dance a while and leave with the sun beating down. I want to say the party is unfamiliar but it’s not; the vibe is stiflingly masculine and there’s an undercurrent of aggression, fueled by booze. If Russia has pulled something from Europe here, it’s repression.
I feel like I’ve already seen a lot of the city by the time GAMMA’s main event swings around and I wonder what the festival could offer at this point. There have been A/V shows, conferences and club events and I’m starting to know where things are, but little can prepare me for the festival’s main event.
Festivals in abandoned buildings aren’t anything particularly special, but this particular building has to be seen to be believed. It’s six floors with six discreet stages focusing on different music, and each stage is surrounded by oddly-shaped concrete rooms, some filled with art installations, some playful chill-out areas. The main stage is dedicated to loud, punishing dance music and straddles the first two floors (the second floor is more like a balcony), while the third floor is reserved for the AI stage. The fourth floor houses the A/V stage and another stage for more experimental music, the fifth floor for weirder dance music and the top floor is a relaxing zone reserved for ambient (or at least, more peaceful) sounds. Each floor is connected by stone stairwells lit with single, dull red lights, which makes traveling from stage to stage more and more hazardous as the night goes on and ravers fill the brewery.
It proves difficult to navigate the venue, so we decide the best way to handle the festival is to try not hop around from stage to stage, effectively missing everything by being permanently in transit. An early highlight on the AI stage is Helena Nikonole, who projects a feed of hacked security cameras from across the world. These cameras offer a surprisingly intimate view of life; a small kebab shop, a train station or a laundromat might appear and the subjects have no idea they’re being captured and broadcast to a room of confused ravers in Russia. But a couple of completely unplanned special moments – a father lifting up his infant son, for example – makes this eerie display one of the most effective of the evening. Most of us are aware we’re under near-constant surveillance, and this leaves no doubt in our minds how easy it is to manipulate the systems we know are everywhere.
After a brief dash upstairs to see Danish experimental artist Soho Rezanejad perform on the Sigma stage bathed in red light, I make my way back to the AI Stage for Katerina Melik-Ovsepyan’s singular performance. Surrounded by a quartet playing early music (I spotted what looked like a lute), Melik-Ovsepyan sings melodies that have been generated by AI and the result is captivatingly unusual. Blending history like this is a smart use of the AI formula, distancing this project from the growing dollar bin of glitchy “algorithmic” IDM double albums.
Wandering through the multi-storey concrete block of rooms is an experience all of its own. Alongside one bar area in the middle of the venue is a ladder leading to a small seat for two people decorated like a space ship – behind that is another hidden area for a few people to sit. Nearby, large sheets of bubbled glass have been hung to shift the light in the room and around the corner, huge surfaces are covered with bubbling pools of dry ice and tiny fake trees and grass. Walk up one of the stairwells, and there’s a room painted with a black chalkboard paint, so ravers can take a breather to doodle drunkenly while they prepare for the next dose of extreme noise, lulling ambient or driving business techno.
Plenty of festivals try and fuse art and music, but few are quite as successful in making that fusion actually enjoyable. Often the stiffness of the dry experimental side negatively impacts the hedonism of the dance offerings and the result is a grey mixture: not quite one and not quite the other. GAMMA is different; the experimental side feels fresh and vibrant, and fuels the heavier 4/4 material in the main room. It offers a spectrum of sound and the crowd is responsive and excited, not jaded. Maybe it’s that the festival format is still relatively new to Russia and locals are not yet bored with the format, but something’s noticeably different.
As the night drifts on, I check out Violet, who brings a little of Lisbon’s vibrant queer scene into GAMMA’s Zeta stage. But the crowd is relatively conservative throughout the night, despite the wild setting. The majority of festivalgoers are dressed in their Berghain best, head-to-toe in black – the remaining few look like they’ve stepped out of a fashion spread; there’s little in between. Queer expression is not particularly visible, and knowing the country’s conservative backdrop, it’s easy to see why. But I’ve visited countries hostile to the queer community before – Brazil or Uganda, for example – and the spirit of the community was bruised but not broken. Here there is an odd resignation; queer people exist but are still, mostly, in the shadows. When I talk to locals about it, they seem confused I’d even ask – it’s not something you question.
I dash back to the A/V stage to catch a set from Lucy Railton; I’ve seen her perform before at CTM Festival, but this set is completely different. Beginning with blasts of searing modular noise, Railton positions herself in front of a bright red screen, kneeling on the table and commanding alien textures from her sound generators. Eventually she grabs a cello and scrapes haunting, dissonant tones that compliment the bubbling, acidic electronics. This is the ideal soundtrack to such an alien festival experience, sounding like a score to a science fiction epic from a distant future. If Blade’s blood rave had a side room, this would be the ideal musical accompaniment.
::vtol:: follows, and presents one of my highlights of the entire festival: an anxious, truly bizarre display of cybernetic noise that leaves the audience – and ::vtol:: himself – nauseous and disorientated. Strapped with a robotic headset of cameras and lights, ::vtol:: propels intense, searing noise across the room, projecting haunting images of his face on the screen behind. As lights flash into his eyes, his concentration is ruptured and brain taxed as strobes flicker in his eyeballs and cause visible discomfort. It’s one of the most intense experimental performances I’ve seen in a while, and when ::vtol:: leaves the stage he admits to me that it’s such a visceral experience that he often vomits afterwards.
Running from stage to stage to try and see as much as possible, I catch a little of Peter Kirn’s wobbly techno set on the AI stage, Robert Curgenven’s hauntingly beautiful “AGENESIS” performance and a bit of Ilya Symphocat’s solo show on the top floor, before heading downstairs to gorge myself on techno. Birmingham techno figurehead Surgeon is playing and while I’ve seen him play many, many times, it’s never been quite this loud. I’m guessing Russia doesn’t have the same volume standards as the rest of Europe, because it’s ear-destroyingly powerful, filling the two bottom floors with industrial 4/4 loud enough to re-arrange your insides. Ravers fill almost every space here, hanging off the balcony and somehow not falling, dancing furiously as bright rays of morning light stream into the room.
Techno snoozer Dax J follows, and I wonder if this booking couldn’t have gone to an African-American artist, rather than a Brit best known for playing a needlessly offensive remix of the Muslim call to prayer in Tunisia. GAMMA has a representation problem, and issues like this aren’t solved by putting your fingers in your ears and turning the volume up to damaging levels. The crowd dances relentlessly and I retreat to the ambient stage to regroup, reclining on fake grass and listening to a rag-tag band of local musicians improvise using electronics and harp.
By the time I’m belched out of the brewery, bright warm daytime sunlight has transformed the location; it looks like a protest or a rally, with festival types milling around waiting to escape or wander back in for another round. I’m surprised how sober everyone looks, but there’s another day yet. This was GAMMA’s main event but there’s an afterparty on the Sunday that’s got a lineup almost as stacked. I get home for a few hours of sleep before hitting Blank, a well-known St. Petersburg techno venue billed as a “club citadel”.
Blank doesn’t disappoint, its interior is impressive – high ceilings with immense stone arches, everything bathed in neon light. There are multiple stages – a main area devoted to more palatable techno, a back room and an outdoor area for a less obvious material. I head straight outside to see another performance from Surgeon, this time playing a live set as Anthony Child and filling the outdoor area with bubbling synthesizer drones. It’s an absorbing performance and an ideal mood to soothe minds after the maximal experience of the night before. This is healing music, of sorts, and Child is in his element. He’s followed by Kenyan sound artist KMRU, who plays my favorite set of the night, blending evocative field recordings with icy synthesizer tones and eerie textures. Inside, festival mainstay I Hate Models impresses a large crowd too fucked up to know better, before Varg spikes the main room with a genre-tipping mix of rhythmically obtuse bass music, electro and jagged techno. By this time, I’m exhausted, and dart early to get an hour or so in bed before I have to head to the airport.
It’s late, so the bridge to the other side of the city is open, meaning it’ll take almost an hour to get back. But as we drive past the bridge and our driver wonders why an odd-looking Brit with neon pink makeup on is getting a cab in the early hours of the morning, the unthinkable happens: the bridge closes. It’s one of those freak occurrences you are taught never to expect and even the driver is surprised. Apparently, randomly, the bridge sometimes closes on off hours. This time, we got lucky.
GAMMA is an intense experience. There’s too much to see; the main event, with its endless floors and room upon room of art and music is delightfully overwhelming. It’s like the Hermitage: try as you might, it’s too much to absorb in one go. I saw only a small percentage of the music presented over the week, but it felt as if that was almost the point. GAMMA is an assault on the senses; it’s a daring presentation of jagged musical styles, but desperately needs to engage more honestly with the dance music world if it wants to continue to progress and be uttered in the same breath as other similar global events. For now, it’s one of the continent’s most unusual events; St. Petersburg isn’t Berlin, yet, but the city is packed with idealistic, excited young people, daring each other to push things forward. If they’re allowed to, it might be a place to show the world that Russia isn’t just about authority and conservatism, but there’s a long way to go.