CTM Festival: An interview with Oliver Baurhenn

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CTM is a prominent international festival dedicated to contemporary electronic, digital and experimental music, as well as the diverse range of artistic activities in the context of sound and club cultures. Since 1999 it takes place concurrently and cooperatively with the transmediale – international festival for art and digital culture, Berlin. This year, the 17th edition of the festival is taking place between 29th January and 7th February 2016 with a special theme: New Geographies, including several current and former SHAPE artists (more info here). Here, we talk to one of CTM’s founders and organizers Oliver Baurhenn.

CTM started in 1999 in conjunction with transmediale. Can you talk about the beginnings of the festival?

In the 1980s, as desktop computers became more affordable computer music started to appear. My colleagues, Jan Rohlf, Remco Schuurbiers, Rechenzentrum’s Marcus Weiser and myself were big fans of transmediale. Jan was studying at the University of the Arts in Berlin under Professor Sauter, who was close to the transmediale team. transmediale had been lacking some of the recent developments in sound, therefore we approached them with the idea to organise a night programme with audiovisual and sound art as well as recent club music. They didn’t provide financial support, but instead offered to publish our programme in their catalogue and gave us a shuttle service from their venue to ours. We organised a ten-day programme at the original Maria am Ostbahnhof club. Aside from a diverse music programme we included a lot of strong audiovisual performances and installations, and it was quite a success. After these 10 days, everyone was amazed and happy, and a year later, they asked us to do it again. Everything was paid for from the entrance fees and as we could not afford to book hotel rooms for the artists, they were sleeping at our friends’ houses.

After a break in 2001, we resumed in 2002 at the former power station, E Werk, the Berghain of the 90s. We organised the festival for 14 days, and did almost everything by ourselves. At that time, we initiated our first international networking activities; this was when the first cooperation with Mutek took place. After the 2002 event we realised that we were a festival so we started thinking about public funding. It was obvious that we had to professionalise the whole thing – you can’t stay awake for 20 hours a day over 14 days. We’ve always felt that this way of presenting the realm of digital culture – where sound/music definitely belongs to – is something that you don’t get anywhere else. Even other festivals that had a sound programme mostly presented it at their parties but rarely with such an in-depth approach. Programme-wise, we are sometimes quite challenging for our public, but this is something we feel is a very good thing and it makes the festival quite special.

CTM’s programming revolves around thematic issues, which can be perceived in sequential or retrospect order. Can you talk about them?

When we started, we were taking over the themes of transmediale, but we were also convinced that it’s not about presenting the latest developments, but also the way they mirror societal changes. And we began to develop our own themes. In 2003, we did a huge overview of Eastern and South Eastern European electronic music, and we continued that in 2004. From 2003 onwards we started to have a discourse programme with panel discussions and film screenings, which became increasingly more important as a contextual backdrop to our programming. Music is an interesting seismograph of societal changes, politics, and how we as societies deal with these changes. That’s why these themes are quite important to us.

I wanted to ask about the music programming, because in 2006, you changed the subtitle of the festival to “Festival for Adventurous Music and Art”. What did this semantic change reflect?

First we called ourselves “Festival for Electronic Music and Related Arts”. In the mid 2000s electronic musicians rediscovered their analogue and acoustic instruments. When presenting these projects, it was quite clear that “electronic” was not the right word anymore. How do you describe this sudden mix of things and approaches? We changed it to “adventurous music” because all these artists were rediscovering things from the past and going on an adventure. Electronic music also influenced how analogue musicians perform. They developed certain techniques such as repetition and cut and paste, which are also present in rock and pop. We mostly invite projects that fall within this spirit of electronic music, but of course are now getting broader and more adventurous, trying things out, researching how they can create new sounds and express ideas.

How do you reflect upon these 17 years in terms of CTM’s development but also the development of new media arts and music in general?

For me it’s always a question of how artists approach the world. In fine arts, it’s quite often a single artist developing his or her ideas. In the context of museums and galleries, it’s quite often not a collaborative approach that’s in place, unlike in the arts formerly called media arts. And this is also the case in the music scene. In many of the music projects we are presenting, there’s quite often a bunch of people who have a need to work together with others and influence each other. And this is something we’ve continued since the 90s. These terms such as media arts and electronic music in the purest sense are definitely slowly disappearing and that’s good – it’s music, not electronic music only.

I had a discussion with Electric Wizard, who played with Extreme Precautions. They are in a way like-minded, but are using different instruments. Extreme Precautions uses electronics and Electric Wizard guitars, percussions, drum sets. The main guy from Electric Wizard said: “I hate this electronically produced music.” And then I was sitting there and said: “Yes, but your records were never transferred to zeroes and ones? They are not tweaked and reframed digitally?” What you are doing on stage might be a performance with analogue instruments, but at the end of the day, it is completely influenced by electronic music. So you are not really that far from each other, maybe in appearance, but technically – behind the scenes – it’s the same production methods. It’s not about the tools you are using, it’s more about the mindset.

CTM takes place in Berlin, the centre of electronic music and digital culture. What is its relationship to the city as such and its various music scenes?

The relationship to the city is quite strange, same like the city itself. Thankfully, on one side – we are still the hub for experimental electronic music. It’s quite astonishing when you invite artists and then suddenly realise they are actually living in Berlin, and you didn’t even know about it, because they just moved there. It’s like this cliché about all these artists living here, doing their projects, and all these amazing venues where you can experience concerts for next to nothing. It’s easy to go out and see interesting stuff almost every night. How can we make our programme more interesting without repeating what is already happening anyway? How can you present something that is really special in this context? On the other hand, we have a huge amount of international public travelling to CTM. It’s like a really weird situation, because we are doing this for the city, but also acting on an international level.

How do you see the future of your festival, and also the network CTM is part of – ICAS (International Cities of Advanced Sound)?

There is the optimistic version – that we all get more recognition. We are recognised in our community (also internationally), but sometimes we suffer from the non-recognition by the funders, or the public that does not understand what we are doing.  The pessimistic version is that bigger companies and festivals that have more funding or sponsoring support will eat us up. They will buy out our artists and we’ll have to dig deeper and deeper for those who are undiscovered. Another issue is that, suddenly, artists are asking for more money, even though they are “not worth it yet”. There’s this one hit wonder phenomenon in experimental music now. I think the future will be a mix of the optimistic and the pessimistic. We have to be prepared to offer more.

We opened the festival with a huge discourse programme, there’s also our annual exhibition, etc. We have become a meeting point for quite a lot of stake-holders who are working in our field. We don’t need 100,000 visitors; this would reduce the quality of our festival. For us growth means to be able to present mind-blowing and adventurous things and provide artists with a stage for their strangest projects. This is the future for all of us and the music niche that we are in – to keep on taking risks, to be bold, to be open, and to provide possibilities that nobody else would. The future is about presenting emerging artists and inviting established ones and creating a playground for experimentation. And thus, we are open to failures. If you are trying to be adventurous, things can go wrong and we can live with that.

Apart from the main festival event, you also do these other projects and events throughout the year. Can you briefly describe them?

As our international network of partners grew quite quickly we started to apply for European funding. This was and is the best opportunity to realise specific projects. Through the joint effort of many partners and with EU-funding we were able to realise e.g. the ICAS festival – a sort of festival of festivals which took place in Dresden in May 2015. With the SHAPE platform project we are heading to present emerging artists from Europe in Canada and Brazil this year. Opportunities that you are never given on a national level: to work with partners from at least 12 European countries to organise a huge event with concerts, workshops and lectures outside of the European borders – and this is really to emphasise – to realise ideas in a joint venture of so many partners would not possible with bilateral cooperations only.

With local funding we additionally initiated a programme to present emerging Berlin based artists alongside well known ones. We are also able to send them abroad to other festivals. This project is called Berlin Current and it’s been quite a success. Last year we co-organised the Ableton “Summit of Music Makers” called Loop. In 2014 we established our own booking agency called DISK-Agency to promote intriguing and adventurous artists worldwide. We diversified our activities. Unfortunately I would still call us the poverty jet set, joking about the advantages of living on the positive side of globalisation but still having a salary far below the German average.

Can you briefly talk about this year’s edition?

I would like to quote a short paragraph on our festival topic NEW GEOGRAPHIES:

“Under the shadow of a global conflict centred on the increasingly radical drawing or dissolving of physical and cultural borders, and the deepening social rifts and polarisation this brings in its wake, it is imperative to call to mind the positive potential in our increasingly interconnected and hybrid world. The 17th edition of the CTM festival aims to explore music, art and sound practices that respond to these developments, and to provide the conceptual tools needed to approach the complexities of a polycentric, polychromatic, and increasingly hybrid (music) world with greater openness.”

This year’s edition unexpectedly points to a huge problem in our European society and also a specific one in Germany. With the recent events that have been hysterically described as the crisis of Europe, the immigration crisis in Germany, the almost forgotten financial crisis and the Greek crisis our theme this year unwitttingly became a statement about all these events. The tools proposed by the festival are to be open, to be bold and fearless inviting to explore new geographies. And I think that certainly tact and sensitivity, as well as careful listening, are the best means with which to examine the fine lines created from seismographic impulses of a changing world.

So, instead of running away or barricading oneself, embrace the new changes and challenges as it is not only more fun to deal with them with open eyes and ears but also less dangerous because suppressing is never a good thing to do, as we know from Freud. It always comes back through other channels.