This package was first broadcast by Monocle 24 Radio on June 24, 2016.


We’re heading to Spain to talk virtual reality.

The annual Sónar electronic music festival has been running for more than 20 years.

The festival has transformed from a niche event into a mainstream fixture of the European scene, constantly shifting its curatorial strategy.

Most recently, technological innovation has been prioritized, along with the idea of building creative communities that enrich each other’s work.

Virtual reality has been a hot topic at Sundance, the Sheffield Doc Festival and Sónar this year. Monocle’s Frederick Bernas went to find out what the fuss is all about.

* * *


i care if you listen

José Luis de Vicente describes his work as intersecting a fluid space between design, technology and art – with a focus on encouraging different communities to interact in creative contexts. In 2007 he began collaborating with Sónar, an electronic and contemporary music festival that was founded in 1994 and has blossomed into a global movement. This year’s Spanish edition attracted 115,000 visitors.

To celebrate Sónar’s 20th anniversary, organizers re-conceptualized the festival by separating music from other activities and setting up Sónar+D – a parallel technology and innovation congress in a new space, the Fira Montjuïc exhibition center at the heart of Barcelona. We met José Luis on day two.

What were the biggest changes when Sónar+D grew out of the original festival?

It was about rethinking the role of something like Sónar in the sense that it’s never been simply (A) an electronic music festival or (B) another big summer festival in the European circuit. It’s always been different and I think that’s something everybody recognizes. It doesn’t rely on super big names, although we have a few, and it has the double component of Sónar By Day – which is like a center in the middle of the city, very urban, really immersive in the sense of creating different environments with their own characteristics. Someone said recently that Sónar is a festival where you don’t really feel like you’re at a festival – maybe it feels more like you’re in a club environment, or a concert hall, or a music venue, so there are all those different spaces.

How do those spaces come together?

There is so much that is not just standing in the audience, seeing a show or dancing. It’s about recognizing the common space between different creative communities, which are feeding off each other – technology, design, music, visual and digital arts, new forms of filmmaking, emerging communities like virtual reality – and paying attention to what happens when you get them all together and their ideas are still unfinished.

It’s about what happens in that space between when something is an unstable prototype and a finished product. Most festivals show results – a finished thing happening in front of an audience. We are big proponents of the idea that every single stage of the creative process can be highlighted and presented in public. Whether it’s conceptualizing, proof of concept or early stage prototypes, to the moment in which a community of creators embraces a new tool, technology or language, when you already have something and people are looking for funding or distribution or a business model. So we like to think about Sónar and Sónar+D as a 360-degree festival; no matter where you are in the process, you can show the results.

I’ve also noticed a very entrepreneurial atmosphere at Sónar+D, with an emphasis on providing opportunities to expand your network by meeting experts, potential mentors or investors. How did that come about?

There are a couple of really strong ideas. One is recognizing that people who create technology and tools, the people who embrace them to create new aesthetics and languages, and the people who find business models to make them feasible are not necessarily three different communities. In many cases it’s the same people changing positions. Crowdfunding has changed the dynamics of cultural industries and the landscape of creativity is transforming. We want to make a transversal meeting space at Sónar+D.

You have the arts community, the science community, the tech community, academics, researchers, universities and of course the business community – startups, the entrepreneurial side. To me, it’s all trying to answer the central question of Sónar+D: What is the role of artistic and creative communities within the ecosystem of innovation today?

The idea of artists as entrepreneurs has existed for generations, but it feels like access to the means of production has taken that enterprising spirit to another level among today’s creatives. Combining the democratization of tech with an ambitious startup mentality seems like a very 21st-century way of doing things, don’t you think?

I make a strong effort not to be too naïve or celebratory. Sometimes people think that just because they can produce a prototype, crowdfund two million dollars, and get people on staff, they can change everything. We’ve seen many horror stories which show it’s not that easy, but it’s definitely true that tools to make things have become more affordable and available. Online communities with vast knowledge mean that if you want to build something, you can find thousands of people all over the world who are already doing it and can help you.

I think this had a very strong impact on the art community because people realized they don’t need to wait for someone else to create the tools they use. They can produce those tools themselves – and that’s an impact on the creative process. At some point in the early-mid-2000s, artists started having the idea that they don’t necessarily need to use the software and hardware that industry is providing us, because that also determines choices we’re going to make. We can produce those tools better ourselves. So we’ve seen a huge explosion in the role of artists in those areas. I wonder if people know, for instance, that Ableton Live was produced by a software company, but its original designer was an artist, Robert Henke, who uses it himself and found it had a function for other people.

At Sónar+D we also saw the example of United Visual Artists, a London studio that creates stuff for themselves and takes commissions, but then realized the tools they produced could also be a utility for other people – so they started a commercial spinoff. I find it fascinating that in many cases, these things which have lots of value – that artist communities produce for themselves – also find a value and a use beyond the limits of the art community. Borders and barriers are being redefined.

That trend of inventing new tool is a big theme in the virtual reality section, Realities+D, where you see that many creators have spent serious time making their own software in order to produce their pieces. There seems to be a major focus on VR this year.

If you go to any tech industry event, you’ll see VR as the new frontier: it’s an emerging technological platform, with lots of demos and an emphasis on how this is going to change the world. But you don’t necessarily see what the creative community is already doing with it. If you’d come to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, you would have seen industry and platforms, but you would barely have seen creators. We are still at the demo level. To me, this is paradoxical because whether virtual reality succeeds or not is going to depend on how creators are able to produce a new language that is not just a translation of film, video or TV and uses the potential of this new platform.

With Realities+D, we wanted to look at the emerging features or traits of that new language. I don’t know if it’s going to succeed or not, and I might even say I’m not particularly interested in that – but I’m seeing there is an open question, as people still don’t know how and where we are going to use it. Maybe this is a domestic technology, or maybe we can go into spaces and it could be like a theater or film or arcade experience. Or maybe it will end up in a niche while we all look for the next thing. In any case, in 2016 it’s interesting to at least have that conversation, to let people engage with it and see what happens.

Published @ I Care If You Listen, 30/6/16 – click here for original.