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Berlin Atonal 2023: The Day After, challenging the notion of experimental music (wknd 2)

Text by Martyn Riley

Photo credit: Frankie Casillo

Every festival has its very own personality. A mix of curation, demographic, place and where it lies in history. This was a weekend of opposites. One of intensity and calm, the saturated and the spacious, visceral and sublime.  

What Atonal does well, and always has, is to create a human/non-human feedback loop between artist, audience, and the architecture of this iconic building. The latter involving many levels and utilities of this decommissioned heating plant abandoned in the late nineties. As well as the dynamics and the ‘in-between’ liminal spaces. Atonal rarely compartmentalises between the exhibition and connected activations, entitled Universal Metabolism, and the live schedule. So once again, as in previous years, this had blurred borders creating a natural flow and unnerving sense of purpose. 

Universal Metabolism was a conceptual mix of the sonic, sculptural, time-based media and the visual arts. Such as the slowly changing ‘Black Sun: Room with many holes’, a huge trio of hanging fabrics dipped in viscous liquid clay and being sprayed from small jets, which creates a slowly decaying piece which is directly influenced by vorarephilia and quizzical of humans fantasies that contradict realities. 

An immediate highlight, especially as it was the first ‘performance’ on entering, was Bridget Polk’s Reclaimed Damages. Within a tennis-court-sized area of her fractured (and insanely) balanced sculptures. Each and every minute was a meditative and intimate experience for both artist and voyeur. Her practice, ironically, involved stillness and silence, not forgetting gravity when these absurdly angled balances dropped to the floor, usually with no one nearby. Hence activating sonic and kinetic properties and a tinge of tragic humour whilst the past and present is pondered. 

A space dedicated to short films gave audiences an intimate space to view many diverse pieces, such as the wonderfully conceived Messengers by London-based artist Rebecca Salvadori containing musings of a tight circle of friends on relationships, music, and the city. Then each day around 4 p.m., scheduled activations of the differing spaces occurred. Rabon’s HiddenResonance X Kraftwerk searched out the spatial dynamics of the chasmic interior with dozens of small, motorised hammers mounted on the hollow decommissioned pipes and girders in conversation with the building’s interior. A focal point being a dozen tall, slender monolithic gas pipes with their sporadic and random swathes of rhythms. 

Photo credit: Frankie Casillo
Photo credit: Frankie Casillo

Seamlessly this segued into a daily evolving performance of disorder by Tot onyx + yox caski literally running wild along the levels with their Metabolic Disruption, which explores use of noise and butoh movements, activating the different spaces and areas throughout the week with playful energy. I witnessed flashing hi-powered flashlights (which seemed a trend this year) and attacking, scraping, and pummelling the hard concrete floors and steel barriers with scaffold poles. 

Romeo Castellucci’s video installation The Third Reich, a spectral representation of all names, hit the viewer right between the eyes and ears and deep into the vortex. The sound by Scott Gibbons of kick-drums and sparse else (mostly at around 140 bpm) synced with incessant flashed-up nouns so quick you could hardly take them in with no pauses besides an odd change of rhythmic pace. It challenged, with its forty-minute length, but it was worth it, as particular words, nouns that potentially represent every named object in reality, eerily stayed with the viewer. 

Multiple performances dispensed with a ‘stage’, and there appeared to be a collective itch of excitement that preempts knowledge of where (and how) the next will happen; usually indicated by a couple of flashes of a spot-light and the audience dutifully converges and surrounds who they think the artist may actually be. 

A standout was Laxlan Petras and Yasmin Saleh’s Humanities, a piece based on the former’s drawings displayed within the exhibition. Instantly emotive, a captivating mysterious narrative, operatic tropes, and the layered sonic textural crushing of glass mirrors from Yasmin’s full ‘mirror-ball’ bodysuit. As a duo vocalised to a minimal reverb-heavy piano and bass drone score, torches shone by the artists reflections creating a human/non-human connection between the constricted and visually impaired (due to the full mirrored mask) Yasmin and the buildings spatial interior as well as the closely surrounding audience, momentarily blurring their vision.

Marco Fusinato’s Desastres performed over the week, including a full scintillating weekend performance with silver guitar, loopers and minimal pedals. A piece developed from the recent Venice Biennale. This was a visceral, angry, yet completive period of an elegant noise metal whilst each looped chord change triggered the next monochrome image on the huge screen above. Witnesses of historical social injustices; racism, sexism, environmental plights, war, hegemony and visualising the colonially rich.

Some will have noticed its power of silences, as whilst many artists intentionally saturated their productions, Marco left gaps and space and so used the building’s reverb. His huge chords striking out and returning to their source, extenuated by Kraftwerk’s natural delays. 

Blackhaine. Photo credit: Frankie Casillo
Blackhaine. Photo credit: Frankie Casillo
Carmen Villain. Photo credit: Helge Mundt

Power and vulnerability exuded as Blackhaine premiered paith, a live evolving work in progress from Tom Heyes, Rainy Miller, his producer and collective. Swirls of drill, punk, ambient washes, interspersed with reflections and soliloquies that felt as much Shakespearian as it did ‘street’. Anger, anxiety, mortality, and desperate tenderness were all present in this stunning production. Utilising a 20-foot container behind the audience by streaming the temporally incarcerated performers to a screen above, was pure theatrical genius. Heye’s connection to the audience was a fully physical one with punishing butoh Japanese dance movements; launching himself into the crowd and continuing the performance as the collective others stood atop the container nonchalantly smoking, overlooking proceedings. 

A game changer of a live set featured the new duo of KMRU and Elvin Brandhi with an abstractive call-and-response attitude at its core. Both artists literally fizzed, scraped and mangled their prospective sonics. KMRU with samples and percussive snaps and Elvin manipulating her voice with tapes and electronics. This was a pure 30-plus minutes of continuous improvised explosive sound.

As always, many artists collaborated with visual artists so effectively, captivating the experience hungry crowds. Emptyset pounded the walls with a minimal percussive heavy session synced to huge minimal lasers that hypnotised on the main stage. Corin’s Lux Aeterna was a mix of baroque-ladden bass and transcendental rhythmic melodies creating a rare live set of a more traditional approach to the journey, along with images of flying mythic god-like creatures. 

DJ LostBoi chopped his signature warm synth sound, field recordings and ambient-tinged thumping subs containing little in the way of a ‘drop’, which kept the crowd’s full attention. Truly effective, and in direct contrast to others, the simple use of lighting the whole portrait hung screens with flashing green entranced all eyes. 

Shaped Noise performance of Absurd Matter, with constant crunching kicks and trickling hi-hats of this extreme noise and hip-hop set, was the perfect soundtrack to sevi iko’s almost harrowing images of dug-up alien-like sub-human entities. 

The Contrasting styles of consummate performers continued throughout. Dream Crusher with visuals by Artelier Impopulaire, imploring, rapping, and shouting over a distorted repetitive ambient noise, with sub-crunching the PA to its absolute max. Then Carmen Villain visually enjoys the atmosphere and the audience’s appreciation of her ethereal electronics paired with clarinet motifs. 

The live performances dove-tailed and swayed from the stoic to the blissful and everything in-between. The sense was often of a pure saturated intensity. Performances felt hugely personal, and connections between the signifier, performer/artist, and the signified, receiver/audience, felt all the more real and relevant throughout.

(Media courtesy of Berlin Atonal)
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