SZ. BERLIN INTERVIEWED: THE SYMBOLIC IDENTITIES OF STATE AND CULTURE
Sz. Berlin is a multidisciplinary project that primarily draws its influence from various European historical, cultural & ideological sources. Formed in London, in 2007, the anonymous duo have used sound, performance, video and installation work to engage with notions of authority, industry and totalitarianism.
A major source of inspiration for the group is the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). With its widespread surveillance of East German citizens, hidden history of electronic music research and strong design aesthetic the DDR provides a wealth of diverse material. However, with Sz. Berlin’s sonic experiments ranging from obscure remixes to conducting deafening sound installations in a Bosnian fallout shelter, it is evident that the group’s interests do not lie with East Germany alone.
By revisiting the pitfalls of a troubled past, Sz. Berlin attempt to articulate our place within a geopolitical landscape that is becoming evermore tricky to navigate. Ilia Rogatchevski caught up with one of the members via email ahead of Sz. Berlin’s IKLECTIK performance on Wednesday 17 May.
Ilia Rogatchevski: What is the significance behind the name ‘Schmerzzentrum Berlin’? Why did you chose it for the project?
It was a kind of ‘found object’ that we adopted following a visit to the city in 2007, shortly after we began to collaborate. In a sense, it’s another example of the tendency of non-German industrial groups to appropriate German names because of their sinister/symbolic associations for non-German speakers. A ‘Schmerzzentrum’ is simply a functional description for a treatment centre but the literal English translation – ‘pain centre’ – inevitably brings other associations when paired with the name of the city. So you could say it’s a kind of symbolic recognition of the ambivalent fascination of Berlin’s history. However, in practice we’ve always shortened it to ‘Sz. Berlin’, which in turn suggests a technical acronym. It was a conceptual departure point for us but shouldn’t be taken too literally.
What are you aims when operating within the realms of industrial/noise music? It is to inflict pain (schmerz) or to relieve it?
We try to be neither one-dimensionally provocative nor one-dimensionally affirmative, although we’re fully aware of the potential for what we do to be perceived in this way. We may inflict, relieve, or perhaps, do both simultaneously, but neither of these are explicit objectives.
During our residency in Tito’s former nuclear command bunker during the first Konjic Biennale in 2011 we created a simulated 25 kiloton nuclear explosion from the sounds of the bunker itself. Before the opening, a curious local woman asked us to demonstrate what we were doing. We played 25kt at full volume over the sound system (the effect in the blast tunnel was immense and there would often be flakes of plaster on the floor after each playback). The noise reduced her to tears as it brought back memories of her childhood when the town of Konjic was besieged during the Bosnian war. She might have been expected to be angry but was actually grateful. Being confronted with our work had been extremely cathartic for her. This wasn’t a reaction we anticipated or aimed for but it was fascinating.
On the day of the opening we played 25kt to a VIP delegation touring the bunker, including the Bosnian President and NATO officers. While they weren’t reduced to tears, from what we could observe from our vantage point, they certainly encountered something unexpected. They were no more our targets than any other audience members (every group visiting the event heard 25kt as they entered the bunker) but they surely realised that exposing yourself to art is not necessarily a pain-free experience.
Of course, if we go beyond the art world and discuss seasoned industrial audiences (of which we’re often members), the physical pain that the uninitiated might feel may be replaced by the pleasure of being confronted by the types of sounds we deploy. On the other hand, in terms of the visual and historical material we’re using, we’re certainly not ‘crowd pleasing’, even in the industrial context. Some of the visual and historical content we use has never been used in industrial previously and in some ways violates some of its norms. We do demand that our audiences pay attention to the totality of what we’re doing and if it turns out to be painful, that’s a perhaps necessary stage in a journey, rather than an objective in itself. We make no attempt to perform an openly sadistic imposition of pain and we’re not motivated by the sort of machismo that marks some noise projects.
What is it about the DDR that attracts you to mine its aesthetics?
During the 1990s and 2000s, there was a growing tendency (especially within what is known as ‘martial industrial’) not just to use but sometimes to actively affirm Axis imagery from World War 2. Leaving aside, political or moral considerations, as the use of this material intensified, the artistic quality suffered. This also increased the external perception that industrial was naturally or inherently right wing and should be treated with extreme suspicion or hostility. The provocation was only in one direction and in practice it could be more conservative than provocative. We were both aware of this tendency and the idea to try and incorporate contradictory imagery had first occurred to one of us around 2001.
When we began to experiment with sound we were looking for a theme and this old idea fused with one member’s detailed knowledge of the history of the DDR (this included pre-1989 visits). The spent cultural fuel of the DDR was being used mostly for fairly populist ‘Ostalgie’ (nostalgia for the East), which had obvious conceptual limitations. We were both teenagers during the ‘New Cold War’ period of the early 1980s when NATO seemed to have actively flirted with the idea of a nuclear first strike against the Warsaw Pact and we were inevitably marked by this. So we decided to combine the history of the DDR with an ‘industrial’ approach to sound and history.
The visual and symbolic identity of state and cultural activities in the DDR were often surprisingly radical and innovative. The use of fonts, the mode of propaganda and numerous other details of course now have the ‘romantic’ sheen of a state that no longer exists. Our engagement with it is in a sense counter-factual, dealing with the most dramatic positive and negative possibilities of what might have been.
Yet we’re fully aware of the ambivalent nature of the DDR. We’re trying to build on what we see as the modernist technological aesthetic seen in all the state socialist countries but in an especially interesting form in the DDR, which is little known outside its former territory. It could be argued that one of the reasons that the DDR had to resort to such repression was that culturally conservative elements always tried to choke off radical innovation. Architects, designers, composers and others consciously tried to create modernist aesthetics which could have had positive social effects. The DDR had a great cultural potential, which was choked off from both within and without. Of course, if at some point the leadership had decided to be more modernist or pluralistic and move away from authoritarianism it might for a time have led to a cultural flowering but we have no illusions. No matter how progressive the DDR had become, it would always have been bound for ‘Gleichschaltung’ into the Western market model, regardless of its citizens’ aspirations.
We also feel that the DDR, and its demonic place in the Western imagination, is a useful prism through which to observe and criticise concrete political and cultural tendencies in the former Western bloc. The totalitarian aspects of the DDR are very convenient projection points which Western politicians love to use to distract from their own shadowy activities. We often speak of the crimes of the Stasi and the casualties of the East German state but how often do we speak (or how prominently are we allowed to speak about?) subjects such as NATO’s Gladio operations and their links to right wing terrorism which killed hundreds? And how few people care to acknowledge, or even to care about, the fact that GCHQ and the NSA have surveillance and blackmail capacities far more dangerous than anything the Stasi had?
It’s a beloved cultural archetype of evil for the West, but we believe it’s also a productive cultural prism through which to view the West. Much of what was said or forecast about the West in DDR official statements has actually been vindicated following the collapse of the state (the dangers of a speculation based economy, a resurgence of Fascism etc.) So for these and many other reasons it remains a ‘live’ theme that can be made culturally and conceptually productive again. It can act as a ‘memento mori’ for all ‘actually existing’ states.
Which other sources, German or otherwise, do you draw from for your work? What is it about them that interests you?
That depends on the nature of the current ‘mission’. Besides the DDR and Warsaw Pact, which were our initial primary sources, we’ve also worked intensively with Yugoslav and Irish history. We’ve also researched certain aspects of recent British history that we may work on in the future. We feel our techniques could be relevant to many historical and cultural contexts and don’t rule out any sources.
Do you see Sz.Berlin as a radical project?
That’s not a label we’ve ever consciously used. It’s probably more correct to say ‘distinctive’, rather than ‘radical’. Of course, some of the historical material we’re using, plus the severity of our aesthetic techniques could seem radical or extreme to some but it’s not a label we either aspire to or strongly reject. It’s more important to us to contribute different perspectives.
Your releases have been sporadic and few, often limited to small-run CDRs. Is there a reason for this restrained activity?
Since the creation of the group we have been geographically dispersed and have needed to prioritise not suffering the romantic fate of precarious artists, plus having other creative projects to attend to. We haven’t let this be an obstacle to opportunities that have come up. Sz. Berlin’s participation in the 2016 2nd NSK Folk Art Biennale, as well as The Horse Hospital last October, was carried out by only one member, as was the recent track Stillstand 2016. This was partly for logistical reasons, but also as he had stronger connection with the subject matter (Irish history and the 1916 rising).
While still both extremely busy, we now have more stable schedules and are able to work more regularly again. One thing that has changed in the last year is a shift to using physical synthesisers, whereas previously we had worked almost exclusively with computers. This new way of working produces stronger results in a shorter time. All of which is to say, that between day-to-day obligations, conflicting schedules and prioritising live and art projects, we’ve not had time yet to prepare larger releases. This is changing though.
Sz.Berlin at the Radioactive Half-Life installation, Konjic, 2011
What is the driving force behind your installation and sound art work (25kt, Radioactive Half Life, Communique)? How are these pieces connected to the notions of totalitarianism, geopolitics and apocalypse?
These three works were all direct responses to the bunker environment at Konjic. One member visited the site 6 months before the event and gathered numerous sound recordings of the space. The concepts were developed following the visit. All the works were inspired by and designed specifically for the space. 25kt was constructed entirely from the sounds the bunker, constantly re-recorded and re-worked during the period leading up to the opening.
If this piece was a simulation of a nuclear detonation, Communique was a simulated order for a nuclear strike and Radioactive Half Life was an imaginary soundscape based on its aftermath. In this triptych we weren’t dealing explicitly with totalitarianism, which is a label that’s often misapplied to Yugoslavia.
For us, geopolitics and apocalypse were obviously inescapable themes within that space, even if some other artists presented far more personal or even homely works. However, we weren’t trying to practice an artistic ‘apocalypse for apocalypse’s sake’. The point was rather to interrogate the wave of Cold War nostalgia that also benefits a space like Konjic. We tried to re-alienate this mode of nostalgia, to remove the cosiness and commerce and to re-acquaint people with the apocalypse that lurks behind the Cold War. It’s interesting to observe how in the 6 years since the event Cold War nostalgia has become ever more popular while we are now closer to a ‘Hot War’ than we have been since the early 1980s.
Can you recall any interesting or elaborate performances to date, within which you have participated, that left a lasting impression on you?
On the Friday night of our residency at Konjic we performed live in the tunnel. The sound was colossal. The microphone recordings were hopelessly overloaded. The sound spread out of the tunnel and into the valley beyond. After about 40 minutes we reluctantly stopped at the request of the resident military personnel. We only have few photos of this action, which as far as we know has been the only live sound performance within this space.
At the other end of the geographical, conceptual and chronological spectrum, the performance at Ballyvaughan Castle in Ireland last year was very memorable. It took place in a circular room on the first floor of this historic structure and assistance was provided by a veteran sound engineer who’d worked with Swans and others in the past. The sound was sufficiently intense that it was felt through the ground at the base of the tower and there were worries about the structural integrity of the floors. This 30 minute piece, Stahlschwert16, a historical soundscape using Irish sound sources (some gathered in the days before the performance) is the longest single Sz. Berlin work to date and to execute it successfully, in full, in such a historically and physically resonant location was a powerful experience.
Sz.Berlin live video projection in entrance tunnel, Konjic, 2011
What is on the horizon for Sz.Berlin?
The show at IKLECTIK is the first presentation of new material that we’ve prepared for our appearance at the Primal Uproar II festival in Hamburg in June. This major techno/noise/industrial/experimental festival will take place aboard the Ms. Stubnitz, the renowned ex-DDR fishing ship. This will be our first German appearance and we’ve prepared works that related to the history of such ships and the men who worked on them, as well as to the wider nautical traditions of the DDR.
To return to your earlier question, what we plan to do following that is to focus on releases. We plan to release the video and performance soundtracks from the Biennale and the Stubnitz material (under the title Kurs liegt an!). Two remixes from the DDR60 compilation we put together will be issued, including a remix of our track by Autopsia. In the longer term, we also want to release a compilation of our archive: several years’ worth of unreleased material, some dating back to 2007. The challenge here is that we’re now working on different machines with software. So these will be enhanced reconstructions that will document the first phase of our work. After that, we hope to intervene further in the art sector and, amongst other themes, we would like to address the issue of surveillance in the Anglo-American bloc.