With performances from Amnesia Scanner, Bill Kouligas, T.C.F., Physical Therapy and Claire Tolan, Decession at Berlin’s Volksbühne on Saturday felt like a grand social occasion for the city’s electronic scene, reports Lisa Blanning.
If you ask older members of Berlin’s music community what they think about the large number of foreign expats that come to live and work in the city, you’ll very often get a positive response. It’s invigorated the scene, they’ll say, or perhaps they’ll note how it’s helped to make Berlin part of the international conversation. Most of the time, those older musicians came from elsewhere in Germany themselves, although they tend to have arrived much sooner after the fall of the Wall. Modern-day Berlin has been a relatively cheap western capital for over two decades, consequently welcoming a large number of creatives living here either temporarily or indefinitely—first from Germany, then from all over Europe (thank you, EU freedom of movement), and finally, as both the reputation and artistic community of the city grew, the world.
This explains why the main line-up of Decession, a large-scale multimedia ‘happening’ featuring brand new commissions from “six influential figures within the Berlin-based electro-pop avant-garde,” included not one German musician (although there is one German DJ and one German collaborating artist. Not all of the collaborating artists, who were brought on board by the musicians, were actually based in Berlin). On the bill are the enigmatic duo Amnesia Scanner, PAN label head Bill Kouligas, Janus associate M.E.S.H., Brooklyn’s Physical Therapy, Norwegian encryption fanatic TCF, and sound artist Claire Tolan. All are names that have been bubbling in the electronic underground for at least a couple of years, but to see them displayed so prominently at the renowned state-owned and operated theatre Volksbühne—which literally translates to “people’s stage”—felt like a major event.
Dealing in digital themes and with each performance lasting no longer than half an hour – six acts in three hours over four locations – Decession felt primed for the modern-day short attention span. Physical Therapy’s “lounge” was open all evening, but consisted primarily of a sleek display box for his custom perfume named Club (his collaborator was German graphic designer Florian Ludwig). Intended to evoke, er, the club, with notes of “sweat, dirt, cigarette ash, piss, beer, cocktails and cum,” it mostly smelled of alcohol at first, although given time and freedom from olfactory competition, the cigarette ash came through in a not-unpleasant way. For a musician, it’s a decidedly non-musical contribution; a speaker behind the “perfume counter assistant” emitted club-friendly tracks at such a low volume it was more like a luxury shopping experience. Audience members were sniffing each other’s wrists for much of the night.
In the main hall, M.E.S.H. presented perhaps the most opaque set of the night. Both his music and Michael Guidetti’s rendered graphics and laser caricature offered little to hold onto, although anyone acquainted with the producer might recognize some recurring themes, especially as they appeared through the contributions of the video artist. But neither artist can be faulted for quality, and learning that the pair have been close friends since high school makes me wonder if they share their own language.
In musical terms, the most successful performances came from Bill Kouligas and Amnesia Scanner. The former is best known for his work running PAN, but also recognized as the noise artist Family Battle Snake. While he’s abandoned that moniker in favor of his own name, the primary palette and methodology remain, now finely manipulated into more subtle forms with discrete movements, including downright melodicism for his self-described “opera”. With two vocalists—one reciting a narrative largely lost to the music but adding greatly in terms of sonic texture, the other adding slow, elongated vocal swells—plus minimal set design of long looped filaments conducting the blue and green LEDs flashing from network routers from fellow Greek Spiros Hadjidjanos, it felt like elegant 21st century classicism.
Amnesia Scanner’s music was predictably excellent with their juggernaut beats and high-definition sound design, but the surprise came, with the help of artist and designer Vincent De Belleval, in gathering the audience onto the entire stage of the main hall and transforming it into a disorienting rave experience. Thick fog, rotating projectors, intense spotlights, random full illumination, and a large bucket of shiny confetti created moments of abandon, wonder, and confusion.
But the confusion felt most intriguing, most joyful, most vital outside of the main hall. In an upstairs foyer, inauspiciously situated next to the bar, Claire Tolan’s piece was advertised as an ASMR role-playing game (exploring our “autonomous sensory meridian responses,” or the tingling feeling that acoustic stimuli can produce) but looked something like techno-pagan Maypole reversal. Any narrative she was reciting was lost on me, although mostly due to the distraction of taking in such an odd scene. More spoken word than music, the feeling of bewilderment was somewhat broken by the handing out of business cards at the end. While I read it as pragmatic networking, the Shush Systems advertised on the card—complete with Tolan’s title, contact, and crypto-code—was interpreted as command by a friend who was chatting during its delivery. Everyone you talked to about her performance took something different away from it.
In the Roter Salon, a small separate room, TCF presented a complex but extremely entertaining concert/screening/exhibition/robotics science experiment/tea ceremony. But that’s apt for the artist in question, whose obsessions often betray a fevered imagination and a wicked sense of humour (and they are obsessions, occasionally arbitrary—previous subjects have included Christmas jumpers and Whitney Houston). He’s constantly in motion—at his laptop, twiddling knobs, serving the audience pu-erh tea to exacting Chinese specifications (steep for this long, discard the first pour) on his own artworks encased in acrylic sheeting. Occasionally he pauses to smile to himself and sip tea, all while wearing the same outfit as the misshapen digital cartoon version of him displayed on screen. The computer controlling the visuals is cooled by a system of water tubes, and when cartoon Lars takes centre-stage and begins dancing wearing nothing but underpants and shoes, the real (still clothed) Lars does a little dance, too. And did I mention the choir of 3D-printed throats?
Publicly, there are a lot of connections between the Decession artists. M.E.S.H. releases on PAN, Amnesia Scanner and Claire Tolan both collaborate and have toured with Holly Herndon, Amnesia Scanner’s Ville Haimala and Physical Therapy both worked extensively on Dan Bodan’s last album together (M.E.S.H. contributed to that, as well). Privately, the bonds run even deeper. They are all around the same age, and most of them were already friends, fully involved in each others’ work and regularly found together socially well before these commissions came up. As such, they represent a good chunk of a specific Berlin scene, recognized as part of a larger international community of underground electronic music, while remaining closely aligned with another different but related Berlin scene of visual artists. Gather so many of them together and that larger representative social network—primarily of international cross-platform creatives—will be in attendance. This made Decession not only a layered artistic event, but also a grand social occasion, illuminated most enjoyably by the “aftershowparty,” which went until 5am and offered the time to process a hectic art schedule.
Given Berlin’s circumstances, it’s not so surprising to find such a concentration of imagination and talent. What’s more surprising is that it receives recognition and funding from the city and state, in this case with the help of a broadsheet music journalist, Jens Balzer, and a former music journalist turned festival director, Martin Hossbach (both are German). Imagine, music journalists not only accurately identifying real sources of cultural movement but also having access to means to celebrate it in a material way. Then, acquiring use of an institutional venue (incidentally, Tate Modern director Chris Dercon—largely credited, or blamed, for turning the Tate into a huge commercial success—takes over the Volksbühne in 2017) and staging it during one of the Berlin art world’s key calendar events, Gallery Weekend. It feels like something that could only happen in Berlin, but thanks to the state’s involvement, residents in Munich will be able to enjoy this same line-up in July. Take that, London.
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