PRINT March 2022



Cezary Poniatowski, Compost II, 2021, resin, Styrofoam, soil, towel, compost bins, lightbulbs, smoke, projection. Installation view, Kraftwerk, Berlin. Photo: Helge Mundt.

I ENTERED “METABOLIC RIFT,” an “(un)guided exhibition-tour” featuring twenty-plus site-specific installations, with ambivalence and curiosity. Presented in a former power plant known as the Kraftwerk, the show constituted the 2021 edition of the renowned music festival Berlin Atonal. Gathering—good old-fashioned physical proximity—is the heart of an event like Atonal. I was flooded with memories of past festivals, pre-pandemic: hours bleeding into days of demanding, heady experimental sound. I remember the heat of certain rooms in the basement and a metal cage around DJs thrashing to their emergent compositions. In the turbine hall, beneath massive curved ceiling speakers that looked like sonic weapons, fog and smoke spiraled, pierced by choreographed, syncopated, seizure-inducing light shows. There was the “productive confusion” of getting lost in a crowd of bleary-eyed people in thick silver-spike chains, black satin pants, black crop tops, and off-brand chunky white sneakers.

The crowd was a global network of artists, musicians, writers, and performers largely invested in critical explorations of technology and culture through sound. In any given year, you might see Rashad Becker milling around, or DJ Stingray, or Jeff Mills. There were the audiences lying down on the concrete in spectacular scenes of deepest listening, subsumed by rolling waves of bass drone that massaged them into total submission. Each year, I struggled to keep my head above it all, surfacing from the Tresor basement for air, stepping into the courtyard to navigate among frantic, probing conversations between music critics and their possible subjects, only to be hurtled inside again to see more legends deliver another assault.

Woven through this amplified social confusion was a sense of the festival’s orientation: toward tomorrow, toward the yet to come. In these rooms, sound was transmuted into a vague kind of politics through its makers’ critical mining of futurity, through theme and landscapes. Atonal has always been notably futurist in its aesthetic, its style. On the main floor, one year, was a many-story-high vertical rear-projected screen of looped emergent Martian landscapes. Entire sonic fields felt like anticipation. The future had a sound, a look, and a mood. Atonal artists typically do things like remix algorithmic media or use machine learning to make generative websites, or integrate VR-mediated puppets into live experimental dance. They were making work about crypto and blockchains years before most people had heard of either. Techno-utopianism has never been absent from the festival, but it has tended to showcase complex research-based projects that are as likely to meditate on collapsed utopias and foreclosed futures as they are to gaze hopefully toward new horizons.

Berlin’s experimental music and art scenes have been plagued by a reputation for an apolitical gloss, for edgy flirtation with provocation, for smug mockery of progressive leftist pieties. Seen in a less generous light, the festival could seem to epitomize this tendency, recouping a highly stylized future of algorithmic enclosure while failing to articulate a clear politics of solidarity across difference. What does a music festival so contingent on a spectacle of futurity (whether dystopian or utopian) have to offer in an unending present of political, social, and aesthetic crisis?

With this question lingering in the air, “Metabolic Rift” felt haunted, which was intentional: According to its press materials, the show was conceptualized as a two-hour “sequence of artwork-apparitions” that “borrow[ed] ‘the logic of a “ghost-train.” ” The curators, Harry Glass, Laurens von Oswald, Adriano Rosselli, and Max Negrelli, shrewdly played on visitors’ sense of loss and their nostalgia for gathering in space to listen to music in an uncomplicated way. Maybe those who attended wanted to again meditate on possible futures without feeling the shock of those speculations turning into harrowing realities—climate crisis, the surveillance state, violent inequality—inside the power plant.

Rigobert Nimi, Explorer 5, 2021, sheet steel, aluminum sheet, electrical material, plastic, recovered materials. Installation view, Kraftwerk, Berlin. Photo: Savannah van der Niet.

The viewer entered “Metabolic Rift” through the basement in company with other visitors who had signed up for the same time slot. A guide urged everybody to stick together and to move from room to room according to the rhythms of the light cues. The carefully timed and constructed experience made the site its subject, highlighting the venue’s titanic scale and the cavernous near-emptiness of a space that during previous festivals was crammed. Kraftwerk itself has undeniably been the catalyst and the frame for Atonal—performances of any kind are made epic by the setting and struggle to differentiate themselves from its drama. Experiencing “Metabolic Rift” felt like walking through either the engine room of an intergalactic cruise ship or the halls of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner. Physical spaciousness seemed to invite critical distance: There was room to step back and take note of how suggestive the architecture is, how much we have associated that look with a specific futurity: a cyberpunk-inflected dystopia whose aesthetics tended toward the postindustrial sublime. This future was really a fantasy, one that never had to be examined too closely, because it made no explicit claims. It articulated itself through fashion and ambience and vibes. There was nothing pressuring us to examine the fact that this dystopia was utopian, a backdrop for decadence and adventure. Arguably all visions of the future are stories about the present, but this was a particularly romantic story, and its romanticism was perhaps not harmless. That’s how it looks now, anyway.

“Phase 1” of the apparition sequence was organized as a gamified, slightly hokey evocation of an escape from a basement in a horror film. In our peripheral vision, entrances to pitch-dark rooms were barely visible in the glinting lights, prompting one’s imagination to run amok. Works by Giulia Cenci—torture devices, or so they appeared, hoisting animal bones—glimmered metallically. In a similar vein, Cezary Poniatowski’s astonishing sculptures seemed like armor for a Giger dungeon, their mutated biomorphic forms and human body parts swaddled with pleathery padding. I felt unsafe. I could not tell who was behind me or around me. Dread and panic rollicked in like aftershocks from years before—like the reanimated Jazz Age revels in The Shining, decadence and fun transmuted into something frightening by the passage of time.

The aural choreography shifted and swelled from room to room, fading as one approached an exit, the darkness closing behind. It mapped a psychogeographic space in which we could feel precisely how sound carves out an architecture in memory, which we return to. We were disassembled by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste’s loaded, resonant, clattering cast-iron composition and then recovered in rooms where the sound was of a dance party happening elsewhere. We heard the hushed call to “sweat, sweat” in Pan Daijing’s sound installation Seal, 2021, later to find ourselves on empty dance floors, the thought of other people’s sweat anathema. We climbed up eight floors to the former turbine room and ascended into Jamal Moss (aka Hieroglyphic Being) and Cyprien Gaillard’s masterwork Visitant (no dancing 2020–2021). I cried at the sight of Moss and Gaillard’s fly guy, a floating plastic dancer that seemed forty feet high, surging toward the zenith of the plant, collapsing, surging again, set to a dulled and distant rave-like symphony that seemed to animate the figure, give it purpose.

Here closed Phase 1. Phase 2 began when the tour guide told us we were now free to roam the building by ourselves. I descended to the main-floor gallery, where the festival’s central events used to unfold. Detroit-based artist Matthew Angelo Harrison offered his Dark Silhouettes, a wooden Dogon mask (from Mali) suspended in resin drilled through at intervals with aluminum screws. In the Kraftwerk, the work transported viewers to a future museum dedicated to the death throes of our current civilization. This eerie sense of being displaced in time recurred to exuberant effect in Kinshasa-based Rigobert Nimi’s model cities, astonishing futurist metropolises spinning and lighting up on a one-hour cycle.

Sung Tieu, Nerve Centre, 2021, four-channel sound, laser prints, moving-head lights, spotlights. Installation view, Kraftwerk, Berlin. Photo: Helge Mundt.

But for the most part the show evoked the melancholy of innovation gone awry, all that planning gone to waste, the foolhardy efforts to use technology to fix social problems that can only be addressed by more just ways of living. In the basement, the drawn figures in pioneering computer artist Lillian F. Schwartz’s video Ephemeral Age Eternal, 2021, greeted visitors with crazed eyes that cut through one. I associate Schwartz with the joy of women who early on used technology and software to create a gleeful aesthetic, rich with the possibility and potential of computational-creative hybridity. Schwartz’s increasingly wild images felt threatening here, an ominous warning. On the main floor, I was almost embarrassed by the immodest hope of Liliane Lijn’s old blueprints of future technological domains in which mechanical architectures induce states of profound meditation—spiral domes in the desert and spaceship-like carved stone towers. A few steps away, I walked between MFO and Lyra Pramuk’s destroyed cars with sound systems in their trunks, doors flung open. I couldn’t tell if the cars had crashed or been abandoned.

The mournfulness finally escalated into a sense of emergency, a bid to move, in the most impressive installation of the group, Nerve Centre by Sung Tieu, a Vietnamese-German artist recently short-listed for the Preis der Nationalgalerie. Tieu made a profound and terrifying installation in the Schaltzentrale, the plant’s former control center. Visible between intermediate flashes of red and blue light, embedded in the control panel walls, were prints of articles and headlines about Havana syndrome, the strange medical condition among American diplomats and other officials that has long been suspected to be caused by an acoustic weapon—perhaps joining a genealogy of sonic warfare that includes the US Army’s use of recordings to disorient Vietcong soldiers. I moved among the control panels to an unsettling score of apocalyptic warnings, like evacuation sirens, composed by Ville Haimala, setting every nerve on edge. Trying to sort stories about power from truths about power, I thankfully felt returned to a material point: that speculation (and aestheticization) about futures must be based on a serious understanding of the horrors of the past, which, because of engineering ingenuity, are now even easier to erase, and subject to ever more zealous suppression. In the wake of deafening technological spectacle, Tieu works to close the gap between futurity’s fact and fiction.

Nora N. Khan is a critic, a curator, and an editor. She is executive director of the Los Angeles–based Project X Foundation for Art and Criticism, which supports publishing of X-TRA.