Words: Dan Cole and Josie Thaddeus-Johns
For 18 years, Berlin’s CTM festival has been championing adventurous music and art. The sprawling programme of installations, club nights and specially commissioned shows prides itself on bridging the gaps between wildly experimental, global scenes. Each year, the programme orbits around a title or theme, and 2016’s title ‘New Geographies’ summarised this approach, advocating a borderless approach on a continent where doors are closing in response to the refugee crisis.
The theme for this year’s festival seemed to capture something else within our current socio-political landscape: ‘Fear, Anger, Love’. Pushing for emotive responses within experimental contexts can be challenging. And often we fear what we don’t understand. Though, within the context of this year’s event, the main anxieties for attendees were whether or not they would get to see everything. Continuing to challenge a city with a high demand for boundary-pushing art will always be difficult, and ensuring that there’s heightened diversity and inclusivity across the programme is of increasing importance.
Across the nine days, the festival delivered on its promise to champion diversity. A number of performances spearheaded this approach, but perhaps most significant is its special collaborative project with NON Worldwide – the politically-charged, borderless collective who hold down a three-night residency titled The Great Disappointment. In collaboration with acclaimed choreographer Ligia Lewis, their residency explores radical forms of musical and physical expression.
The opening concert with Nora Turato and Tanya Tagaq explores similar themes. Turato strides out onto the stage in a tuxedo supported by two bloody red stalks on stilettos. And then she starts talking. A confrontational semi-rap, her phrases rush out in a slick mess, alternating between Holzeristic aphorisms and lifestyle-blogger platitudes. Her delivery is confrontational and weird, as she awkwardly and aggressively trespasses into the rows of audience seats in HAU1. Tanya Tagaq opens her show by telling the audience how depressed she is at the state of the world. Somehow, though, this only makes the performance stronger. Tagaq performs traditional Inuk throat-singing that she grew up with from her home in the Inuit community in Nunavut, Canada. Her band adds screeching and elemental electronics, strings and drums, all improvised directly for the occasion, but Tagaq’s voice is by far the most affecting instrument onstage. She appears to be directly connected to the power of the Earth, harnessing it into guttural flowing sounds. The sound of her wordless vocals is arresting.
Excitingly, the legendary Genesis Breyer P-Orridge performs a spoken-word piece that’s accompanied by Wolf Eyes’ Aaron Dilloway. The show is filled with occultist symbolism and sounds from beyond the realms of reason (and reality). Later that night, and we’re drawn to the powerhouse of RnB and bass music at YAAM. It’s a night where women rule, and leftfield Vancouver rapper Tommy Genesis steals the show. The Awful Records artist curses with fury, owning the stage and summoning respect from the ever-attentive crowd. Not to be outdone, the night also provides a stage to rising UK MC Nadia Rose, who’s followed up by Israeli dancehall artist Miss Red and the low-frequency, bass-oscillations of The Bug’s soundsystem.
The Bug’s collaboration with Earth’s Dylan Carlson was also hotly anticipated. Taking place on the last day of the festival, we arrive to catch the final, fleeting moments of Stara Rzeka’s opening set. His gentle, folky voice gives way to drawn out, single-note metal chugs wrapped in unwavering ambient detritus. It’s hard to say whether the sound comes from a guitar or something on his electronics-strewn table. Heartfelt applause was responded with heartfelt thanks, before a swift changeover sees Kevin Martin and Dylan Carson take their places. They each take and stretch out the composite parts of their chosen genres, melding them into a looping, droning whole as the roving spotlight behind them refuses to acknowledge the giant disco ball rotating silently against the darkened coving.
A brief saunter up Karl-Marx Straße finds us at SchwuZ, the venue for CTM 2017’s last dance. It’s a sprawling warehouse complex, that in tonight’s iteration features a vast main room and a drastically smaller, more compact, more industrial second space. The night’s theme centres around the vague and amorphous concept of deconstructed club music, with Negroma, Toxe, Ziúr and Marie Davidson all providing their own visceral, slamming interpretations across both rooms.
Undoubtedly, the highlight is MikeQ’s performance alongside the Berlin Voguing Out collective. The capacity of the main room swells in anticipation as he takes to the decks, delivering a concentrated volley of pummelling kicks and crashing Ha samples before the members of voguing collective stride across the stage. Within minutes the dancefloor has been split down the middle and a makeshift runway is created. As BVO co-founder Mic Oala works the mic, members of the collective work the floor alongside those plucked from the surrounding throng. It’s a transformative, inclusive and celebratory end to the festival, and an emotive reminder of the Love in this year’s CTM theme.