The organizers of the Communikey Festival of Electronic Arts want to accomplish two things: First, they want to make you dance, and second, they want to make you think about — and work toward — a sustainable future that embraces technology.
"This festival smacks of Boulder," muses Marko Manriquez, head of the group's Sustainable Media Lab. "It really couldn't be created anywhere else, and I think that's great. I think it's going to be a great merging of these high-minded principles and some booty-shaking."
The festival is the latest and greatest production from Communikey, a Boulder-based group of electronic-music promoters with a love for adventurous sounds and an ambition to turn the Front Range into one of the world's premier techno scenes. The outfit was founded in early 2004 by six friends with experience in several previous promotion companies. In a scene heavily dominated by house and trance, Communikey sought to ensure that the less-accessible techno and experimental sounds they preferred had a chance to be heard.
"That's why we formed Communikey," explains founding member Kate Lesta, who also serves as one of the group's creative directors, "because we were like, 'We want to push other shit.' There's always been an audience here, and that's the thing. For a couple years before that, we all worked together anyway, under different monikers or crew names or whatever. But we were ready to bring out fresher sounds."
In the four years since Communikey formed, it has brought a diverse array of underground and experimental artists to the Front Range, some of whom are making their first U.S. appearances. Artists including Thomas Fehlmann, Bruno Pronsanto, Jan Jelinek, Wolf+Lamb, the Books and Space Time Continuum have headlined past Communikey events, covering styles from straight-up minimal techno to intricately programmed ambient soundscapes and all points between. In doing so, Lesta and company have quietly built a reputation not just among local aficionados, but within the international community of electronic artists, helping cement the area as a key scene for lovers of adventurous electronic music.
As impressive as its past accomplishments are, Communikey is setting a new bar with this event. With forty artists from all across North America and Europe playing in five venues over three days, it's the biggest electronic festival ever in the state, and one of the biggest in North America. The big-draw artists here aren't exactly household names outside the small circle of underground electronic-music heads, but theirs is among the most impressive material being produced today. Breakbeat and down-tempo fans with a discerning ear won't want to miss the trippy, spacious sound explorations of Tipper, a singularly distinctive artist with a brilliant, unique sound. Kalabrese and his Rumpelorchestra will fuse house roots with live instrumentation for a slice of funky heaven equally accessible to late-night club kids and jam-band-loving hippies. The dusty, dub-inflected minimalism of the legendary Pole, the idiosyncratic minimal techno of Bruno Pronsanto and the multimedia insanity of Skoltz_Kolgen are just a few of the other highlights of the world-class lineup. Alongside those national and international acts, the fest is making space for a considerable amount of homegrown talent, including CacheFlowe, DJ Ivy and Ten and Tracer, to name just a few.
The weekend will also offer a number of intriguing interactive art installations. Exchange/Alteration invites people to bring old clothes, cut them up and stitch them together with other bits and pieces to create new works of fashion and art. CUBO is an interactive musical sculpture, a cube made of recycled material and moss that plays ambient loops recorded in and around Boulder in response to user input. Laser graffiti offers a non-destructive way to redecorate the environment with light, and Epiphyte uses a stationary bike to control video that traces a product through its life cycle.
The aim of these installations is to have fun and communicate a message without being overtly preachy. "I went to school for art and philosophy — completely unemployable, as one of my professors said," Manriquez offers. "But from that I have a lot of crazy ideas. From that we've created this media lab. I've tried to tackle issues of sustainability and activism, but using humor and activity to kind of disarm people. That seems to be a better way to tell a message than protesting or shoving it in people's face."
Supporting that message is the group's sustainability coordinator, Lauren Higgins. The final piece of the puzzle came into being relatively late in the game, sparked by a late-night conversation on a camping trip. "This summer, by the flicker of a campfire," Higgins recalls, "I said, 'How are you going to run your computers when there's an energy crisis? Why don't any of you talk about that?' The idea started brewing about what is the long-term sustainability of a subculture or of a large culture, technology culture, based off of non-renewable sources of energy. I was really curious to pose these questions to this group of people, because I think they have the capability to work out models that are viable for this community and for other people."
After the festival, the next step for the organizers is to establish Communikey's 501(c)3 nonprofit status, promoting some smaller shows, setting up its own venue in Denver and, of course, planning for next year.
"We weren't planning on making the festival happen next year," notes Thomas Kamholz, another of the organization's founders and creative directors, "which is kind of ironic, because we are trying to tackle this idea of sustainability in digital culture. And it's like, 'How can you even call it a festival if it's only going to happen once?' We may have unleashed something that we can't stop...it feels that way already. It's probably going to happen next year."