Why Clockenflap is About More Than Just Music

Clockenflap is back – and this time, it is moving across the harbour with a top-notch roster of musicians, including M.I.A., Sigur Rós, Yo La Tengo and Cheer Chen. But there’s more to Clockenflap than music. Over seven editions, it has developed an increasingly solid programme of visual art, cinema and performance. This year, they’re are built around a theme: Future Human.

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Cheer Chen – Sigur Rós

Jay Forster is the one responsible. He is one of Clockenflap’s three founders — Justin Sweeting and Mike Hill are the other two — and the mastermind behind the festival’s look and feel. “Art provides a break from the music,” he says. “The beauty of presenting art at a festival is that the art has to speak for itself. It has to sit within the festival context and engage the audience or participants. You can’t just have an art piece in the corner.”

Forster came to Hong Kong in 1997, right after he finished studying graphic design in the United Kingdom. “Everyone was moving to London, but I couldn’t quite face that career ladder, to step on that very low rung,” he says. “I had the intuition that as soon as I was on, I wouldn’t get off.” He flew to Hong Kong without much of a plan. “I had HK$100 in my pocket when I arrived, a bag of records and a sleeping bag. That’s it.”

Forster wanted to work as a DJ, but he was surprised to find Hong Kong didn’t have much of an electronic music scene. “I had a few really bad experiences DJing in local nightclubs – I played one or two records and it was just, ‘Get out of here.’ I was playing minimal house and techno, Detroit and Chicago style, and it was way too niche.”

So he started his own thing. He found a bar called CE Top in Soho that was willing to let him host a regular house and techno night. “It was essentially a karaoke lounge with leopard skin print sofas,” he says. He called the party Robot. It was a hit, spawning similar events around town. “There was quite a strong underground scene for about three or four years. And then it kind of got too big, almost – there were huge parties in the convention centre. It kind of imploded before it started again when places like Volar and Dragon-i kicked in.”

Forster began to focus on his own design practice, but he always had other ventures on his mind. In 2005, he turned Robot into a “clubby fashion, lifestyle and design magazine,” which he designed and distributed by himself. It was more than he could handle alone. “I just put it to bed,” he says.

Then came a name that would change his life. “I had this weird night on New Year’s Eve at a friend’s house party,” he recalls.  

“You know how people start speaking in tongues? It was kind of like that. I never travel without a pen, so I started scribbling down strange words. Clockenflap was one of those words.”

But it was just a name – or to be more precise, a brand. “The logo hasn’t changed – Helvetica, kerned tightly. We just didn’t know what to do with it.” Forster, Hill and Sweeting had met through Robot, and they started an electronic music night that eventually morphed into the first edition of Clockenflap, which was held on the lawn at Cyberport.

“We just needed something as a placeholder for dummy flyers and posters,” says Forster. “It kind of stuck. Quite a few people advised us strongly that we should not use it – we were already up against it, creating a festival like Clockenflap in Hong Kong, with such a mixed demographic and very little history of these festivities. People assumed we were shooting ourselves in the foot by using such as a name. But nobody had anything better. We thought it was so weird and wacky, it might just work.”

It did work – even across languages. A few years ago, the festival held a competition to find a Cantonese transliteration of the name. Forster’s favourite entry was something along the lines of gok lok –  “It sounded like a squawking chicken,” he says. The winning entry was Go1 Gaa1 Fei1 (歌加飛) but it never caught on, so they reverted to using only the English name (as much as the word Clockenflap can be considered English).

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All Genius all Idiot     –    Club Minky    –    Blind Robot

As the festival grew, the three founders began playing to their respective strengths. Hill, an IT specialist, began focusing on the administrative side of things. Music industry veteran Sweeting used his contacts to book musicians. “We kind of provide balance to each other,” says Forster. “There’s a lot of mutual respect between the three of us.”

Forster describes his own role as “a jack of all trades,” but the arts side of the festival is all his. Last year, he dabbled with a theme that tied the arts programming together, “but this year it’s much weightier and more in-depth,” he says.

His inspiration this year is the concept of transhumanism, the theory that humans can evolve beyond their physical and mental limitations through the use of science and technology. “Even man with fire is in some way post-human, because it extends his natural abilities,” he says. The digital revolution has compounded that change. “Everything is on this exponential curve – we’ve seen such radical change in our lifetime,” he says. Once the Future Human theme was established, Forster held an open call to artists, which led to works like “Talk to Me,” which will translate text to speech, amplified by horns. Another winner of the open call is “Kimmi,” a “shared spine” device that straps two people together.

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Shaun The Sheep, a stop motion animation – Kiki, the LGBTQ documentary by Sara Jordenö

Street art will return to the festival, too, with live mural painting. Cinema Silencio will screen an eclectic range of films, from kids’ movie Shaun the Sheep to LGBTQ dance documentary Kiki. There will also be an installation mounted in collaboration with design festival Detour: Ping Bing Bong (bing1 bing1 bam1 乒兵乓), a circular, self-revolving ping pong table that allows several players to compete in all directions.

One of the biggest changes this year will be to cabaret venue Club Minky, which has been a staple of the festival since 2012. “It’s always been a kind of transient destination, with an open-structure tent. Audiences loved it,” says Forster. But performers weren’t quite as keen. They wanted a more enclosed environment that encouraged more audience commitment. So this year, 24 shipping containers will be used to create a theatre with rake seating. “It’s kind of a boundary-blurring performance space,” says Forster. Crowd-pleasing gypsy-folk band The Turbans will play in Club Minky, but so will All Genius All Idiot, a surrealist circus by Sweden’s Svalbard Company.

Forster says he is eager to see how all of this will play out. “We’ll see how it goes,” he says. One thing is certain, though: arts will play an increasingly important role in Clockenflap. “With the open call, we want to nurture the local scene and offer something that’s different to a commercial gallery space,” he says. “If it’s a festival that is just purely music, personally I feel like it’s missing something.”

Clockenflap 2016 takes place at the Central Harbourfront Event Space from Friday, November 25 to Sunday, November 27. Click here for more details.

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