Nameless Experiments

A text from the festival publication “Bildet Nischen! Feedback from the Zodiak Free Arts Lab” by Patrick Hohlweck

The Zodiak Free Arts Lab was a space for experimentation with open results. Its participants strove to transcend traditions and create conditions for the unknown. In this essay, Patrick Hohlweck situates the Zodiak temporally, spatially, as well as musically, suggesting that it should be understood less as a venue of a specifically Berlin or German counterculture, and more as part of a transnational network of cross-genre projects.

In his 1937 lecture “Future of Music,” John Cage called for the establishment of centres of experimental music. These, he envisioned, would make “new materials, oscillators, turntables, generators, means for amplifying small sounds, film phonographs, etc., available for use. Composers at work using twentieth-century means for making music. Performances of results. Organization of sound for extra-musical purposes (theatre, dance, radio, film).” Thirty years later, when the Zodiak Free Arts Lab took up a similar impulse in the premises on Hallesches Ufer, the time was particularly ripe for experiments of this kind. The avant-garde propositions of minimal music, musique concrète and early electronic music, as well as the onset of happenings and Fluxus at the end of the 1960s, coincided with a political imagination that was often at odds with such artistic experiments, but nonetheless had a similar interest in discontinuity and innovation. Particularly so in West Germany: the recent rupture in civilization of the Holocaust and the continuities of personnel in practically all areas of the disciplinary apparatus of the Nazi successor state made radical anti-traditionalist approaches particularly attractive, and not only for the protagonists of what would later be termed “krautrock.”

For a long time, Anglo-American beat music and blues – tools of re-education in their own right – were a means of emancipation from the rigidity of post-war West Germany, and not just among the Zodiak protagonists. But by the end of the sixties, more than anything else, they seemed to represent a form of cultural imperialism. Even jazz, in its now established form, had – according to label impresario Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser – long since been “integrated into the consumption process of bourgeois art administrators,” and thus needed to be overcome. Although “Neue Musik”, Anglo-American pop music, and jazz likely were the most important musical influences on what would become “krautrock,” this says little or nothing about the sound happenings that took place at Zodiak. The few documents that have survived – fragments of performances by Human Being and Guru Guru in Dietmar Buchmann’s and Rainer Boldt’s short film “Zodiak” (1969), as well as Human Being’s album “Live at the Zodiak”, which wasn't released until 2009 – leave no doubt that what happened here did not neatly line up with any of these musical influences. Rather, Zodiak was a site of genuine experiments, a centre for experimental music in Cage’s sense: “experimental” as the description of an action that cannot fail or succeed, but whose results are unknown.

From a contemporary point of view, it is precisely this namelessness of the events and the unpredictability of the performances at the Zodiak – “rehearsals in front of an audience,” as Klaus Schulze described them – that escaped designation: In an ad in the British “Melody Maker” in late December 1968, Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese was still looking for “(long haired)” comrades-in-arms, “to re-form one of the best German experimental blues groups.” Tangerine Dream’s 1970 debut “Electronic Meditation” has nothing to do with blues; rather, Froese’s makeshift use of language reveals the uncertainty of his movement on an as yet unmarked musical terrain. The protagonists begin with traditional forms in order to transgress them: whether it’s the qualification of blues as “experimental,” the organisational form of a band, which was often transgressed at Zodiak by the inclusion of the audience, or the instrumentation typical of rock or jazz, disrupted by the misuse of instruments or the use of non-musical objects.

Although “Neue Musik”, Anglo-American pop music, and jazz likely were the most important musical influences on what would become “krautrock,” this says little or nothing about the sound happenings that took place at Zodiak.

The activities at Zodiak are therefore characterized by a certain objectivity-without-object. The performances make up an evental exploration, the felicity conditions of which are obscure and which eludes naming and identification, at least in part. What the foggy improvisations thus stand for might be described as pure potential, whose ethereal, incorporeal character had to be channelled in different ways. What became decisive for the development of an original formal language of this generation of Berlin musicians, starting in 1969 and therefore immediately following the Zodiak era, was the Electronic Beat Studio, set up by Swiss composer Thomas Kessler in the basement of a Wilmersdorf vocational school, where artists such as Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel, Klaus Schulze, and Agitation Free had the opportunity to rehearse. While rehearsing with an audience at Zodiak had allowed the musical events to completely dissolve into the space of co-presence and into irreversible performance-time, Kessler’s studio adopted the practice of an almost obsessive recording of sessions, which were produced, listened to, and discussed, and thus looped into a process of permanent reflection. If the repeatability of sonic events significantly changed the temporal form of what was played, it was the introduction of the synthesizer in Kessler’s studio that gave the musicians a new kind of instrument unburdened with the association of a musical tradition.

The Zodiak Free Arts Lab cultivated an imperative of experimentation, of the new and the indeterminate that was particular to the aesthetic and political conjuncture of late ’60s West Berlin. Despite this frenetic forward-thinking attitude, it does not yet go without saying that the Zodiak, as a well-established historical narrative would have it, became the birthplace of Krautrock. For this required a giving-shape of the potential unleashed at Hallesches Ufer, which either, like the technological expansions in Kessler’s Wilmersdorf studio, concerned work on the compositional process and from there on the musical form, or the marketization of music with categories such as “kosmisch” or later “krautrock”: the making-manageable of an intangible phenomenon on different levels that inherently leaves behind residual traces.

A space without an object: What the operator of the Zodiak, the unjustly forgotten Paul Glaser, afforded his artistic director Conrad Schnitzler, was the creation of a countercultural infrastructure in which participants could work largely apart from the compulsory realization of value. Thus, for a fleeting moment, a niche was created that created space for outsiders of all kinds at the temporal (it didn't open until 22:00), spatial, and ideational margins of bourgeois West Berlin: “communards, artists, prophets [...] junkies [...], sensitive esoterics [...], sleepers, slackers,” and so on, as the opening sequence of Buchmann’s and Boldt’s film would have it. The task of this space was not to develop a specific style or sound, but to create conditions for the unknown and weird. In this respect, Zodiak was a source of inspiration for artists from all over Germany who performed there or, like Irmin Schmidt (Can), found inspiration as spectators. Nevertheless, the Zodiak is perhaps best not understood as part of a specifically German or Berlin countercultural history, but rather as an element of a transnational, historical network of cross-media and transdisciplinary counter-spaces, whose shared identity is often conveyed not through direct influence but through a kind of spiritual affinity.

A history of these partly unsupported and themselves potential affinities between places using “twentieth-century means” to work on transgressions would not, however, be the history of a comprehensive artistic project, but rather the history of a haunting that took and continues to take different forms in different places. This network would certainly include the contemporary and namesake Arts Lab in London, alongside earlier ventures such as the Institute of Contemporary Art in London or Andy Warhol’s Factory. Such a history would also include storied venues such as The Kitchen in New York or the Warehouse in Chicago, where the eclectic mix played by DJ Frankie Knuckles from 1977 to 1983 was dubbed as “warehouse music,” later shortened to “house music.” Taken seriously as a counter-history, however, it would primarily be the history of those countless spaces that offer their patrons a safe, inspiring retreat in which to try out things and to unfold: nameless sites of experimentation, of do-it-yourself culture, counter-spaces, niches.

Literary scholar and cultural historian Patrick Hohlweck teaches at Humboldt University in Berlin.

Translation by Josephinex Ashley Hansis

Foto: Zodiak Free Arts Lab (1967–1969), Hallesches Ufer 32, Berlin (© Detlef Krenz)