Taking ‘New Geographies’ as its theme, the annual Berlin festival draws new connections between diverse people and places to reflect today’s hybrid world
Russell Haswell, the London-based artist and musician, once said to me that good festivals shouldn’t last longer than two days. So everyone, including the artists playing, is able to watch every single show. I somewhat agree, but CTM is not that at all. It stretches over ten days with daily shows, talks and exhibitions at several different venues, but I’m still fond of it. Its length means that you’ll meet the same people over and over again, and can reflect on the talks, or on the execution of that year’s theme, while the small talk is about the overwhelming number of shows and not getting into venues after being unable to shake the assumption that everything in Berlin opens with a delay. A friend exclaims, “They do! Except during CTM and at Berghain.”
CTM is my yearly Berlin winter experience, of almost ritualistic significance in its outstanding diversity in a city that often feels homogenous. This year, the team of Jan Rohlf, Remco Schurbiers, Oliver Baurhenn and regular contributor Michail Stangl put their emphasis on exactly that; to paraphrase Jan Rohlf, the aim was to “oppose essential beliefs of clearly defined cultures and identities through a music selection that reflects the increasingly connected and hybrid world that we live in.” I imagine a map of geometrical contour lines when first reading the words, but this year’s theme of ‘New Geographies’ is about much more.
Berlin, to most expats’ surprise, is still the one of the ten biggest cities in Germany with the lowest percentage of people with what statistics call an immigrant background – by far.* In a way, Berlin is as German as it gets because half of it, the part that belonged to the GDR, missed out on immigration almost completely during 41 socialist years. The change happening to the city since the reunification, and in an accelerated way during the last few years, is rapid. It’s difficult for politicians, as well as cultural agents, to remain proactive in their engagement with the people who have made today’s Berlin their home.
“I wanted to take the theme, New Geographies, and apply it right here,” Rabih Beaini tells me, looking out of the large windows of his Kreuzberg flat. He is this year’s additional curator, a Lebanon-raised musician, and now, after one and a half decades in Italy, a Berliner. “How can we reach out to the Turkish communities? I wanted to place shows in Turkish-run venues in Kreuzberg and Neukölln, but realised that needs many more conversations than what I had time for in the preparation for this year’s event.” While some new venues were introduced, such as the Werkstatt der Kulturen and Heimathafen (both located in Neukölln), the latter for the show of Lebanese legend Abdel Karim Shaar, it proved difficult to coordinate more broadly. “We need to re-establish a trust that years of German neglect have destroyed,” Beaini says.
These words, and the work of Norient, the International Network for Local and Global Music and Media Cultures who co-curated the discourse program, inform much of my thinking during the festival days to come. As part of his engagement, Beaini receives the honor to play the opening concert, or rather conducting it. Visibly happy, he’s placed behind a mixing desk in a symmetrical stage set-up a series of paired drummers, guitarists, trumpet players and vocalists respectively. “The mixing desk is probably the instrument I feel the closest to,” he later tells me, and I think of this as a metaphor for his work as a curator and head of his label Morphine: bringing together what other people make.
It’s an artist newly signed to Morphine who impersonates another quest for the diversity of CTM: to present the work of women and those who identify as queer, without turning them into tokens. Pauline Olivero and partner Ione’s quiet presence during the listening meditation they hold at the last Saturday tells a powerful story of women in art in a few seconds of silence. At least, I assume it is silence until Pauline, sharp and with 84 years worth of thoughts to profit from, explains to me their concept of ‘Deep Listening’. In this, silence as defined by the absence of semantically-identified sound is rejected and instead it is about the opposite of silence: listening to what you hear when you assume that there is no sound at all.
It’s silence, too, that I discuss with Natsuko Kono, the dancer with Anna Homler’s project Breadwoman. I ask her, how do you perform silence as a dancer? “You’re never as present as when you don’t move,” she says, and this is how she starts the set: motionless, on a chair, with her face covered in bread, as Anna Homler felt the overwhelming urge to do 30 years ago in LA. The language of Breadwoman’s recently re-released album is a made-up one in which words are not signifiers. Anna explains that instead, there is always a path that she’s got in mind for each song, a journey without any idea of where she came from or where she’ll arrive at.
Kono’s dance remains in my mind strangely connected to Hatsune Miku’s performance the next day. Do we create holograms each time we listen? I ask myself while absorbing Laurel Halo’s composition for the multimedia piece created in collaboration with Mari Matsutoya, Darren Johnston, LaTurbo Avedon, and Martin Sulzer for Still Be Here. To quote the curators – a unique collaborative performance that draws on the multiplying realities of a 21st century pop star, the dynamics at play around the humanoid persona are traced between fans, corporations and social desires. One of the strengths of Berlin and CTM is its entanglement with the software and hardware companies providing the technological backbone to the music of the city, such as Ableton and Native Instruments. This led to CTM and Ableton’s collaborative festival Loop last autumn, and culminated at CTM in the Music Makers Hacklab and various sessions at NI’s headquarters, attracting the maker-scene as much as that of more classical composers.
It is technology too – besides politics – that forms the broadest link between CTM and its partner festival Transmediale. I ask a friend what Transmediale is about this year. He had attended surprisingly many of the panels, considering the fact that he also made it to four of the five nights at Berghain in a row. “I don’t know,” he says, smiling. “It totally makes sense, and absolutely not. But I guess that is what I like about it.” CTM’s discourse programme struggles with the same expectation of ‘making sense’. The overall experience is positive, though. After all, where a lot of other festivals get stuck in talking about topics related to the music business, CTM’s discussions are about ideas. Still, there are a few (sub-)topics I wish had been approached differently, which suffered from what I perceive as an imposed panel-narrative that fails to overcome a Eurocentric perspective, whereby it becomes us talking to, or about, them.
One of the most controversial pieces of the festival is French filmmaker Vincent Moon’s installation rituals, an amalgam of religious and spiritual music performances, filmed in Brazil but taken largely out of context. The question of cultural appropriation comes up in more than one conversation about it, and I am led to question whether this kind of emotionally supercharged art can provide a more powerful tool for cultural understanding than any academic discussion employing cultural relativity. Can it bring about a new openness to hybridity?
I remain short of an answer in regards to Vincent Moon’s work, and am still pondering how his work exoticises its protagonists in a way that bothers me, when I sit down at for a concert of Keiji Haino, collaborating with fellow Japanese artists Kazuhisa Uchihashi and Indonesian duo Senyawa. It stands out as one of my highlights of the festival. Keiji conducts the four-piece with a slinky, crouching on the floor and screaming with Rully Shabara; it is enough to wipe even the slightest hint of a romanticised Orient from anyone’s head.
I also love Tara Transitory’s opening show on Thursday, as I had enjoyed the depth and detail of Marcin Pietruszewski two nights earlier, and both artists’ decision to disrupt the usual stage-facing direction of the crowd. The Panorama Bar line-up of the same night is, in a very different way, important. Nidia Minaj, nkisi, Jlin and Kablam stretch Pbar’s standards through sound, without the need for words – reminding me of Pauline Olivero and Ione’s quiet presence. The profits from their listening meditation (€20, no guestlist) were donated to a refugee shelter in Berlin. A marker point within a music festival, a silent meditation that is about anything but silence is linked to the most pressing issue of Berlin politics. It is here that I find the theme of New Geographies most immediately present, applied in action as curator Beaini suggested, “Right here.”
*The way an "immigrant background" is determined in Germany differs from city to city and between surveys. Usually, it includes everyone who either moved to Germany after 1949 or has at least one parent who did, while in some statistics it extends to everyone with one grandparent who did. People with an immigrant background in Berlin, using the first method of counting, make up 28,6 % of the population, compared to between roughly 35 and 55 % in the other big cities.
For more information on CTM, click here. Images courtesy of Camille Blake and Udo Siegfriedt.
CTM festival is part of SHAPE, an EU-funded platform for innovative music and audiovisual art.