A small group of strangers and I were led down concrete stairs to a hallway. An industrial light in a metal cage illuminated a set of doors, and we stopped. The guide told us to “follow the lights” and “stay together, you can’t get lost if you stay together.” He opened the door to a dark hallway in the basement of Tresor / Kraftwerk Berlin, the former East Berlin power plant turned storied venue run by Dimitri Hegemann on the southern shore of the Spree, and motioned us to enter, “just head towards the light”. We entered carefully, in twos, stepping slowly into the dark. The smell of damp concrete and sudden absence of light focused the senses, which telescoped inward, searching for edges.
A small TV flickered at the end of the corridor, eerie vocalizations from Pan Daijing (SEAL, 2021) beckoned from the muffling dark. Haltingly, the group moved forward, restricted by a natural fear of the unknown ahead. Too quickly, the work from Daijing went black and another light appeared further into the concrete maze. We moved towards it and rounded a corner when a deep metallic rumble ripped through the halls as Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste’s (Devo (Listenin’ Out the Top of Ya Head), 2021) bass transducers forced cast iron pots and Dutch ovens to beat, alive. A light illuminated a steel amalgam in the distance that looked like some sort of post-apocalypse monster (Giulia Cenci, Progresso Scorsoio, 2021) brought into existence by the narrative choices of a video game and now, we were forced to confront it. As we neared and its parts became discerned—agricultural machinery and vehicle parts—its terrifying qualities dissipated. And another light, and another light and another … we were led through the basement of Kraftwerk in a way that felt game-like and exhilarating. The reveal, however, became the object that led and guided, not the work. The work, as it did within this darkened basement, fell back into darkness.
As a curatorial conceit, the process was engaging and focused the experience of some works, for example the way Toussaint-Baptiste’s and Cenci’s works merged into a foreboding experience of dread and relief. But many of the works whooshed past as the time with each was limited by having to move forward to the next. There were no loops, only progress, and so the ability to reflect was lost. A curatorial statement provided by and attributed to Atonal likens this activity to an interruption of a system, claiming, “artworks are operations that pulse, fire, transmit and rest.” It’s hard not to see this as mimicking our current system of cultural transmission, not interrupting it. The feeling of camaraderie that began the experience was fleeting, as the group loosely stayed together but interacted little. The performative constraint of a small group led through darkness by light and art remained just that, performative.
Whistles, hums, and atonal throat singing reached out from a corner of the last room in the basement, and a member of our group beckoned from a stairwell. We entered and climbed four or five flights of concrete stairs following a participant/performer’s hand that called and flitted back and forth in the open cavity created by circling stairways. After this poetic rise, a performative score by Tino Seghal, we entered a huge hall with a wall of speakers facing a crumpled white mass on the ground. Suddenly, fans sprang to life and a thrum emerged from the speakers, in fits, a leg, then another, rose out of the pile of white nylon, an air dancer, maybe 40 feet tall, began to sway, rise and fall. It was somehow spiritual, mesmerizing. Its inherent comedic qualities were erased as wave after wave of loosening sound rushed through the hall and this flimsy but towering dancer flailed back and forth. Visitant (no dancing 2020-2021) (2021) by Cyprien Gaillard (sculpture) and Hieroglyphic Being (sound), at the top of Kraftwerk, became the height of spectacle, of airy animation and an homage to the pandemic-dormant Kraftwerk.
A guide emerged from the corner of the room and told us the second part of the exhibition was untimed, and we were free to stay as long as we liked, we were free to wander through the final floors of the space. Somewhat freed but bewildered, we headed downstairs to the central floors of the concrete tomb. Video work from Armand Hammer played on a large projection screen over the space when we arrived in the hall. A whirling brightly colored metropolis by Rigobert Nimi lit up in candy colors, looked like a toy version of futurity, highly machined and precise, but lacking a human element, it sat as an object-image of a post-human future. I wandered around and as pieces emerged from the vast interior of the space I kept looking for a dynamo, something that could animate an understanding of the fleeting glimpses of the maze below, the artificial turbulence above and the vast jumble of work that lay ahead of me.
In the former control room of the power plant, its panels, warning lights, and gauges still intact, an installation from Sung Tieu (with sound by Ville Haimala and lights by Federico Nitti), Nerv Centre (2021) explored Havana syndrome, a method of psychological warfare that has appeared in the last few years afflicting US diplomatic staff, first in Cuba. Believed to be caused by targeted radio and microwave frequencies, the syndrome has been reported around the globe. Tieu’s exploration of the syndrome emerged from the United States’ use of sonic warfare during the Vietnam War. The installation, including pictures of politicians, articles about the syndrome from websites, ranging in authority and veracity, cobbles together loose theories, unstable psy-ops, and conspiracies all while disorienting the viewer. Red and blue lights swung around the room, warning of an emergency, Haimala’s soundscape compounded the bewilderment to make for a very effective installation.
Down a staircase, through a room filled with magnified projections of microscopic life (Vladislav Delay and Adameyko Lab, 2021), around a stack of compost bins illuminated from below (Cezary Poniatowski, Compost II, 2021) I found the dynamo. A lone artwork, a poem by Ilya Kaminsky printed on a white sheet of paper, hung in the middle of a bridge over the machine floor. It is titled Exhibit I, and its simplicity is refreshing amongst the vast space. It begins with a quote from Russian translator, Kudinov, “For Marx, metabolic rift is a hole that capitalism makes in nature, and this hole expands by day, taking us, the trees, the roofs, the chickens, the insects, the planet, in. Biting off an ear, a foot, a city, biting each of [sic], piece by piece.”
a human man on a planet nearly ruined
by human men:
Marrow of a marrow of a bone I
a no one, a stare.
The whole of the exhibition began to make sense, revolving around this piece of paper that hung at the center of the building and nowhere else (it’s unpublished and will remain, so I was told). We’re near the end, and maybe this is what’s left. We were led here, following the promise of light, the promise of progress, and our desire for completion. In a concrete tomb, protists and microbes, the heat of composts, conspiracies scrambling our minds, and slick futures for non-humans, it is a mix of future resilience, forlorn fatalism, and ultimately, realism. We led ourselves here.
On the ground floor, my nose picks up on the sweet smell of decay, the souring of starches. Swoops of jutte hang in a cruciform, the rough fabric holds decaying straw and patches of oyster mushrooms emerge from darkened splotches. Amphora capped with linen sour and sweat onto the floor. Daniel Lie’s Non-negotiable Condition (2021) rots elegantly in the darkness, the processes and organisms it facilitates do the work of existence, going on without us. Opposite, perfectly scribed proposal illustrations hang framed behind glass. They depict a utopian city cascading down a hillside topped with a massive, conical wind turbine with built-in whistles. This fictional (because we never built it) town’s energy would be generated by this turbine as it would sing, turning gently. These proposals by Liliane Lijn, Whirling Wind Cone 1-2 (1970) and Breathing Tower 1-4 (1971), are the oldest works in the show. They are relics of an approach that feels as far away as fifty years suggests, a moment when the imaginary didn’t feel controlled by out of control consumption, when society could still be moved by a collective imaginary, molded, and refined in an aesthetic congruence with the realities and consequences of an ecological system we are not able to escape, no matter how hard we try.