Nacht Fever

Geoffrey Mak on CTM and transmediale

John Longwalker & Geert Lovink of We Are Not Sick performing Sad by Design at transmediale. Photo: Adam Berry.

“I'M NOT FUCKING WITH THIS,” declared Lafawndah, as she rushed backstage, upstairs at Griessmuehle after an hour-long sound check before her Saturday-night performance at Berlin’s CTM Festival. “I want to go back to the hotel,” she told one of the managers trailing behind her. There wasn’t enough time. I had been sitting with the night’s other performers in the backstage lounge when one of the festival organizers came in and announced that everyone had to leave: Lafawndah needed the room to herself, “for her voice.”

Banished downstairs, we watched an opening DJ warm up the floor. “I kind of want our backstage back,” one of the performers said. Fifteen minutes late, Lafawndah finally appeared, singing in a tight leather dress, her back to the audience. She knew how to dramatically snap her head away from the mic whenever taking a breath, flashing her cheekbones to a whistling audience. She started headbanging, her thick blonde braids tracing figure eights in the air. I was transfixed by her insistence on being a diva at an experimental electronic music festival. (As a Berliner once told me, live acts during club nights were code for “smoke break.”) On Friday, I had attended live-act singer Dis Fig’s birthday party, which functioned as the de facto pregame for CTM, opening that night. Upon entering, I ran into the DJ False Witness. “Why do you have to make everything so sexual?” he was yelling at her, while she sat on the wooden floor of her Neukölln apartment, laughing. When she found me later, standing in the hallway, she kissed me right on the lips.

Lafawndah performing at CTM 2020. Photo: Irma FS/CTM 2020.

On Tuesday, I arrived at her set at Berghain wearing the Givenchy door-knocker septum ring I only don when trying to look like an important groupie. Once Dis Fig emerged, she proceeded to make everything sexual: gagging and moaning into the mic, touching and grabbing people as she descended into the crowd midway through the performance. Everyone she touched started moshing immediately, like the lame healed by Christ. After the show, she came out from backstage in a bespoke peach slip. “I was working so hard,” she said to her cadre of important groupies, holding a cocktail and cigarette in one hand. Changing lives.

A couple nights later, I found myself in a group of six trailing behind singer Lyra Pramuk outside Berghain. It was an hour before her performance, and she was looking for a place to stage a photoshoot. The florist hired for the night found a spot on a concrete bench, which he decorated with a bouquet of white, blue, and yellow flowers. “How’s the angle?” Lyra asked, posing as someone limned her profile with an iPhone flashlight. “We want one wide like Juergen Teller with the dress, and then we can do a closer face portrait with the flowers.”

Lyra Pramuk. Photo: Geoffrey Mak.

Onstage, Lyra’s cerulean eye makeup matched her chic Marine Serre dress. When her vocals rose, she’d lift her palms dramatically into the air for effect, while discreetly motioning the sound guys to adjust the levels. (“I’m a perfectionist,” she declared an hour earlier, during sound check.) At the bar, I spoke with Donna Huanca, who shot the cover for Lyra’s LP. “We just put a plastic sheet over her head,” she laughed. After the performance, Lyra met us by the bar in her heels, carrying another bouquet, this one all white roses. Someone pointed out that her makeup was running. “It was really cunty,” she said of her eye shadow, “and then halfway through the set it starts to cry.” She looked up as we leaned in to examine the cry.

I stuck around for most of the night, though I was starting to feel the way I have after every party since turning thirty: like an old queen past her prime and struggling for relevance. But I remembered some wisdom another old queen once shared: “Don’t identify as a cool kid. Identify as an intellectual, and let the cool just be something that happens.”

Born in Flamez, Valentina Magaletti, Peaches, Lafawndah. Photo: Geoffrey Mak.

This is also the MO of transmediale, the six-day academic symposium and discussion series that serves as the official partner and theoretical superego of CTM. Saturday afternoon, I went to the Volksbuehne, where everyone there, like me, was looking for relevance. I arrived outside the main stage for a lecture-performance by We Are Not Sick, a duo made up of media theorist Geert Lovink and producer John Longwalker. On my way to the concession stand, I overheard Lovink talking about their upcoming album adapted from his book Sad by Design (2019). He joked about releasing band merch inspired by European nihilism: socks that read “Nothing Matters.”

Once the hall opened, I found a seat close to the stage, where the performance alternated between bursts of electronic music and Lovink reading aphorisms on how social media and neoliberalism, by design, are making us sad—an argument one can readily accept without reading the book, so why not just set it to a kick drum? I wondered if making electronic music about being sad at a theory conference was the equivalent of looking bored at a party. Lovink projected studied indifference, glancing down at his notes. As I sank into my seat, the slideshow went on through a range of memes, including a screenshot of Billie Eilish with black ink leaking from her eyes and mouth in her “When the Party’s Over” video. I was also sad that all the parties were over, but Billie was overdoing it. Except I wanted more: Billie as Gen-Z diva emoting so I didn’t have to. I don’t remember any quotes from the performance, but I remember Billie, emoting for all of humanity. I felt something like gratitude.