Berlin Atonal: ‘Somewhere Between Dr Strangelove and a Hair-Metal Gig’

‘Metabolic Rift’, 2021. Courtesy Berlin Atonal; photo: Frankie Casillo

At Kraftwerk, Berlin, Metabolic Rift offers a ‘ghost train’ through the vast, unrefurbished former East German power station

The annual festival Berlin Atonal – which focuses on interdisciplinary art practices with an emphasis on sound – was established in 1982, though it took a 23-year disco nap after 1990 while founder Dimitri Hegemann focused on running legendary techno club Tresor. The latter’s main home, and that of Berlin Atonal since it rebooted eight years ago, has been the Kraftwerk, the vast, unrefurbished former East German power station in the city centre. Since early 2020, for obvious reasons, Tresor has been sleeping again. But for an event involving rather fewer bodies, the Kraftwerk recently reopened for Berlin Atonal, which this year involves not only a month of performances but also an ‘art parcours’ (the organisers’ phrase – they also use the description ‘ghost train’) that uses the work of 28 artists to lead audiences through the whole building. Considering myself as fond of dramatic postindustrial aesthetics spackled with clanks, rumbles, clicks and bursts of light as the next subscriber to The Wire, I signed up.

Daniel Lie, Non-negotiable Condition, 2021. Courtesy the artist; commissioned by Berlin Atonal; photograph: Hans Krestel

The first phase of the show – through which one is hustled in groups, doorways glowing yellow when it’s time to move on – constitutes a sequence of installations in variously scaled concrete chambers. These spaces, barely lit and corridorlike, offer a gnomic hors d’oeuvre: videos on monitors depicting immobile figures, a little melting ice block and a parade of welded-together industrial sculptures, all zipping by without there being time to find one of the hard-to-see, unlit information plaques. This, in turn, gives way to computer-art pioneer Lillian Schwartz’s fast-paced video collage of drawings of faces, made in her nineties, when she was half-paralysed and near blind, set to battering breakbeats by Chinese producer Hyph11E. Yet the opening section’s inarguable affective highlight is Cyprien Gaillard and American electronic musician Hieroglyphic Being’s Visitant (No Dancing) (2020–21). Here we enter a huge vaulted space where fluttering techno plays through the Killasan, a legendary Japanese-made sound system central to Berlin nightlife. Dancing to it, meanwhile, is nobody except an enormous greyish wind-dancer figure, which gradually inflates and then undulates unpredictably, at once triumphant and tragicomic. While unabashedly on-the-nose as an evocation of clubbing’s current state, it’s a spectacular use of the space.

Cyprien Gaillard & Hieroglyphic Being, Visitant (no dancing 2020-2021), 2021. Courtesy Cyprien Gaillard; Jamal Moss aka Hieroglyphic Being; KILLASAN Soundsystem and Berlin Atonal; commissioned by Berlin Atonal

In evoking bodies and apartness, this work is also smartly sequenced as a precursor to Tino Sehgal’s seemingly untitled, transitory contribution. Leaving the chamber, you arrive at the base of a tall stairwell, a woman performer one flight above you cooing in a vaguely seductive, faintly spooky manner. As you ascend, she does too – craning your neck, you see a delicate trailing hand on the banister. A half-dozen levels later, perhaps wishing you’d brought your asthma inhaler, you find her at the top doing a brief, elliptical performance that combines more wordless singing with abstract mouth noises – pops and clicks – and slowly opening a door. And then, ferried not across but up the Lethe, you’re out of the ‘parcours’ bit and into a free-for-all. The viewer is now high up in the building, atop a stack of open-plan expanses, turbine halls stripped of turbines. These, which you steadily navigate and descend through at your own pace, are infused with dry ice and dotted with artworks – videos, sculptures, spotlit 2D pieces on temporary freestanding walls – illuminated oases in the gloom. Congolese sculptor Rigobert Nimi’s Explorer 5 (2021) is a cityscapelike kinetic sculpture, nested with little figures in capsules and festooned with multicoloured lights like a giant toy; its futuristic and playful aspects appear to serve as speculative urban planning for the artist’s home city of Kinshasa. In an annex, Adameyko Lab – which researches the mechanistic qualities of live organisms – and Finnish musician Sasu Ripatti, aka Vladislav Delay among other aliases, offer a seemingly untitled octet of videos projected down onto circular glass screens, paired with chuntering minimal electronica intended, it seems, to complement the morphing microspecies on film. A suite of early-1970s drawings by Liliane Lijn, meanwhile, presents blueprints for fantastical architectural constructions – cones, towers – that were never built.

Cezary Poniatowski, Compost II, 2021, resin, styrofoam, soil, towel, compost bins, lightbulbs, smoke, projection. Courtesy the artist; photograph: Hans Krestel

In one sense, then, the show is rich in hopeful evocations of organic and inorganic growth, setting them against the modernist ruin-porn of the cavernous building – itself a model of new usage – which is not only the backdrop for the show but gets little focused showcases here and there. One of the control rooms, full of vintage knobs and buttons, is suffused with changeable coloured light and, again, dry ice, the effect falling somewhere between Dr Strangelove and a hair-metal gig. Unpredictable growth, hopes for the future: these constitute the bassline of Metabolic Rift,whose very title suggests a momentary and not necessarily disabling fissure in a system.In other respects, the show either requires a tolerance for feeling lost, for the show as gesamtkunstwerk, or an inconsistent concern for authorship, titles, etc. The website lists a half-dozen artists (and described works) that I never find; nor is it apparent who made the Ballardian installation of crashed cars with sound systems in their boots, or that thing resembling something out of Alien if Ridley Scott’s budget mostly just ran to plastic laundry baskets lit from within. Perhaps appropriately, then, one must repeatedly take Metabolic Rift as a kind of abstract analogue of a club experience. Unless you’re a total nerd, you don’t try and discover the name of every track that moves you. You just dance in the dark.

Berlin Atonal: Metabolic Rift, Kraftwerk, Berlin, 25 September – 30 October

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