The Club Transmediale (CTM) fest at Maria am Ufer embodies everything there is to love about Berlin nightlife: great music, great visuals plus an open-mindedness and sense of possibility that simply doesn't exist in your average small town disco. Founded 10 years ago by a group from the 1990s underground scene as a nocturnal add-on to the Transmediale media arts festival, CTM has since become an independent showcase of cutting edge music and club-related visual arts, as well as a creative networking hub and a forge for new talent. Co-founder and organiser Oliver talked to Exberliner about how it all began, how tourists are changing Berlin nightlife and why the "structures" (CTM 09's theme) of the independent music scene must evolve to survive.
So what is CTM in a nutshell?
Club Transmediale is a festival for music, especially the broad area of electronic music that includes dance music but also everything, on a more basic level, that is related to sound. It's all about sound.
CTM grew out of the club culture in Berlin in the 1990s…
We were quite influenced by the amazing club culture and also by the space that was available. Then there was the phenomenon that a lot of visual artists who created these club environments where you could dance were also presenting their new visual works. They would invite their musician friends to perform, and show what they could do on their laptops. This was the scene we came from. Jan (a co-organiser) had his own space called Hybrid, I was running an independent Dutch-German project in the Sophiensäle in Sophienstrasse. We had a lot of friends who were running illegal clubs.
How were you related to the Transmediale, the media arts festival?
We were fans of the Transmediale, we really liked that festival, which then was showing a still-new art form. But we thought something was missing: this new media-art related scene mixed with this new electronic music - it wasn't represented at Transmediale. We were friends with Maria am Ostbahnhof. They opened their club in 1998. The people there used to run Eimer in Rosenthaler Strasse, and before that the club underneath Tacheles. So we went to Transmediale and suggested that we do some club nights. The 2002 festival was a turning point - we realised we should establish the "hobby" a little bit further. Since then we've been a sister festival of the Transmediale.
How has it the idea of the festival evolved in 10 years?
We've created structures. When we started, it was this grassroots thing, nobody cared about things like taxes and contracts. We've created demand from outside, but also from inside. We always tell ourselves "the next festival will have to be the best festival." People from outside also have high expectations. After 10 years of survival, people want to have money.
The theme of this year's festival is, incidentally, "structures".
Yes, we're asking ourselves what's happening in the realm of sound, in the realm of organisation, these broad changes in the field of music, the impact of globalisation, the question of how to earn money with music, how people get organised. So for our 10th anniversary we're asking: "Where are we at the moment?"
So do you have any answers? How are things going?
We have three different versions: a pessimistic version, a positive version and a quite neutral version. I am more neutral. I would say things always change and we have to see how to adapt, and to look back and see which tools and strategies worked and what can we use for the future. And one hypothesis is that we have to create temporary communities to realise projects, to support ourselves in joint ventures and networks. You can't escape that. You're forced to do that. You can't sit, like the cliché of the artist working alone in his little studio, and then come out and, whoof, you're selling loads of CDs.
What about the Internet offering more freedom and the possibility of instant distribution, even fame… Look at the bands that got big through MySpace.
They have no sustainability. They're often a one-hit wonder. You have one little song that everyone's listening to on MySpace. But you can't really show your work anymore. An album is a thing you're really working on if you're trying to do something broader… That would be the pessimistic version. But MySpace: it's completely concentrated, it has to go "schlang!", it has to work immediately, it's a sort of accelerated tool. It creates a burnout syndrome for everyone. You can't earn money with MySpace.
There's no curator on MySpace…
That's a good thing and a bad thing because you have no filter, or no one who tries to guide you or support you in what you are doing.
And what's the optimistic view?
That you can find people all around the world who are interested in quite strange things! There's an audience for every niche and you can distribute yourself quite easily, even if you make quite non-mainstream music, and you can still be found. That's a good thing. It's so easy to show what you can do.
What about the physical structures in Berlin? Back when you started it was relatively easy to just find an empty space and open up a club.
That still happens a bit. You can't just plug in a fridge and it's done, but there's still stuff going on in the city that we're not aware of, it could be in Neukölln or on the periphery of Friedrichshain.
In general, though, clubs are more established, more official. What impact does that have on the music scene you're involved in?
When we started, we always defined the club as a social place where you can meet and exchange ideas, not just get drunk - a space where we can go to socialise, to learn something, to have fun. The notion of what a club is was completely different from what it is nowadays. We try to maintain this notion of the club as an open space, and the idea of Club Transmediale is that even if I don't know the artist's name and what is happening, I will definitely have a good time: it's either going to be intellectually stimulating or physically demanding, because the music is good to dance to. With Berlin's fame growing internationally, more and more people have been coming here. They are, of course, welcome, but they also bring their own ideas of nightlife - from, for example, smaller towns - which is completely alien to Berlin, and this has changed to atmosphere in clubs. So the clubs are less open program-wise - they are reluctant to book lesser-known names - and they have to make more money, to pay taxes or whatever.
What about indie or experimental venues like Ausland in Prenzlauer Berg?
Ausland is super. It's quite special. They also have dance nights. But imagine a club that's a bit bigger, like Watergate … It could have been something like that. It could be a club that has it, and sometimes it is. A space where people feel welcome.
How do you discover new artists, get new talents into the network?
We have an entry call for each autumn. A lot of people send their creations. We're starting to travel a bit and have joined a network of festivals. We do a lot of research ourselves about what's interesting. There are things we should show, to present an overview of what's interesting at the moment as we see it.
What is interesting at the moment?
I'm more into the pop-y part of the festival. But it has to be quite elaborate and intelligently made, like the Spektral Disco night we're doing (Saturday, January 24) … linking between this Krautrock and disco sound from the 1970s-early 1980s, but transferred to nowadays and mixed with all the knowledge we have, and then reworked. Hans-Peter Lindstrøm takes these old tracks and re-layers them. It's really amazing.
Where do you see the festival going in the future?
We're trying to follow developments in the field of music we work in. Will club culture survive? We try to show the "state of the art". That's the ideal we want to reach, but that's more and more difficult because the music world, the sound world, is getting more and more diverse.
And at some point will it all just disappear into the Internet?
No! With our festival you have a quite concentrated timeframe and you have the opportunity to present projects that you could never publish on the Internet, cooperation between musicians you could never experience in normal club settings. Or like Martin Tétreault's "Frictions" project on Tuesday night (Tuesday, January 27). Part of it is 100% Batterie, which are 10 drummers. This is a project that works around his research of one of the Beatles members, Ringo Starr, who was the least famous of the four Beatles and always a bit in the background. That's a project that you can only experience live. You can't hear it on MySpace. And it would never be in the same spirit. So the festival has different functions: the filter function, which says "take a look at this". But we also like to realise projects that don't have to function economically by selling something.
Exberliner has compiled a list of highlights at this year's Club Transmediale. All take place at Maria am Ufer.
Fri, Jan 23, 11 pm Funk Mundial (opening night)
Urban music producers from around the world bring their hybrid mix of tropical, outernational, metropolitan bass and transnational ghettotech. Styles range from breakbeat and hip hop to kwaito, cumbia, baile funk, bhangra and dancehall; the acts include DJ Mujava (South Africa), Maga Bo and MC BNegao (Rio), Radioclit (London) and many more.
Sat, Jan 24, 11 pm - Spektral Disco
Tonight brings together cutting edge artists in the fields of nu-disco and psychedelia. Norwegian electronic star Hans-Peter Lindstrøm shares the stage with masters of handmade, mysterious disco sounds such as The Emperor Machine (UK), Black Devil Disco Club (France) and Elitechnique (Netherlands).
Mon, Jan 26, 9:00 - Atak night
Artists on the Japanese experimental electronic label Atak perform along with the label founder Keiichiro Shibuya, Finnish minimalists Pan Sonic, the electronic music legend and Japanese Fluxus founder Yasunao Tone, and the Tokyo-based sound artist Evala.
Mon, Jan 26, 9:00 - Netlabel Meeting I
Non-profit collective STFU presents electronic and experimental musicians from around the world who work primarily via the Internet.
Tue, Jan 27, 10:00 - Netlabel Meeting II
Netaudio Berlin and London present a night of networked music inspired by net labels, creative commons, web 2.0 and free culture - in other words, the latest sounds of the Internet, from sonic art by Ollie Brown to web-savvy UK dubstep by Spatial. Audience members can perform as well in Netaudio Ping Pong sessions, where visitors can lay their hands on cutting edge technology and produce some wicked beats with the help of table tennis.