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Rituals

by Vincent Moon
Commissioned by CTM and CTM X New Geographies
Berlin, Germany
30th January to 7th February 2016
Festival website: http://www.ctm-festival.de/festival2016/2016/01/30/programme/event/rituals_installation_opening/.

Reviewed by Hannah Drayson

There is plenty to say about this year's instalment of Club Transmediale (CTM), the Berlin-based annual festival devoted to 'adventurous music and art'. The festival pays close attention to movements in, and champions, new and canonical experimental music – particularly underground online, club and dance music scenes. It turns an insightful eye on movements in technology, contemporary culture and politics, and somehow rather successfully avoids simply attending to what is (about to be) in style. This year's programme, under the title New Geographies, included talks, seminars, and an exhibition and attended to a range of questions raised by the notion of diversity in contemporary music culture, be that of race, gender or geography. It was curated in collaboration with research organisation Norient, a group of ethnomusicologists who use online publishing to explore emerging global music scenes.

With this year's theme of geography, it isn't hard to find oneself considering the on-the-ground impacts of living in a globally connected world. Cross-cultural dialogue takes on a new resonance when close to everyone's mind are the realities of refugee crisis, mass migration prompted by climate change, revolution and war, and an apparent move towards right-wing politics; all of which seem to forecast an uncertain future economically, physically, and psychically. For those not forced to move, in many places, economic crashes have cost a generation of young people their international mobility and perhaps creative freedom when support for young artists and musicians is increasingly corporate sponsored, if available at all.

With such things at stake, the importance of dialogue with, or at least an increased awareness of 'other' cultures, particularly through such shared spaces as party or dance music culture more than ever requires an intellectually-informed honesty and awareness of privilege that treats the originators of these movements and their work as neither exotic, or naïve. The "Roots to Routes; How To Research, Document and Mediate Music Today" panel moderated by Florian Sievers, with Wendy Hsu, Christopher Kirkley, Sarah Abunama-Elgadi and Thomas Burkhalter, gave an excellent overview of the concerns, approaches and issues faced by artists, ethnomusicologists and label owners regarding their own contributions to this liminal cultural space. As the panel title indicates, a change in awareness regarding diasporic music scenes, as well as the local global music scenes means that, at least among more discerning audiences, the idea of a homogeneous 'world music' as a genre in itself no longer makes sense, given the range and dynamism of the forms of new music being 'discovered' and popularised (apparently at ever increasing speed). World music, as a category defined by what it is not - 'western' - suggests a 'them and us' binary that cannot and should not be maintained, it overlooks both the deep cross-pollination between musical styles (and legitimises theft), and naïvely assumes that the producers of 'world music' are themselves unaware of their own place in the global marketplace. The CTM exhibition at Bethaniel in the Kunstraum Kreuzberg featured video and interview documentation from numerous local music scenes that in recent years have been increasingly accessible online through reissues and new releases on western record labels such as Soundway [1]. Paying attention to these local scenes offers interesting materials for researchers interested in the interplay between tradition, culture and technology and a theme that recurs at CTM are the often surprising variety of ways in which communication technologies are used by individual scenes and artists to produce and distribute music. The ongoing influence of information networks and tools, the web, mobile computing, cheap information storage and services such as WhatsApp allow artists and their publics to distribute music files and contribute to the visibility of some musical cultures that would otherwise remain unknown to a wider public.

Also incorporating an ethnographic imperative was Vincent Moon's Rituals, the three screen video installation at HAU 2 which showed specially edited selections from Moon's documentary practice depicting ritual practices filmed in diverse geographic and cultural settings. The clips were shown on each screen in a random order and while avoiding the problem of arranging such a large body of material, this tactic, both in the visual and sound mix, worked well to prompt a multi-layered reading of the work with space for reflection. The consistent quality of the films themselves aided this, the footage is professional and cinematic.

The somewhat elusive thread that connects these scenes might be qualities associated with the trappings and performance of ritual. The people in these films are the vessels for cultural actions that are intended to transcend their own histories and futures and seemingly – in the polyphony of voices, drums, whistles and drones, the passive faces and mid-distance eyes – is a quality of assurance, and the feel of an agency that is both familiar, and other. While the quality of 'trance' or 'possession' depicted (at least in the films I saw) in its most recognisable sense, seems clearly stated in the twitching limbs of a Javanese boy, his eyelids flickering beneath thick blue eye-shadow, a woman's shoulders shaking as she dances, her face slack, both entirely absorbed and completely present, it can also perhaps be detected in other, more inward manifestations, that pull us into their worlds -– a woman's voice rising to meet the sun as it licks the edge of a mountain, her voice returning from the shadowed hillside. Or are the apparent similarities simply artefacts, as imagination casts around for continuity, looking for resonance where there is little more than you would normally expect.

Moon's beautiful films are incredibly engaging and left me troubled, perhaps because of the way that the selections do show us the worlds within which these rituals take place, their informants are not able explain from their own perspective what they mark or how we should see. The clips neither introduce their subjects, nor do they acknowledge the presence of a camera; preamble, welcome, and explanation are not depicted. Their levelled view is perhaps is intended to erase the difference between the apparently timeless human actions that they depict. The shift between documentary and artwork makes our own troubled impulses as viewers all the more apparent, Moon leaves us with a feeling that we have stumbled across something hardly understood.

The curatorial statement for Rituals names trance as an 'essential quest for our generation' but isn't specific about what which generation or trance itself might constitute, citing 'poetic trance, possession trance, altered states of consciousness, visions, hypnosis, mediumship, ecstasy, dreams'. Something of a catch-all then, and its worth noting, as suggested by the list above, that trance is to an extent a product of culture. Deep understanding, familiarity and culture shape our ability to do many things: I can go and sing to the mountain, but to fully be the vessel for the song that greets the sun is not a role that can be dropped into. Loosing oneself, authenticity, familiarity, tradition, are presented to us as outsiders, rather than potential participants. What Moon's installation made me wonder, especially when watching sitting in a room with 30 or so other spectators – how many of us have rejected or overlooked similar traditions in our own home cultures? – are we looking with perhaps a little desire at things we would reject if they were our own inheritance? The question is perhaps not 'what are we looking for? 'but why are we looking, and perhaps simply this is an issue of consumerism, the romantic ideal that there is something authentic in ourselves that might be actualised by a 'true' encounter. The exoticism of tribal and spiritual customs but at a safe distance – and perhaps for good reason? In one sense there is an honesty to this that perhaps might not at first come to mind, one's own rituals are not only terribly banal, but by avoiding them we avoid the claims that our culture might have on us. What Rituals doesn't show us is the preparation, the hierarchy imposed and reinforced by the ritual, the control of the young and old by the past, it's structuring of thought and action. What is the price of having these kinds of ritual, traditional practices in our lives? What comes with them? And when they become negotiable, is something left behind and how do we balance quest narratives with narratives of loss and perhaps overlooked, choice?

Notes:
[1] Better known genres who have 'broken through' in this way include Portuguese Kuduro, or Shangaan Electro from South Africa.


Last Updated 1 June 2016

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