Rabih Beaini and Jan Rohlf: Everything Visible Is Empty

Rabih Beaini and Jan Rohlf: Everything Visible Is Empty

November 26, 2017

Written by:

Beatrice Sommer

Edited by:

Dragoș Rusu

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During the Outernational Days 2 in Bucharest (July 7-9), CTM Festival presented Everything Visible Is Empty, a live project developed and lead by Lebanese artist Rabih Beaini, with Mazen Kerbaj, Raed Yassin, Diana Miron, and Bogdana Dima. We spoke to Jan Rohlf of CTM festival and Rabih Beaini about the various sides and purposes of music, festival curatorship, the role of open talks within the music events and more.

Jan Rohlf is originally from Tübingen; since 1994 he lives and works in Berlin. Being engaged in various collaborations and cultural projects, Jan is co-founder (together with Oliver Baurhenn and Remco Schuurbiers), artistic director and head of communications for the CTM-Festival in Berlin. CTM is a prominent international festival dedicated to contemporary electronic, digital and experimental music, as well as the diverse range of artistic activities in the context of sound and club culture.

In 2005, Jan Rohlf has also founded DISK Sound & Image Initiative e.V., an organisation devoted to the promotion of experimental art and music. Another project of international resonance that involves Jan is the creation of the global network I.C.A.S. – International Cities of Advanced Sound, an organisation that gathers the artistic directors of numerous festivals dedicated to digital culture, which aims to create sustainable structures in order to offer a platform for the exchange of ideas and projects, critical reflections, co-productions, and to promote collaboration.

Lebanese-born musician and DJ Rabih Beaini joins the dots between raw, elementary electronica, and jazz. Beaini’s genuine musical ability and a range of influences — from krautrock to new wave — seep into his inventive, dark, and emotional productions and immersive DJ sets. With his Morphine label, he has telescoped in on key (and often overlooked) voices in avant-garde electronic and outernational music.

"Everything Visible Is Empty" continued the artistic search and methodology first explored by Beaini in his project "For The Red Right Hand", which he composed for and performed at CTM Festival 2016 together with Liz Allbee, Mazen Kerbaj, Sam Shalabi, Sharif Sehnaoui, Daniele De Santis, Tommaso Cappellato, Sofia Jernberg, and Rully Shabara. Both pieces are meant to be sonic reflections on the current political and social tensions, and the disrupting potential of technology. Operating from a central power position – the mixing desk – Beaini organizes an ensemble of instrumentalists via a multi-channel speaker setup into opposing and conflicting counterpoints, tensions and uneasy coexistence, making the pieces allegories of personal conflict and social tension, and musical explorations of the need to balance motives of trust, communal spirit and individualism, power and control, that underlie all human relations. The experience is dynamic and immersive, at times violently chaotic, at times unsettlingly beautiful, and of a fragile and deeply moving emotionality.

Music Initiation

”I come from a middle class family in West Germany, in a university town”, Jan begins. ”As a teenager, I had the chance to dive into some kind of alternative culture, as many German towns have these autonomous youth centers, basically self-organized formerly squatted places where they organize concerts, parties, and other things. That was an initiation to a lot of music.”

In those days, Jan remembers that there was a lot of hardcore music, a lot of metal and punk. ”When I was 14 I started to give a hand at the improv concerts a local group of artists was organizing, and sometime after started to organize my own first attempts at making themed parties about industrial music which I was really into at the time, together with a friend who had fled from the GDR to my home town. I was just making my own way into Arts, building sculptures from scrap metal, educating myself, going to the library. And then, when school was over, in 1994, I hit the road to Berlin where I am ever since. It has changed me a lot, because in my town I wasn't exposed to that kind of nightlife and music culture that was happening in Berlin, which is the techno and house scene, then a much more freaky type of underground culture then now, that was still influenced by the 80’s Geniale Dilletanten movement, Einstürzende Neubauten, Dead Chickens, the squat scene etc., people who connected a DIY and counter cultural attitude with performance, art and music. So, there was this weird mix, it was very inspiring.”

For Rabih Beaini, up until 13-14 years old, music came as a normal connection through cousins, uncles. ”In Lebanon there were no cultural spaces or stuff like this available, that you could open up into a wider thing, so it was just whatever I could gather around me. I used to go to school and then jump on the bus to go back home and I would immediately turn on the radio. There was this station with a programme at 2 o'clock and I would fight with everybody on the bus because they wanted to listen to another programme. I was 12 years old and I was the biggest guy on the bus so that was ok”, he laughs.

Jan remembers that he frequently visited a club in East Berlin called Im Eimer (a name that translates both as going down the drain as well as being a snitch for the GdR secret service Stasi, which called their informants euphemistically “informelle Mitarbeiter” or “IM”, informal contributor), which doesn't exist anymore, but for some time it was a really important space. ”There was this concert one night where a guy was standing on a balcony that seemed almost collapsing and he was playing power electronics and was shouting through a megaphone and there were all these collage videos with political scenes from the news and pornographic images, so on and so forth. I was standing there, affected somehow and that attracted me a lot I must say. Years later, I found out that the guys was Dirk Ivens from Dive (The Klinik/ Absolute Body Control) from Belgium and the guy who made the videos was Lillevan with whom I´ve started CTM Festival in 1999 (then “Club Transmediale”). He was working at Eimer, he was sitting at the door, yet I didn't know him at the time, of course. That´s a nice coincidence, I like it. And also the place where we started the festival, Maria am Ostbahnhof, was run by people who had been members of the collective that operated the Eimer. Nice connections that unfolded. I don't believe in fate, but that attraction had a reason.”

Purposes and Reasons

There is a perspective that nowadays everyone has access to expressing themselves musically. Asked if the instrument market channels spontaneous inspiration and instinctive improvisational use of unconventional tools to create music into buying the best ready made product, Rabih thinks that it all depends on what the person wants to do with music, what the aim of it is. There are people who use a software to do stuff that can't possibly be made with an instrument. And there's people who need the physicality and the movement in order to create. ”I don't think any real musician or anyone who’s on the conscious side of creating music choses the wrong instrument. It’s triggering a lot of will to create instruments and build them and buy custom made instruments. I see more failure in the traditional instruments – as in the guitar, the base and the drums, the normal pop culture instruments – which are being used less and less in creative contexts. There’s quite a creative approach to what to use and how to implement it. That is precisely locking it down to people who are active and creative and know what they are doing. They master their instrument.”

On the other hand, Jan believes that there are much more possibilities at hand nowadays in making sound and music. ”The challenge for an artist has always been that you have to develop a set of tools for yourself and dive into it and explore them in depth. Often today, at the beginning you have a huge selection to choose from, especially in electronic music, and that is part of the challenge now. It doesn't come naturally that you arrive at a certain instrument, because it is not that there is only this specific instrument at hand. Now you have to narrow the many options down to something that works for you and maybe this process is becoming crucial. ”

Jan thinks that the task for the artist is to choose a certain limitation that sets a frame within which leads to experiment, exploration and going into the depth. ”Of course, you also have the possibility to break it open and change over time. You don't have to be fixed to this.”

Music used to be a social bonding and ritual facture, but now it´s more and more everywhere and purposed for everything. Rabih sees the medium changing. ”I don't see any invasion in that sense, I only see more possibility and, at the same time, lack of professional platforms like a record shop or a radio studio where people can gather, listen to music and have a beer. Things like this were happening in the 80’s and 90’s. Now we don’t have them because of economic problems like the costs of keeping these spaces going. You can have terabytes of music and not listen to it, but you have access and that's important."

People whose art is part of a hybrid collaborative work are often integrated and represented in various contexts occurring in the Western/ capitalist world, but Rabih Beaini doesn't believe in "forcing something into a different context. I believe in the development of something within its own context and creating it on a level that could go everywhere possible. I believe in the level of mastership in things. It can be Western, it can be Eastern, it can be Asian or South African or whatever it is. I believe in development in things and not in insertion. Not in exoticism. It has to be valid craftsmanship with solid bonds, not something coming from an exoticist approach.”

Reflecting on the various purposes of music, Jan thinks that there are so many reasons for why music exists and why people are using music. ”With more possibilities to play and to use music and sound there are also more variations on that, more uses of sound and music. But you have to look at all these different detailed possibilities and to see why they are carrying meaning.” In many different fields of practice, people are becoming more aware of the sound component of what they do. It can be in car design, advertising, all non-musical contexts where sound becomes more important and more of a tool to work with actually. ”And there are also many opportunities for artists to interfere. So, the field has widened and the debate about it as well”, he concludes.

“The non-artistic use of music did not come with a bang”, Jan adds. ”It’s a gradual process probably with the growing complexity of the human societies. In the Middle Ages you could consider church music spiritual music, yes. But already then you could also consider it to be part of something that was strategically organized and used for a specific experience. And it was. It was a steered process, it wasn't just a spiritual quest from the community, it was also something that was controlled. There were commissioned pieces for a reason, there were practices that were active for a certain reason and so on. This is also an old thing in sound and music and, of course, it evolved with society. It fringed out and multiplied into so many possibilities and contexts and uses. The old practices still prevail, they exist within all these newer practices in music and sound, they are not gone. They may be ciphered in new forms, disguised in forms that we don't always recognize.”

Rabih remembers that in the 60’s there was even more presence of music in public spaces than now because you would have bands playing in every hotel, every night. ”We don't have that anymore. The imposition of music you talk about was, I think, even heavier than it is now. Restaurants had live bands as well.”


Slightly changing the route of the discussion into the theoretical side of festivals, as co-founder of CTM Festival, Jan considers that festivals have many purposes. ”Some of them are ages old, going back to the original sense of what a festival was and should be and still maybe is, and somewhat more modern renditions of that. In a traditional sense, I would say the festival is a place for celebrating social cohesion and for strengthening it. It’s a place for some kind of transcendental experience for a group in ritualistic practices. It is something to go out of the daily, ordinary survival and life. And music is a part of this. Festivals are also a way to relieve the tensions of daily life for a moment. It’s a kind of cathartic experience where things are allowed that are otherwise regulated and forbidden in society. This is still one of the reasons why people enjoy going to festivals today. It’s this temporary zone where things are taken out of the daily ways of conducting life. There is a certain amount of freedom to play with experience, to play with identity, to play with forms of communication and so on, so you can test yourself and you can maybe grow and evolve in this sense because you can try out things that you wouldn't do elsewhere.”

For Jan, a festival still carries the idea of a transcendental experience that goes beyond the imminent being in this world. ”The festival experience hopefully should also change the people who participate in it, so it’s very important that a festival is not making the visitors very passive and you need to offer them ways to realize themselves as contributors, to be active participants, and you need to provide space where things can happen, and I think you have to find forms that allow that in your festival fabric. It’s something you should consciously think about. So it’s not only about putting art in some presentable order or about reflecting on what commentary art has to offer to society and so on. These are more recent forms, concerns of the contemporary festival, not elements of the festival in the old sense. You have to think about both, the old and the new functions and possibilities, the situation the festival creates as well as the content you present. That is my condensed version of what interests us.”

There is a necessity to create a space where people can exchange knowledge and reflect on experience and on what they are actively producing in this world. ”We need all kinds of ways of doing this”, Jan reflects. ”We need a kind of space for unmediated experience where there is no thinking and no discussion and no talking, but instead just being there and being part of it and forgetting about yourself or getting yourself into another state of mind or another physical state. And then we need spaces where we do the opposite, where we take a distance to critically reflect and analyse what we experience and produce. You have to think of what works for your space, music, audience, community, artists and social surroundings. Do you combine it in one place and one time or do you separate it? All of this is something that is highly specific and the secret is in the details. In general, these spaces and debates should be there as offerings. I don’t want to tell anybody to do this or to participate in that. All we can do is to invite people into something and then they choose whether they want to be there or not.”

*Photo credits: Viktor Richardsson, Hendrik Lehmann

About the Author

Beatrice Sommer

Beatrice is an Anthropology student and everyday life enthusiast. She has an affinity for avant-garde music and is involved in the alternative underground scene of Bucharest.

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