Homemade: XYZ Project

Those familiar with Prague’s electronic dance music scene have probably heard the name XYZ Project already. More attentive individuals perhaps even follow the group’s activities on a regular basis. Even though I would put myself into the latter category, and though I have been getting to know almost all the guys step by step over these last few years, it has still been quite difficult for me to define what they’re actually doing. 

According to their info section on facebook ‘XYZ Project is a group of open minded creative humans who work in symbiosis.’ However vague this might seem, it gets much more clear when you browse through their photo gallery. Light seems to be at the center of their focus, but their activities reach further beyond.

Since my rave beginnings I have always been most satisfied when the visual atmosphere was prepared and conducted properly at the event. After attending the first Polygon parties I have been getting more and more excited each time to see what Světlonoš would come up with next. Světlonoš (Lightbearer, or The One Who Brings The Light), aka Petr Pufler, practiced a different approach to using light. Mostly analogue and DIY, his objects were usually used in their subtlety, his installations underlined the architecture of the space without being too invasive, and his persona always added a bit of mystery to the whole thing. But as is often the case, everybody has their limits, and Světlonoš found his. Despite still being quite active, you don’t see his name anywhere anymore. Learning that he is still pulling his strings in the background, helping XYZ crew with their work occasionally, I had decided to set up a meeting with him and the guys. Long story short, he was kind enough to invite us all to his home for dinner. We spent an evening together in his apartment-studio, eating delicious baked portobello mushrooms Petr had prepared, drinking beer, and discussing the origins of XYZ, their connections, and their work.

Mostly analogue and DIY, his objects were usually used in their subtlety, his installations underlined the architecture of the space without being too invasive, and his persona always added a bit of mystery to the whole thing.

Visuals by Světlonoš and Kryštof Hlůže, designed for Polygon with Tommy Four Seven, Solpara and Ventress held at Main Railway Station in 2015. Photo by Kryštof.

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The forming process of the group was natural and slow. Back in 2013, Oliver Torr, Marek Šilpoch and Dominik Jančík started throwing a parties oriented towards the current UK sound in Chapeau Rouge. ‘This was at the time when Silhouette played under his Chic moniker, when Dubsteblog was in its prime,’ recalls Oliver. ‘Marek was in charge of the graphic design and Dominik worked the lights.’ To give me an idea of how their initial workflow and aesthetics were, Dominik describes his first light objects: 2 big circles and letters carved from extruded polystyrene, lit by LEDs, on both sides of the stage. ‘I hadn’t thought it through though. I had decided to put the LED lights right onto the letters, so I had to cut them into separate segments. I hadn’t much experience with soldering, so I didn’t know what a shitload of work it would be. And I only had the really cheap soldering gun. But I managed.‘ Dominik studied software engineering at FIT ČVUT for 5 years, but even before that, he was always nerding around a lot with his computer, programming, doing animations, flash, Adobe After Effects, 3D Studio. ‘He is our secret weapon. Whatever is too complicated for us to make, we pass it to him,’ gives away Oli, with compliant nods from others.

The group had realised very quickly they were able to do more than just a party together. While working on their first non-party creation, which was an audio-visual book, Oliver hit the keys on computer keyboard randomly when saving the audio file in Logic (which saves files in .project format), and their name came to life. Considering his input to the group’s efforts, Oliver naturally picked up the audible part. Growing into a musician from a young age, he chose electronic production and went to study music composition in London for a while, as well as audiovisual art in Berlin, eventually coming back to Prague. While he is the one who strongly promotes the 50/50 equality between the sound and the visuals wherever he operates, Oli invests his energy the most into music production, live music performances and DJ sets. As he is not afraid of any type of collaboration, you can spot him performing groovy modular techno with HRTL as WINDOWLICKERZ, punchy and dirty electro with Trauma as Traumatorr, or dropping both notorious and unknown disco jams at one of the Disco Církev parties as DJ Sen.

Their next event, titled Monolith 2, where the group’s 50/50 philosophy played a big role, attracted Světlonoš’s attention. This party, conceived more as an audiovisual experience, happened twice in Hala 36, a well-known underground space at Prague’s market. Petr came unannounced with a smoke bomb, which he lit in the middle of the room to the group’s excitement. After a series of encounters similar to this one, where they somehow nonverbally attuned to the same frequency, they ended up in Petr’s studio, and started working together. 

Monolith 2 at Hala 36 with Stephan Hinz, Insect Elektrika, Oliver Torr and Golden Cat

XYZ 1 – Custom installation control device, available to the visitors to play with.

While Oli and Dominik are arguing about which installation happened at which edition of Monolith, I ask Petr the most inevitable question which has bothered me in the back of my head for quite some time: why did he stopped making visuals? ‘It has become too demanding in terms of time and energy, and I had a feeling I have tried everything, that I have entered all the chambers already. I am exploring the virtual palace these days. I am interested in creating and controlling darkness, because you can’t create darkness physically in the real world.’ Petr then explains the breaking point in his activities in more detail. He had lost his studio space in Pragovka, and he kind of didn’t want any other one. But, while biding his time waiting until the right place would show up, he realized he’s actually able to exist without all this stuff surrounding him. ’When you possess such an amount of things, you’re no longer the master, you’re the slave. You have to move them around, look for them, do something with them…too many options.’ 

‘It has become too demanding in terms of time and energy, and I had a feeling I have tried everything, that I have entered all the chambers already.’

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The collective, still consisting of Oli, Dominik and Marek at that time, started working on commissioned jobs. The workload became bigger, and there was a need for additional capable pair of hands. Oli’s old friend Honza Slanina, aka Sláňa, was spending all his days in a skateshop then, but he was starting to feel a bit frustrated. He was working on some paper collages, and after showing them to Oli, he called him the next day with an exhibition arrangement. Feeling like he could help Sláňa overcome his crisis, Oli offered him to help the group with a couple of projects, and since Sláňa enjoyed working with them and vice versa, they invited him to join permanently. Apart from being a XYZ member, Sláňa is in charge of the lights in Ankali, and he is regularly assembling new visual situations all over the city. Some of most immersive installations were the ones he worked on for the Shoes Off nights in Ankali, where he had a chance to play with the space a lot more than usual. Combining cheap kitchy bazaar pieces with professional rental equipment, he truly managed to contribute a lot to the performances of The Abyss Within Us or Jonny Nash to name a few while also contributing to the whole concept of the series. With his colleague Eliška they were able to steal the show from the performing musicians just the right amount, taking the lead where the sound let them. Music and visuals ratio? 50/50 would be a good estimate.

Shoes Off at Ankali with Jonny Nash, Eva Porating and St. Jakob.

Shoes Off at Ankali with The Abyss Within Us, Black Acid and Dash.

The last addition to the team was Jakob Schubert. He met with Oli on a hot summer night at Stalin. When Oli overheard Jakob ID-ing a track that was resounding all over the stone plaza, he suggested listening to another piece from the same producer, and the conversation sparked. Flash forward to some time later and Jakob had started offering his help with the group’s busy schedule. Simultaneously, he was beginning to DJ, and possessing a trained ear from his musical background, he got good really quickly. XYZ was already expanding their endeavours into music publishing, but Oli couldn’t handle that alone. Jakob’s enthusiasm refreshed the collective’s routine, and seeing this, Oli asked him to help with the music label. He proved himself with flying colors, a compilation titled XYZTape002 was released in February of 2019, consisting of delicate ambient music from various newcomers and experts alike. Most of the tracks are strong in their melodies and calmness, but they could easily be incorporated into any dance DJ set. I believe this kind of music is the strength of local scene, and it is definitely worth cultivating further. The latest release on the label, Avsluta’s Skinned Landscape EP, succeds in doing so.

XYZtape002, photo by Kateřina Kabelková.

Last year in October the group participated in Signal festival, a widely popular light festival happening mostly in public spaces all over the city, available to anyone. It posed an unprecedented challenge for the group. They picked the Jířího z Poděbrad square to build a complex dystopic situation titled Hlídka 2,1/18 (Patrol 2,1/18), which used existing architectural structures – a subway vent tower, a fountain, and the whole park area – to simulate or interpret a dark vision of a condition of society, where social interaction is an illegal activity. They accomplished this with numerous interventions into the space, and by incorporating real-time pedestrian tracking and field recorder modulation. Viewers were occasionally followed with spotlights and the noises sounded familiarly common, but much darker and vicious. Music vs. visuals: 25/75, but there were other important media in play as well. Despite the apparent success, the project took its toll on the collective, and it culminated into Marek’s withdrawal from the group. Whether due to previous disagreements, or an attractive new job offer from the Signal festival, Marek has put his involvement with XYZ on hold temporarily, and he is focusing on his individual career at the moment.

Hlídka 2,1/18

Pedestrian tracking with spotlights using home-brew software.

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“The shock of Marek’s departure resulted in a light restart,” says Oli in an attempt to move forward in the conversation. “He always criticized the recyclation of ideas and objects, which becomes inevitable at some point,” continues Dominik. “You don’t have enough time to concentrate, to create something proper, and you don’t earn enough to re-invest. It is a period through which you have to go, try all the variants and then, as Peter said, when you enter all the chambers, it becomes frustrating.”

XYZers have managed to overcome this frustration, and I think one of the most vivid examples of this was the event held in Czech Centre in Berlin, where they conducted their own soirée in February 2019.  With guests like Mark Reeder, Robert Carrithers or Peter Kirn they discussed Czech club culture and its similarities to Berlin (inviting the scene veterans to join in is another respectable facet of their work). At the end of the discussion Peter Kirn asked what the specifics of our young thriving scene are and what makes it different from the others, which I think is still quite a difficult question to answer. Oliver responded in a really cute way, saying that what makes it different is the scene’s tightness and interwovenness, thanks to its size. Without having a better and more specific answer myself yet, I think the situation we were in was a pretty good reaction to that question.  The debate was followed by live performances, a couple of them being a debut, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. I was lying on a mattress in the building designed by Věra and Vladimír Machonin, surrounded by many familiar faces who came to support and I got hypnotized by the music emitting from the pile of machines operated by a couple of friends. Hanging above them was a robotic light object, controlled from a distance by Dominik, which was moving frantically. It is hard to say what the ratio was here – visuals acted subtly, but they were extremely complicated and well-thought in their design, the music was powerful in its humility, and they merged into one experience.

 

“He always criticized the recyclation of ideas and objects, which becomes inevitable at some point.”

XYZ Project with Mark Reeder, Robert Carrithers, David Herzig, fleika, St.Jakob, Oliver Torr. Photos by Filip Drábek, © Czech Centre Berlin.

I don’t think the ‘50/50 music to visuals’ promise actually fits what XYZ Project is trying to achieve. I think it’s a constant oscillation around that divide, and sometimes going way off is what makes it interesting for us, but also what makes it engaging and challenging for them. XYZ is trying to avoid labels and find every hidden chamber there could possibly be. It is also undoubtedly an important connecting link of Prague’s music and arts scene, which is not only tightening it together, but also reaches beyond.

From left: Oli, Dominik, Jakob, Sláňa

The writing of this article took more than expected, so we are including couple of things to show what the guys have been up to recently. Here’s the aforementioned EP by Avsluta:

Dominik is developing a multi-purpose software Schéma for a better control over his lights:

Crew started collaborating with graphic designer Matěj Moravec, who has designed graphics for this summer event for instance:

Eventually it looks like the connection between the founding members still exists, since Marek comissioned Oliver for an installation at this year’s Signal, along with Tereza Bartůňková, Ondřej Merta and Štepán Hejzlar, while Jakob took care of production duties:

Photos by Alex Dobrovodský.

Follow XYZ Project on Facebook, Instagram or check their website.

Homemade is a new series on Ankali blog dedicated to mapping local electronic dance music scene through various crews involved in it.