Mykki Blanco, Holly Herndon and Dean Blunt pushed boundaries at the weird and wonderful Berlin festival.
It’s Sunday morning and Stattbad Wedding –a disused swimming complex that, in its crowded and smoky state of disrepair becomes the Berlin of the imagination –is heaving with human bodies. As the week-long binge on music, exhibitions and endless discussion that is the German capital’s CTM Festival draws to a close, a transvestite Mykki Blanco is standing on a tiny sound desk spitting truths in a tight tank and mini, while the rest of the room goes berserk. It’s 4am and it’s apparent that the multi-level building is teeming with people as keen to see the rising hip hop deviant perform in a sweaty side room christened ‘#gHashtag’, as they are UK tech house trend hoppers Simian Mobile Disco (pictured) in a derelict pool. These are strange times.
Rougher than what your stock experimental tech-head might be used to, it feels like a younger, more aggressive crowd is spilling through a labyrinth of stairs, corridors and hidden bars tonight. That has as much to do with the PURGE party organisers’ penchant for hybrid pop-industrial antagonism, as it does an urban creep away from the city’s monotheistic techno stronghold toward the diverse – though still crudely felt – interaction of sounds for the new underground. These are the growing pains of a transitioning cultural landscape surrounding CTM’s ‘The Golden Age’: a shift in favour of a genderless, genre-less and culturally inclusive forum for discourse and experimentation. It’s an ambition perhaps not nearly achieved, but one well worth pursuing.
Simian Mobile Disco live at CTM Festival 2013.
This sense of collapsing boundaries is felt everywhere, and not even that emblem of the dance establishment, Berghain, is impervious. The famously aloof venue welcomes a photographer, and its security waives its notoriously arbitrary selection process for a wristband-wearing public. Inside, San Francisco’s Holly Herndon dominates her old stomping ground with her scholarly experiments in humanised electronics. Adding a new layer of intent to her laptop performance beyond live vocal processing, she coaxes a murmur from her computer with two induction mikes, picking up and amplifying its unique signals. d’Eon’s underwhelming delivery of stunted and arhythmic beats from his mac is followed by an entirely uncommon interlude of R&B from the in-house DJ, before Kuedo pulls things back to the familiar cadence of a dubstep past; yawning drum and bass lines smothered under a blanket of sci-fi sound scapes.
“At the merch desk [there was] a single t-shirt with a cheap iron-on transfer of Dean Blunt’s face, on sale for 500 €.”
Just the night before that same venue is seized by an all-PAN line-up. Sensory overload comes courtesy of Mark Fell an unrelenting strobe light display synchronised with a convulsive beat and three towering air puppets. This “sensate focus” extends past light, sound and touch for Heatsick who adds a new dimension to his bodily production of blinding light, heat and mesmerising loops, with new speculations in smell. The buttoned and pleated performer pauses at intervals to drizzle Chanel No. 5 on his audience; a charmingly rudimentary first choice in fragrance for what promises to be a fascinating exploration in his holistic approach to live performance.
A shared idea of pushing boundaries and exceeding limitations is no more apparent than in Dean Blunt’s promise of ‘The Narcissist’ but delivery of ‘The Redeemer’. Featuring a couple in the process of a nasty break-up, sitting on a couch and reading from a script, the play-slash-live music performance had Blunt brooding behind a sound desk at the side of the stage in his signature cap. Playing a Mellotron and other orchestral samples between scenes (at one point tweaking it to ear-splitting pitch), there is less recognisable material and more new forays into his typically coarse, though affecting sonic landscapes that one can hope – but never assume – will surface on his upcoming LP release. That wasn’t enough to keep a handful of disappointed viewers from leaving halfway through the short half-hour set; the same group who would doubtless snort at the merch desk featuring a single t-shirt with a cheap iron-on transfer of Dean Blunt’s face, on sale for 500 €.
“Because when Mariah Carey appeared just next to John Cage on a personal track listing, the digital world exposed all our guilty pleasures, and an elevated trash culture was born.”
That cheeky spirit of contempt is reflected in conversation with musician, artist and queer philosopher Terre Thaemlitz (AKA DJ Sprinkles). She describes the reasoning behind her 32+ hour MP3 album, ‘Soulnessless’, recorded on a grand piano she could barely play, as a “stupid, sarcastic thing” amid other more serious concepts. It’s a derision d’Eon also expresses, not once when he introduces himself as “Grimes” at the Berghain, but again when playing his more successful live rendition of the beautifully sentimental ‘Music For Keyboards’ at HAU2. Here, with a mini keyboard perched atop his console and an omnipresent electronic drum beat, he campaigned against persistent associations with Grimes (who he collaborated with on the acclaimed 12” split ‘Darkbloom’). With his usually dishevelled hair neatly tied in a bun and sporting a dapper trousers and a button-up combo, d’Eon used his closing Blink 182 What’s My Age Again? variations as an opportunity to bemoan being overshadowed by his fellow Montreal dream-pop star’s success.
is “grimes collaborator” a genre now?— d’eon (@ddddddeon) February 6, 2013
Someone should remind d’Eon that his own fixation on short-sighted press coverage won’t let anyone move on. With that outlook the conceptual approach to progressive music could never have been forced forward by practical shifts in the technological spotlight. An audience with poet and online avant-garde film archivist of ubuweb.com, Kenneth Goldsmith, reminds us that you can credit early file-sharing software like Napster with opening up our perspectives and interactions with new contexts and articulations in music. Because when Mariah Carey appeared just next to John Cage on a personal track listing, the digital world exposed all our guilty pleasures, and an elevated trash culture was born.
That’s why PURGE’s three-party takeover of Stattbad is such a chaotic success. With global dubstep outfit Skream in one room, the #gHashtag swell in the other rises with every new act: Berlin’s veteran bass and future hip hop lobbyist Half Girl/Half Sick, Gatekeeper’s B-grade sci-fi and classic arcade game-inspired ‘Giza’ set and the mind-blowingly primal trap from a masked Mad Decent signing, ︻╦╤─ ƱZ ─╤╦︻. That’s all before a bewigged Mykki Blanco climbs on to her platform to sing the chorus of Wavvy, in unison with the fleshy crush beneath, as the clothes come off, the memory fades and reason is suspended.