CTM Festival Jan Rohlf by Maansi CTM Festival Jan Rohlf by Maansi

Curation at its Core: Jan Rohlf of CTM Festival

January 27, 2018
Text by Claire Mouchemore
CTM Festival Jan Rohlf by Maansi

Jan Rohlf uncovers the evolution of CTM Festival, how we can begin to tackle diversity and what to expect from this year’s festival programme.

Music has posed as a long-serving format for assertion during times of hardship, with individuals and collectives tapping into artistic expression as a route to revolt. Jan Rohlf uncovers the evolution of CTM Festival, ways in which we can begin to tackle diversity on an industry level and a few hints regarding what we can expect from this year’s festival programme, which hosts 250 participants from 32 different countries and runs from January 26th - February 4th, 2018.

Jan Rohlf is a Berlin-based artist, curator and primarily the co-founder and creative director of Berlin’s CTM Festival, through which he curates the yearly concert programme to reflect a comprehensive, innovative and absorbing lineup of artists and projects. The Berlin festival is now in its 19th edition, having existed since 1999. 

Turmoil is the chosen theme of the festival this year. The world is indeed battling tumultuous times. How does this year’s edition of CTM intend to provide audiences with commentary concerning society’s current condition? 

The theme “Turmoil” is trying to describe the state of our minds, and of the world. It is born out of frustration and was also a sentiment in a way; a bit more subjective than our previous themes. Last year, the festival was themed “Fear Anger Love” and that was an attempt to respond to those shock moments that we all experienced with the reawakening of nationalism and the conflicts that came to light as a result. 

A few months after 2017’s festival had concluded we realized that nothing had really changed. Instead, the crisis moments were even more severe than before and the solutions were not insight. There loomed this permanent state of agitation, a bombardment of threatening news, upsetting news, ridiculous news; this kind of permanent distress, permanent turmoil. 

No one should be forced to accept and normalize this as the new reality that we must now adopt. It was necessary to continue what we had started with “Fear Anger Love” and reflect on what we have learned since; that’s the attempt with “Turmoil”. The basic question remains the same, How can we, within our field, of music culture, artists, producers, festivals organizers, listeners and so forth, find encouraging moments that help us to resist the current state of this world? That’s the underlying question. Because, if we couldn’t grasp those moments then we would have to ask ourselves if we should really continue running the festival at all. 

To fight back, we need to push back. One would need to fight back against the grotesque imbalance of economic possibility and equality. In addition to that, we would have to question our own behavior. New relationships need to be constructed with other parts of the world, in terms of the levels on which we relate to each other. This hierarchical thinking that exists on a cultural level needs to cease, we must acknowledge the colonial histories. This isn’t happening. Everyone is just shouting, fighting, trying to be the loudest. Dismissing the others. So, what is the opposite to this? To stop and listen to each other.

We must also think about our own complicity in all of this. If we could start this conversation, then we begin this exercise of listening to each other and on that basis, at some point, we can begin to find solidarity in order to finally strengthen the resistance against those who strategically strive to employ policies that divide us. 

That’s the core of this “Turmoil”. Uneasy times demand uneasy music. What is meant is that we need to see all of these different perspectives and experiences and listen to these so that we may reflect on our own position to all of this; that’s the uneasy part. But, we need to start doing that.

Does the programme aim to overcome this “Turmoil” or embrace it? 

Both. Could we answer turmoil with turmoil? Could we do the opposite, could we ease out? It’s about these paradoxical components that we all have in our lives and how we respond with complicity; components that exist in this world that we don’t really want to enable but still we have a part in. The responses to “Turmoil” vary, there are those who embrace it and there are also artists who are consciously trying to counter it and get out of it, offering us a moment of rest and contemplation instead of acting out our frustration and unease. I wouldn’t announce to an artist what I deem to be valid, it’s about the spectrum of answers and the festival really brings with it a lot of different responses. Is that the resonance of compensating the powerlessness that we feel every day? I don’t know, but it’s always better to enter such a festival with questions, rather than answers. 

Artists regularly premiere projects during CTM. As a curator, do you select specific works that you believe fit in with the theme of “Turmoil” or will you approach artists with the theme and propose a collaborative project? 

It is a bit of both, definitely. A festival should pick up what is happening in the music world and amplify it so that it’s made visible. However, it should also be a place of production, festivals should be partners of artists and offer opportunities for work that maybe couldn’t be produced or funded in the “wild”, so to say. So, we are passing on possibilities that we have because we are able to tap into certain funding structures. And yes, we want to work thematically and that’s why we also want to stimulate artists to work on certain topics together with us. In this world of experimental music, it’s a very hybrid zone where a lot of different practices come together, with cross over into media arts and contemporary music. In this practice we don’t have really any sort of production structures, there are no production houses like those that exist for the theatre, opera, and dance. There is very little funding that exists for this type of work that we’re presenting, especially in a country like Germany, surprisingly.

How do music and visual art intersect at CTM? 

The organizers of CTM do not come from musical backgrounds, we all come from the visual arts. Perhaps, therefore, we are a little more focused on the conceptual side, the narratives, context, and thoughts that are expressed with intricate interrelations relating to the material aspect and working methodologies.

We are at the core a music festival. To many listeners, music seems to be something very specific, yet it is actually very unclear what constitutes music. That is why we think mainly about the wider field of sound, and how that, in relation to society can reveal a wider context. 

We don’t just present concerts and performances, we also develop and present various installations and exhibitions, as well as a conference. The exhibitions that we display are thematic, they are an opportunity for us to explore perspectives from artists that are not necessarily working with sound or a part of music culture, some are, many are not. We try to show the connections that are not explicitly within the aesthetic practice so to say but are more so to do with thinking about certain topics and developments in this world. 

Diversity, or better yet a lack thereof, is an issue that many festivals seem to still struggle with. How does CTM bring together individuals from different fields of practice and different schools of thought, culture and, art?

Over the years we have made it a more conscious process to reach out to a wider range of groups, in order to include communities within the city, as well as different subcultures abroad. The festival strives to connect the academic world with DIY culture; it’s not about one going up against the other. That’s what destabilizes our usual pattern and allows for this feeling of productive contrast, which in turn opens up people. It was from the beginning the idea to create a hybrid space. But, that was towards the end of the 90s’ and at that time here in Berlin there didn’t really exist a discourse around diversity and more specifically gender, how to include post-migrant communities and seek more geographical diversity. During that time these concerns weren’t really a talking point; we were all quite ignorant. We at CTM, but also in the broader sense; the city of Berlin and beyond. 

The festival always endeavored to be socially and geographically diverse and increasingly so over the years. However, when female:pressure published their initial shocking findings in 2013, that pertained to gender inequality, we reflected and realized that we were indeed, unfortunately, a part of the issue and we had to face a lot of criticism. It was a wake-up call and we accepted it. From there we took more active steps, not only in the programming but also by reflecting these efforts in the team that we invite to work with us. However, there is always more that can and should be done; it’s a continuous process. 

What sort of challenges have you encountered through curating the festival since it’s emergence in 1999 and how have you used those lessons learned to improve the programme that CTM offers?

Back then and even now we are still fighting for the acceptance of such a specific type of festival, especially within the context of cultural politics and funding. It’s about convincing those that have the power to make decisions, regarding whether or not we are able to showcase these art forms. Speaking curatorially, the world has changed tremendously since those times in 99’. The music world has changed. We have witnessed the whole transformation process of digitization and globalization, the music economy has been turned upside down. Our aesthetic bias’ have changed through internet experience. All of that needed to be reflected in music and therefore in the CTM programme, and I believe that it has been. 

CTM 2018 - “Turmoil” runs from January 26th - February 4th, with events spanning across various locations throughout Berlin. 

Tickets for CTM Festival 2018 and the full festival programme can be found at www.ctm-festival.de

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