SOFT CENTRE: Prowling Aliens, Virtual Reality and Screamo

Experimental, intimidating and provocative, SOFT CENTRE was everything that I could hope for from Sydney’s cultural scene.

Artwork by Endless Prowl.

I was inspired to attend SOFT CENTRE by its poster — an armoured figure delicately suspended among crystalline shards, set against a desolate landscape. Below, a long list of performers, including Sam Rolfes, Loppy B, and Rainer Kohlberger. Not a single name was familiar to me, but I figured there was nothing that electronic music could throw at me that I couldn’t handle.

I was not prepared for the reality that met me at Carriageworks.

For those who may be as uninformed as I was, SOFT CENTRE is an annual one-day festival of avant-garde music and art. In terms of genre, the music included trap, hardcore, gutter techno, post-music, noise, and much more — all firmly in the realm of the experimental. Within Carriageworks’ hallowed interior, performers painted scenes using only light, noise, and bodies. 

These scenes unfolded and evolved over the course of SOFT CENTRE’s eight-hour duration. In the mid-afternoon light, the venue’s foyer was hazy from a mix of fog machines and vapes, Carriageworks’ full length windows making the space feel strangely bare in the cold light of day. With the setting sun, the space transformed. A pulsating and ever-changing red-white haze enveloped the foyer, while a crowd formed a large circle in its centre. 

Within this circle, the first performance art of the night began. Makeda, a Melbourne-based artist, sang on skates while two other artists performed a routine of roller figure skating around her. Skaters pushed and pulled against one another in a mesmerising dance of tension, stopping only to hand roses to the crowd. Above, the shifting lights of Sam Whiteside’s contact installation sets the scene.

Performance of Aliens in Manila by Leeroy New, Red Rey, & Wytchings. Image by Jacquie Manning, courtesy Carriageworks.

The performances continued throughout the evening, including one particularly terrifying performance from Red Rey, who, suited in sprawling sculptural armour by Leeroy New, roamed the foyer in hunt of victims. I use the word ‘roam’ much like I would for a lion, with Rey crawling towards and stalking viewers, creating a level of suspense and tension in their art. I lived in fear of this performance evolving into a full-blown sprint towards me. Wytchings, a Western Sydney ambient composer who provided the soundtrack for this hunt, wrote about their collaborative work Aliens of Manila that “We hope we unnerved you a little! Hehe <3”. You did.

Beyond the foyer, in the closed-off hangars of Carriageworks’ Bay 17 and 20, the festival raged and raved on. Traces, a live audiovisual performance by DBR, Cypha, Brigitte Podrasky and Joan Shin, was an otherworldly visual spectacle. DJs obscured behind a semi-transparent sheet performed a hypnotic set, while projected in front of them was a live visual rendering that ebbed, flowed and zoomed with the music throughout a grainy and ever-changing field of line and shadow. Many sets throughout the day placed visuals as an equal participant alongside the music rather than simply a background. The experience of such artistic harmony between visual and auditory spaces was deeply impressive, especially considering the unique trance music and the spectacle of Traces’ fractal-like visuals. Traces was like exploring the inside of an H. R. Giger alien, and to have it take place on a crowded dance floor felt like raving to an evil screensaver.

Still from Traces by DBR, Cypha, Brigitte Podrasky and Joan Shin.

Upon leaving Traces in search of more variety, I stumbled upon a set from Plea Unit, including beautiful visuals from the artist behind SOFT CENTRE’s poster: Endless Prowl. While an exciting, high-energy rap and punk-inspired set took place on the stage, the screen behind displayed a stunning and tranquil scene of an underwater cave. Populated by semi-organic crystalline structures and rising bubbles, the claustrophobic environment was projected floor to ceiling and consumed the performance space, bordered by fractal-like metallic shards. The dissonance and scale of the audio and visual elements made me want to decode the artistic connection between the two — but my only conclusion is that both are really fucking cool.

The next performance greeted me with a visual and auditory wall courtesy of Berlin-based artist Rainer Kohlberger. Kohlherger’s Brainbows included layers of noise and light stretched out for what felt like an eternity, filling the cavernous space as well as entering my brain and rattling things about. Standing in Bay 17 experiencing his set was fascinating, as the droning noise and static of the audiovisual experience felt like he had wrapped me in foil and put me in a microwave. I admit that I needed a break shortly into this set. 

Rainer Kohlberger’s Brainbows. Image by Claudio Farkasch, courtesy Soft Centre.

By the time Sam Rolfes and Lil Mariko took to the stage, I was overjoyed to hear a steady beat, let alone words. My relief was short-lived, as the pair’s VR performance was plagued by dizzying technical difficulties that included clipping cameras, spinning perspective, and a few exits to restart the scene in Blender. Despite this, their premiere of 3-2-1 RULE has me desperately wanting more. The work is composed of Lil Mariko’s signature hyperpop-screamo hits, framed through the narrative of a memory bounty hunter who accesses minds through a digital world, all presented in a live VR performance. 3-2-1 RULE was incredibly cool to experience, and makes me genuinely excited for the future of digital art.

Joshua Wells and Karina Utomo soon pulled me back to Earth with a terrifying techno/ screamo set. The pair brought something seriously darksided to Bay 20, guttural groans filling the space as patrons continued to nod and sway in the darkness. Utomo’s vocal performance was genuinely scary, backed up by an improvisational electronic rhythm that furthered the discordant atmosphere.

The night’s final performance was a stunning collaboration between Gamilaraay DJ creschendoll and pole dance collective Club Chrome. Creschendoll’s set was a breath of fresh air, bringing hyperpop and electronic hits alongside her own beats to infuse the crowd with energy and movement. By the time Club Chrome’s performers took to the poles, the audience was completely entranced. This set was an incredible way to end the night, and I’ll certainly be keeping a keen eye out for another chance to see Crescendoll perform around Sydney.

SOFT CENTRE was everything that I could hope for from Sydney’s cultural scene: art, music, and performance that provokes, intimidates, and experiments. Pushing things hard enough to break is an incredible feat for any artwork, whether you’re pushing the medium or the viewer. I was not the target audience for many of these works, there’s a lot that I didn’t understand, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get into harsh noise. But it felt amazing to be challenged by art.