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An interview with Laurens von Oswald and Adriano Rosselli.

As a prelude to this year's iteration of the Atonal Festival, Laurens von Oswald, the festival’s creative director & and musical curator, and Adriano Rosselli, Atonal’s exhibition curator, guide AWC through its extensive two-weekend program.

The upcoming Atonal edition marks one decade of the festival since its relaunch in 2013. How has it evolved in relation to the demands of the city during these years?

We began by trying to design a context that could be a container for artistic experiments of all kinds. We’ve always been interested in cultural experiments, things that happen outside mainstream music scenes, gallery worlds, or museums. We always believed that experiments of this kind could be tested on a larger scale, with more people there to witness them, but we never imagined that it could also become a social project which collects people with different cultural interests in the same place at the same time. We’ve noticed that interest in this transdisciplinary project has grown over the last decade, surprising us a bit. We have also noticed more and more artists from both the musical and visual arts who want to work outside the conventional contexts in which their work might usually be shown. Of course, among the obvious things, costs in the city have risen and put pressure on all aspects of what we do, and funding options have become more limited. It’s tough to balance all these pressures while still trying to stay committed to that original idea of supporting artists in their experiments and providing the best social context where these can be seen, heard, and talked about. 

This iteration of the festival, the first full edition after the pandemic, sees many world premiers. Can you tell us more about the sonic landscape that you want to provide for the audience to experience?

I think our idea is to try and provide a varied landscape with plenty of surprises without it feeling chaotic or messy. So there will be a range of environments that will develop over the course of each night. We’re going to present the premiere of large-scale, big-stage performances by people like Caterina Barbieri with Space Afrika. Nkisi is premiering a new show. Blackhaine's spectacular new performance, and Alessandro Cortini, but, also, at different times, more intimate, decentered musical experiences [will happen] - Laxlan Petras and Yasmin Saleh are setting up a stageless opera with roaming actors. Billy Bultheel’s in-situ unamplified brass and percussion instruments, improvised sonic environments from Pavel Milyakov, and Perila, and so on. 

There’s always a connection with the space, whether that’s exploding music to fill it to its edges, or playing with the scale to try and do something more personal and direct and create a different feeling. Unlike other projects we’ve done, like The Long Now in 2015, where the idea was to create longer and slower musical connections between performer and audience, this year we don’t want anyone to be stuck in any one musical world for too long. There should always be something surprising, confounding, or moving happening. That's also why we're setting up different staging options in the space, so that things happen everywhere, dynamically, and unpredictably. 


fig. 1


Atonal Festival is renowned not only for the selection of its sound artists, but also for the presentation of site-specific artworks and large-scale commissions in the frame of Universal Metabolism. What will the exhibition be about this year, and which artists will participate in it?

This year we also wanted to muddy the distinction between the experiences of going to a concert and going to an exhibition. So, during our concert program, there will be site-specific art pieces and commissions for the space. We have asked Florentina Holzinger to hang objects in the space, which she and a cast of performers will interact with. Works by Mire Lee and James Richards will be available for people to see, even while concerts are happening, in the main hall. On the other hand, the Universal Metabolism exhibition will take on more of a loosely sequenced, performative character. A famous performance and video-based work by the legendary theatre director Romeo Castellucci will be shown, Marco Fusinato will perform intermittently an adaptation of the work he showed at the Venice Biennale - appearing and disappearing like an apparition - and each night will finish in a concert: Robin Fox’s new work, along with new shows from KLEIN and from Billy Bultheel. 

Kraftwerk, the historical home of the Atonal Festival, has staged its concerts and exhibitions from the beginning. Will the concerts and the exhibition be in dialogue with its spaces this year? 

For us, this is really the starting point for our work. It starts with our own fantasies of landscapes or situations that are populated by surprising, intimate, or spectacular moments. We are lucky to be able to work in such a unique space, and over the 10 years of working on this project within it and forming a relationship and an engagement with it - it's an entity of its own - sometimes flexible, sometimes direction-giving. We are also really aware of what its limits are, or where you can waste energy or resources.  Every piece and every performance unfolds on the complex grounds, and all also, somehow, have a relationship with it, however complex. So the dialogue is something that's built into the curatorial process. Aside from some of the projects mentioned earlier, and without wanting to reveal too much, Cyprien Gaillard will present a new semi-permanent sculpture that engages with the building's year-round life cycle and activity, a kind of “anti-monument” situated outside the building. To contrast that, Bridget Polk will also be presenting a never-permanent body of sculpture that is entirely responsive to the conditions of the building. 

The concerts are equally programmed to traverse different engagements and activations of the space. They’re presented in a sequence that aims to create dynamism in both performance, and, of course, the individual audiences’ experience.


fig. 2


The need for creating collectivity in these times of increasing division and conflict is strong. Music is a powerful infrastructure of togetherness that evokes a forgotten feelings of participation. Do you have a special direction or desire for the festival to be achieved in the next 10 years?

Of course we like the idea of collectivity, but not by enforcing a single idea or position, or frame of thinking. We want to bring people together, in the sense that they share an experience with other people that makes them feel something. We feel lucky because we think we can do this in a way and on a scale that doesn’t happen, or which isn’t possible elsewhere. This is the first chance where we’ve been able to create a collective experience since 2019, and we’re excited to see the result. I think in the next 10 years we want to be led by the ambitions of artists, particularly those who question the conventional boundaries of their practices. If they want to keep trying to find new ways that their work can be experienced, then we will want to keep building the settings in which that can happen in the best way.


Berlin Atonal will take place 7-17 September 2023 at Kraftwerk, Berlin. The festival contains 6 concert nights spread over two weekends (07/08/09 and 15/16/17 September). Each concert night encompasses dozens of shows, all taking place within the Kraftwerk complex, which includes the powerplant, as well as Tresor, Globus, and OHM, daily from 18:00. A full schedule for the concert nights including afterparties will be made available on August 15. Tickets are available until sold out.



    Cover, fig. 2: Berlin Atonal 2019, by Frankie Casillo.

    fig. 1: Berlin Atonal 2017 - Pan Daijing, by Helge Mundt.



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