Mat Shulz, organizer of the forthcoming Unsound Festival, which runs from Nov. 21-25, talks with the Krakow Post.
Q: What brought you to Krakow and how did you become involved in the Unsound Festival?
A: I’ve been living here for over 10 years. I came here by accident first of all and thought I’d stay for a short period, but now I have a life here. I’m a writer as well. I’ve got a couple of novels published and plays, and so on, and Krakow was always a good place for doing this kind of work. That’s one part of my life, and the other part is organizing Unsound, which started five years ago. I started it with an American friend. There still isn’t exactly a multitude of cutting edge music events happening in Krakow, but back then there was even less, and so our idea for Unsound came out of that fact.
Q: Yet this city has quite a big reputation for culture. In more conventional terms, it is a former European Capital of Culture, but there is also a strong historical tradition of counterculture, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. There was the political cabaret in Piwnica Pod Baranami, the underground events that seemed to escape the notice of the authorities, the graphic art of Wieslaw Dymny that openly criticized the regime. You don’t seem to find much of this these days. Do you feel you are filling a gap and secondly, do you feel you are following on from this tradition of counter culture, or are you starting from a clean perspective?
A: Krakow has a reputation for culture, but in a quite conservative form. The tradition that you mentioned, of political cabaret, also has morphed into something mainstream. In theater, music, art ? I don’t think Krakow is as radical as Wroclaw and Warsaw, for example. Partly it’s connected with what events the council in each city chooses to financially support, which has a huge effect, and also it’s because people in Krakow are in many ways difficult to win over to more radical events, even the younger audience.
Q: You don’t get any local authority funding?
This is the first year that we’ve received funding from the Town Council, and we’re very thankful for that and hope that it will continue. We’re also supported heavily by foreign cultural institutes like Goethe Institute, British Council, Austrian Cultural Forum, Pro Helvetia, Cervantes Institute. Without them we couldn’t survive.
A: I think there’s been a change in the local council’s funding policy recently, because the Fall Jazz Festival at Alchemia, which is pretty “out there,” has received loads of funding for the first year. They have some really experimental acts, actually.
You know, if someone reads the word “jazz” then even if it’s “out there” they will understand it. If they read “electronic music,” “club music,” “experimental,” “installations” and so on, they might find it harder. I hope this is changing. Because I think if Unsound received some substantial support, we could make it a major festival of its kind not just in Poland, but Europe. It’s the perfect city to make a bigger cutting edge music and video art festival. But it’s also a problem with the local scene. With some exceptions, I think the music scene that exists here is not at interesting as somewhere like Wroclaw.
Q: Or the Tri-City (Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia)?
A: Exactly. There’s a good music scene in Poland in certain places, and in Krakow it’s not so noticeable. I have no idea why. Maybe it has something to do with that cultural conservatism, following a certain musical tradition. The talent is there, of course, it’s just a question of the specific approach to music.
Q: There’s quite a balance as you would expect in a festival of this size. You’ve got a mixture of veterans and new people just making a reputation for themselves. You’ve got club nights and events earlier in the evening designed more for listening and contemplation, reflective music. What dictates the selection policy? In there some link between the acts, something that unites them?
A: All the music in the program is connected in the way that all the artists are taking risks and playing some form of adventurous music or sounds, however diverse.
Q: I’ll ask something about the controversial aspect of the festival, because on the program notes at www.serpent.pl , there’s a picture of the Austrian noise merchants, Fuckhead. Do you choice some acts to wind up the establishment or is it determined by artistic merit alone?
A: We didn’t choose them in order to create controversy. They have a pretty big reputation. Their music and show is unique. But, on the other hand, I’m aware a lot of people will probably come to this “freakshow” because it’s provocative, and I guess we’re encouraging that by calling it “freakshow.” Also, the fact that Fuckhead last came here in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, makes it quite interesting for me. To be honest, I suppose I do feel some desire to create musical events that somehow question or subvert.
Q: How do you find the acts? Obviously you do some traveling. Is there some kind of underground grapevine containing people who can turn you on to new acts? Do you have some people helping you in some way or is it a more personal project?
A: There’s a couple of people who organize Unsound and choose the artists, which makes it easier to create this diverse program as people have different taste or specialties. In terms of your question, it depends what part of Europe. For example, in West Europe, there are a lot of artists who play at different festivals, so if you see someone you can decide to bring them to Krakow. But if you’re talking about Ukraine, Belarus, you have to search the Internet, make contacts, dig deeply, because those artists aren’t so visible. This year we don’t have so many artists from these countries, but usually we do, and making this connection is one of the main reasons Unsound exists, to look to the east and west. Again, it’s a question of funding. It’s hard to bring them here, because in Ukraine or Belarus they don’t have their own cultural institutes that support such music.
Q: Are you making a political comment by including acts from the East – It mentions in the press release that Poles sometimes have these stereotypes of Belarus and the culture there, these dog-faced policemen everywhere and an incredibly dead cultural scene. Are you trying to change people’s perceptions?
A: I think Poles still know relatively little about Ukraine and Belarus. Unsound has tried to expose local audiences to music from these countries, and taken Polish musicians to play in Kiev and Minsk. Maybe it changes the way people think, in some small way, I don’t know. I personally find organizing in Minsk incredibly rewarding, because it’s so cut off in cultural terms, usually, and locals really appreciate it. Two Unsound events took place there this year and there will be another one next winter. Next year, we’re hoping to have more music and discussions about Belarus during Unsound here in Krakow, in fact maybe a whole series of discussions. But we’re quite careful not to make it political within Belarus, because then it could be stopped. So, there are no political slogans or connections. In terms of music, the main thing the government in Belarus doesn’t like is rock music with Belarus text, so electronic music is something quite interesting to do there, because, obviously in more subtle ways it does affect the way people think and has some impact. It’s also easier to organize electronic music there, because if you have bands, you have to get permission for each band to play from the Ministry of Culture.
Q: Do you feel Unsound performs some kind of educational role? There’s a couple of documentaries being shown. There’s one about Leon Theramin and there’s one that deals with the background to the electronic music scene?
A: There’s also a workshop from Barcelona with the No-Domain VJ collective, and a presentation of independent labels. It’s important to have workshops, films and discussions in a festival like this, so that it has a context that is more than just going for a dance in a club. All this music is part of vibrant cultures and sub-cultures that are interesting to investigate.
There seems to be some attempt to link various art forms. The Barcelona project you mentioned earlier links visuals and music. Another project connects musicians with people involved in the fine arts scene.
They’re linked anyway in this scene, and we just present that fact. For example, the whole VJ scene came out of video art, I guess, and feeds back into video art. Lots of artists who perform in front of crowds also do installations in galleries, so the sound, club and installation scenes, they’re all interconnected.
Q: Do you in some way feel that you are an ambassador for this scene?
A: No. My aim for this festival is basically to create something that is enjoyable to come to, something that is different from the things that happen the rest of the year in Krakow.
Musically, it could and probably will be even more diverse than it is now.
Full festival details at www.unsound.pl