Part of the draw to Atonal, Berlin’s sonic art festival, is to be swallowed whole by the titanic skeleton of East German architecture, Kraftwerk: to be engulfed in the belly of the beast and to move through its darkened corridors and cavernous halls, senses heightened. As the former, main power station for East Berlin, Kraftwerk possesses a kinetic energy, an energy duly harnessed for the 2021 iteration of the festival and its adjacent exhibition/installation project Metabolic Rift, bizarrely described as ‘ghost train’ of artworks that reanimates formerly inaccessible parts of the building.
The relation to metabolism is an obvious one: as I travel through Kraftwerk, alone, the artworks, even the setting, undergo a reciprocal processing. We ingest each other. The exhibition unfolds in sequence: small groups are ushered through the labyrinthine space by a spectral yellow light that beckons ever further into Kraftwerk’s network of passages and spaces, later giving way to the opportunity to roam through more familiar parts of the building unguided. But Metabolic Rift is more than the digestion analogy satisfies. Coined by Karl Marx, this phrase describes a dialectic of nature and society with specific regard to industrial agriculture and the depletion of nutrient-rich soil on arable land. As early as the 19th century Western political philosophers had begun identifying the disruption of natural cycles by capitalist intervention. The effects of resource exploitation are more than clear today.
The New York rap-duo Armand Hammer occupy the main hall with ‘they who control the weather’ (2021), a multi-channel audio-video installation which resonates loudly throughout the building until the work reaches a crescendo, at which point a certain level of system-output forces a sudden halt. When the music stops, there is an echo—a reminder that we have the rare privilege of populating this near-empty structure. Below this sits Congolese sculptor Rigobert Nimi’s Explorer 5 (2021), a monumental object of steel, coloured plastics and various recovered materials. Nimi’s work is a vibrant collision of industry, technology and science fiction inspired by his home in Kinshasa, and expressed as a three-dimensional blueprint for a possible city, relating pressing environmental concerns to a progressively globalised and urban future.
Turning to the 21st century, Atonal’s use of the phrase seems symbolically to relate to climate consciousness, but not necessarily to articulate a complete disharmony between built human environments and the natural world. In some cases, there is an impression of cyborgian syntheses between nature and machine, even when these syntheses are admonitory: Giulia Cenci’s ‘Progresso Scorsoio’ (2021), and Ana Alenso’s ‘Medusa’s Fossil Addiction’ (2021), for instance, each evoke animal forms in their mechanical compositions while warning of the dangerously over-extractive fossil fuel industry. Adamyeko Lab similarly examines live microbial systems from a ‘mechanistic point of view’, projecting footage of 8 multicellular organisms onto circular plates of glass, like enlarged microscopic stages, bathed in sound composed by Vladislav Delay.
Visitant (no dancing 2020-2021), an inflatable tubular balloon that dances when powered by an electric fan, has been placed in a usually restricted zone of the Kraftwerk complex. Created in collaboration by Cyprien Gaillard + Hieroglyphic Being, the object is recognisable as a zany advertising gimmick—a loaded association when one considers the socialist history of the building—but its presentation here is enchanting, almost supernatural. The balloon’s movements are sound-tracked by an ambient score played through an impressive and towering Killasan sound system, and as the inflated fabric flails with abandon I imagine its spectral dancing to reflect a collective human desire to move after two years of pandemic-enforced stillness.
A large swath of jute cloth hangs suspended from the ceiling, bending beneath the weight of fermenting, composting soil and other organic matter. Non-Negotiable Condition (2021), an installation by Daniel Lie, slow drips the maturing soil substance onto the concrete floor below, producing moist sites for sprouting mushrooms. Large floral garlands and several terracotta pots bound in dyed cotton fabric—more vessels for fermentation—are positioned around the central sculpture like a shrine to putrefying matter. Underlying Lie’s work is the concept of impermanence: over time the installation will decompose, altering in shape, colour and smell throughout the duration of its display. Although temporally constrained, Lie’s work reflects the timeless and unalterable processes of growth, decay and death, as well as human systems, such as fermentation, that attempt to harness them.
As always, Berlin Atonal offers up a staggering display, demonstrating that the lines between art forms both sonic and visual are porous and in communication. In particular, Metabolic Rift engages with the current cultural fascination for ‘other than human’ worlds, setting its curatorial focus on speculative hybrids of human, nature and machine, the interplay between organic and mechanical being emphasised by extreme juxtapositions of scale in the molecular and the massive. The organisers have been transparent about adapting Metabolic Rift to the limitations of the covid pandemic, but even so, their objectives are still somewhat obscured: if ever there was a year to tangibly address ecological disaster, it is this one and the urgency proposed by the metabolic rift theory becomes, curiously, a little lost behind the spectacle. Even so, this is an earthly encounter which cannot be underrated, as it makes great efforts to inspire a possible, sustainable future.
Sarah Messerschmidt is an independent writer based in Berlin.
Metabolic Rift at Berlin Atonal, Kraftwerk, Berlin, 25 Sep-30 Oct 2021