Karen O @ Creators Project SF

photography by Julie Logan

Where to start? As the guy behind me in the ticket line put it, “this is gonna be like Disneyland for nerds!” And by the end of the night, the blitzkrieg of auditory, visual and technological stimuli known as the Creators Project turned that man’s giddy proclamation into a full-blown prophecy.

(Critic’s disclaimer: Vice sure as shit knows how to throw a party. The opinions below feign some semblance of neutrality, but will inevitably be colored by the warm and woozy satisfaction that stems from copious free booze and hitchless press pampering. Well played Vice, well played.)

The music lineup alone — highlighted by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, James Murphy’s DJ set in the post-LCD Soundsystem world, and Squarepusher’s first show on US soil in 7 years — boasted the kind of star power that would normally leave you puzzling over your bank account, planning the triple-digit mathrobatics that could facilitate a way to squeeze the concert into your schedule (“I totally won’t get sick of Ramen for three weeks!”).

Add Intel‘s mission to curate all manner of tech-anchored art installations, and their decision to present the entire package at the dazzling price of RSVFREE, and you begin to understand the dumbluck-happy smiles that dominated the Fort Mason grounds on Saturday. As packed as the 25,000-strong event was, the demand felt tenfold greater–like 90% of SF (including 5 of my 7 roommates) missed out on the ticket lottery. You could see the exclusivity of the event baked into the perpetual glow on ticketholders’ faces — all of us milling around the Fort Mason grounds in a blissful culture coma.

Read on for what we saw: music reviews first, with our thoughts (and a video) on the installations further down.

Music

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Karen O @ Creators Project SF

In a critical climate that sees hype cycles rise and fall in the span of a tanked SNL performance, Karen O’s staying power is awe-inspiring. From the moment the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took the stage, every throaty yelp, catcall and snippet of song-to-song banter elicited delirious roars that rattled the windows of the Festival Pavillion. It didn’t matter that they haven’t released any new material since 2009’s It’s Blitz! — quite in contrast, it played like a frenzied homecoming. The set’s time constraints forced the YYYs to take the hit parade route to some extent, and the introductions to “Gold Lion” and “Heads Will Roll” triggered a rush of punctuated euphoria (as opposed to, you know, the garden-variety excitement that permeated the rest of the set).

I never did track down Karen O on the sidelines, but here’s the question I had prepared in case I ever ran into her: “Does it ever feel like a curse to have written a song as good as ‘Maps,’ one that your fans will request at every show, without fail, until the day you retire?” Of course, they played “Maps,” and as the hypnotic guitar trill hit the speakers — an introduction which, by now, triggers so many separate cases of nostalgia in so many separate people — I could see my answer in Karen O’s body language. She loves the love her fans have for her, and she pours her heart into her performance accordingly.

And perhaps it’s that symbiotic relationship between fan and performer–the way she so openly feeds off her adoration–that accounts for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ longevity in a sea of wayward rockstars, passing in the night.

James Murphy 

James Murphy @ Creators Project SF

Dogggg! Why did you have to leave me! …is what I would have been saying to myself during James Murphy’s DJ set, had my brain still been receiving messages from my ears at this point in the evening. The Murphy-fronted LCD Soundsystem, if you want to get a little hyperbolic about it, was responsible for showing an entire disassociated twentysomething generation that it’s okay to dance again–and so they broke our heart when they disbanded almost a year ago.

Last night, Murphy (with help from former bandmates Nancy Whang and Pat Mahoney) inherited a mixed crowd at the tail end of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs set. (More than once: “well, we saw Karen O…should we go?”) He immediately flipped it into the most sustained dance party of the night, quite a feat for an event that had been running for over 12 hours at this point.

Zola Jesus

Zola Jesus @ Creators Project SF

Never underestimate the power of believing your own world. When you watch Zola Jesus perform, you see disparate chunks of the Nika Danilova lore start to take coherent shape. Sure, she was in and out of opera training, something that becomes abundantly clear when the band’s cinematic swells dissipate and leave her voice towering like a pillar of strength in the empty space. That she grew up on forest land as the daughter of a hunter is just as important: her stage persona channels cagey beasts of prey, at times stalking the width of the stage until she finally pounces on her verse and thrashes about for the kill.

It’s not a front – for her, the whole package is communicative, and that is what makes Zola Jesus’ music so essential right now. She comes from a background that isn’t likely to be replicated, and she’s banked her artistic reputation on embracing and channeling her isolated roots.

Squarepusher

Squarepusher @ Creators Project SF

I was in the photo pit for this one, hands hovering near my ears at all times should one of my earplugs decide to leap from my ear cavity in protest. Those earplugs were my two best friends during the Squarepusher set, as he worked every thunderous rumble he could out of the chin-high stack of floor amps that lined the entire base of the stage.

The quality of Squarepusher’s set probably depends on your familiarity with his cult status in the drum and bass arena. If you know him as Aphex Twin’s worthy contemporary — a secluded innovator responsible for guiding the twitchy micro-sequenced electronic music scene — it probably served you well enough to bask in the glow of his first US performance in 7 years, and let the experience just sort of wash over you. If you aren’t familiar…well, you watched a man press the space bar and hype the crowd like a mad conductor, jabbing at the air as if “directing” the breakdowns and flip-ups which were clearly programmed into the set from the start. Which is a little tragic, because Squarepusher is a notoriously talented multi-instrumentalist — none of which he put on display for his set Saturday night.

Squarepusher @ Creators Project SF

With all that, we have to mention the visual presentation, because it really salvaged his set for me. Dressed in black, Squarepusher donned a futuristic helmet which flashed a continuous stream of white lights, its patterns duplicated on the screen at the base of his mixing desk as well as the massive projection screen behind him. The three layers of lights (from background to foreground) swallowed him up in a sort of blinding anonymity, something that certainly jibes with Squarepusher’s MO. I was way cooler with his set when I stopped thinking about him as a performer, and starting processing him as another larger-than-life installation that embodies the Creators Project ethos. The showmanship could have been better, but the sensory flooding was spot-on.

Shabazz Palaces

I caught these guys at Treasure Island, and my main gripe was with the way their percussion just seemed to evaporate away in the open-air festival setting. In direct contrast, Creators Project went down in a massive echo-y warehouse with rattling glass windows. And this time around, it was ferocious. A too-small crowd (everyone else’s loss, really) witnessed Shabazz slay selections from the dark and intricate Black Up, though at some point it seemed like newcomers stopped trying to figure out what the hell he was rapping about and just got down with the bass instead.

Bonus points on top of bangin’ set: they hung out by the bar upstairs, smiling at whoever walked by and talking to anyone who wanted to. For no apparent reason, they gave me a thumbs up. Cool people.

Installations

My Secret Heart by Mira Calix + Flat-e

One of my favorite exhibits by far, My Secret Heart featured a full-length animated video wrapped around a 360-degree display. A row of chairs circled the exhibit, with four surrounding speakers projecting the soundtrack inward from behind the viewers. The artist told us that the human element to the soundtrack was recorded by a 100-person strong homeless choir, who were commissioned for this piece. It would have been nice to experience this in a separate room, as it kept clashing with the din of an entire warehouse full of exhibits just on the other side of the curtain. A little slice of the exhibit, via phone video (above), will show you what I mean.

Overscan by Sosolimited

photo by Jason Henry / SF Chronicle – provided by Creators Project SF

An imposing row of 5 televisions project a sports broadcast on the left-most screen, with a realtime algorithmic deconstruction of the Closed Caption feed streaming on the other four. A custom program extracts key words in separate categories (verbs, emotional words, contrasts like “will/won’t,” etc) and spits them out in clipped-down context alongside the broadcast in realtime. When the commercials show up, the program seems to jumble all the info it has broadcasted into a fascinating mess of vaguely sports-themed cut-up poetry. The burden on the viewer to process multiple streams of (not immediately obvious) sectors of information serves as a commentary on information overload in our current digital climate.

The Treachery of Sanctuary by Chris Milk

The centerpiece of the installations lining the massive Herbst Pavillion walls was The Treachery of Sanctuary, a massive 3-panel ceiling-to-floor projection that features shadowy figures and their relationship with a distinctly ominous flock of silhouetted birds. Located at the back of the pavilion, staring straight at the front doors, the largest installation in the building imposes itself on your eyes so as to be impossible to ignore. Only when you walk behind the curtain do you realize people are controlling those projections in real time – using Kinect sensors to track their movement, with the flock peeling off or hovering above the participant’s silhouette.

David Bowie’s Life on Mars Revisited – Mick Rock / Barney Clay

David Bowie's Life on Mars Revisited @ Creators Project SF

Does David Bowie overload sound like a good time to you? It did to the people who stuffed the line to get into this one-room installation – the only thing (aside from the food carts) that required any real wait at the event. A handful of us (not more than two dozen) filed in and took a seat either on the subwoofer in the center of the room, or on the pillows around it. Then the door shut, and we were swallowed by Bowie – all four walls came to life with a glitchy, degraded recut of his iconic “Life on Mars” video. Over way too quick, but only because the immersion was way too cool–the installation took full advantage of Bowie’s gripping image to turn a small room into a larger-than-life spectacle.

Origin by United Visual Artists (scored by Scanner)

At our press briefing, one of UVA’s artists mentioned that a key goal with Origin was to build a piece of art which aggressively demanded attention. From the start of the event, this 40×40 foot cube of light, metal and sound was omnipresent. What some mistook for foghorns on the walk into the Fort Mason grounds turned out to be the low, mechanical baying of an installation hungry to impose on its visitors. As soon as I saw this thing during the day I couldn’t wait to see it at night, in all its lit up glory. Origin did not disappoint.

Origin by UVA / Scanner @ Craetors Project SF

I both started and finished my day with Origin – I had no choice in the matter. As I stumbled off the festival grounds–a little bit drunk, but more exhausted from the way my ears had been stripped thin–I watched beams of light shoot through the structure, accompanied by bursts of mechanical sound and an otherworldly score. Some people laid flat on their backs underneath the stars surrogate beams of light, and the structure drew bursts of applause from onlookers as the score transitioned from one soundscape to the next. As tired as I was, there was a good chunk of time that this thing wouldn’t let me leave–and when I finally wandered home, it stuck in my mind as the cornerstone of the event.

Creators Project SF – Photo Gallery