Greg Pope and SULT – Skeletons live at the Deichmans Library

The Deichman’s library in Grunnerløkka, Oslo has a small skylight towards the back of its performance space on the first floor. On the eve of the summer solstice, when the sun is still high in the sky at eight in the evening, a beam of light cuts into the blackness of the unlit room quite impressively, making a line directly for Greg Pope’s curly grey top. The visual artist appears to be channelling the light through his body, directly to two projectors, creating three silhouettes dancing spasmodically on a white screen. The three blacked out figures are SULT and together with Greg Pope they are performing Skeleton. The low-lying thump of struck strings from Guro Skumsnes Moe’s double bass underscores the irresolute rhythms of Håvard Skaset’s obstructed acoustic guitar strings, while Jacob Felix Heule’s percussive work strains and tears at the fabric of a singular beat. Together they embark on an intense 40-minute creative journey of expression through Skeleton while Greg Pope’s flashing shadows, stills and animated squiggles take on a life of their own, multiplying, diffracting and growing with the music. There’s a definitive structure to the music, Guro tells me after the show, but it’s one that is continuously improvised around with these hyper-talented musicians venturing in to uncharted territory through their acoustic instruments. I see Håvard displaying the type of virtuoso fingers of a musician who has had to venture outside of the boundaries of any known musical language to find new forms of expression. The beautifully aggressive sounds SULT create are emphasised in the monochrome imagery of their shadows as they blur and diffract on the second dimension. When the first part of the performance concludes in a wave of crescendo noise, the stage falls back into darkness, and I find myself on the edge of my seat. The band relocates, while Greg Pope takes on sound duties from behind the projector as a piece of paper and a fan take over from the instruments. Heule takes his position behind a sound desk with all manner of electronic devices manipulating the acoustic instruments’ output. He squeezes out low drones underneath the double bass while re-imagining some of the environment’s acoustics through manipulated effects. The living images on the screen take on a life of their own when jotting threads appear to be swimming in a mass of black liquid on the screen. The sound goes from glitchy doodles to low laying drones, building tension only to erupt in intimidating explosive squeals that stir something primal.

Skeleton takes place over three defined movements that are meticulously crafted to achieve something different from the interplay between the images and the musicians each time. In the last part, rigamortis has set in to the images temporarily, as chromatic photographs flip over on the screen, like some unfathomable family vacation from the netherworld. The sound violently jostles in the dark room, unsettling the serenity of the blackness with a progressive onslaught of tonal indulgence that might be forged in the spur of the moment, but refined in the context of the performance. At times the music works as sound design for the imagery, the window opening with the squeak of detuned strings being forced into unwilling vibrations. At other times it forms a subtext to the ocular event, that same open window letting in fear of the unknown. It is as one audience member commented, “like waking up from a nightmare.” There’s a tangible tension to it, but at the same time you are aware that it is not manifested in reality but rather some visceral instinct. Trying to process the sight and sound of what was unfolding before me was futile. Skeleton is guttural impulses grounded in cerebral concepts. During the performance my mind is continuously in search of some semiotic parallel with my eyes and ears struggling to keep up with the events as they unfold. I eventually resign and just give way to feeling, my tactile senses failing to perceive the weight of Skeleton. The multimedia installation has made a formidable impression, and the rest of the audience is in agreement as far as I can tell when artificial light floods into the performance venue once again. Skeleton is exciting and fresh, and I haven’t felt quite this way about a piece of art since I saw ‘The refusal of time’ from William Kentridge. At the same time the live performance aspect of the piece also brings a completely new dimension to the idea of installation, delivering a very real sense of animation to the two dimensional nature of an art form that regularly relies on the recorded format. Skeleton, even if its title suggests otherwise, is quite alive and it’s something that will make an indubitable impression on any other living thing that it encounters.