… either we are obsessed primarily by what desire, by what burning passion suggests to us; or we can with reason hope for a better future.
Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros
My thirty-six hours in Berlin for CTM Festival were a beautiful blur.
On February 1st, after arriving back in the UK, I slept for 14 hours, from midnight to mid-afternoon. That, in a way, says it all. Swept up by a week of nervous adrenaline, a half-day shutdown was necessary, more for mind than for body.
After waking up at 5.45am on the morning of January 30th, following a week of restlessness, and heading to the airport, I felt like I was constantly moving and thinking until all of a sudden I was in Berghain for the first time and it felt like I might be about to see 5am roll around again — a thought that made me feel a bit sick, if I’m honest.
(I haven’t voluntarily been up that long in years, and the last time I partied like that abroad, the day before a flight, I was sixteen, having spent a week in Rome, and I found myself hungover and dropped off at the wrong airport. My parents ended up having to phone up an obscure Italian relative, there was a case of mistaken identity involving Edward Norton, and I ended up costing my parents a load of money that they didn’t have. That memory haunts me even now, over a decade later. I am now a very anxious traveler.)
As a result, I ducked out of the party at Berghain early, wanting to get home (to the hotel and to the UK) with all my faculties in tact and my funds in order. (I did almost get dropped off at the wrong airport again. If the taxi driver hadn’t checked who I was flying with I would have been up shit creek again.) This meant I missed Sherelle’s set at Panorama Bar, which I think I’m going to regret for a very long time…
…but my overall experience of CTM was wonderful regardless.
Before I tell you all about it and pour out all my thoughts and feels, scribbled frantically into a notebook at Berlin’s Schönefeld airport on the afternoon of January 31st, I want to share my gratitude to Terence Sharpe for inviting me in the first place; to CTM Festival for being so incredibly well organised, considering the scope of their operation; to Dhanveer Singh Brar for hanging out and asking the most pertinent questions on his panel, and for being a Berghain buddy (I don’t think anyone was more excited about AYA playing DJ Hype’s Remarc remix than he was); and I particularly want to thank Lisa Blanning and Steven Warwick for being such excellent fellow panelists and for being so welcoming to this unknown blog entity entering an unfamiliar offline world for what felt like the first time. Much of what is to follow below would not have been experienced were it not for Lisa in particular, letting me tag along on her evening adventure. It was the best snapshot of the city that someone so new to it could have asked for.
At the risk of being overly earnest, to speak on a panel at a music festival like CTM — and in another country to boot — felt like a really big deal for me. To do so had been on my bucket list for the next few years ahead and so it was a very nice shock to be able to tick it off in January already. However, I had never done anything like it before and so my suffuse anxiety surrounding this whole thing — although entirely self-perpetuating and irrational — was exhausting. I don’t think I slept properly for the whole week in the lead up to it and still did not relax until I was back in my own bed. Thankfully, Terence selected the perfect people to be involved in his two panel discussions, all of whom mitigated this feeling effortlessly. Not that they would have known they were doing this but I’m grateful all the same. They made it an absolute pleasure to be there.
The question that dominated CTM Festival for me was as follows:
To what extent can we resist the capture of ourselves and our cultural artifacts in our contemporary late-capitalist moment?
This was a question that permeated both of the panels organised and moderated by Terence Sharpe that day. Whereas the second talk, with Dane Sutherland and Dhanveer Singh Brar, asked this question explicitly, the first panel — with myself, Steven Warwick and Lisa Blanning — instead began with questions of egress and escape, starting with the assumption that we are already captured and looking for suggestions regarding how best to remedy that situation. In particular, we were looking for remedies ready to be excavated from the work of the late Mark Fisher.
(Both panels were filmed and should be up online in a couple of months so I don’t want to rehash their contents here in too much detail.)
Framed in this way, it is possible to think of the panels as being presented somewhat back to front, but in many ways this order helped to exacerbate the entangled nature of the conversations themselves. To ask questions of our seemingly perpetual capture and egress is to ask questions of chickens and eggs. As a result, how we resist and how we escape are questions to be asked simultaneously, particularly for those who produce art objects and sustain cultures in the present moment.
To unpack this preliminary question a little, we need to define what exactly we are at risk of being captured by. The short answer is “capital”, most abstractly and succinctly. Less succinctly, we might say we are captured by the confluence of affects and circumstances that constitute the economic cycle of the general formula of capital, as described by Karl Marx — a cycle, we should note, that is constantly mutating.
(Marx’ famous formula of M-C-M’, used to describe the positive feedback loop that exists between money and commodities, and which structures our economic systems, echoes this chicken-egg situation well.)
But again, what does any of that mean? How is any of that useful to us, culturally speaking? How is that useful to anyone not thinking about the world and their place within it in explicit economic terms?
When we say our cultural artifacts are captured by capital, the basic implication is perhaps that our desire, our drive to create — an activity which we might think we engage in for reasons that justify themselves — is reduced to what this activity can do for the market or otherwise for financial gain.
“Making things” is perhaps too vague a phrase to have much resonance here but this is essentially what we mean. The act of “making things” has been captured by capitalism’s cycles of production and commodification. (This is how Dhanveer and Dane defined the general activity behind the production of our cultural artifacts in their panel discussion.) Thought of in this way, it is undoubtedly obvious to all that the act of “making things” has been captured, in the broadest sense, by the systemic preferences of a capitalist system. Therefore, it requires an exit.
Dane noted that Suhail Malik’s work is important here and I’d recommend checking it out too if you want to sink your teeth deeper into these questions of capture and escape in a contemporary art context. Suffice it to say that the means of cultural production are far more slippery than capitalists would like us to think they are. As Suhail notes, “contemporary art as a field of activity … includes artworks but also common places, idiolects, received ideas, judgments, justifications, social and administrative quasi-structures, power operations, and so on.” The means of art’s production are incredibly diverse — far more diverse than the art market would like us to acknowledge. As such, it is important for us to affirm that cultural production — referring, as Suhail emphasises, as much to the immaterial production of culture as it does to the most visible means of its material production — is something that both predates capitalism and will also seemingly exceed it.
However, there are plenty examples of the prevailing system attempting to implicitly convince us otherwise. For example, we might note that, in an inspired instance of retconning, the Wikipedia article for capital argues that “in a fundamental sense a stone or an arrow is capital for a hunter-gatherer who can use it as a hunting instrument”. Here we see a seemingly innocuous attempt to apply the logic of capitalist realism to the furthest reaches of human civilization, as if to suggest uncontacted tribes or even our prehistoric ancestors are still embryologically capitalist. (There’s a good argument to be had here but it’s one for another time.)
However, this contestable Wikipedia example proves a point about capitalism’s intentions: Anything produced in order to fulfill some sort of desire becomes proto-capital ready for capture. The question then becomes: Does the seizure of the means of production — whatever they are and whatever they are for — eclipse the very drive we have to make and use things in the first place?
Georges Bataille, in his final 1961 work The Tears of Eros, asked this question explicitly, attempting to locate the cultural trajectory of erotic desire within visual art, from cave paintings to the artistic transgressions of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries (from the Marquis de Sade to Francis Bacon).
Erotic desire — eroticism — cannot simply be understood as a sexual drive. For Bataille, it is rather a term for desire’s gratifying essence, whatever form that desire takes. It is also the generic prism through which Bataille investigates this very question of capture — the sense in which human sexual desire persistently ruptures its utilitarian form as sexual reproductive activity. Humanity’s obsession with sexual intercourse is, then, he writes, “a psychological quest independent of the natural goal.” Extrapolated outwards from its sexual context, “culture” emerges as another name for this psychological quest, which Bataille makes distinct from “nature”. (NB: Bataille writes at length on the role of eroticism in instigating our transition from “nature to culture” in this regard in his 1957 work Eroticism.)
The horror of philosophy in the twentieth century, for Bataille, is a new understanding of the way in which these erotic (cultural) excesses are continuously funneled into dead ends by the prevailing system that limits our understandings of nature, with the truest egresses from capitalist capture existing at extremes that most people today would dare not venture near, whether they be snuff films or religious ecstasy. He also notes, tellingly, that whilst the most transgressive cultural extravagances have previously been associated with those who have access to the highest echelons of society — no less true today in an era culturally defined by the Jimmy Saville’s, Bing Crosby’s, Harvey Weinstein’s, and Jeffery Epstein’s of the world — referred to by Bataille in Eroticism via de Sade’s trope of the sovereign man — is, in The Tears of Eros, a tendency transposed onto the working man instead.
For Bataille, the key to our escape from capitalist capture comes from the system’s propensity, in the twentieth century, to convert all individuals into working individuals. Even the aristocrat today must work to survive. Landed gentry give themselves over to the tourist trade and operate museums dedicated to their own ancestries. With all other avenues increasingly closed off, it is through work alone that productive transgression today lies.
The trangressions of industrial music emerge here as particularly telling examples — works that affirm the subjective mutations of capitalism, creating beings who slip entropically through the mesh of capitalist alienation. Throbbing Gristle, for instance, chanting for discipline over regulated beats, still shocks today as we watch Genesis P-Orridge dissolve into their own militant mantra, expressing a virulence through a workaday eroticism taken to its limits.
(Cosey Fanni Tutti’s radical approach to sex work as a means to a wholly new transgressive and nomadic end is perhaps an even more powerful example, although — and perhaps because of the fact that — it is not so visibly witnessed online.)
Elsewhere, we can note how the TG track “What A Day” has much the same impact on a wider culture. The deranged repetition of a thoughtless adage, typically uttered with a sigh as someone sinks into a sofa at the end of a dull day, becomes overwrought with a sexually disordered energy. It is like the “All work and no play” of The Shining‘s Jack Torrence — workaday monotony as a vector for insanity and psychic egress.
By contrast, those who own the means of production become impotent relics of a time gone by, fated to redundancy by their inbred capture in outdated socioeconomic norms. As Bataille writes in The Tears of Eros, echoing this sentiment:
It was the slave, in any case, and not the warrior, who by means of work changed the world; and it is the slave, in the end, who is changed in his essence by work. Work changed him to the extent that he became the only authentic creator of the wealth of civilisation; in particular, intelligence and knowledge are the fruits of the labor to which the slave was constrained, working in the first place in response to the master. It is in this way, we should point out, that work engendered man. Those who do not work, who are dominated by the shame of work — the rich aristocrat of the ancien régime or those with private means today — are mere relics.
With this in mind, it is unsurprising that we find ourselves perpetually confronted by a plethora of dystopian fictions that encourage the worker, the slave, the robota, to fear themselves and their own desires. Throbbing Gristle turned this tendency on its head, reflecting the world’s desires back through a cracked mirror, but, more often than not, expressions of our shared alienation are nonetheless oppressed by those we seek to rattle. This tendency is confirmed by Bataille in his prescient observation that “the transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.”
Enter the innate templexity of accelerationism, all too often reduced to the argument that we must affirm capitalism in order to transcend and complete it, missing the real point — which was Bataille’s point also in Eroticism — that what should be affirmed is our desire’s persistent capacity to mutate the self that produces it; what must be affirmed are the escape routes that capitalism inadvertently creates, through its processes of libidinal engineering, but must always later obstruct; what must be attuned to is the very process of subjective mutation rather than any mindless outburst that results from the process itself. (Again, for old time’s sake, the point here is that white supremacist “Accelerationsts” are precisely the subjects accelerationism originally sought to critique, who violently reject the self’s and society’s transformations rather than attempting to radically go with the flow. Their rage at their impotence is the point of entry, not exit.)
In this sense, the end of the world being easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, as Mark Fisher put it, is both symptomatic of our present stuckness but also provides us with a cartography of the ultimate transgression under capitalism — the taboo of capitalism itself; of systemic wage-labour; of capitalism’s own unreason: the dark side of capitalist coercion and manipulation. The last taboo, injected directly into ear drums by Throbbing Gristle, is the completion of capitalist resentment into the cultural equivalent of going postal on the aesthetic forms capitalism prefers. Capitalism turns the universe itself into a commodity. We must instead affirm the universe’s formlessness.
We might think also — to offer up an example mentioned by Steven Warwick on our post-dinner walk through Berlin’s streets — of the music of Whitehouse, transcending and completing the taboo of Mary Whitehouse herself. What is more censorious than noise music? A mess of aural pixelation packaged in provocative names and associations? You know what is missing. There is little left to the imagination but the blockage is apparent nonetheless. As such, the mind is forced to give form to the formless.
Bataille skewers this conservative logic impeccably, foreshadowing what Mark Fisher would later refer to as “capitalist realism”, arguing that what must be affirmed is a surcapitalist irrealism, nonetheless produced by capitalism itself — the dark matter left over by the captured means of production. As he writes in one of Eroticism‘s most riling calls-to-arms,
Nowadays everyone has to take responsibility for his actions and obey the law of reason in everything. Leftovers from the past do persist but only the anti-social underworld preserves a quantity of energy that does not go into work.
If we follow the dictates of reason we try to acquire all kinds of goods, we work in order to increase the sum of our possessions or of our knowledge, we use all means to get richer and to possess more. Our status in the social order is based on this sort of behavior. But when the fever of sex seizes us we behave in the opposite way. We recklessly draw on our strength and sometimes in the violence of passion we squander considerable resources to no real purpose. Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a “little death”. Consequently anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder. Nakedness wrecks the decency conferred by our clothes. But once we have ventured along the path of sensuous disorder it takes a good deal to satisfy us. Destruction and betrayal will sometimes go hand in hand with the rising tide of genetic excess. Besides nudity there is the strangeness of half-clothed bodies; what garments there are serve to emphasize the disorder of the body and show it to be all the more naked, all the more disordered. Brutality and murder are further steps in the same direction. Similarly prostitution, coarse language and everything to do with eroticism and infamy play their part in turning the world of sensual pleasure into one of ruin and degradation. Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose, just as if a wound were bleeding away inside us; we always want to be sure of the uselessness or the ruinousness of our extravagance. We want to feel as remote from the world where thrift is the rule as we can. As remote as we can: — that is hardly strong enough; we want a world turned upside down and inside out. The truth of eroticism is treason.
Bataille’s affirmation of nakedness here, with its sense of a broad societal body horror, chimes with a fear of interiority that was also discussed briefly on our panel.
In an email exchange before our discussion took place, I’d mentioned to Steven that I had been in attendance for his presentation at the ICA in late 2016, during which he explored his collaborative project with Nora Khan, Fear Indexing the X-Files — an exploration of some of The X Files’ early terrors that are, in hindsight, incredibly telling of the sort of fears gripping America in the 1990s and 2000s.
The episode, “Gender Bender”, for example, from season one — its title gives away its concerns somewhat — follows a murderous shape-shifting entity capable of changing gender at will to aid in their desire to do crimes.
There is an obvious interpretation here — The X Files is transphobic — but also, if we might tentatively be more generous to what is, at best, a tone-deaf exploration of the issue, we might argue that this is simply a reflection of The X Files‘ central conceit — it is less a show about aliens and more a show about alienation.
The alienation central to the show is the fear of the interiority, both of the self and of the (Big) Other. I am not what I seem. People are not what they seem. Government is not what it seems. As uncomfortable as the plot of “Gender Bender” is to us today, it nonetheless demonstrates a show attempting to tackle questions questions of otherness and America’s intensifying fear of interiority, whether its own or that of others. (There are episodes, just as uncomfortable today, that tackle just about every taboo subject going. This article from Vulture lists the worst ones, critically but also unproductively, presumably so you can easily cancel your Gen X relative’s problematic fav.)
This conspiratorial mindset suits the American imagination like a duck to water, but it also echoes Bataille’s comments about De Sade and the sovereign man. For example, in Eroticism he writes:
Moral isolation means that all the brakes are off; it shows what spending can really mean. The man who admits the value of other people necessarily imposes limits upon himself. Respect for others hinders him and prevents him from measuring the fullest extent of the only aspiration he has that does not bow to his desire to increase his moral and material resources. Blindness due to respect for others happens every day; in the ordinary way we make do with rapid incursions into the world of sexual truths and then openly give them the lie the rest of the time. Solidarity with everybody else prevents a man from having the sovereign attitude. The respect of man for man leads to a cycle of servitude that allows only for minor moments of disorder and finally ends the respect that their attitude is based on since we are denying the sovereign moment to man in general.
(The X Files is a show that struggles to couple together the moral isolation of its central characters. I could rant for hours about how Mulder and Scully’s little archipelago of belief — and have written done so once before.)
Here, a number of paradoxes emerge. Today, the default response is surely to reject Bataille’s call to sovereignty, echoing, to our ears, a capitalistic individualism, but moral servitude and collectivity are not mutually exclusive mindsets.
It turns out that Berlin — and Berghain in particular — is the perfect place to explore these tensions today…
I’ve long been fascinated by Berlin, Berghain and the city’s relationship to the cultural artifacts and spaces it produces. (My first attempt at a music press pitch was a flawed and somewhat naive investigation of the music industry’s relationship to photography, in which I discussed Berghain’s notorious relationship to the medium explicitly.)
Berghain is a very particular kind of institution that attempts to protect its sovereignty through a Bataillean hostility to all perceived outsiders — who, in practice, could be just about anyone. There are critiques of this sort of approach to be made, one of which makes an appearance in my book Egress via a reading of Julia Bell’s essay “Really Techno” and Foucault’s ethics of queer becoming against identitarian reification — quoted below.
In her essay, Bell quotes Jack Halberstam who quotes Foucault and, following this trail of references I find “Friendship as a Way of Life”, an interview with Foucault in which he
critiques dominant forms of queer collectivity which harden and become militantly — even reactively — defensive as they try to keep the ever-rising tide of capitalist forces at bay. Whilst such a stance is perfectly understandable, all things considered, to close off passageways to the Outside is nonetheless always to consolidate oneself into a type, paradoxically making a community easier prey for capitalism’s blobjective tenacity and cultural appropriation of otherwise incompatible ways of life. As Foucault explains, the goals “is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.”
Here we might argue that Berghain, in its utter hostility to just about everyone, is holding onto an outdated mode of transgressive relation — sadism in precisely the sense that Bataille describes it above, where moral servitude to the other is eschewed in favour of the radical sovereignty of the individual — and yet it also produces another kind of relation, one through which solidarity emerges counter-intuitively, through a sense of a shared alienation.
These are the Bataillean ethics of community that I’ve written on and around for a few years now. Jean-Luc Nancy critiqued such an ethics as being “inoperative” or “unworkable” but Blanchot shot back that the community is instead “unavowable”. A community without work that is at work nonetheless. (All of this is in Egress so excuse my brevity.)
This is, arguably, Foucault’s point also, and he affirms that the popularity of sadomasochism in gay scenes around the world has helped alleviate the problems of what would otherwise emerge from a lack of power relations. The assumption made by many is that the minoritarian politics of a maligned social group lends itself to a hegemony of relation, where everyone is perceived to be of the same social class, and such an equality of dispossession may lend itself to the proliferation of anarchic relations that are liberating but impotent in that they lack any sort of leverage over those that are oppressing them.
Here we can extend some of Foucault’s observations to the contrary. He writes, for instance, that “the important question here, it seems to me, is not whether a culture without restraints is possible or even desirable but whether the system of constraints in which a society functions leaves individuals the liberty to transform the system.” Here the importance of S&M and, we might argue, Berghain’s notorious mean-spiritedness emerges. Foucault continues:
S&M is not a relationship between he (or she) who suffers and he (or she) who inflicts suffering, but between the master and the one whom he exercises mastery. What interests the practitioners of S&M is that the relationship is at the same time regulated and open. It resembles a chess game in the sense one can win and the other lose. The master can lose in the S&M game if he finds he is unable to respond to the needs and trials of his victim. Conversely, the servant can lose if he fails to meet or can’t stand meeting the challenge thrown at him by the master. This mixture of rules and openness has the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual novelty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty, which the simple consummation of the act lacks.
When I entered Berghain, I found myself on the receiving end of a bouncer’s ire almost immediately. A woman on the door had little patience for me not immediately clarifying that I don’t speak German when asked to turn out my pockets. “You need to tell me if you don’t understand me if we’re to have any hope of communicating,” she said, fiercely impatient, making me feel meek. However, she then proceeded to communicate through hand gestures, slapping her hand down on a table to signal that she wanted to search my bag — something I did not cotton onto until she barked “your bag!” at me a second or two later. Communication was hardly something she cared about, regardless of her initial protest.
As she rummaged through my stuff, chucking my copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to one side and placing a sticker over my phone’s camera lens, as is their custom, I felt like I was watching this Foucauldian power relation in action.
I’m reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the moment as I’m intending to teach a class on it later this month and so I have been carrying it with me everywhere. I find I am only able to take it out of my bag at opportune moments, however, with its cover being quite provocative and its reputation preceding it, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is, in a way, like my own portal Berghain. The sex, for which it is infamous, feels largely unimportant — an embodied expression of the sociopolitical musings that surround it. This is to say that the book — like the club — is, in essence, a story about — the club: an embodiment of — the potential of erotic desire — sexual desire, most explicitly, but also an eroticism in Bataille’s more general sense — to radically transform sociopolitical relations.
Seeing the book get thrown around inside my tote bag, I, at first, felt my travel anxiety bubbling up inside of me. I do have an unfortunate tendency to become tongue-tied and mute when faced with a language barrier. Writing is one thing. In most other situations, I find speaking and conversing a challenge — and that’s in my mother tongue! When not channeling my energy into a piece of writing, I feel wholly entrapped within my own body, bashing against the edges of a self that struggles to settle into social expectations of how it should be used. Suffice it to say, I am a bumbling Englishman through and through. I was left, as D.H. Lawrence might put it: “frayed”.
Frayed! It was as if the very material you were made of was cheap stuff, and was fraying out of nothing.
As the bouncer patted down my person, I was tense, awaiting another blow to my ego, some comment passed about turning up to the club with a tote bag full of junk. (I had arrived in Berlin and spent three minutes in my hotel room before setting off on a thirty minute walk to the Drei Schwestern restaurant in Kunstquartier Bethanian to meet my fellow panelists. I had packed with the rest of the day in mind rather than packing light for my hot and sweaty Berghain excursion.) However, once the encounter with the bouncer was over, feeling a little battered by her short shrift, I trailed behind Lisa into the venue and found instead that I felt quite good about it. I had withstood her fury and made it inside. Being told off felt pretty good… She wasn’t just a bouncer high on her own power. It felt like there was a game involved. On a regular night, I reckon I would have been too meek to make it inside — and I did feel a bit self-conscious once reports made their way to us that they had closed the side entrance we had used to skip the queue and flash our festival “PARTICIPANT” passes, soon after we passed through it — but it felt like I had weathered this relation despite my individual misgivings.
During our panel, we had discussed this sort of relation implicitly. Terence, at one point, quoted Mark’s controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” in which he writes that “it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications.” This quotation resonated with me throughout the rest of the day and night.
Identitarianism, understood from the right, is a catch-all term for nationalism, white supremacy and other types of identity-fortification. From the left, however, it is seen as the darker side of “identity politics”, through which an attempt to fortify minoritarian struggles leads to minority communities becoming far too susceptible to an unconscious appeal to the authority of the Big Other — typically the state and its standards of relation.
This is a slippery argument. To take the example of “trans rights”, the desire is to emphasise the point that “trans rights are human rights” — humanising trans people in the face of what is often dehumanising discrimination. However, on the flip side, having trans experiences recognised by law and by the state also requires a compartmentalising of what these experiences can involve. Whilst trans rights are necessary to fight for, we must be vigilant that the defense of trans desires and interests do not become a Trojan horse for foreclosing these very desires and interests, adapting them so that they appear more palatable to the state.
An alternative example of this is perhaps “lean in” feminism. The fight to establish gender equality in business has simply led to an entrenchment of an explicitly capitalist view of feminist politics, in which privileged white women may find themselves having greater access to boardrooms but class and race divisions are, more broadly, left in tact and even further entrenched. This is perhaps the most explicit example of an identitarian politics being furthered in one sector whilst the broader desires and interests that fuel this position are left untouched by critique. What is left in tact, then, are institutionalized desires and interests, emboldened by supposedly progressive identity politics.
Foucault spoke about a similar challenge to relations in “Friendship as a Way of Life” but also found reason to retain hope that our desires will still perforate this kind of institutionalized relation. At one point he says:
… you can see how, in the military for example, love between men can develop and assert itself in circumstances where only dead habits and rules were supposed to prevail. And it is possible that changes in established routines will occur on a much broader scale as gays learn to express their feelings for one another in more various ways and develop new lifestyles not resembling those which have been institutionalized.
Berghain, despite its reputation for a very singular and unforgiving way of operating, retains this sense of hope also — but its position as an institution in its own right must also be kept in mind.
Although my experience with the bouncer was exactly what I might have expected from my first time in this space, once I had made my way inside this hallowed hollow, my experience shifted and became defined by the absence of any displays of its typical forms of interrelation.
Stood by the bar, with the sounds of Nene H and Ensemble Basiani emanating through the doorway from the main stage, Dhanveer was the first to inform me of just how different the space was compared to the last time he had been here. Berghain was devoid that night, he said, of the “smell of life” — the smell of bodies; of sweat and cum. He also mentioned a noticeable lack of cock-grabbing when trying to make your way through the crowd from bar to bathroom.
This absence — whilst commented upon to accentuate our distance, in that moment, from an “authentic” Berghain experience — whatever that is — was powerful nonetheless for the alternative relations it allowed to flourish.
These alternatives were epitomised by the first performance of the evening from Lyra Pramuk, who described her music as the result of her previous attempts to make her own techno — techno inspired by the sort of music she was used to hearing on her trips to Berghain. However, at some point, in the midst of her own soundscapes, she decided to strip all of the techno out. The result sounds something like a Gregorian whale song. Her voice, layered to create incredibly dynamic and thalassic soundscapes, is reduced to its most primal function. No lyrics, no drums, all affect.
I said to Lisa — who also happens to be Lyra’s booking agent — shortly after her performance, how these otherworldly vocalisations reminded me of the affectations Arthur Russell added to his vocals in between lines of lyrics, as if, even though there was no lyrical content to be expressed at that specific moment in the composition, the vocal cords kept moving; as if his vocal cords were bowed in much the same way as his cello — continuously, with interjections inserted to coax a sense of rhythm from the formless.
With this in mind, to say Lyra does to techno what Russell did to disco is a very tempting but nonetheless ill-fitting comparison. Each performance style is so utterly singular. Nevertheless, in that space, in Berghain, with its cavernous height and mysterious holes and pipes jutting out around and above the audience, I couldn’t help but feel like I was listening to World of Echo in an echo chamber. Identity, reverberating and ricocheting of the walls of the self, melts into pure desire. The bodies around us may have lacked the erotic throng to be expected from a Berghain dancefloor, but desire was still present, presented in a wholly new way for a new kind of audience.
The importance of performing her music in this space seemed in no way diminished for Lyra despite this change in circumstances. CTM simply became a prism for new refractions.
After some time spent chatting with new friends at the bar downstairs, we made our way up to Panorama Bar at midnight to see AYA.
I’m not sure what else I can say about AYA and the power she exudes from the booth. Since playing one of our for k-punk nights, I have seen her perform in the Barbican and now Berghain. On each occasion I have been repeatedly struck by her style of MCing. In every instance I’ve heard it, it cuts through the bullshit of a particular space. Her Northern twang has always evoked, for me at least, a paradox of self-deprecating vulnerability and bloodymindedness, channeling a Manchester drag night whilst at the same time encapsulating the sort of colloquial brass neck heard down the working men’s club.
Dhanveer, however, leaning into my ear, placed her in the context of a Chicago house MC. I found this really interesting. I was suddenly aware of my own understanding of an AYA performance coming from my own background and, as is the case with all her performances, the plethora of associations on offer shift depending on the venue and the audience within. Here, again, it seems there is no AYA identity, only AYA’s desires. What felt like a skewering of British class dynamics and high cultural expectations in the main hall of the Barbican felt instead like a challenge to Berlin’s sociocultural hard-nosed seriousness. Had the performance changed? Not really, but everything around it had, and that exacerbated AYA’s singularity. As such, the context of Berlin and Berghain triggered a particular constellation of thoughts and reflections.
Steven, talking about his favourite club night over dinner earlier in the evening, at Berlin’s Cocktail D’Amour, suggested that playing disco in Berlin in 2020 was a far more political gesture at the present moment than puritanical techno. This declaration was orbited by conversations with and comments by others, reflecting on instances where people have witnessed DJs being told, “You don’t play x type of music here” in Berghain. (Theo Parrish and Kode9 were two names mentioned who had been accosted in the booth in this way and responded by doubling down on their perceived transgressions.) There was no possibility of such a thing happening at CTM, however. AYA’s set of jungle classics and leftfield club edits — a thumping ode to Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At” frankly had me cackling — seemed like a huge hit with all of those present.
But this reception also begs the question: Why? And at what cost?
This is the strange paradox of a place like Berlin. I don’t pose these questions as some omniscient outsider, looking for an excuse to shove in critiques where they aren’t wanted or even necessary. Rather, it seems to me that these are the questions that some of the city’s venues — Berghain most infamously — constantly ask of themselves.
This was struck in stark relief by an industry showcase Lisa and I caught the tail end of before we made our way to Berghain that evening.
After dinner, we walked to some sort of haute couture shop, down the road from — I was told — Tresor, that seemed to only sell sunglasses but which had been transformed into a makeshift venue for a Nyege Nyege Tapes showcase. When we arrived, we were greeted by a percussive set — in terms of both sound palette and DJing style — from DJ Diaki.
It was an electric set of jagged polyrhythmic percussiveness. I briefly met Errorsmith — who I was too shy to tell I admired a great deal — and his presence helped me to connect a bunch of dots, suddenly making this intercontinental scene make sense to me in this strange space. I was reminded of what I wrote about rkss’ DJ Tools back in 2018. Here was a sharp demonstration of pushing a familiar sonic palette out beyond its limits. This is not a demonstration of “less is more” but of doing more with less.
But still, the venue jarred. Lisa drew our attention to the disparity first — artists from a scene of relative poverty performing within a shrine to decadence. This disparity, once recognised, was hard to ignore. Furthermore, the displays that surrounded the shelves, constructed from welded-together spectacle frames, provided an uncomfortable visual association with the detritus of human lives still on display at Auschwitz, further compounding this sense of an apocalyptic decadence shot through by a carnivalesque mania from the Outside.
These two displays existed side by side with an odd productivity, however. The juxtaposition was not one happened upon threw insensitivity but felt like a surrealist amalgamation of scene detritus. It was a terminal beach for Berlin hedonism, brought to bear on itself.
This productivity was retained on our walk to Berghain, through industrial estates, as Lisa offered up a fly-by guided tour of the area. “Tresor is over there… Berghain over here…”, she said, as we passed bars and flats and home improvement warehouses. These places were not hidden, as they often seem to be in London, tucked away out of sight and out of earshot. They dominated, exploding through their surroundings with a confidence that is hard to ignore in this city. Berlin’s underground erupts.
To have so much cultural activity occurring in such close proximity made London’s nightlife feel all the more oppressed in that moment. (And I say all of this as someone who feels largely out of touch with the ins and outs of a community that I only slip into occasionally — so what do I know.)
Perhaps this is just a case of different rates of development. Whereas Britain’s modernist moment occurred between the First and Second World Wars, with every successive collective outburst of creative renewal seemingly responding to a new sense of lost futures. We won the war, we love to remind ourselves, but every creative challenge to the status quo that has emerged since has been interpreted as an attempt to undermine a post-war identitarian sovereignty. (Except Britpop, obviously.)
As a result, Britain’s persistent cultural melancholy is underlined by what Dhanveer referred to as “a post-colonial melancholy” — something that Mark had a blindspot for, he argued convincingly. By contrast, Germany’s cultural shifts poignantly occurred after the wars. It is of little surprise, with the benefit of hindsight, that so many saw Berlin as a new hotspot for popular modernism during the Cold War.
With nothing left to hold onto after that momentous global event, the country’s cultural teething processes have been defined by successive egresses from a state-imposed sense of self. Post-war, post-wall, it is a city defined by a continuum of desires, persisting in the face of geopolitical wranglings. The result is a scene that feels strange and untimely. But it is nonetheless as under threat from a globalised capitalism as anywhere else. The strange poignancy of CTM Festival is that it is a festival on a precipice, potentially being both a blessing and a curse — a vector for experimental and commodification in equal measure.
All of this might be the naive observations of a small-island mentality, commenting on what is obvious to everyone but me. And yet, if there is something I am left wanting to affirm as I get back into my English routine, is that there must be new ways of making these desires — that are undoubtedly shared — transgress borders.
It was hard to ignore the fact that I flew home on Brexit day, coming back to the news of celebrations in Parliament Square, whilst roaming through airport security surrounded by cautious travelers wearing face masks, hoping to avoid the coronavirus. There are plenty of things in this world that do not care for borders — viral infections and desires are only two of them. Both are dangerous but both can also be liberating — explored through one of the world’s most famous gay scenes, it is hard not to think of both going hand in hand. In this context, capital is the virus, piggybacking on desires. We must develop ways to avoid one devastating the free movement of the other.