A conversation with Solaris and Stanley Schmidt on cultural life in Leipzig and their various projects from Institut fuer Zukunft to the new joint venture PH17.
The people of Vienna may know Maria and Jonas as the DJs Solaris and Stanley Schmidt, who played here several times. Based in Leipzig they also promote events, run venues and labels and are politically and culturally engaged in their local scene for quite a while now. The following talk represents an exchange with Maria and Jonas over a longer period of time. We discussed several topics ranging from the Leipzig boom, their musical approach, the Institut fuer Zukunft, their newly founded PH17 label and the political status quo in east Germany. The major part emerged out of a dinner during a cold February night, when they visited Vienna for an hours clubnight. Some other parts have been added to this interview when meeting and mailing later on. Mihaly Podobni took photographs in Leipzig in July.
Both of you are living in Leipzig since quite a while now. How are you experiencing the development of the city? What is it about “Hypezig”?
Jonas: The development that is going on in Leipzig at the moment is generally helping the cultural scene. More and more culturally interested people are coming to the city.
Maria: This is basically a result of pretty low accommodation costs and the growing spaces which these circumstances offer for underground culture developments and niches.
Jonas: The base of the whole phenomenon are the vacant spaces all over the city that provide enough space to trigger the human phantasy. I personally have difficulties with the term “Hypezig”, because it conceives the development from its end. For the creative scene, it is simply great that so many people are moving to Leipzig, furthermore you can experience a general spirit of optimism and excitement. This is a place where actually enough open-minded people live to form an audience for smaller, more underground events. But not too much for causing the feeling that everything had been done before.
Maria: The development of the eastern part of town went quite rapidly. When I moved there five years ago, literally nothing was going on. It was mostly a rundown, unrenovated part of the city with a lot of vacancies and abandoned places. The whole subcultural life happened somewhere else. Now it is the place to be with its cafes, galleries, clubs not so much, but bars that organize concerts and club nights. A lot of young, hip and arty people live there right now. I have the impression that this change can be applied to the musical development as well. In a very short period of time the whole club culture changed, new labels were founded, new venues popped up. From the IfZ’s perspective I would disagree with Jonas saying that all the new people in the city bring more audience offside the mainstream. We started in 2011 with a concept for an experimental branch in IfZ that totally failed. Apart from name-dropping and the focus on danceable electronic music most of the bookings didn’t work at all. Due to an international network of groups with an experimental focus and also state funding, we have the opportunity and financial security to work in that direction again. The audience for this is still missing in my opinion. In that sense, I find Leipzig quite provincial which also speaks against the label of “Hypezig” in comparison to Berlin, where a lot of things like that workout fine.
Jonas: Of course, it’s provincial, but in a strange way, because there are enough people to run those venues, organize evenings and like to listen to experimental music. It just doesn’t pay off yet.
Maria, you mentioned the IfZ. What was your concept when you founded the club? Which guidelines do you have in your daily operations now?
Maria: Basically, it is very simple. On the one hand, there was an event series named “Vertigo” which focused on industrial, techno, BDSM, queer and sex positivity, happening in different locations throughout the city. But the locations hardly ever met the demands thus there was a desire for a fixed space. On the other hand, there have been some people, who already organized parties and events under the name of “Institut fuer Zukunft” and “Homoelektrik” since the early 2000s. We have all been socialized in a left-wing context and we were all part of a techno-underground, so we teamed up, searched for a place and found it. We decided, that we wanted to be a club, that doesn’t confine itself to dance music, but engage politically and convey its leftwing-emancipatory agenda and concept somehow. There is a GBR (civil law partnership) consisting of two people around whom a huge collective exists, structured in different working groups. The topics of the working groups would be “safer clubbing” which means awareness in terms of sexuality, drugs and the general contact at parties, technical department, catering, booking and so on. All of these working groups are basically self organized. Once a week there is a meeting, where we discuss the daily business. The GBR has the financial sovereignty because they are personally liable, but basically everyone working in the IfZ has the right to express themselves and to be heard. Thus, it sometimes takes more time to make a decision which can lead to conflicts. The basic form is a collective.
Did you agree on a list of principles in the beginning?
Maria: We went to an enclosure called “Zukunftswerkstatt”, where, over the course of a few weekends, we formulated a kind of identity in different points. We talked about our vision for a door policy, how we want to present ourselves publicly, what our profile should look like. At the same time, the IfZ depends on economic structures, so you have to make compromises and sell out at points. In this context, questions of identity pop up as well as conflicts between the generations. A big topic was the Boiler Room thing. Fortunately, we have frames in which we are able to discuss these things. We are always aiming for consensus, although that is not always the case, but basically the structure works out quite well.
In 2016 femdex was established in Vienna, a database of female identified DJs. At its launch, they also published an article about the gender relations at viennese events that showed a massive imbalance. How do you handle this topic?
Maria: This question was an important one for us from the beginning and it occurred in my daily life back in the days as a booker. I am conscious about the inequality and the under representation of women. If they are active, they tend to be cut out and there isn’t enough support and empowerment structures. We all agreed on the fact that there’ll be no night happening with just male artists playing. We did not want to make male dominated events. We don’t question that constantly or think “shit, we need a woman for that”. It has become more of a self propelling or natural thing to have in mind. It is still uneven though and sometimes when we don’t look after it, especially when someone else organizes the evening or when the collective makes the decision of who should be playing, we have to remind ourselves. Unfortunately, we are far from a 50/50 balance. Personally, I am against a strict system of quota, because the musical profile should stand in the foreground and women shouldn’t just be booked because they are women. Doing that, I noticed that there are women around, but they aren’t represented well enough thus it takes more effort to find women that fit in the musical concept of the evening. We have one format that only books women without talking about it as a political decision in the sense of “we are making a female only party now”, but the message comes through subtler via the line-up. That actually works out well. Women as live acts are still hard to get in my view. We are trying to build support structures, especially through the club connected to the IfZ. For example, there were a lot of thematic series on “women in electronic music” to shed a light on the current situation. Together with Conne Island we also organized production- and Dj-workshops for instance.
Listening to you, one could get the impression of Leipzig as a progressive and open-minded city regarding arts as well as politics. We already mentioned the IfZ, Conne Island but there is also Connewitz as a whole part of town dominated by the left. At the same time Saxony is often in the focus for right wing radicalism and reactionary movements. How do you experience this polarization?
Jonas: In the course of the so-called “refugee-crisis” a lot of things changed but these changes just revealed a reality that has been around for a long time. Antifascist movements have been pointing out the right-wing hegemony, that reaches deeply into the middle of our society for a while now. The government of the CDU stabilized that and the civil society didn’t take a stand. In Leipzig, we are confronted with that problem as well. Even if Leipzig, partly because it is true, is seen as a leftist stronghold. One of the consequences is that all venues we are visiting push through things that might seem natural in Berlin like not tolerating racism, not tolerating attack, and sensitizing bouncers to all of that. Being active in the cultural and clubbing life you have to face this reality and not only if you are politically engaged or see a guy wearing “Thor Steinar” on the streets.
Maria: Although we are living in a bubble to a certain extent, thinking we did everything to create a sensitive and emancipated environment, every now and then we are confronted with sexist and racist attacks. That happens even at IfZ with its clear and strict door policy.
Jonas: This problem does not only exist in Saxony. But if you have to call the police here, you know that the police itself has a history of entanglements with the right-wing scene. There are and have been policemen conspicuous in the scene and people in leading positions hiding that, fabulating about migrants and left radicalism, and there is and has been a population open to the right, lead by prejudices. Some of these mechanisms clearly showed at the Freefight incident in 2016.
What happened there?
Maria: The IfZ is located in a bigger area for events, the so-called “Kohlrabizirkus”. The landlord, that rents a part of that area to us, tries to earn money in every possible way, so he rented a part of the area to the organizers of MMA Freefight for a weekend of fighting. The organizers are clearly connected to the radical right-wing scene. The IfZ was attacked by people involved in the Freefight fortunately just causing material damage. We pressed charges, but the only interest of the police was to make sure that the IfZ will not attack the Freefight. We expected protection but for the police the IfZ had the role of the aggressor.
Jonas: In my opinion, this is an example of how the authorities treat victims of right violence. They don’t only not believe them, but suspect them, stigmatize them and criminalize them. And often people are left alone in situations like this.
Back to your musical development. Jonas, you founded Rivulet Records some years ago.
Maria: On Friday, a friend told me that Rivulet means something like shaman journey into the past. Jonas, I wanted to ask you, did you think about that?
Jonas: Rivulet is actually a very small river in old english. It actually came from us playing with words. I used to live in Weimar and the rest of the founding members in Leipzig. Bach was working in both of these cities and translated into english “Bach” means rivulet.
What is important for you running Rivulet? What kind of music are you searching for?
Jonas: In the beginning, we wanted to move independently from genres and publish the music we like and that emerges in our peer group. After six published records on Rivulet, a certain sound developed, that is specific for the label. Although we keep trying to think broadly, we don’t want to stray too far from the sound representing the label. At the same time, we don’t have a fixed order, in which we do things. Most of the collaborations came out of meeting people, playing gigs with people, becoming aware of people and the feeling that it fits. The circle grew bigger in the meantime. Half of the last record features Peonies from Moskau, whom I have never seen and only know via the internet but we became pen pals. He drew my attention with his Tape Label. On top of that there was a Remix by Ital (also known as Relaxer) from New York, whom I met personally. The publications are no longer limited to a peer group, but the featured artists are still people I feel good supporting and working together with.
Maria: But the premise is a similar aesthetic, isn’t it?
Jonas: Yes, but that’s probably just me. A kind of selection happens through my taste and at the same time the labels catalogue has an effect. But in the last year, we decided to end this project, because I am the only one who is still active in the music industry, really. So, we decided to bring out one more record together, which will be an album by me and my long-time-buddy “Hobor” and then say good bye to the label.
It is relatively new, that you two are playing together as Monsanto High. How did that start? You come from very different angles of electronic music. Where do you find each other?
Maria: We know each other for four years now. We grew closer together, but from the beginning we were able to identify strongly with our standards, preferences and goals even if we were moving in different genres. We noticed more and more, that we also fit musically and that we would like to play together to bring the influences of both directions together. Monsanto High gave us the possibility of tryouts in different contexts. When playing under our own Dj-names, people have certain expectations, like “Stanely Schmidt is this” and “Solaris is that”.
Jonas: What Maria said was very beautiful and it is very true, but actually it was a bit different. We do come from different directions, but we discovered our mutual fondness for ghetto house, which we could never play in one of our own sets. So we started this project together, where we could play straight ghetto house and we even pulled that through for two or three gigs. Spinning Dance Mania records up and down, DJ Deeon, DJ Slugo, Traxman, Paul Johnson and so on. It was great fun but we also thought that the music moved on for a reason to footwork, grime and stuff like that. Even though it is a very interesting kind of music, it always works on a very simple scheme. After three gigs, we had enough of 606 toms and its sexist vocals.
Maria: Yeah, after a while straightly doing this it just sucked.
Jonas: But we noticed that we come together musically besides the ghetto house as well.
Maria: I have played house-Sets before for two or three times with a more technoid, faster, rougher house that goes in the direction of ghetto-tech but I didn’t get so many chances to try it in public. It is the same for Jonas and techno. So, Monsanto High was a great opportunity to combine our mutual preferences, that would go short otherwise, in a project together.
Jonas: It was amazing for us both to have found a frame in which we were able to play the records we had bought all the time and had been wanting to play in a club but never dared to, because they didn’t fit our label as a DJ. Since we live together as a couple, we talk a lot about music, exchange things and explore together.
Maria: In the meantime, we developed a common taste. Probably we also influenced each other in our own sets, even when playing alone.
Whats up next for you?
Maria: Last year we founded PH17 together. Everything is very fresh; the first release came out 2 months ago and the next ones are about to drop. With this label, we wanted to bring our mutual musical interests together on a label without the borders of genres. There is a focus on experimental music, but also club music with an experimental touch. We have a commitment from a – in my opinion – very great US-act. They are called Ariadne and are featured on the first compilation. These are two people, doing relatively deep electroacoustic stuff. It sometimes reminds me to pieces of Andy Stott. No one knows them in Europe. I definitely have the ambition to publish unknown acts that I like.
Jonas: I was moved by a central thought, that should play a role in the label as well. When you are acting as a musician in the club context, you will most certainly get to a point, where the functionality and the ambition connected to the context of the club becomes pretty annoying because it limits you. This is the point, where we want to step in. The point where people want to publish stuff beyond that, that breaks the functionality but is still connected to the context of the club originating from its cultural context and from its aesthetics of sound. That was our aim with the first releases. All of the artists are people on the border of club and experimental music. There is a strange intertwining between a functionality, that still lies in the pieces but is broken up in a special way, chopped apart and rearranged like a mosaic. The functionality doesn’t just go away, just because you make an ambient track. You will always be socialized through club music and are stuck with that technically. And still very interesting things pop up, when people start leaving this functionality. The name PH17 comes from a special type of block house buildings first developed in the former GDR, that was first built in Leipzig. For us the aesthetic of those show a similar relationship between functionality and aesthetic awakening.
Maria: There lies a utopian thought in the idea of the so called “Plattenbau”. It resembles the idea and utopia of a communist concept of living, that failed in reality.
Jonas: Right, you can reconstruct that with the soviet architecture. Especially the people, who have put functionality in the focus, kept getting lost in a shaping that totally negates the same functionality, such as mosaics on the buildings. At the same time these Plattenbauten you can still see all over the former GDR and Sowjet Union are testimonies of that time and the crazy relationship between functionality and aesthetics, that actually oppose each other, but found a weird symbiosis here.
Maria: To be more specific about the name: PH16 stand for “Punkthochhaus” with 16 floors. PH17 stands for the floor that doesn’t exist. The label should not be limited to musical output but we want to interact with other art forms. For example, for the design we are working together with Sebastian Helm (Schroeter und Berger), who is very hooked by the project and currently working on a realistic style. I am very interested in the development of the project not only musically but also visually.
Everything corresponds between the poles of functionality and normalization on the one hand and freedom, experiments and utopias on the other hand. But does that also stand for the free spaces that are only just appearing in functionality?
Jonas: That leads us back to the interesting part about techno. From the very beginning, one can see that in the total devotion to functionality lies its opposite, absolute disfunctionality. Tracks with tempi and distortions, no one can dance to them anymore, they ultimately faded into pure art, denying their original function. From the very beginning of techno, it was one of its core ideas: pushing the borders.
Speaking of that, we are really excited about our next release which is an album by our good friend Hobor. He is part of the core of the label and developed a real unique sound. His album sounds like somehow “broken” electronic music. The components and pieces are decomposed and seem to glide away over the development of the record. Its really a unique work and we’re really happy to release it very soon.
Text by Paul Firlei
Photos by Mihaly Podobni