Across town, later in the festival, you can catch a Stockhausen recital and an Alban Berg opera, the former on a grand church steel pipe organ. Robbie Thomson’s Ecstatic Arc has some sonic relation to these structure-snapping moderns – atonality and dissonance, noise and mechanisms in a kind of simulated concrete, situated deep in the cinematographic; but what describes itself as an installation artwork combining music and mechanical choreography is more like being inside one of the organ pipes, vibrating and falling slowly deeper into the flue, enmeshed into stop mechanism and finding yourself slowly accustoming to the deafening darkness of the windchest.
The room is stuffed with mechanical wires and elements, pig metal sculptural, aerospace-innards, as if Heath Robinson had planted a bomb in Tatlin’s tower. We sit rowed end-on, and the space in front of us feels aggressive and hostile, and as the boom drone soundscape begins to mount a sense of impenetrable ballet begins to appear – as a wireframe dancing metal-dowelling sculpture begins to twist in the strobes, searchlights on metal trellises rake us from the darkness. Music and light are knitted together and begin to unpick the tangled space; small light dots begin to dance to the high frequency pattering breakbeats, making spatial shifts across the room as the tonality moves between harsh industry and notes of distraught chamber. The full space reveals itself, as low-end buzz corresponding to a full backlighting of the room in a queasy hospital grey.
The effect is one of being in some remote server room after an accident, a substation overseen by a God who has wrought a controlled apocalypse. The vast inscrutablity of system mechanics resolve into a jerky automaton ballet; the guts of pistons, clamps and unmarked wires take humanoid shapes. And from here the figurative dimension begins to resemble a kind of cyberspirituality. Two fragmenting skulls of animals sit atop a metal pneumatic arrangement, raw and underdone, a product of both some outside mayhem and some animated spirit as they automatically jag up and down. They flank the centrepiece, a vast phallic Tesla Coil, which synced to the music creates a rhizomic halo of lightning.
If we watch this like we would a lightshow, then we are making some visual communion with the crackling squawking centrepiece of the Tesla coil, this fetishistic and popular object of science, mystery and dominion over nature. It is a God we are not sure how to worship, containing as it does the promise of mastery of nature, concealing the forests and plains and fractal indifference of all of nature behind it. But at the same time dark, forbidding, sublime nature and mechanics in one. The static no-input interruptions of the score at times seem to resemble a band of sorts, or some kind of grouping inverted, an anti-humanist attack mounted some catastrophically dismembered robot orchestra.
As the Coil freaks to a weening, keening synth sound with ragged edges and raw bombast, we segue from noise into something like Axel F – a fully weird shadowy pop music guise. And just as a synth trumpet, sounding as if it were muted with an electronic brick, begins to solo from the skittering break-beats this bizarre, monstrous deity subsides to rest and darkness once again. In the context of Summerhall this is an excellent, involved, high-art/dark-arts installation. In the wider context of the festival with its tourist “experiences”, lightshows and music shows, this comes straight from military-industrial hell – a five star attraction if ever I saw one.