Various venues, Berlin
26 January - 4 February

Critical Mass: Pure Imminence is an artwork by Anne de Vries which simulates the epic intensity of large scale dance music events – the ones so geared toward mass euphoria they’re unintentionally hilarious. The video depicts arenas plucked straight from the Tomorrowland school of design, as dancers form ant-like dots in the vast space. Strobes pulse and descend. Buzzwords like ‘ecstasy’ and ‘imminence’ are delivered with movie-trailer vigour, punctuating an EDM-style soundtrack which builds and builds, driving up adrenaline levels like a rollercoaster that never drops.

Playing as part of the exhibition at CTM 2018, at first glance the artwork sits in stark contrast to the long-running Berlin festival. CTM typically celebrates the dark corners of experimental music and art, as fiercely experimental acts join darlings of the electronic music underground for events spread across the city’s industrial club spaces. This year’s theme, Turmoil, is far flung from the flashy escapism promoted by so many large-scale music events. Alongside Pure Imminence, this year’s CTM exhibition favoured anxiety-inducing digital art which explored themes of artificial intelligence, claustrophobia and posthumanism: one space, full of suspended construction tools, resembled a fallout shelter gone wrong.

Tuesday night at CTM crystallised this vision with a line-up comprised of artists seeking to confound preconceived perceptions of rhythm and tone. One of these was London-based musician Klein. Arrive at Berghain on any given weekend and you’re usually welcomed by the relentless familiarity of a thrumming kickdrum. Tonight was different. Klein’s performance followed no traditional narrative – long unbroken loops of dissonant, disemboweled and disembodied RnB either floated or pummelled their way around the room while her voice flitted from back to foreground and back again. The whole thing stank of a confused and melancholic kind of euphoria, which if you’ve ever spent a double-digit amount of time on Berghain’s dancefloor is a feeling you’ll know well.

Housed in a nondescript part of the enormous Funkhaus complex that sits over the river in a nondescript part of eastern Berlin, MONOM’s 4DSOUND system also makes it difficult to get your bearings. With the sound seemingly coming from everywhere and FIS tucked away in a corner of the darkened room, the event deviated from the traditional performer/audience dynamic. As the first sounds began to emerge from beneath, the crowd collectively decided on facing towards the centre of the room, towards a focal point that didn’t exist. It’s an incredibly visual experience – shutting your eyes makes you feel as if you can almost see the sound as it rockets from under your feet and into the ceiling, while the star-gazing optimism from FIS’ closing synth lines did little to bring us back to Earth.

Another showstopper this year was at the Kraftwerk, where light artist Christopher Bauder teamed up with Kangding Ray to create a futuristic light installation. Entitled Skalar, it saw an array of LED-ringed circular mirrors refract light beams across the space as they move vertically in synchronised, tightly choreographed motion. Seen from the ground floor, it gives the uncanny impression of flying saucers approaching, bringing colour and playfulness to a world of dank and hardened techno.

As well as suggesting that the experimental world would benefit from lightening up, a few acts promoted the collective spirit often summoned in response to turmoil. Rashaad Newsome’s performance art piece FIVE saw five dancers deconstruct the building blocks of vogue. First one by one and then as a team, they spun and flexed impossibly gracefully to the backing of a seven-piece jazz band, which included an operatic singer and an MC. The result was a joyous display of defiance – both jazz and vogue thrived as an outlet for marginalised communities, and the piece was deeply cathartic.

Indeed, CTM’s most striking performances were defined by a celebration of the human spirit. The most significant example was the Holly Herndon Ensemble. Herndon has long used music as an outlet to pull apart our relationship with machines, so it’s interesting that she now chooses to amplify human voices as opposed to computers which simulate them. A collective of vocalists joined Herndon and Mat Dryhurst on stage. Led by Colin Self, they reproduced the heavily processed, synthetic-sounding choral elements in Herndon’s work, switching between this and more traditional harmonies. Dressed in muted colours, and with Herndon nailing a future cult leader look, they buzzed with enthusiasm, singing gleefully at each other and often embracing post-song.

At one point during the performance, a woman who is heavily pregnant draped herself on a platform at side of stage, a spotlight illuminating her bare bump. She disappears but returns for the encore, where all performers dance wildly around the stage to Herndon’s track Fade, conjuring something close to a rave scene that could have appeared in the 90s movie Hackers. It felt like a pointed rebuke to experimental music’s pale, male and stale image, and it certainly made you feel something. Like much of the performance, it captured a blissful energy – showing that the avant-garde doesn’t have to be stripped of light and joy.

Words: Anna Tehabsim + Graeme Bateman