The power plant, back at full power: Berlin Atonal shows a resurgent scene

We’ve heard lots of promises of a revitalized post-pandemic scene, lots of talk about adapting to change, but that masks real suffering for so many artists. At last, Berlin’s upcoming Atonal promises to be something different: expanded scale, greater diversity, and energetic new ideas, just when electronic music needs it most.

A crowd enveloped in fog, a speaker hanging through the murk. Berlin Atonal 2019 - Frankie Casillo.

Berlin’s flaws aside, one thing the city has reliably provided its cultural scene is extravagant overabundance. If something is going on, it’s got four things happening at once, weekday programs that extend into the early morning hours, too much of everything.

After its high-profile debut and the initial shock of seeing the yawning interior of its former power plant, Atonal arguably had itself as its competition. But this year’s edition has managed to top even the past festivals. It’s not just another “back after the pandemic,” but back in some genuinely new form.

It’s also got the durational challenges the German capital has come to associate with the winter, not September. So it’s a two-weekend, fully stacked club sandwich of a program. Each weekend is three days; each day is also a club night. In between, there’s a complete exhibition – and one that finally realizes some of the festival-cum-exhibition vision that dates back to the first edition under the revived Atonal banner a few years ago. I’ve wandered in the under-construction exhibition site, and it looks set to totally transform the venue into an art space, with works by Romeo Castellucci, Bridget Polk, Rabon Aibo, Mire Lee, VALIE EXPORT, and Actress. There’s a sense of the festival really exploring sound art as a medium, too, in a way that festivals in other cities often do not. I’m particularly excited for the work of Rabon Aibo, which we’ll cover more soon. (Pictured below, with these gas canisters which – well, more about those soon.)

Image of gas canisters; installation by Rabon Aibo upcoming in 2023.

Even that in-between space has wall-to-wall content. The exhibition afterparties alone feature folks like Ireen Amnes (as covered here recently) and Nadia Struiwigh, Anthony Linell and Struktur and Fadi Mohem and other luminaries of Tresor and Globus. Our friend Robin Fox is here for more immersive laser work; Klein is performing as well as exhibiting. There are even workshop sessions. Ableton Loop is there in some form. Mor Elian will give you feedback on your work (via Sennheiser). Orchestral Tools is hosting Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten and hackedepicciotto fame for a workshop.

Let’s talk about some other particular highlights – like, pencil dropping a few things, A-Z, leaving out a lot because I’m human ad this will crash your brain otherwise:

BA23 Full Flyer
  • Abo Ssan with visualist Sevi Iko Dømochevsky and some new AV thing
  • Alessandro Cortini with a new AV show made with Marco Ciceri – following up on what he was doing with Make Noise and Strega
  • Ana Vaz has a film piece exploring the Brasilia Zoo
  • Black Rave Culture is bringing the DC-Berlin connection (see, not only Detroit!)
  • Blackhaine with some sort of “site-specific” rap show (dunno, will be curious to find out!)
  • Caterina Barbieri teaming up with Space Afrika for something totally new
  • CORIN with a new A/V of her album Lux Aeterna
  • Elvin Brandhi and KMRU are an exciting new collaboration – mixing two of the more unique sound artists on the scene at the moment
  • – or think Flore b2b Peder Mannerfelt for more dancefloor innovations
  • Laurel Halo has some new work, and never disappoints
  • Loraine James has a brand-new premiere of new work in advance of a coming Hyperdub release (Gentle Confrontation)
  • Mala, the UK giant, is part of the closing
  • Maria Horn continues to explore audiovisual perception and overload (well, we’ll definitely have some overload)
  • Margaux Gazur is doing something new with the sounds of martial arts
  • Marta De Pascalis premieres Sky Flesh, which is somehow putting us in touch with the cosmos
  • Maya Shenfeld and Pedro Maia have a new AV work taking us into the marble quarries of southern Portugal
  • Nastya Vogan is here as a representative of Odesa and Kyiv and has been a nonstop musical dancefloor voice – won’t miss this one
  • Rhyw, that dazzling producer, has a live show that while not a world premiere is new here in Germany
  • Shackleton is meeting up with Waclaw Zimpel the “avant-golk” artist and then bringing one of the top vocal talents of Indian Carnatic music, Siddhartha Belmannu, so there’s that
  • Shapednoise is talking about the experience of listening – including responding to his own hearing loss. And you get a combo with “guest spots from NY rap duo Armand Hammer, techno-rap trailblazer French producer Brodinski, David Lynch-collaborator Dean Hurley, vanguard Philly poet, musician, and activist Moor Mother, and Bruiser Brigade’s ZelooperZ” – plus visuals from Sevi Iko Dømochevsky. That’s enough artists in one act as some entire festivals can boast.
  • The ear-ripping, brain-melting DJ ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U from Osaka is joining in.
  • And of course, dive down to Ohm for the wonderful Ziúr.
Silhouetted figures in the crowd; yellow light. 2018 edition. Photo: Frankie Casillo.
Robin Fox's laser installation - a big spray of rainbow-colored beams over the crowd. Photo by Lachie Douglas.

From top: Atonal 2018, by Frankie Casillo; Robin Fox TRIPTYCH, by Lachie Douglas.

That’s enough artists in one act as some entire festivals can boast.

I’m especially clearing my schedule for NTI-MA, “Threshold of Awakening” by Nkisi, as I think this piece will be stunning and the message is essential. Let me paste that whole artist statement:

NTI-MA is a multi dimensional and sensorial experimentation in dance, movement, sound, music, sculpture and storytelling blurring and blending the boundaries between music, theatre, and visual art. The project emerges as an exploration of the dynamics between noise as a non-representational aspect of nature, the immaterial legacies embedded in music, the shifting hierarchies of the senses, spaces for non-human intersubjectivity and the use of symbolism as vessels that the invisible can occupy. Music and dance are used as codified science, decoding and recoding ancestral musical traditions and spiritual technologies for a contemporary music experience. While tuning into the living archives of various interconnected indigenous spiritualities and cosmic nature through synesthesia and elements of ritual and ceremony. Most mystical traditions emphasise the importance of connecting with the invisible realms in order to heal and transform oneself and society through communal participation and the blurring of boundaries between performer and audience. The Ancient Kongo traditions are characterised by a belief in the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of community and collective well-being, these have been important notions in the development of contemporary Pan-Africanism (Ubuntu, Kimuntu). The Kongo word NTI refers to the sacred palm tree, and Ma refers to the gift of the feminine, NTI-MA representing the heart chakra, the torus vortex where we connect to others, visible and invisible through the rhythms of our heartbeats. NTI-MA musically challenges the dominant Western notion of music as a form of representation bringing the focus instead on the ways in which music shapes and affects our experiences. This perspective opens up new possibilities for thinking about music and its role in society and offers a way to explore the decolonization of musical composition. As music can be used to reinforce dominant power structures, this is particularly powerful in contexts where indigenous musical traditions have been demonised, suppressed or erased.

Or there’s the wonderful Venus Ex Machina, with this vital project – also clearing my schedule for this:

For her Berlin Atonal debut, Venus Ex Machina delves into terra incognita; presenting a new live performance titled ‘Lemurian Tones’. Inspired by Lemuria – a sunken landmass beneath the Indian Ocean, of which there is no surviving recorded history. Wielding the combination of voice, protopian electronics and digital drum rhythms, Venus Ex Machina’s quest to decipher the mysterious radio signal emanating from these elusive depths is the crux of this performance. Conceived and developed while in residence at HQI in London, Venus Ex Machina probes the spatial fantasy of Lemuria, dismantling time and summoning ghosts to haunt the future.

Here’s that full exhibition program, and – Berlin folks, if you can’t get into the weekend, check this, as it’s looking just as epic:

Rabon Aibo presents Hidden ‘Resonance X Kraftwerk’ is a sound installation from using industrial gas cylinders that have been transformed into sound-generating machines; Ain Bailey presents Trioesque, an evocative musical composition that transports listeners on a captivating sonic journey that acts as a homage to jazz trios; Laxlan Petras and Yasmin Saleh present a roaming opera merging fricative dialogues through proximities in the space; Mire Lee will create an evolving hanging fabric installation, where worn-out, torn, and ripped fabrics are dipped in viscous liquid clay will morph over time; Legendary Theatre and Opera director Romeo Castallucci’s video installation The Third Reich is shown in Germany for the first time. With sound accompanying the installation by Scott Gibbons; Marco Fusinato will present an adaptation of his highly acclaimed work, DESASTRES, for the Australian pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale; Nastya Livadnova will present her musical performative show titled ‘i come as one and i stand as 1o ooo paradoxes’, featuring 300 metres of paper flying in the air during the performance.

Each night of the exhibition leads to a concert-based end point after the final showing of Castalucci’s ‘The Third Reich’. Tuesday 12th Robin Fox presents his poly-sensory laser work Triptych, Wednesday 13th hosts a performance by transdisciplinary UK artist KLEIN and Thursday 14th in a multiple instrumental performance orchestrated by Billy Bultheel entitled The Thief’s Journal.

Thursday through the 17th of September is likely to be a blur – a wonderful blur.

Photo at top: Frankie Casillo, 2019. All images courtesy Berlin Atonal.

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