It’s the beginning of August. All Europe is taken by vacation. All? No! The small village of Soča, in Slovenia, is taken by hackers, makers, artists and other techno-explorers.
They only fear one thing: that the sky falls upon their heads. It nearly did. During the week at PIFcamp, the rest of Slovenia was flooding and under heavy rains. Soča was also hit by continuous storms, but the alpine surroundings let the water drain down the river which was watering down full and white.
The weather forced some of the artists to change or adapt their projects to the weather conditions. The hacking skills of the community became very useful to make the camp more comfortable under such contiditions. A big puddle formed right in the middle of the backyard, obstructing the way to the tent on the other side of it, where some artists had set up their workshops. Camp co-organizers Luka Frelih, Jani Pirnat, Marko Peljhan and a few others filled a hose with water and sank one end in the puddle. They passed the hose through the main hallway of the house and out the other side through the main door. Then they put it down. The air pressure on the puddle pushed the water into the vacuum of the hose that sucked it and spit it out on the other side, onto the road.
In the tent, small canals were improvised on the floor to let water run accross under the tables, avoiding water flooding the entire tent. Sticks and hammers had to be used to excavate those, since no proper tools were present at the camp.
Meanwhile, Blaž Pavlica set up an improved version of his last year’s sound dome. Blaž is a live coder and DJ from Ljubljana who just moved back from the Netherlands where he has lived for the last three years. The dome was originally made out of steel bars, which made it heavy to carry around and dangerous to mount – a scar can still be seen on Blaž’s forehead from a little accident he had while mounting the dome last year at PIFcamp.
The new version is made of lighter PVC pipes that are assembled together with 3D-printed joints designed by Staš Vrenko, an artist, electronic musician and instrument designer. Three rings of wire help tighten it together and give it extra solidity. 16 speakers and a sub-woofer were then placed around the dome. In his workshop about multi-channel sound design, Blaž explained how low frequencies are hard to locate in space for us, so it’s not really important where you put the sub. High frequencies, on the other hand, are what we spot in space with our hearing, and that is what the rest of the speakers are for.
The concert was programmed for Thursday night, so the artists could practice in the dome for a couple of days, despite the intermitent rains. The weather forcast was getting worse every day. Finally, the team decided to take down the dome and move the multi-speaker setup to the school’s dining room and adapt it to a less ambitious format of 8 speakers and the sub. On Saturday afternoon they could finally perform. Listeners sat or layed down inside the speaker ring and listened to the different performances, starting with Ivan Paz‘s piece.
Ivan is a live coder from Mexico, based in Barcelona. This was his second PIFcamp. Last year he was hit by COVID during the camp and had to be confined in the school on the third day and for the rest of the camp. He re-applied this year, hoping to have the full camp experience – according to camp organizer Uroš Veber they could not turn it down. Ivan is an AI expert, involved in several art projects including this technology. At PIFcamp, he trained an agent with sounds from the Soča river, which he used to synthesize new river sounds.
Following was Oriol Parés‘s performance. Oriol is a musician from Tarragona, in Spain, with a saxophone background in classical music. He sonified Soča river’s flora with his modular synth. During the week he had captured plant data with sensors built by himself, and used that data as modulators for his synth in the multi-channel setup.
Lina Bautista, a composer and live coder from Colombia also based in Barcelona, and who was on her second PIFcamp, too, performed with voice samples with a very short legato with TidalCycles. This rendered very percussive clicky sounds really pleasant to the ear. She also used some FM to complete her piece and fill the frequency spectrum and space.
Lan Štukelj Wu is a young sound artist from Slovenia, working primarly with Max and Ableton Live. He had recorded falling and rolling rocks and used these sources as the base for his piece. Using a couple of MIDI controllers, he spaciallized the different recording tracks live.
In his performance, Blaž hacked the FFT algorithm to generate rhythms. FFT is a technique used to extract the frequencies that form the timbre of any sound. Instead of feeding it an audio file, Blaž passed through the algorithm a list of 0’s and 1’s representing a rhythm. He then modified little parts of the resulting frequencies and converted them back to rhythm. Using this simple and subtle rhythm variations on different parameters of an FM synth, he created an astonishingly beautiful piece.
Niklas Reppel is a programmer, live coder and sound artist from Germany, currently based in Barcelona. He has created his own live coding language Mégra, and used it to perform in the concert. For his second PIFcamp, he built artificial ears out of different materials, such as clay and foam, that could hold binaural microphones. He placed them on inanimate objects around the camp and recorded what the objects “heard”. This sound material is what he used in the concert, spacializing it with Mégra while he projected photos of the “hearing” objects on a wall in the room.
Robbie Hopper, a sound artist from Scotland but based in Slovenia, spacialized live six tracks of sound recordings of rocks she had been gathering during the week with the help of fellow artist Nastja Ambrožič, in a more of a classical electro-acoustic form.
Finally, Alicia Champlin and Julia Múgica, performed with the audience’s heartbeats. Alicia is an artist and live coder from the U.S.A. based in Barcelona, where she met Julia, an artist, live coder and collective behaviour expert and enthusiast from Mexico. Julia was also hit by COVID during last year’s edition. They designed a device to plot the heartbeat with a wireless connected microcontroller ESP32 that would send the info over the network. After giving a workshop to build it, they used the devices to scan the concert attendants’ heartbeats, spacializing them throughout the speaker ring. They expected to synchronize everybody’s heartbeats, much like Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique, but that didn’t work as expected. Fortunately, PIFcamp is all about that: taking risks; they don’t always have to be successful. Despite the technical problems and the data noise, they could finally perform with a very good result.
PIFconcert and Algorave at Fort Kluže
On Wednesday night, some of the PIFcamp artists performed at the PIFconcert and Algorave: Lasers, beeping and lightning at Fort Kluže. The concert was organized by Jani Pirnat, an artist and curator at the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, along with PIFcamp co-organizers Luka Frelih and Katja Pahor.
The fortress is placed in a strategic place between empires. Its origins date back to the 15th century, and has been demolished and reconstructed several times. The current building was built by the Austro-Hungarian empire after Napoleon’s army had destroyed it in the late 1790’s. It was finally ravaged during World War I. It currently holds a museum about its own history.
“After nine PIFcamp editions, it was about time to have a PIFcamp event outside the premises”, says Jani. “We wanted the locals to know what’s going on in the camp, so they can also enjoy some of the activities and appreciate what’s being done here”. Jani has been part of the PIFcamp since the beginning, and he has developed some art projects. This year he gave a talk on his last year’s project, a sculpture in the shape of an electronic resistor to commemorate the Tolmin peasant resistance.
The concert took place in the fortress’s courtyard, where the artists and organizers set up a screen and sound system while the rest of the campers were hiking up to Krn Lake. The hit of the night was a laser show by Austrian artist Jerobeam Fenderson and programmer Hansi3D. They showcased a show they have been perfecting for the last 10 years, projecting a laser oscilloscope on the mountain slope behind the fortress. They use wave shapes that both look nice and sound great, rendering 3D objects and graphs with sound using their own commercial software.
But, before that, the show started with a performance by Slovenian-based Scottish and Irish sound artists Robbie Hopper and Rob Canning, sided by visualist Julia Múgica. Robbie performed with samples she had recorded around the camp (the same she used in the multi-speaker dome setup), and Rob played custom made instruments using a gong, LEDs and capacitive sensors that triggered samples. He gave a workshop on this technology later in the week, and organized a jam with the attendees on Saturday evening. Julia live coded behavioural particle systems of her own with P5live.
Linalab (Lina Bautista) and Tilen Sepič followed with a modular-synth duo, her livecoding the synth with Mercury for the first time. Tilen used his battery powered system. Halfway the show, Lina “live coded” the laser gang to get up the stage and throw some lights on the courtyard walls, as a premiere to the laser show that would be coming next.
After the Oscilloscope Music, Manu Retamero and his modular synth teamed up with German artist Tina Tonagel‘s no-input system, and Netherland-based Ukrainian visualist Sophia Bulgakova. Sophia created textures feeding back a video mixer, just like Tina was doing with the sound mixer, while Manu filled the sonic background with deep bass growls.
Next, Niklas Reppel, Iván Paz and myself jumped on the stage to live code together. Niklas played rhythms with his lenaguage Mégra, while Iván droned away in his SuperCollider AI synth. I animated the show with Animatron, the system I’m developing to perform and improvise live with 2D animations.
The show would come to an end with Laurent Malys‘s performance. He is a live coder from France, and was performing for the first time in front of an audience. We would’ve never told, as his show was impressive, live coding both visuals and audio with python-based language Foxdot. During the camp Laurent has been working on a performative keyboard that can be attached to the arms, allowing the artist to get away from the desktop. He then uses computer vision algorithms to capture body metrics and use those to further control the sound and visuals in a more expressive way that code alone could not provide.
Meta Canning’s wearable electronics
One of the nicest things about PIFcamp is its ability to accommodate artists from all conditions, and ages. The youngest artist from this edition was Meta Canning, Rob’s 11 year-old daughter. They live with their family near Maribor, in north-eastern Slovenia, and have attended a few PIFcamp editions already. She’s interested in all kinds of tinkering, and organized a very successful workshop to build a wearable flashing LED clothes-pin. One could tell how many people had attended by just looking around the camp and seeing how many of them were wearing a flashing pin. The technology used was very basic and solderless, although Meta had proved to be very good at holding the iron in other workshops she attended. She provided each participant a button cell and, at least, one LED. She pointed out that “the longest LED lead must touch the smooth side of the battery, and the shortest the rough side”. Then she showed how to put it together with duck-tape. She offered beads, small mirrors, thread and other items that could be hot-glued to the outside of the battery-led-tape combo, and fixed to a clothes-pin. When the camp was over on Sunday, most of the LEDs had been happily flashing uninterrupted since the workshop and were still on.
Artists need feeding, especially when they wake up after partying till late at night. PIFcamp kitchen team is organized by meals, and Nina Sever is part of the breakfast party, together with Polona Torkar and Tamara Mihalič. Every morning they get up before 6 a.m. to prepare everybody’s breakfast, except on Thursday morning, when Nina could take the morning off and sleep in at her heart’s content. The early-morning duty doesn’t prevent her from joining the evening jams and dancing. “I just can’t help it, I hear music and I start to dance. I even dance when I hear music in my head”, says Nina. On the first evening, while she and the rest of the cooks were waiting for the bread to be cooked, they improvised a dance floor in the hallway right in front of the kitchen to dance out the minutes. She is an educator at a special education institution in Ljubljana, where she takes care of kids with special educational needs. Nina states that “I always feel I need to help others, even when I’m on vacation. That’s why I come to help at PIFcamp, it makes me happy, although it’s hard work and very tiring”. She says this is probably her last PIFcamp, as she feels she needs to step down and rest from work by not working more. She has a passion for music, it’s in her, and has taken piano lessons as an adult. She likes trying new things. At PIFcamp she joined Lina Bautista’s live coding workshop with MiniTidal (a subset of TidalCycles that can be played on the web), and found out that she really enjoys it: “I can play the music I hear in my head without having to rely on the physical technique that requires years of training for acoustic instruments”. She says that she’s definitely going to continue live coding. Hopefully she’ll join the newly born Toplap Slovenia community, and we’ll see her on stage soon.
Text and drawings by Roger Pibernat.
PIFcamp is part of the Feral Labs network and the cooperative project Rewilding Cultures co-funded by the Europe Creative programme of the European Union.