How creativity responds to 'turmoil' at Berlin's CTM/Transmediale
"The world is in turmoil," announces Jan Rohlf, the co-founder of the CTM Festival. "The familiar is becoming increasingly alien, oscillating widely between peril and hope, regression and progress, between standstill and explosive change. Tensions are running high for all of us," he surmises that "uneasy times demand uneasy music."
That's exactly what this year's CTM delights in presenting; uneasy music that's difficult, that's as ever, peerless in catapulting its audience into bold, challenging, and unexpected new territories.
The Festival for Adventurous Music and Art was founded in 1999 and is dedicated to left-field pop, contemporary electronic and experimental music. Each year's programme is loosely curated under a theme (2018's is 'turmoil', if you hadn't guessed) and presents a vast array of artists working in music and sound across various genres, scenes, disciplines, and interdisciplinary sites of experimentation.
As well as performances, there's also a comprehensive programme of lectures, critical discourses and installation work. CTM runs concurrently (and often presents works in partnership with) fellow Berlin-based Transmediale, a 30-year-old festival and year-round project that "draws out new connections between art, culture, and technology" to foster a critical understanding of contemporary culture and politics as saturated through such platforms.
As with last year's graphic identity, the look and feel of the festival were created by Berlin-based agency Vojd. It's a bold, brilliant, and constantly shifting identity brought to life across animated stings before live shows and across posters, programmes, and flyers, where they formed the backdrop to some neat sans serif type. This year's work is a vortex of bright, esoteric warped imagery peppered with the odd emoji here and there. As in previous years, it's an excellent reflection of the festival's wider intentions.
While "turmoil" is a broad and thorny church through which to programme art and music, it feels pertinent to each act. No-wave godmother Lydia Lunch, who performed as a trio of musicians known as Medusa's Bed with Zahra Mani and Mia Zabelka, sums up music's role as a conduit for, and site for questioning turmoil:
"Art is the salve to the universal wound," she says, describing her work as having always "been about rising above whatever has tortured you." She adds, "Though we embrace turbulence, we also harness it as an energy that propels us towards change and empowerment… art is the salve, but also a mirror. Brutality and beauty, hope and despair are all part of a continuum, not opposites."
Sound and its function not just as music or aural cues but as an art form that carries multiples is a key endeavour of Turkish drummer Cevdet Erek, too. We spoke to him on the site here. His appearance at Berlin's notorious, cavernous techno-mecca Berghain saw him perform Juliet-like on a balcony overlooking the crowd; using percussion as a way of making the "continuous, aggressive, and carefully-engineered rhythmic noise of turmoil."
One of CTM's turmoil-tinged masterstrokes was programming an entire night of gabber. For the poor souls amongst you uninitiated in the genre, gabber (short for gabber-house) originated in Holland as a riposte to po-faced dance music, speeding it up to anywhere from 150 to 200BPM (sometimes more).
Among those bringing that to Berghain on one rather intense Friday night were KABLAM, DJ Panic, The Darkraver, and leading lights in Polish gabber, Wixapol S.A. There's something bonkers about the whole thing. It teeters between irony and sincerity, and as the academic Hillegonda C. Rietveld puts it, "gabber overdrives the volume of its already shrieking and punching sound palette to an extreme extent, producing an immersive experience of excess… offering space for marginalised anger and turmoil in overdrive, the immersive, repetitive whirlwind of accelerated noise and abject horror acts as an unspoken, yet extremely loud, a sonic critique that must be experienced."
At the less fucking ludicrous end of the spectrum and towards its equally valid but rather more beautiful counterpoint, another CTM highlight was Lotic. The Texas-born, Berlin-based DJ and producer, also known as J'Kerian Morgan, performed with Roderick George on Embryogenesis, a show that combines electronic music and some of the most breathtaking dance imaginable to blur the boundaries between "high" and "popular" culture. Similarly turning turmoil into beauty was Skalar, the CTM installation at the vast, industrial Kraftwerk space that took light, sound and kinetic mirrors to weave together a mesmerising, synchronistic exploration of how light and sound impact human perception.
Over at Transmediale, the theme for the vast and complex exhibition was "face value", a no less challenging and chilling umbrella for digital art that examines what it means to be alive in these fascinating yet testing times. The standout piece was Heather Dewey-Hagborg and Chelsea Manning's A Becoming Resemblance, a series of 30 3D-printed "possible portraits" of Chelsea Manning, the former US intelligence analyst-turned-whistleblower who was sentenced to 35 years in prison back in 2013. Artist Dewey-Hagborg began producing the portraits in 2015 using DNA from Manning via cheek swabs and hair clippings she sent from prison, creating a series of facial images that vary wildly across skin tones, "gendered" elements and features in order to illustrate the multitude of ways in which a person's DNA can be interpreted. As such, they visualise the concerns over the accuracy of current DNA profiling technology and demonstrate their potential issues around masking gender and racial stereotyping.
The nature of simulacra is a common thread running through the artists' work at Transmediale; vividly brought to life in Yuri Pattison's installation Citizens of Nowhere (context collapse), which presents models of famous global monuments and locations to examine the subjectivity of our collective interpretations of history and truth in relation to national identity. Zach Blas' Contra-Internet, meanwhile, explores the internet's potential dangers as a hegemonic instrument of "accelerated capitalism, surveillance, and control" and the gulf between its present power and original intentions of neutrality and progressiveness.
As CTM's organisers quite adroitly point out, the sound of turmoil isn't something you can succinctly pinpoint. Indeed, finding out a comprehensive answer to exactly what that sound would make the festival itself redundant. And we certainly don't want that.
"We need music and sound that unsettles us for a reason," says Rolf. "… that mirrors the dissonance of the world and resonates with our anxieties. That aims to articulate discontent and progress. Music that cancels out our pains with pain. Music that exposes us to forms of life and ways of experiencing that are foreign to us. Sound that evokes future realities that lie in wait on the horizon. Sound that motions towards new trajectories."
He adds, "We could try and see opportunity in the current turmoil. One that allows us to come to a recognition of the fears, pains, and hopes of others, and that offers us new access and insights into our own repressed confusions."