Self-recycling and white dude scene. Hey, Atonal, it's 2017, haven't you heard of diversity yet?
Text by Anna Wim, photos by Berlin Atonal
The first time I went to Atonal, in 2015, I was mesmerized. I felt like I had entered a completely different world, a brand new universe squeezed between the concrete walls of Berlin’s Kraftwerk, where your sight was deprived of colors and time was split into music shows instead hours, minutes, or seconds. It felt like a brutalist shelter where you could hide from the outside world, disappear in the middle of the black-clad crowd and enter a very well-curated B&W reality. The second time, I immediately realized I wasn’t that excited anymore. Instead of finding something new and unexplored, it felt like entering a place I’ve known so long, a place I grew up in perhaps, where everything stayed the same while you were gone. It somehow felt soothing, like when you come home and you feel all warm and cozy. But it also crossed my mind how many familiar faces I saw, not only in the crowd, but also on stage. The third time, after getting very radicalized in pretty much every aspect of my life, I came there with the intention not to get fooled by the pretty visuals and the hype around the festival.
Mind you, I am no techno freak. Sure, I do enjoy it every now and then, but I am definitely not that kind of worshipper who would cite techno or industrial as their “religion” (lol, really?). “What the fuck are you doing at such festival then,” some might say, rolling their eyes as they take another drag from their cigarette and fix their well-styled all-black outfit. And I say: This detachment from the scene (as well as being a part of a different, *unnmaned* festival production team myself) allowed me to see what others might not have because they were too immersed in the music they care so much about, or perhaps because they willingly refuse to see it.
And it also allows me to say what I want to say without being afraid of harming professional ties or breaking friendships, which might be the case why not that many other people are vocal about what I am just about to write, even though based on the reactions to my incredibly critical posts on Facebook and Instagram (trust me, this review is a polished and way nicer version of what you could see on my Insta stories, thank god they disappear after 24 hours), I am definitely not the only one with this opinion. Take this as a little warning before you emerge into my hateful (I tried to be constructive, but um, not sure if I got that right) review, because I am not here to kiss ass, I am here to kick ass (and probably never be allowed to attend any of Berlin-based events, too).
If it worked last year, it will work this year too
It almost seemed as this year’s theme of Atonal was “repetition.” First of all, the visuals. I mean, of course it is nice to have a certain coherent visual identity people can recognize you by, and Atonal sure is good at keeping their image neatly curated. So good that an *unnamed* Czech festival shamelessly ripped it off last year, and stole a few names from the line-up too. But are geometrical shapes, oscillating waves, marble patterns, silhouettes of bodies, and images of the moon really all that can be used for B&W visuals? Really?
Music-wise, it almost felt like when I used to live in Copenhagen and often attended live shows at the (in)famous warehouse Mayhem (which, given the extent of obsession and worshipping Posh Isolation fans reach, will probably become one of the Denmark’s capital’s touristic attractions soon enough), each time with new band names on the bill. As soon as they hit the stage, you’d realize it was the same old people you’d seen playing so many times before, who just formed a new band because being in three different bands was obviously not enough. The same happens every year at Atonal, where established artists mix together and form new and new projects. Of course, it is awesome to be a festival where people present pieces exclusively made for that occasion, but wouldn’t it be nice to give that opportunity to people who haven’t already performed there several times before?
To prove my point, here’s a little overview of the names of this year’s lineup: Varg (performed in 2015, and hosted during Marshstepper’s set in 2016), Shackleton (2015), Roly Porter (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016), Powell (2014, 2015), Paul Jebanasam (2015), Pan Daijing (2016), Peder Mannerfelt (performing as part of Roll The Dice, performed solo in 2015), Damien Dubrovnik (surprise performance in 2015; Loke Rahbek performed as Croatian Amor and hosted during Marshstepper’s set in 2016, part of Varg’s Ivory Towers in 2015), Puce Mary (solo performance and part of Varg’s Ivory Towers in 2015), Regis (performed as part of Ugandan Methods in 2015), Fis (2015), Ena (2015, 2016), Shifted (2015), Sigha (2014, 2015),… And there’s probably more, but I’m too annoyed to investigate anymore. I have to say I am quite shocked there was no Samuel Kerridge or Alessandro Cortini this year, what happened??
Based on that, I could probably guess next year’s line-up already—there’d be Roly Porter (5th year in a row!), Shackleton, Sigha, Ena, Loke Rahbek presenting a new project, some combo of either Oake, Alessandro Cortini, or Samuel Kerridge, something from Posh Isolation and/or Northern Electronics. There will max. 3 women headlining the main stage, some of them will be playing the smaller stages too (men will still dominate though), all of them quite physically attractive so that everyone can fetishize them and drool over their looks instead of actually focusing on the music. The line-up will be as white as the coke and K snorted in the bathrooms, of course. Anyone wanna bet on that with me?
Ok, I’m done with all the bad jokes. However, it is more than obvious that Atonal builds the line-up on tried-out names, fully absorbed on what’s being hyped atm, which results in the scene’s sweethearts patting each other’s backs after each show. Instead of creating new experiences to its visitors, the festival rather recycles and presents mashups of what has already been presented earlier, which, unfortunately, gets boring after a while. Or maybe it was just me feeling bored this year, but I sure stand behind what I’ve told my friends so many times already: “Atonal will never be as exciting and fun as the first time you visit it.”
White bros everywhere
Another issue with Atonal is the perpetuation of the inequality so omnipresent in the music world. Just take one look at Atonal’s line-up, and you’ll notice that fair representation of gender and race is quite lacking. Compared to last years, women were definitely given more space, but it obviously still isn’t optimal, especially considering that most of them (like the men performing) were white. The racial representation is so poor I almost don’t even want to get into that, tbh. White men being applauded for a genre that is rooted in black protest, god-like standing on enormous stages – what message does it actually give out, especially these days? White dominance, anyone?
Are these white dudes really all there is interesting on the techno, industrial, and experimental scene? Sure not. And it is definitely caused by the fact, as I was once told by a former friend of mine (surprisingly, this was not the reason our friendship ended), “women are just not as good at doing music as men.” It is all about being given opportunities and space, that is.
It’s all about actually allowing unprivileged people to enter such spaces as Atonal, and welcoming and embracing them. Atonal needs to feature people of color, trans* people, disabled people, women who are not attractive,… (and not only by having a projection of drag queens—which was part of Demdike Stare’s set—which felt rather like a mockery than an embrace) Atonal needs to be more diverse, and that’s a given. And it’s definitely not that there wouldn’t be a plethora of artists that could be presented. I’m not gonna go into names, but not having featured any of the brilliant Discwoman artists yet is quite an outrage (especially since they were in Europe this summer). Dear Atonal bookers, please go read a bit on Umfang’s Technofeminism, a party where under-represented artists are finally granted their limelight. Umfang, or Emma Burgess-Olson, who’s the co-founder of Discwoman, hosted a free CDJ workshop for women in collab with the Berlin collective Creamcake last summer too – and such things are exactly what Atonal is painfully missing out on.
Techno je všechno?
Atonal is as apolitical as it can be. A Czech rather-mocking urban saying popular amongst us spoiled millennials, “techno je všechno,” meaning “techno is everything” (look, it rhymes in Czech, ok?), kinda sums that up. For Atonal, the audio-sonic experience (whoa, such fancy expression) is all that is cared about there. It’s based on tried-and-tested scenarios, with a very little space given to actual innovation instead of what is rather a reuse of what has worked before, and therefore will work again, as I’ve already pointed out.
There’s is no debate around it, no political or activist agenda. However, by choosing not to speak up about what the situation is, Atonal, perhaps unwillingly, perhaps willingly, actively participates in the great injustice of representation of gender and race in the scene. Of course, Atonal is only a part of the huge problem so ingrained in the whole music scene, and not a one-off occurrence of a festival getting it (all) wrong. The list of festivals, clubs, nights etc. perpetuating this phenomenon would probably be endless; what is so special about Atonal is that it seems that so many are aware of this issue and it is a topic of many heated discussions (I mean, come on, there’s even a meme about it), yet everyone seems to be scared of Atonal’s sacred position to really point that out.
I’d like to conclude this feisty review with a quote stolen from Tara Joshi’s article “Boiler Room and the issue of ‘white men,’” citing what a WoC promoter/DJ/radio host Sarra Wild replied to Boiler Room’s Head of Film following an incident which saw Sarra’s phrase “white men” being completely cut out from a film about the Glasgow music scene:
“You and others like you in your position have the option to ignore this. I as a WOC don’t. Never have. The sooner you all accept that this scene is not equal and that minorities need to be represented and most importantly heard, the sooner we can all go back to enjoying the fucking music and being one.”
Wait, did you actually see anything at the festival?
Um, sorta. In fact, I am no music reviewer, but I guess there’s no need to say that at this point. I do consider myself a music enthusiast to certain extent, but I am not your expert constantly blurting out fancy music-related words and expressions who actually can make sense of what which genre is (are genres still a thing these days though?), therefore I commanded my friend Ondrej Lasak (of the Prague-based cassette label Genot Centre), whose music taste I can swear by, to curate my Atonal visit and prepare a list of all the shows I was supposed to see (I usually ask him to go grocery shopping with me so I assume he must have been delighted by this bratty request from his actual field of knowledge instead of being forced to watch me pick cucumbers in Kaufland for once).
I missed the first day because of a work meeting, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately). The second day, I caught a bit of what Ondrej called “a Serbian pensioner,” aka Abul Mogard. Demdike Stare with Michael England was ok, Damien Dubrovnik was solid as always, even though it reminded me a bit of Croatian Amor’s last year performance towards the ends. On Friday, I was blown away by Puce Mary, who really ruled the main stage; Main/Regis was fine, I didn’t like Roly Porter and Paul Jebenasam presenting ALTAR. I cruised around a bit but didn’t see anything I’d enjoy, so I called it an early night. My perception of the Saturday acts was rather influenced by the fact that I downed four tequilas in a row, but from what I can remember, I wasn’t much impressed by Shackleton and Anika, I liked Roll The Dice even though I almost puked during it, and I loved loved loved Powell and Wolfgang Tillmans. Like really, that was my highlight, especially because of those cute puppers on screen. It’s easy to make me satisfied, in fact. Instead of seeing what I was looking forward to the most—Varg presenting Flora and Pan Daijing’s Fist Piece—I sat on the bus to Copenhagen; not to shed tears in front of the now-closed Posh Isolation shop on Blågårdsgade (or Blablagade, if you will), but to visit my friends and solely listen to Enya and t.A.T.u. with them.
Well, I’d be a fool to expect getting a press pass again next year, so thank you, Atonal, for this lil romance, it was fun while it lasted. ❤️
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