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Berlin Atonal 2023: Highlights, a metabolic pool of experimental sound & AV art week 2

Text by Olya Karlovich

Since its launch in 1982, Berlin Atonal has established itself as a stronghold of avant-garde electronic music and audiovisual art. Resisting mainstream trends, the festival has provided a platform for ground-breaking forms of expression year after year. At the same time, Atonal can’t be reproached for the lack of programme diversity — experimental performances and profound statements here side by side with vibrant club nights. The 2023 lineup is also impressively broad — from composers working with baroque polyphony to drill and hip-hop producers. Picking just a few seems impossible. 

Along with special commissions, exclusive live premieres and afterparties, this time Atonal also includes a special Universal Metabolism exhibition and concert series designed to ‘expand the function of artistic communication within the festival’, according to a press release. Spread over 11 days with two weekend sections. The location remains the same, but no less exciting: the 8,000 m2 former Kraftwerk power plant in Berlin’s Mitte district.

On the first weekend, Laurel Halo opens the main stage with her new live Atlas. The show is based on the artist’s album of the same name, released in September. Cellist Leila Bordreuil, known for her disorienting improvisations, will join Halo for the performance. Space Afrika and synth wizard Caterina Barbieri are bringing together the cybernetic and human musical worlds, with MFO visually augmenting their sonic investigations. In addition to other highlights, the three-act Etudes for Church will be presented by the Austrian performative artist Florentina Holzinger.

London-based composer and sound artist Venus Ex Machina makes her Berlin Atonal debut with a new live performance, Lemurian Tones. The work hinges on the artist’s exploration of the spatial fantasy of Lemuria, a sunken continent in the Indian Ocean. Another newcomer to the festival line-up, but not on our playlists, is the UK project Blackhaine, whose practice combines noise, drill, street poetry and modern experimental choreography. The show Paith is billed as a political act in which the artist deconstructs their current sound and future releases. 

CORIN, who recently released her cybernetic-cinematic album Lux Aeterna on London’s UIQ, is showing an A/V piece of the same name. Her labelmate Nkisi uses the Kraftwerk space to bring to life the sensory experiment at the intersection of dance, movement, sound, music, sculpture and storytelling. ‘NTI-MA challenges the mainstream Western notion of music as a form of performance, focusing instead on how music shapes and influences our experience,’ the festival’s press materials state. With these and other UIQ artists, don’t miss Lee Gamble‘s label head performance during the Atonal’s second weekend. 

For those who can’t wait for Aho Ssan‘s ‘Rhizomes’ album (the release is scheduled for October), Berlin Atonal is an opportunity to sneak peek at its material. Teaming up with visual artist Sevi Iko Dømochevsky, the Paris-based composer constructs musical rhizomes, exploring the collaborative nature of the composition and the influence of musical material on the creation process.

Like Aho Ssan, Alessandro Cortini is already familiar to the Atonal audience. Presenting his next project within the Kraftwerk walls, which has already become a tradition. As part of the current edition, Cortini is performing a live improvisation of Nati Infiniti, rethinking and reconfiguring his previous installation of the same name. Marco Ciceri’s visuals accompany the work.

The Emptyset duo, James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas returns to Atonal with Ash, a collection of sonic experiments developed over the past three years and assembled in Bristol in the summer of 2023.’ In contrast to the physically tangible soundscapes of Ginzburg and Purgas, Carmen Villain will be creating elusive but incredibly textured slow-mo worlds manipulating cassette tapes, field recordings and synths.

In addition, on the second festival weekend, Marco Fusinato adapts Venice Biennale’s DESASTRES, an experimental noise project synchronising sound with image. Alongside, composer Billy Bultheel, a member of 33___33_33, stages The Thief’s Journal, performance and installation using the Kraftwerk setting through arrays of instrumentalists. ‘It’s based on psychoacoustic effects that seek parallels between the sacral and industrial’ we read. The work is a kind of culmination of the Universal Metabolism programme, further revealing the Kraftwerk complex’s unique potential. Universal Metabolism showcases artists such as Bridget Polk, Actress, VALIE EXPORT and many more. 

As for the club nights, they are not inferior to Atonal’s concerts at all. The likes of Ron Morelli, DJ Marcelle, Lamin Fofana, Kode9, Upsammy and Djrum will be playing in the Trezor, Globe and OHM spaces. Constantly evolving and trying out new formats, Berlin Atonal aims to offer us a new type of festival experience this year.

Between the two weekends of the festival programme, the Universal Metabolism exhibition at Kraftwerk Berlin is an extension of Berlin Atonal that inherits the formal experimentation of its landmark predecessor exhibition Metabolic Rift. This new project encompasses over two dozen artworks arranged around the Kraftwerk and its interstices. Amongst them is Rebecca Salvadori’s messengers (2023), a continuation of her experimental series. The film takes place in a former monastery at PAF Olomouc 21st Festival of Film Animation and Contemporary Art and at Marsèll Paradise in Milan as part of the exhibition project The Sun Has No Shadow. Here Salvadori filmed a series of live performances and one-to-one conversations on the nature of friendship, music and relationships with the city of London. The work encompases different meta-narratives developing within a very subjective and intimate frame.

(Media courtesy of Atonal)
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