The Golden Age

CTM.13 Theme

Within the conditions of digital culture (dematerialisation, networking, instant access, plasticity, media convergence), globalisation (interculturalism), and postmodernism (fragmentation, absence of liabilities and utopia, openness, pluralism, reflexivity), in the wake of the collapse of the firmly entrenched structures of the music industry, and in the absence of a collectively mobilising artistic movement (such as was last seen with techno and rave in the late 80s/ early 90s), that which has always been the key aspiration and promise of art and pop culture is now unfolding in the urban centers of industrial societies, and in the supra-local, supra-temporal space of the Internet: subjectivity unleashed in infinite imaginaries meets with broad public acceptance of its diverse forms of expression. These forms manifest not so much as essential originality, but as the products of continuous processes of self-design based on the eclectic or syncretic appropriation and transformation of already existing materials.

Against this backdrop, today’s music displays a greater diversity than ever before, and is therefore increasingly stretching the limits of differentiation, genre ascriptions, and the capacities of human perception. No longer constrained by canons, technological barriers, or gatekeeper authorities, and supported by the infinite flexibility of digital technologies and endless inspiration sourced from open archives, this "anything goes" situation fosters what appears to be a paradisical flowering of fully realised creative potential. Never before in the history of civilisation have curious listeners found themselves confronted with such a variety of sounds, colours, textures, temporalities, methodologies, approaches, and objectives – and all the contradictions, contrasts, and paradoxes these imply. And never before have they so willingly opened their ears.

Although one’s personal finances certainly still play a role, in industrial societies it is no longer a lack of access to cultural information and tools, social conventions, or the claustrophobic corset of reductionist "-isms" that restrict the artistic process, but rather one’s own set of choices. The individual aesthetic is no longer constrained by external limits, but rather follows its own internal logic, where the artist must choose between self-imposed limits and boundlessness. The hallmark of this state of affairs is a kind of ubiquitous eclecticism, or syncretism, which characterizes contemporary art music, pop culture niches, and remnants of the mainstream alike, and sweeps aside the tired differentiation between highbrow and lowbrow culture. Such eclecticism and syncretism serves personal growth and survival strategies in equal measure. Eclectic approaches rely on the originality of the materials and methods employed. Marginality thereby moulds the dominant principle, however those who pursue a more narrowly defined style will accrue less cultural capital than those who take an inclusive approach to today’s broad and wildly diverse aesthetic spectrum.

The most radical and simultaneously optimistic expression of this development can currently be found in the work of musicians such as Hudson Mohawke, Rustie, and Flying Lotus. Their improbably fluid sound mergers, drenched in iridescent contrasts, attest to a multi-myriad of influences and musical references densely spliced with such intricacy that only the rare listener would ever unravel them. Sampling, pastiche, collage, layering, and morphing are the characteristic techniques of this music, whose "damn lot of inputs" and "damn lot of outputs", complexity, formal candour, and almost encyclopedic appetite for bygone pop music led the British music journalist Simon Reynolds to state that it was both meaningless and a sheer impossibility to assign it to any genre at all, quite appropriately describing it instead as "post-everything omnivorous." In its post-historical hyper-artificiality and edgy restlessness, the music of Rustie, Hudson Mohawke & co. reveals itself to be an apt metaphor for present-day intense digital excess: networking to the hilt, and illustrious sovereign surfing on the unfettered signal streams of digital communication.

Things don’t look all too different on the listener's side. Recent empirical studies of acquisition habits and the vagaries of taste reveal that the spectrum of music heard by any one individual listener has broadened significantly in recent years, and also that deliberately inclusive listening habits promise more social prestige than a markedly exclusive taste. Nowadays, it is not so much the expertise in one field of music, but rather knowledge of how very diverse styles may be combined in an exciting and enlightening way that is considered a sign of refinement, as is the desire to experience what once was deemed incongruous (i.e. going to both a classical music concert at the Philharmonic as well as to a Noise performance in some backyard basement).

Eclectic tastes can now draw on an ever-expanding cornucopia of material just waiting to be sourced. Given that art and music are cumulative, that is, "past forms cede to new developments yet continue to persist" (Wolfgang Welsch), all that was ever created is presently up for grabs and also can be taken a step further, any which way. If nothing is ever discarded then everything is a potential resource, and so, in order to constantly broaden the palette of viable perception, even that which was once considered waste is recycled as a cultural artefact. As a consequence, postmodernism may be said to keep all of civilisation’s previous accomplishments on hand, whatever their era, provenance, or ideological premises. The present is accordingly growing bigger by the day; complexity, information density, and the spectrum of what is available are increasing exponentially.

But when self-expression, once a heavily-contested strategy for emancipation, becomes the norm within digital capitalism’s gift economy, that which at first glance appears to be the manifestation of long-fought-for creative freedom quickly reveals its shadow side: Never before has it been so difficult to agree on criteria by which the value of music may be assessed beyond the logic of market regulation and an individual’s purely subjective yardstick, to move thus from the idea of "everything is allowed" towards the conviction that after all "not all is good". Maybe it has never been so difficult to derive demands that pose a concrete challenge to social realities from an artistic concept. Furthermore, one has to assert a tightened competition for the limelight against the backdrop of a  public sphere that undergoes radical changes. Medial overload, narcissism, redundancy, "tumblerisation", restoration of a virtual idyll, superficial "Facebook-referentiality", and sterility are just some of the catchwords up for discussion.

Consequently, not all artists optimistically welcome the explosion of aesthetic diversity within the digital matrix, nor the opportunities for recombination it affords them. By radically restricting themselves to a limited range of source material and rigorously defined methods, or by stubbornly working through meticulous variations on long-since established styles, such artists swim against the current, even when their work turns out to be no less eclectic than anyone else’s. A reinforced attentiveness to analogue material processes and real objects as sources for music that uses entropy, decadence, and decay to counter the supra-temporality of the digital is also notable.

A festival committed to unconventional contemporary music, founded on eclectic and syncretic principles, and bound by the consciously polemic and glisteningly ambivalent theme of "The Golden Age," to test itself and all else to the max, CTM intends to interrogate artistic approaches to the contemporary cornucopia and the gaping chasms it hides, and also to take a critical look at the festival’s own curatorial practice by reflecting on the preferences that underpin it. How best to distinguish between fruitful and sterile eclecticism? What viewpoints are needed in order to establish criteria that foster a broader discourse? And how might new forms of sharing and communication be initiated on the basis of such a molecular aesthetic?

No tensions, frictions, and dichotomies exist in the "Golden Age" of antiquity. The term describes a state of harmony and peace, and this is precisely what makes it so obviously suspect; few people nowadays are able to put much faith in unconstrained peace and harmony. CTM.13’s "Golden Age" reveals itself to be at least as ambivalent, but takes the diametrically opposed viewpoint, namely that nothing but tension, intensity, and friction is ever able to put a shine on its gold and bring forth from the tired, purely quantitative pluralism of indifferent juxtaposition, a pluralism appreciably rich in diversity and potential. Tension here does not mean only affect, speed, contrast, and a rejection of rationalism and conflict. Peace, languor, and contemplation likewise create spaces that allow for such intensity to build.

Different degrees of tension are vital to any serious interrogation or analysis of objects, work, and artistic proposals. It takes a tear in the fabric, irreconcilable outcomes, and intense moments to trigger the startling breaks and memorable experiences likely to foster exchange, debate, and public discourse. The prerequisite is an examination of detail, for every artistic experiment always follows its own logic. It is essential to share one’s own eclectic machine with other people, or link it up with other machines. One cannot hedge in and jealously defend one’s own blueprint; experiences past and present must be communicated and shared. This alone allows new moments of community building to see the light of day.

Throughout CTM.13, different degrees of tension manifest themselves, firstly in the individual works, performances, and artistic positions presented, and secondly in the way these are juxtaposed and overlapped with one another in the festival programme. Contrasts, dialogue, exchange, confrontation, and crossovers from the broadest imaginable range of approaches, genres, scenes, traditions, networks, and subcultures have underpinned the festival programme at the very latest since 2006, when CTM redefined itself as the "Festival for Adventurous Music" and consciously renounced formal aesthetic boundaries. The festival thus intentionally provides a framework in which different niches, cultures, aesthetics, and practices, as well as their equally diverse publics, share a common platform. Everyone is invited to step out of the personal comfort zone and deal with sharing differences in such a way as to nurture public space and promote mutual understanding.

In adopting "The Golden Age" as its theme, CTM.13 turns these principles into the keystone of its ten-day festival spree, putting the spotlight on artistic strategies that endeavour to counter the contemporary cultural overdose and its underlying threat of arbitrariness, by presenting an enticing spectrum of potent moments that range between the poles of joyous affirmation and radically subjective limits. As such, CTM.13’s concert and exhibition programme stages a huge range of artistic approaches, which are examined in light of current social relations by artists and pop and cultural theorists during the festival’s discourse series of panels and talks.


Text by Jan Rohlf.
Translated from German by Jill Denton.