Sound Unseen lights up the underground

Nate Johnson is exhausted. After putting in eighty hours a week for the past six months, the guy needs a break.

“I’ll probably take a month off when this whole thing is over,” he admits.

The “whole thing” to which Johnson refers is his baby Sound Unseen, a weeklong film festival which exclusively screens underground films about music. Featuring approximately forty films and about twenty live performances, the challenge of putting together a festival of this magnitude is certainly a daunting one.

First, Johnson had to find programming for the festival, which wasn’t easy considering that most of these films don’t have any type of distribution. Johnson spent hours scouring the Internet and other cities’ festivals, in an effort to lure filmmakers to this impressive, yet fledgling event.

After obtaining all of the programming, Johnson faced the even more challenging task of finding sponsorship.

“It was incredibly time consuming, a lot of cold calls to businesses,” Johnson describes. In addition to the money contributed by the sponsors, Johnson had to dip into his own bank account to make sure that his festival comes off successfully, “I went into debt to pay this thing off,” he admits.

In addition to the films, the second-year festival is also highlighted by live performances from several artists whose controversial brand of art is dubbed as “Plunderphonics.” The term, which was coined by John Oswald (one of the featured performers), describes a still underground genre of art in which the composer or filmmaker essentially cuts and pastes together various snippets of sound or video from pre-existing media sources, thus creating a wholly original work.

If that sounds confusing, wait until you get into the legality of it all. As the word “plunder” implies, this genre is considered plagiarism by many, while the artists themselves believe that the sum is in fact greater than its individual parts. Check it out, and then weigh in on the issue yourself at a panel discussion with the artists on October 4th at the Walker Art Center as part of the fest.

So, what exactly constitutes an underground film? While there is no hard and fast definition, most would agree that it has something to do with financing (most underground films are made for under fifty-thousand dollars), something to do with technique (“more of a raw movie watching experience” describes Johnson) and something to do with subject matter (not many Hollywood produced “Chicano-punk documentaries” out there). Johnson sums it up best with, “Underground is anything that flies under the radar”.

Flying under the radar is something that the annual Sound Unseen festival, now in its second year, shouldn’t be doing for long. Already bigger than last year’s, Johnson admits that, “It’s a three to four year project establishing something like this.” So, where does he see the festival in three to four years?

“I’d like to see it as the most creatively programmed underground film and music convergence out there.” It seems to be well on its way.