It is as much of a cliché to scoff at the uniformity of Berlin’s avant-garde techno nerds with their black sportswear and heavy goth shoes as it is to subscribe to this aesthetic. So upon entering Kraftwerk, the cavernous abandoned ex-power plant that is home to Berlin’s premiere experimental music festival Atonal, I tried not to let my intimidation at angular couples or gearheads craning for a peek at what was used onstage ostracise me from what was clearly designed to be an extremely immersive experience.
The festival originally started in 1982, and ran until adverse affects from the fall of the Berlin wall and founder Dimitri Hegemann’s shift in focus to open techno den Tresor brought it to its end in 1990. Revived in 2013 under new direction, Atonal is now in its fifth year, stretched between three closely clustered venues: OHM, Tresor/Globus, and Kraftwerk. The latter is a truly astounding venue, holding the majority of Atonal’s activities including a ground floor exhibition space, projection room, and a main and secondary stage. Bathed in distorted noise drifting from one of the occupied stages the entire space is scarcely lit. Save for a few piercing spotlights, fog obstructs your vision, visuals from apocalyptic to grotesque are projected sporadically among the three floors. Kraftwerk is foreboding, threatening at times, it feels like a very real fear if you lose your friends in the gaping industrial void you may actually never see them again. But this mesmeric sense of uneasiness that the space’s design inspires is also its appeal. The supreme surrealness, the hypnotic enveloping nature, makes you feel as if you are a part of something dangerous and exciting.
Being an event of such a size it is no surprise that Atonal had both moments of brilliance and missed opportunity. Pure audiovisual harmony was delivered by Manchester-based duo Demdike Stare and visual artist Michael England, here dark electronica was paired with an optic journey that took the audience from Japanese Butoh to smiling tourists cheesing it up at Niagara Falls. It was surreal, engaging, and beautiful. Downstairs in OHM MNML SSGS co-founder Chris SSG delivered one of my favourite moments of the festival, dropping a paired down cover of Prince’s When Doves Cry in the middle of his set. A move so cheeky and unexpected for an event that on the whole leans quite heavily to the deeply alternative, it had the whole audience grinning, and dancing as only a Prince song – no matter the form – can inspire. A sort of supergroup emerged as Shackleton joined forces with singer-songwriter Anika. This off-tempo trance-like collaboration had Anika waxing poetic on love in her own stoic way, while filmmaker Pedro Maia chopped and screwed the work of legendary Berlin artist Strawalde. The highlights from here go on and on, with beautiful performances delivered by LCC, Pan Daijing, and many more.
Perhaps the most surprising performance of this year’s Atonal came from the collaboration between producer Powell and renowned artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. To the chorus of Powell’s irreverent techno, Tillmans recited poetry presumably intended to be profound, thought-provoking, even a little tongue in cheek. His musings and all their performative drama ended up coming across as a sort of a fratty post-internet interpretation of Laurie Anderson’s Big Science. As Tillmans aggressively over annunciated half-hearted shock lyrics like “Eating your ass, feeding your mind, filthy as fuck” and “Salty my skin and so is your cum” between vague existential musings I began to wonder if the whole show was an elaborate rouse, an intentionally bland performance done to prove a greater point. More than anything it seemed dated, and especially out of place at an event dedicated to exploring new forms of musical experience. For many unfamiliar with the scene, I imagine when words such as new forms, experimental, and concepts like blurring the line between music and art come into the conversation, they might picture a parodic performance like that of Powell and Tillmans. I only wish they could see, as I did at this year’s edition of Atonal, the light at the end of the dark electronic tunnel.