Music & clubs

Berlin Atonal 2023: Multi-focal, alien, alive

Experimental music festival Atonal is back for its 10th anniversary at Kraftwerk. We sat down with the founders to look back on a decade of ambitious programming in one of Berlin’s most iconic venues.

Photo: Helge Mundt

Berlin Atonal is mutating again. Born in 1982 in West Berlin as an interdisciplinary art event, Atonal took a 23-year pause in 1990 as festival founder Dimitri Hegemann decided to focus on his main venture, legendary nightclub Tresor. It returned in 2013, relaunching as Berlin’s most innovative and ambitious festival of experimental art and music. Now, 10 years later, this year’s edition seems to be attempting to invent an entirely new type of festival-going experience: multi-focal, alien, alive.

To some extent, this was born of necessity. The 2023 festival will be the first in four years. During the pandemic, Atonal’s team of organisers managed to adapt to Covid restrictions, but it was an entirely different one-off experience, which they called Metabolic Rift. Small groups of visitors were granted almost limitless access to the gargantuan Kraftwerk building, passing by a number of art installations and musical interventions which triggered in response, as on a ghost train. It was a tremendous success, culminating in a large-scale work by Cyprien Gaillard, where a giant blow-up figure ‘danced’ in the enormous upper-chamber of the building, as if performing a ghostly ritual on behalf of emptied-out dance floors across the world.

Photo: Helge Mundt

It’s like the building is a giant concrete stomach digesting the visitors

This year’s festival retains that DNA, but in a new strain. Across a two-weekend musical programme and a four-day exhibition entitled Universal Metabolism, there is a clear emphasis on what might be called ‘living’ performances. Florentina Holzinger (whose Ophelia’s Got Talent at the Volksbühne books out months in advance) is bringing her maximalist, feminist theatre to a site-specific show that required the construction of an enormous church bell. Mercurial rapper and choreographer Blackhaine has also been commissioned to do a piece featuring multiple dancers who emerge from shipping containers and disperse across the building. Musicians Laurel Halo, Caterina Barbieri, Dreamcrusher and Nkisi will all premiere new work. Uniting all of these is an interest in expanding the logic of the music festival: more art but also more movement, more spontaneity, more places to look, more life.


“Metabolic Rift happened at a time of worldwide catastrophe,” says Laurens von Oswald, Atonal’s artistic director and co-founder. “Our event was responding to that. Now we have the opportunity to invite people back in and make something large-scale, spectacular and immersive. This is the first Atonal in four years. It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done.”

Photo: Helge Mundt

We’re building massive scaffolding towers… creating ponds and pulpits, hanging bells, flying sound systems and suspending screens and fixtures in ways we’ve never tried before.

Ask anyone who has visited Berlin Atonal, and the first thing they will mention is the scale of the Kraftwerk building – 8,000 square metres, and a 20-metre high ceiling in the main room. The former East Berlin thermal power plant sets an epic stage, yet the festival this year is almost attempting to work against top-down spectacle, resisting a single point of focus. Instead, performances will unfold from within the audience.

Co-founder Harry Glass stressed this aspect. “Take ‘A Fugue State’ from Rainy Miller. Here, the artist will haul out an entire staircase onto the factory floor and use that as his stage, ascending to perform, then leaving it behind. Or the performance from Billy Bultheel, who is going to install an artificial pond within the building surrounded by scaffolding, on top of which musicians play unamplified brass instruments,” he explains. “The idea is to plant something into this empty, industrial space and let it grow. The festival serves as a host to this living organism. Each individual act is like another mutation.”

The building’s limits, he explains, have become challenges, ways to rethink the relationships between the structure, the performers and the audience. “We’re building massive scaffolding towers, bridging air holes with stage areas in new positions, creating ponds and pulpits, hanging bells, flying sound systems and suspending screens and fixtures in ways we’ve never tried before. The goal is always the same: to reconfigure the way an artist can communicate a musical or visual message to a mass audience, to use surprise to stimulate the audience to experience that message.”

Adriano Rosselli, director of Atonal’s art programme since 2017, has been a key figure in expanding the festival’s format. “In the planning process we became obsessed with resisting the type of a musical festival that is as a sequence of performers appearing one after another, with 10 minutes in between to go to the bar.

“Our fixation became how to create one dynamic internally bonded performative entity. When one experience stops, another might have already started. The festival is pulling you in different directions,” he says. “Everything is charged with the energy of what is about to happen next, of what happened just before. Within two hours, on one seemingly linear bill of acts, a group of performers may be hanging from the air, a 15-metre tall screen might drop from the roof to show a video work and then disappear again, a performer might emerge from within the crowd onto a stage that has remained hidden up until then.”

Photo: Helge Mundt


If the two weekends of Berlin Atonal’s musical programme are interested in working both with and against the massive scale of the Kraftwerk, the four-day bridging exhibition is hardly less ambitious. “The idea is that you walk into Kraftwerk into a cyclical programme of performances that can happen anywhere in the building, at any time,” explains Rosselli. “It’s like the building is a giant concrete stomach digesting the visitors, processing them, each artistic organ performing its own function and swooshing the audience around its insides.”

Some performances are static, others run constantly. Near the entrance, one artist will continuously stack fragile stone sculptures. Other artworks ‘activate’ at certain times, or at the whim of the performers. A bodily theme runs throughout: tapestries of cannibals devouring their victims, a performance involving a human spine, and the South Korean artist Mire Lee installing what Rosselli described as a “fleshy curtain”, as if the building was trying to fashion skin for its own concrete skeleton. The film series includes the gruesome, surreal and fascinating documentary De Humani Corporis Fabrica from Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, in which cameras are sent through the human body. Again, and again, there is an interest in the tension between the organic and the artificial, between the human body and the human-made.

Photo: Helge Mundt

“It’s an exhibition of performance art without performance artists. We’ve looked for people who work outside of the contemporary art world: theatre actors, dancers, opera singers, classical musicians, technicians. And then there is the idea of bringing the building itself to life,” says Rosselli. “This artist Rabon Aibo has rigged up the pipes of the building to vibrating elements, so that the whole pipework of the Kraftwerk becomes an instrument. We like that unpredictability. Also, unusually for an exhibition, each of the days has a different endpoint: a concert. Depending when they attend, these final experiences could cast what they’ve seen before in a different light. Robin Fox is putting on this time-carving laser show. KLEIN will perform as a shadow behind a giant screen. These concerts are like alternative endings to everything which has come before.”


Asked what they’ve learned from a decade of putting on experimental art and music in one of the city’s most epic stages, Glass and von Oswald speak of constantly tackling new challenges and surprises.

“In our second year, we hosted Cabaret Voltaire’s first live show in 20 years, and before the show, Richard H. Kirk locked the tapes with all his audio and video material in the safe and forgot the code. There was also the time we needed video material from a politically sensitive artist in China and had to organise a meeting in a public square in Hong Kong to exchange hard drives.

Photo: Frankie Casillo

“Or, more recently, we had to find someone in New York to visit 90 year-old Lillian Schwartz, who was suffering the effects of being in Hiroshima at the time the bomb was dropped, to scan some of the thousands of drawings that she had made from her bed for a video piece. And then there’s the stuff that we’re not allowed to talk about,” von Oswald recalls. “But some of these things are one-offs. You can’t learn from them exactly because we keep changing, expanding, setting the bar higher. Each year, it’s like starting as a novice all over again.”

Will there be another 10 years of Atonal? “Berlin is changing rapidly. Things like this are getting harder to do and support from the city has become scarce. We’ve never had more ambition, but the truth is that the space and resources to realise them are getting thinner.”