Berlin's Atonal festival is called that for a reason. It's the gathering for fans of white noise, weird experimental music, "apocalyptic sound," and incredibly hard techno. An average EDM spring-breaker would probably attend this mix of live performances and DJ sets and leave crying. Nearly everyone wears black, and the people in the crowd are the type whose music collections are probably half "cultural document" and half seriously enjoyable head-fuck. This past August, artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who has long been associated with this counterculture scene, made his festival debut there in a collaborative performance with the artist Powell. Together their set was a combination of Powell's fizzy techno and Tillmans's spoken word about democracy and eating ass.
Tillmans is the sort of artist who appears on the covers of magazines, and whom every art critic is desperate to interview. He won Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 2000 and has a reputation for shooting photos of loved-up clubbers, music festivals, love and pride parades, and homoerotica. But he also makes photos of planes and city panoramas, breakfast on a windowsill, cars, and other details of our existence. Simply put, Tillmans is familiar to hip kids and techno enthusiasts. He has said that he thinks his connection to clubbing has been "over emphasized," but his recent exhibition at London's Tate Modern included a smattering of portraits of friends I recognized from years of late nights out in London, and there's really no sense in fully denying it, since his serious adoration for clubbing as a culture gives his recent venture into music credibility.
Last year, Tillmans released a couple of music projects including 2016 / 1986, which includes music he made in both of those years; a nearly half-hour-long visual album, That's Desire / Here We Are, put out with his band Fragile; and a track called "Device Control," which was featured on Frank Ocean's video album Endless. Alongside his show at the Tate, he also did a series of performances that included the extreme sounds of the experimental-rock group Wreck and Reference, and electronic acoustic soundscapes by Lori E. Allen. He is really serious about the music thing.
When I met Tillmans at Kraftwerk, the venue for Atonal and a gargantuan Berlin techno club in a disused power station full of grimy concrete pillars, his stature—and his being the perfect embodiment of German politeness—struck me. His low-key army trousers and T-shirt offset his smiling flashes of rich-people-white-teeth. The festival, which filled the space with some of the most challenging sounds for five straight days, was about to come to a close. He was preparing to perform in front of one of the more critical techno crowds, yet he didn't seem the least bit intimidated.
Maybe this is because Tillmans isn't totally new to making music. His previous stab at recording, in 1986 at age 17 with his friend Bert Leßmann, was integral to his 2016 / 1986 EP—hence the name and Leßmann's credits on it. He stands by the sound of his past. "I don't want to forcefully hold on to something," he told me. "But I don't feel like my early work was teenage work." And the influences of that period are just as important to him as ever. He cited the German band Fehlfarben's 1980 album, Monarchie und Alltag ( Monarchy and Daily Life) as inspiration and "the best German album of all time." He continued, "The poetry of their words, just makes me die," before recalling some of the lyrics, reciting them near perfectly from memory: "Early morning, you're still there / I want to touch you, but I don't move / I want to protect you, but I need your protection / I need you, but I don't want to use you." For him, the words conjure an image of "lying in bed looking at the other's neck." That sweet sentimentality ties in with the honest sexuality and simultaneous wholesomeness of his visual work. That duality was present in his Atonal performance as well; one minute he was professing love, and the next he was describing cum on his face.
This combination of innocent and sexy, ordinary and extreme, drew him to other influences like electro duos Pet Shop Boys and Soft Cell, and is always present in his work today. (A major, major fan of the first band, Tillmans directed a video for the Pet Shop Boys track "Home and Dry" back in 2002.) His fascination with both dark and light sides drove him to St. Pauli, a neighborhood in Hamburg that's famous for its prostitutes, strip clubs, squats, and an anarchist-supported soccer team, where he lived before moving to the UK to study art at Bournemouth University in 1990. He said the neighborhood reminded him of the back cover of Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. "Like, them in Soho, in front of the porn shop," he said.
After college, Tillmans took photos for i-D magazine and Spex, a German rock and pop-culture publication, lived in New York for a year, and returned to London in 1996. He befriended and photographed DJs and musicians, and became known for photos such as Panorama Bar (Sweaty Window), taken inside Berlin's Berghain, a world-renowned club notorious for never closing between Friday night and Monday morning and for its dark, sexually free rooms. To this day, his photos remain on display at the club, and he's known to DJ there, too.
Then, last year, Tillmans's musical credentials got a boost via Frank Ocean and a song that he assumed Ocean might use as a sample, if at all. The photographer had shared Fragile's "Device Control," a track inspired by the absurd language that advertises smartphones on billboards and its implied dream of constant data streaming and sharing, with the young musician after the two were in touch about a mysterious book—which ended up becoming Ocean's Boys Don't Cry, the magazine released with his Blonde album. "Initially, he wanted to do a car book and asked me to be involved," Tillmans told me, when I asked how the two men got together. Tillmans released a photo book titled The Cars in 2015, which Ocean reached out to him about, since he's also passionate about automobiles. Tillmans told me his own obsession lies in the belief that their design is "incredibly telling about the desires of our times."
That focus on how culture subtly manifests itself in society extends into another of Tillmans's music-related projects: playback rooms. As part of his Tate installations, he included space to enjoy recorded music. It's true, he told me, "that space is important, money is space, and space is money, and if you give space over to something, it means you attribute value to it. So Picasso is given space, but a 12-inch record is not given space." In researching the subject, he found that, beyond the British Library Sound Archive, "there's not one space on this planet where you can go and listen to New Order's 'Blue Monday' at the highest sound quality."
He feels the snobbery around recorded music, especially popular music, is similar to the snobbery he faced in responses to his early photo work. "Some people took me initially not that seriously because my work was published in magazines." He said people misunderstood, back then, that this was his preference. "I chose magazines as an artist," he said, "because I sensed there is the same energy on the pages of i-D as I find in art or on a record cover." This elitism is confining, and Tillmans doesn't believe in being confined.
As our interview wound down, we talked about lyrics—he thinks a lot about words and how to communicate in general, and in recent years, especially following Brexit, he's become very vocal about politics. Referring to one of the solo vocals from Atonal, he told me, "It's about speaking out for your love and for your rights." He said there's a lot of rhetoric about not preaching to people, but "to be scared of that going wrong, or not going there at all, I find not suitable for me." At the performance, he sang, "Take part in democracy / They decide for you if you don't / If you don't / They decide for you / If you don't." He later emphasized to me, "If you want to smoke a joint or have day care for your child, this will be allowed or denied by politicians."
He described his desire to "portray a sort of a poly-sexual ideal world in which people are not afraid of their bodies and not afraid of their sexuality." It's this bodily freedom that links his politics and art. He explained that art, music, and underground clubs are all activities or places that allow "consciously experiencing the body in a nonviolent or competitive way," and added that there's nothing he fears more than male violence. "I think the fear of the body is the underlying biggest problem in our world. It is the cause of so much denial, resulting in violence." In his career, he's found respite from those fears. "A great club, freewheeling art experience, or magazine layout," he concluded, "is cooperation rather than aggression."