The Glowing Room

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

Every avant-garde needs the right spatial conditions in order to be able to thrive. West Berlin in the sixties offered a variety of opportunities for artistic experimentation thanks to its many independent and non-commercial locations, including the Zodiak Free Arts Lab. In this essay, Hendrik Otremba laments the disappearance of such spaces today, calling for more sites of freedom and openness.

The formation of avant-gardes whose radiance does not diminish with passing decades, in retrospect even seeming to grow in their innovation, is often tied to a specific place in art history: A zeitgeist brings together like-minded seekers who first form themselves on a social level in an effort to distinguish themselves from images of the enemy and earlier generations. The followers of the resulting (conspiratorial) community then, in a dilettante-like joy of experimentation, often appropriate new technologies or reinterpret existing practices. In doing this, a fundamental aspiration for unimagined forms is combined with aesthetically radical content that stands in opposition to the prevailing bourgeois societal norms. Something emerges that, when measured by its intensity, can be described as original and novel, even avant-garde. And this process does not take place in a vacuum, even in relation to its locations. Rather, the avant-gardes are fostered, and not infrequently inspired, by local, spatial conditions.

In the sixties of old West Germany, West Berlin was a city that offered such potential: an island, relatively free of repression, cheap, playable. Those stranded there longed for freedom, often having escaped the stuffy bourgeoisie of intellectual provinciality. They wanted adventure, not economic miracles. Conrad Schnitzler came to Berlin by devious routes, where, not least as an early Beuys student infected with Fluxus, he brought some electronic influences from Düsseldorf. Berlin met him still noticeably in ruins, a wasteland, a playground. Klaus Schulze says: “Berlin at that time was broken, in the best sense of the word. There was an exciting, destructive romanticism.” In 1968, Schnitzler and a few others founded the Zodiak Club as a situational laboratory, where as much as possible was to happen in one short year. Upstairs was the Schaubühne; downstairs, after 22:00, when the last curtain had fallen, a black and a white room. Bauhaus instead of hippyism. In the black room, four podiums for improvisation spanning free jazz, rock and electronic music – would ultimately become the primordial soup for that diffuse genre term that is now considered the worldwide reference point for musical progressivism: krautrock. If you look at who met there within a year and what later became of these people, you can make comparisons with Warhol's Factory and CBGB in New York. This is where those who were later called the “Berliner Schule” (“Berlin School”) met – Schnitzler and Schulze, Edgar Froese, Günter Schickert, Michael Hoenig, Dieter Moebius, Roedelius and many more (in bands such as Human Being, Agitation Free, Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream). These self-taught sound researchers formed short, situational groups that preserved the aura of their works precisely by not planning, saving or repeating them. In 1969, after the fiercely free Zodiak quickly came to an end, many of the artists were drawn back to the provinces, where they – some of them to this day – elaborated on the experience of that unrepeatable momentum that so influenced them at the Zodiak: forms of pure, musical energy.

Those stranded there longed for freedom, often having escaped the stuffy bourgeoisie of intellectual provinciality.

If you lay out this scheme over the blueprints of HAU fifty years later, it becomes clear that the lines hardly fit together: If the Zodiak was a spontaneously developed space without any intention of profit, obligation to deliver or responsibility (and also without financial support for a manifestly formulated direction or a conscious perspective in the sense of a cultural mission), the HAU Hebbel am Ufer of today is a cultural venue that – funded, curated, protected and overseen editorially – traces the energies released at that time but can hardly serve as a space for the emergence of such a momentous explosion. The programmes are planned long in advance. This is not a bad thing; on the contrary, this festival in particular can be used to show how important places like the HAU are: to remind us of the importance of physical spaces for art and to offer contemporary free spirits a venue in the first place. Yet this imaginary blending of two meanings of place leaves you with the regretful awareness that the petri dishes of the avant-garde are simply deprived of their space in the city by the density of capitalism. Where there was once innovation is now property. Berlin, there's no denying, has been sold. So what it needs – and what the impact of past, present and future that this festival quite unmistakably conceptualises – are spaces that do not yet know what will happen in them!

Hendrik Otremba, writer and musician, has been tracing the pioneers of musical avant-gardes for years.

Translation by Josephinex Ashley Hansis

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