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Berlin 2019: Music, Tech and Live Audio Visual

Part one of Vicky Clarke’s Berlin adventures with the Artists' International Development Fund

Driving down Prenzlauer Allee into Berlin Zentrum in the dark January winter, I felt the inexorable pull of the night city. Exhaustion was creeping in after the long autobahn drive from Manchester with a boot full of studio equipment. Sleep was beckoning, but as my old friend the Fernsehturm came into view, one glimpse and I was revitalised…time to plug in to the electropolis.

I’m here on an artists’ international development trip – funded by Arts Council England and British Council – to collaborate with my host partner Hugo Esquinca from OQKO collective, and research the live audio-visual, music technology and art-science scenes. As a sound artist working with DIY technologies and audio visual performance, I have always looked to the city as a beacon for advances in transmedia projects, live collaborations and new thinking. I wanted to get lost in the Kiez for a bit and get to know the cultures and people around these electronic scenes.

CTM Festival: Persistence 20 Yrs

First stop CTM ‘Festival for Adventurous Music and Art’; 10 days of performance, talks and exhibitions across multiple venues in the city. This year is the 20th edition with the theme of Persistence. For me CTM is the ultimate urban festival, championing the experimental, the underground in audio-visual art and exploring new ideas and technological horizons within the current state of music culture.  Kunsthaus Bethanien is the festival hub and home to the daytime talks series. The programme includes research networking for scholars and students and the discourse series takes the temperature of current topical perspectives within music linking to politics and society. Highlights for me were Pedro Oliveira’s fascinating talk discussing the growing industry around ‘Borders and biometric technologies’, Matt Dryhurst looked to the future of music consumption, interrogating algorithmic populism, playlists and platforms as a threat to independent music in his talk ‘Duty, despair and decentralisation’, and Anja Schwanhäuser’s poetic talk ‘Persistence in Berlin’s subcultural scenes’ conjured up a past Berlin, “a landscape has disappeared but in many people’s imagination this world still does exist.

With brain cells duly fed, it was time to lose a few and jump into the night time live programme.  Navigating the city, there’s a CTM tribal attitude, clocking fellow tote bag wearing festival goers on the U-bahn or braving the snowy misty streets, very much living up to the adage… ‘everyone wears black in Berlin’. From the cavernous depths of Berghain to the art nouveau splendour of Hebbel am Ufer, the venues are as much a part of the festival experience as the acts themselves. Stand out shows for me were the warped tones and live harp of Eartheater spiralling round Halle am Berghain, a visceral noise performance from Maria W Horn at Hau2 and an outer body experience at MONOM ( ‘the world’s most advanced spatial sound instrument’) the 4D soundspace – feeling sound move architecturally through the body.

I met up with Jan Rohlf, CTM Director to talk about the festival’s evolution from ‘Club Transmediale’ – the after event for Transmediale – to highlight in the city’s cultural calendar. Our conversation covered spaces in the city, Berlin planning policy and citizen protests. The festival’s theme of Persistence being testament to the ability to adapt and a will to persist in championing the underground, subcultural, supporting diversity and difference, and ‘embracing fluidity, uncertainty and flux’ in increasingly polarised times. I discussed my experience as a participant of the Music Makers Hacklab for the ‘Fear Anger Love’ edition two years back, and how the MMHL closing event had been a highlight for me this year. The project led by Create Digital Music’s Peter Kirn brings together 20 artists around a theme to create a new DIY performance in one week at HAU2. This year was guest hosted by Indonesia’s Nuasonic collective. Audiences interacted in a networked phone performance and witnessed Oliva Jacks stunning visual live coding framework Hydra in action. For me it epitomises what CTM is about, the coming together of people, communities and ideas through music technology. Jan concurred that although CTM it is known for its live acts, for him the festival is as much about the sparking of ideas, new collaborations and starting communities through shared experience of music cultures.

Artistic collaboration

I worked with Hugo Esquinca aka DEKJ from OQKO collective developing a new live performance combining my work with materials, sculpture and DIY electronics with Hugo’s algorithmic and textural signal processing systems within the Pure Data environment. I first met Hugo a couple of years back on a public sound art summer school at Universität der Kunst, and we have followed each other’s art practice ever since. The live set was part of ‘Presence at a distance’, a radio art festival at Sounds About Gallery – a new space in west Berlin opened by UdK Sonic Studies department for students and events. These small independent test spaces are the lifeblood of the DIY experimental community in Berlin.

We created a generative system focused around a hacked radio, which was hit by a CV-powered solenoid controlled by a pure data patch and expert sleepers module. This beat was amplified via contact mic and fed back into noise electronics and combined with the sequenced sounds of my newly soldered Koma Elektroniks Field Kit. The result was a mechanical, beat and noise based unfolding atmosphere focused around the objects, with ourselves as performers interacting at intervals with the materials – fenster shaking!

Music Tech Communities: Koma Elektronik / DADA Machines / Schneidersladen

A mainstay of my trip was hanging out at KOMA Elektroniks. Famous for kickstarter sensation the ‘Field Kit: electroacoustic workstation’. The team are based at Common Ground in Neukolln, their shop and DIY community space. Here you can peruse synths, hire a desk to build your own electronics projects and have a beer. They also have a new and superb public programme of workshops including such topics as  introduction to video synthesis and machine learning for sound art. I was invited to lead a DIY Light Theremin session which ended up in a noise jam in the shop window! Evelyn Saylor who runs these programmes is creating a fantastic community here around accessible music technology sessions from both Berlin based and visiting international tutors such as electronics legend and author of ‘Handmade electronic music’ Nic Collins.

I’m interested in these models of small scale music tech start ups. Often the people starting these companies are artists and technologists themselves who care passionately about music, knowledge sharing and open source (Koma make their synth schematics available online). This emphasis on community is their strength and success, having a genuine passion and obsession with music tech and of course this also ultimately helps to sell your products. Another example of this is Kreuzberg based Dada Machines who create wonderful digital – mechanical interfaces such as the Automat to strike, play and syncopate physical objects. I attended the DADAMACHINES Stammtisch, a new meetup organised by founder Johannes Lohbihler described as a ‘casual get together to talk about ideas, music technology related’. Here I learned about plans for their just-launched open platform for music hardware, ‘Doppler’, and collaboration with Playtronica. Playtronica founder Sasha Pas told me the two companies were exploring educational potentials through collaboration and integration of their technologies. For me this partnership exemplifies what I love about the music technology cultural community; the ethos of DIY, openness, collaboration and knowledge-sharing rather than traditional competitive tech narratives of the must have, the latest and fetishisation of the new. It’s an ethos we embrace in Manchester with our Noise Orchestra project. Another key player is Schneidersladen at Kottbusser Tor, more than a synth shop with workshops and weekly performances that illustrate an open and experimental community spirit most  evident in their annual Superbooth festival in May. This place is an electronic synth palace where you get to play all the exhibits.

Live audiovisual events

I met with Michael Rosen founder of independent cultural agency Digital in Berlin, a go-to online guide for music and cultural activity in Berlin with features and recommendations. Michael is curator of Kiezsalon an event series that takes place at MusikBrauerei, the former 120 yr old Schneider Brewery in Prenzlauer Berg. I attended the first event of 2019 with Kelly Moran and People Like Us, Michael is interested in playing with the form of the usual tropes of the live electronic music experience, exploring a salon approach and atmosphere to experiencing live music with a more social dimension. LETRA/TONE festival was another interesting concept for audio-visual programming; combining a graphic design exhibition and live music series where commissioned artists including Demdike Stare and JASSS performed live responses to graphical scores at RadialSystem on the banks of the Spree. As well as these larger events, some of my favourite gigs were at smaller neighbourhood venues such as Arkaoda, ACUD and an amazing venue called ‘West Germany’ within a housing estate at Kottbusser Tor, this space appeared to be a series of knocked through flats with cables hanging from the ceiling.

Women / Electronic music

March the 8th, Independent Women’s Day is a public holiday in Germany, this year Berlin launched their ‘Frauenticket’, a 21% cheaper ticket for women highlighting the gender pay gap. Female Pressure, the Berlin based international network promoting female electronic and digital artists, celebrated in the most appropriate way with a Sunday rave, ‘Rituals’ at Suicide Circus, Friedrichshain. In Manchester I’m part of Brighter Sound’s BOTH SIDES NOW initiative, so I was keen to see what was happening in this field. The Amplify Series at ACUD hosts month long residencies for two emerging female electronic musicians who are mentored by more established artists. The outcome is a live event where both mentees and mentors perform on the same bill. I attended a couple of these events and felt this was a great model for creative artistic development. Something to look out for later in the year is the second conference and festival from the wonderful group behind DICE, I spent a lovely evening chatting to the producers, musicians and techies at their meetup.

Getting lost

I’ve been refreshed by the spirit of experimentation and artistic collaboration I encountered in Berlin. The access to smaller spaces for testing out ideas, the evening meetup culture of learning ‘stuff’, and the sheer amount of music and AV events provided me with massive amounts of inspiration artistically. Whilst there I made a heap of new music refining my sound aesthetic and undertook sound walks and exercises in getting lost day and night working with these field recordings within new performance systems.  I also learned new skills in Pure Data, machine learning and became obsessed with recording german radio station news broadcasts which in early 2019 were all about UK politics – making drones out of our island’s political meltdown witnessed from abroad.

Berlin has a layered and evolving infrastructure of local and international artists, tech startups, students, and this pace of change and cross pollination provides a dynamism (in a laid back Berlin style of course) for these scenes to flourish. Also evident are local political tensions via rising rent prices or ‘wahnsinn mieten’. I witnessed marches and initiatives to save the Kiez from airbnb and silicon valley-fication and increase local collectivisation of neighbourhoods. Berlin is testing approaches in an attempt to not become the next London or New York, let’s hope Berlin as a place of radical culture and ideas can do this.

In part 2 of my blog I share my experiences of the art and science scene through artificial intelligence and algae. I’ll leave you with some sounds and signals of the electropolis.

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