Total Freedom’s Anthem

Jacolby Satterwhite’s cover artwork for Jacolby Satterwhite, Patricia Satterwhite, and Nick Weiss’s Anthem: Patricia (Vinyl Factory, 2016).

THIS SUMMER, the comedian Conan O’Brien was spotted outside the cult Berlin nightclub Berghain with a camera crew. Located at an abandoned power plant, Berghain is a legendary bastion of secrecy and freewheeling bacchanalia—no pictures allowed—and DJ the Black Madonna chastised O’Brien for his impropriety: “I don’t need to know what he’s joking about to know that he’s taking millions of people into a space that is private for a good reason.” Just weeks before, Wolfgang Tillmans’s techno track “Device Control” had appeared on Frank Ocean’s surprise album Endless, and apparently he and Ocean visited Berghain some time prior. Tillmans’s photographs of revelers at the club represent some of the very little official documentation of activities there to date.

During all this, the Ninth Berlin Biennale, curated by the collective DIS, was in its closing weeks. Pummeled by some critics as a vapidly cynical display of post-Twitter life under the regime of late late capitalism (and to others more politically complicated and critical than it appeared), it, too, engaged with the nightlife scene through its official sound track, Anthem. Clubbing seemed to be on everyone’s mind.

The compilation of mostly electronic music, executive-produced by Total Freedom (Ashland Mines), appeared at a moment when the valorization of DJs and mainstream interest in German nightclubs haunted newspapers and daytime television alike. Total Freedom was tasked with fostering unlikely artistic and musical collaborations in order to provide what DIS called a “multi-tonal counterpoint to the often hermetic modes of visual production” that pervade the biennial on the ground. Could a sound track charged with such a thematic thrust be any good?

Surprisingly, yes. Total Freedom is the perfect choice to helm the project: His DJ style has been described as a form of curation itself, and he’s moved fluidly between nightclubs and gallery spaces for years. In Anthem, the listener is given a thoughtful realization of the biennial’s mission of “The Present in Drag”: a sonic space that is entertaining and grounded, probing and ironic, one that, through its seven collaborations, touches on the contradiction between electronic music’s recent global popularity and its history and continuing relevance as a form that has always harbored seditions and personal forms of production.

Take, for example, the work of artist Jacolby Satterwhite; his mother, Patricia; and Nick Weiss (one half of the band Teengirl Fantasy), whose tracks channel the archival sensibility found elsewhere in Satterwhite’s performative art but are also crafted with the dance floor in mind. Their songs are temporally disjointed; made as a collage of old recordings of Patricia’s a cappella singing and Jacolby and Weiss’s futuristic beats, they create the impression of a voice floating like an apparition against a slinking thump. Other instances, such as “Final Exam”/“Reference Track” by Elysia Crampton, Kelela, and Adrian Piper, are vertiginous and powerfully liturgical, counting as some of the most gorgeously weird songs the musicians involved have ever made.

Total Freedom’s seventeen-minute-long “Fuck Them All,” with the artist Isa Genzken, concretizes the compilation’s decoupaging attitude in its artful combination of ambient static and swirling club noise. Syrian rapper Abu Hajar, artist Halil Altındere, and producing duo Nguzunguzu’s “Homeland” is a forceful critique of the ongoing global refugee crisis. (It accompanied Altındere’s video in the biennial that showed, among other scenes, a beach yoga class with Syrian refugees in the background.) Amalia Ulman and Carles Santos’s four-part “The Proposal” textures the other tracks nicely thanks to the combination of Ulman’s joking narrative on artistic production and Santos’s taut piano composition. Other moments fall flat: Fatima Al Qadiri, Hito Steyerl, and Juliana Huxtable’s track “Nothing Forever” is murky, failing to employ Steyerl’s and Huxtable’s senses of humor or Al Qadiri’s powerful, eclectic sonic palette.

Anthem, while not completely successful, demonstrates a fluidity of collaboration and malleability of purpose that the biennial’s actual art might’ve been too static to render: You can carry this sound track with you wherever you go. (Each collaboration is also available as a separate release from the Vinyl Factory.)

A genre of music and a culture of partying has never been so virally present in art, politics, and celebrity, thanks to the oversaturation of digital experience powered by sequencers and software. This year alone has seen a Netflix-sponsored EDM bildungsroman, an Edward Snowden techno track with Jean-Michel Jarre (delivering a screed on digital privacy over saccharine synths), and Claire Danes declaring her love for German clubs on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Perhaps when the art critic Walter Pater wrote that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (in terms of the symmetry of form, content, and message) in 1877, he was dreaming of our current pop-culture moment, in which electronics is the vessel for all of our messages. Amid the warbling bass and serotonin spikes, Anthem’s best accomplishment is its simple invitation to dance at your leisure.

Kevin Lozano is a music critic and culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

Read Hannah Black’s review of the 9th Berlin Biennale (September 2016).