For reasons that are not immediately clear, it feels somewhat strange to find oneself gyrating to techno in a large former-B&Q warehouse in Belfast, the thunder-beats crashing into your skull, engulfing all sensibility and threatening to burst your eyeballs. And yet, here we all were, sweating against one another in the aforementioned warehouse. Feeling saucy and devilish, bumping and grinding within the centre of that northern city on the Island.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that Belfast has developed such an affinity for dance music. A divided city that once was forced to confront the daily spectre of destruction, it was quite natural that an outlet for the release of such genuine angst would form. And what is dance music if not a medium to release tension – a thing to allow people of all tribes to converge and be together, if only for a night? Fittingly, the genre has remained at the core of the city's youth culture and its need for expression, with AVA serving to act as the epitome of this idea.
It is generally wise to look upon a festival that doubles as a conference with a note of trepidation. Oftentimes, these dual-functioning occasions can serve merely as a pretense to allow the professionals to accumulate and to fawn over one another. AVA, though, feels different. The abbreviation stands for 'audio visual arts', and it is perhaps the emphasis on the visual that allows the weekend to stand out amongst others.
The festival site is industrial and dark, which ultimately serves as an appropriate accompaniment to the lights and visual displays. We in Ireland have come to expect grass and mud from our festivals – roving fields at the back of some aristocrat's mansion, upon which we might skip mindlessly around, with our faces painted and heads adorned in amusing hats. We tend to lean towards grandeur rather than grime with our festival choices, but AVA's focus on an urban aesthetic redirects our preferences, bringing us into a bleaker sort of venue, which, ultimately, is where dance music belongs.
The B&Q warehouse location was actually a change from the previous years of the festival, and with the move came an added stage. Spread across four stages this year, the line-up was a rather delicious assortment, with a thoughtful balance between Irish and international acts, big and small. Proceedings kicked off lightly on the Thursday, with performances from R Kitt and Age of Aquarius, plus a screening of the phenomenal one-take film, Sebastian Schipper's Victoria, which features a sublime score from Nils Frahm.
Thursday, of course, was but a warm-up, and things were kicked off properly on the Friday with the opening keynote of the conference, delivered by Belfast natives Bicep. The duo discussed the process at work behind their debut album, and generally gave any aspiring producers in the audience a glimpse into what goes into transforming oneself into an acclaimed and successful artist. The two were also on hand to close the main stage that night, offering evidence, where none was needed, that they were more than just talk.
KiNK also put in a typically energetic set on the main stage, playing up, as he so often does, to the crowd, showing off his equipment, and generally breaking down past expectations of how DJs should perform when onstage. KiNK by no means shies away from the spotlight, seemingly embodying the stardom now attached to DJs that once was reserved only for pop stars. Thankfully, his tunes can back up his nerve, and he also put in a decent shift speaking at the conference.
Saturday headliners Floorplan attempted – and, it could be argued, succeeded in – touching the face of God with a disco-inflected call to the dancefloor. Floorplan is made up of the father-daughter duo of Robert Hood and his daughter Lyric, and is a project that perhaps can be thought of as its makers' expression of their devout Christian faith. Fitting, then, that the performance should have inspired such devotion and worship from a crowd oh-so-willing to give up their souls to the stage.
Of course, one of the joys of AVA is its commitment to artists native to the island, north and south. West of Ireland natives Brame & Hamo were a particular joy on the Red Bull stage, performing off the back of their Club Orange EP, which they released in February. Over at the Boiler Room stage, Wicklow-native Mano Le Tough showed of his disco-house-electronica blend, proving what has taken him from the small sea-side village of Greystones up onto the stage as an increasingly big name within the DJ circuit.
As ever at the festival, Boiler Room were streaming the sets that took place on their stage, with this year marking the platform's most prominent place within proceedings.
AVA has grown larger with each passing year of its existence, capturing the essence of a city which is undeniably entwined in dance music. Belfast, perhaps, has not yet announced itself as a major player in the eyes of the dance world, but with acts like Bicep and a festival such as AVA, it's about due a little more notice.