Colombian Party Laboratories

Colombian Party Laboratories


In early 2007 Unsworn representative Erik Sandelin packed his Beginners’ Spanish Dictionary and went to Bogotá and Medellín to participate in two “urban laboratories”. Dancing lab-rats and lots of queso.

Bogotrax (15–25 February)

Warming up for Colombia I watched one movie and read one book. In the film a young woman left her stagnating existence as a rose-dethorner in a poor Bogotán suburb to become a drug mule - travelling to New York with 62 pellets of cocaine slowly dissolving in her stomach. In the book Medellín is described as “the capital of hate” with, real and metaphorical, streams of blood flowing down from the poor, violent comunas covering the steep mountainsides surrounding the city.

Fortunately my stay proved less violent and cynical. Much less. I liked. I like.

Bogotrax calls itself a laboratorio urbano of electronic music and live visuals. In practice Bogotrax equals ten days of intense workshopping, seminaring, and - most notably - dancing and partying. Big Bad Bass at least twice a day is the recipe. The Bogotrax experience left my body shaken and exhausted, and my mind fresh and enthusiastic.

Before arriving in Colombia I was mildly skeptical towards the festival. The rave-aesthetics of the posters and photos of gaudy people dancing around fires prepared me for a trip back in time to introvert, drug-induced trancedancing in abandoned warehouses. Ok, Bogotrax might not be the role model for sober conviviality - but it’s surely one of the most successful social events I have ever participated in or attended.

Bogotrax goes clubbing in the Comunas: Usme in the south-east outskirts of Bogotá

I’m most impressed with Bogotrax active role in bringing the party to the people - not hiding in a cool location waiting for the right crowd to show up. The festival is truly ambulating, on a constant look-out for fresh party spaces. Bogotrax 2007 appeared at all kinds of venues: from posh clubs to distant, worn-down suburbs; from rowdy bars to moonlit, central plazas; from closed prisons to public and private universities.

Did I mention that 99% of the events were packed with people? And that they are all 100% free? I mean all of them!

The Bogotrax organisers are a motley group that makes things happen. It’s a daunting task to arrange parties in Bogotá. You have to deal with obnoxious police crashing the parties, Andean winds overturning the VJ-screens, and coughing power-generators that makes a steady BPM a sweet utopia for the DJs.

Personally I contributed as TV-OUT with a series of VJ-sets and as Unsworn with two talks on interaction design and everything else. I was also really happy to launch the UNSWORN Ophonine Pophorn, the first in a series of software applications that turns your phone into musical instruments. Kids, rockers and ravers fiddled with the phones at Parque de los Periodistas, Sake Sano and at the Mueso de Artes in Universidad Nacional.

Intense pophorning at the plaza of Museo de Artes

So, although a sometimes too uncritical approach towards party-evangelism and the sometimes too standardised electronic music being played, the diversity of happenings and the sheer energy generated allows only one conclusion: Bogotrax rocks!

Pixelazo (27 February - 3 March)

Starting 2002 in Helsinki as a festival focusing on VJ-culture Pixelache is now a network of events from Helsinki (Pikseliähky) to Paris (Mal au Pixel). Pixelache now addresses a wide range of topics under the heading “electronic art and subcultures”; from grass-roots new media activism to splendid audiovisual spectacles. The latest offspring of this ever-expanding, electronic empire is Pixelazo in Medellín, organised in collaboration with Intermundos.

Pixelazo is a five-month series of events which culminates in June when a number of international media artists gather in Medellín for a festival of workshops, lectures, exhibitions and parties. They then head for the Amazonian jungles of Leticia for some serious cultural exchanges/clashes with the indigenous peoples there. The Pixelazo chefs pose a number of spectrums, “north - south, lo-tech - high-tech, digital - organic” etc, as conceptual starting points and ingredients for an exciting sancocho (local hearty soup) of connecting western and Colombian practices in action and reflection. The first part of Pixelazo has very practical aims though: to get going, to get started, to get people involved, to get money to keep Pixelazo alive, to make it happen.

Pixelazo flyer

The main part of the first Pixelazo happening was a series of workshops on video jockeying and interaction design. Vanessa Gocksch, aka Pata de Perro, hosted a basic VJing workshop. Glasgow’s visual masterminds Pointless Creations built fancy, semi-transparent, three-dimensional projection screens.

All the Pixelazo workshops and the party took place in Comuna 13, one of the sprawling suburbs that occupies the steep mountainsides around the valley in which central Medellín sits. In Medellín an amazing, panoramic view from your kitchen window doesn’t mean you live on prime real estate. Just five years ago Comuna 13 was a battleground for the many-sided conflict between leftist guerrillas, the regional government, right-wing paramilitaries and street gangs. Now it’s hard to imagine Blackhawk helicopters raining bullets on the small houses but after a while I started to realise why I saw so few men aged 20 to 30 in this neighbourhood. Most city people would never go to Comuna 13. Pixelazo tried to shuffle the center-periphery division a bit.

My personal contribution, together with Åsa Ståhl, was a three-day, quick and dirty, interactive, audiovisual installation workshop: Sounds, Camera, Interaction! The participants captured and edited sounds and moving images and then, using a hacked computer keyboard interface, created a participatory installation for a big outdoor party in Comuna 13 on the final night.

Proud workshoppers in Comuna 13

I have to say that these are some of the most dedicated students I have ever worked with. Having none or little experience with this type of work, they managed to construct an an amazingly beautiful and social contraption out of broken fans, cell phones, metal grates, a christmas crib wooden skeleton, and their own recorded sounds and movie clips. Some of the workshop participants recorded kids mimicking the sounds of the war and incorporated them into the installation.

I also set up another Pophorn installation, this time in the square in front of the cathedral by Parque Bolivar. There was a huge crowd, curious but hesitant. People recorded everything from extensive, political diatribes to cheery greetings to far-away relatives.

Like Bogotrax, Pixelazo labels itself as an “urban laboratory”. While Bogotrax already has established a critical mass of dedicated clubbers, Pixelazo faces the challenge of engaging a local community of organisers and participants. The uncertain budget situation and early stage of the Pixelazo organisation has certain downsides. With numerous interviews, constant promotions, and Pixelazo-posters glued to the Pophorn-amplifiers - at times I felt a bit like I was part of a Pixelazo commercial or fundraising rally.

However, this is a minor sour drop in the spicy and energetic Pixelazo-soup. Pixelazo could well become one of the coolest and warmest urban laboratories in this world. And I sure want to return.

Colombias' finest MC, Jhon Pri, with Swedish blonde at the final, truck-powered, Pixelazo party

Socially Engaged Partying?

When I was participating in a community art festival in Japan a few years ago the organising gallery was in the same building as a rock club. While the gallery and the street art spaces weren‘t exactly crowded during the festival, the rock club pulled big crowds with a mix of cheap drinks and local punk bands.

While writing this I’m at a University in Puebla Mexico, attending a seminar on “Relational Strategies”. The wisest words so far came from the mouth of Felipe Ehrenberg: “If you want to reach a lot of people you should become a rock star - not an artist”. Admittedly, there are different kinds of impact and quantity isn’t everything, but getting drunk together on the dance-floor is probably a better platform for interaction than most seminars, talks or exhibitions.

Both Pixelazo and Bogotrax provides a fresh and often well-balanced mix of didactics, doing-work-togethers, and partyings which makes these festival successful - both artistically and socially.


Colombians are dead tired of documentaries and fiction only portraying the violent sides of Colombia, providing artificial life-support for a dying stereotype. Please don‘t make more films or books on Colombian gangs and drugs and war for the moment.

There are more photos for you in the gallery.

I really need to learn Spanish. Nouns can only take you so far…

/Erik, 20 March 2007 (back in Malmö)

Thanks to

Lola, Vanessa, Juan Carlos and the rest of you amazing organisers. Besos!

IASPIS for supporting this trip and to Sony Ericsson for providing fine Pophorn mobiles.