We oppose the selective solidarity enacted by German cultural institutions concerning the ongoing war on Gaza and the violence against Palestinians inflicted by the Israeli army. We stand for an immediate ceasefire and freedom for the Palestinian people. Valuing the time and contribution of the artists to this article, the conversation stays online.

A queue divides the grounds of Berliner Kulturbrauerei into two. On the opening night of this year’s Pop-Kultur Festival, people are standing in line for more than half an hour to see one of the most exciting acts in the local scene at the moment: A Song For You. As part of the festival’s exclusively commissioned works, the vocal ensemble led by Noah Slee presented a show worth the wait. Artists take turns singing verses in their native tongue, backed by a gentle hum of the entire ensemble. UNRAVEL a return to self through collective expression is an intimate exploration of individual and collective artistic identity.

Curated by Christian Morin, Yeşim Duman, and Pamela Owusu-Brenya, the commissioned works at Pop-Kultur have been creating space for these special experiences of music and art since 2017. Following the motto of “never seen before” the festival premieres fifteen exclusive performances within three days. The funding from the Initiative Musik and the support by the festival team, allow artists to explore and experiment. The collaborative character of the commissioned works and the investigative curation by the team firmly roots the festival in the local creative community and works towards dismantling financial and social barriers. We spoke to Pamela Schlewinski who is the creative producer of the commissioned works, the singer Annika Henderson, or simply Anika, and multidisciplinary artist Rania Kim, also known as Portrait XO, who presented their commissioned works Lost Voices and TENSION this year.

Bringing Visions to Life

A Song For You at Palais (Photo by Camille Blake)

“We receive funding for the entire festival and the commissioned works get an assigned part of that budget. I evaluate the financial needs of each project after reading the concept,Pamela says about the distribution of the funding. Anika proposed a collaborative concept and Portrait XO was approached by Pamela for the show. “I guess, I was mentioned via word of mouth from others who have seen me perform”, the transmedia artist and composer who works with AI comments.

TENSION is a project that Portrait XO has been wanting to work on for a long time and through the support of Pop-Kultur found the right space in time. “I’ve been wanting to bring to life integrating gestures and real-time AI audio with dynamic visuals that are about the circular states of being,” she explains the vision. “The concept of ‘TENSION’ was something that’s come from all of my experiments with integrating different types of technology into my workflow.” Performing together with Neil Mendoza, Portrait XO created an immersive experience of visuals and sounds stretching beyond the boundaries of just a stage and flooding the whole room.

The alternative rock artist Anika has played lots of festivals and stages across Berlin already. Performing at Pop-Kultur with fellow musician Sally Wanda Whitton and sound artist Aude Langlois, she explains that “it is a piece about lost voices – those in society, and, in a more direct sense, those in music, specifically bass over phone speaker, frequencies that get lost as well as songs that get lost in the algorithm of music apps and generated playlists. The norm curve excludes the rebels.” The multidisciplinary set includes a collaboration with the Mexican feminist filmmaker Tabatta Salinas and poet Nasim Luczaj. You can read more about the life-changing experiences that shaped Lost Voices right here.

Supportive Infrastructure 

Anika at Kesselhaus (Photo by Dominique Brewing)

During the conceptualization and the rehearsal, Portrait XO describes the involvement of Pop-Kultur and Initiative Musik as very “hands-off”. While the involvement in the creative part is minimal to ensure artistic freedom, Pamela tells me, that they are in constant exchange with the artists depending on the needs of the project. With Portrait XO, they talked through the concept of TENSION and then had regular check-ins and spoke about the tech setup for the stage. Bringing to life Anika’s large-scale stage design, the set designer Jana Wassong from the team helped out. “She created a big pair of hanging lungs, to our specification. Lungs are what gives air to the vocal cords, starve them of air and you have no voice”, Anika says.

“Think big, beyond the normal constraints of having to make a marketable object, be creative, test your own limits, collaborate with those you might not normally have to opportunity or resources to do so.”Anika

Here, Pamela’s background in theater comes in handy. Wanting to support the artists in the process as much as possible, she and her team offer to help with their knowledge in putting big ideas onto the stage. “My small team is made up of an assistant, a set designer, and a lighting designer. In those aspects, we can support the artists very efficiently. We do not edit their ideas when it comes to the topic, but we do want to help the execution with our specific skill sets.” Through her theater background, Pamela learned how to work with all dimensions of stage performance and pays special attention to the content, as well as, the visual and musical aspects of the projects.

This attention to detail and visual orientation shows in the final performances of several commissioned works. The interactive performance Fucklore: The Bellringers by Krista Papista, for example, incorporates the movement of the audience as part and has the people follow the artist across the festival grounds. Portrait XO moves freely in the room her performance takes place in, and even the more stage-bound performances like A Song For You experiment with the different dynamics and spaces that an unexpected use of the entire room as a stage can create. At one point, singer Adelle Nqeto appears on the gallery flight behind the crowd for a solo performance. Toward the end of the show, half of the singers line up on the stairs and chant in call-and-response with the artists on the stage, creating a room-filling vibration.

Krista Papista at Kulturbrauerei (Photo by Camille Blake)

Intersections of Music, Images, and Movement

To Pamela, freedom of artistic creation plays a key role. “I want to create a space that frees energies,” she says. “Each artist has a vision and something they have always wanted to do. The opportunity of the commissioned work can bring that vision to the surface and finally provide the space to put it into practice. It is beautiful to see the happy artists at the end of the festival because they have brought something onto the stage that they love, and they had fun while making it, but it was also challenging them.”

“From the perspective of the Pop-Kultur festival, it is important to support artists and to make them visible to a diverse and large audience. I personally believe that the intersection of music, images, and movement bears a lot of power. The commissioned work is a great opportunity to channel all artistic energies and to paint them on the stage in poetic, wild or quiet colors, however the artist sees fit.”Pamela

The colors that Portrait XO paints are those of the rainbow. Sitting in the audience as the VR-style shape-shifting colors assemble in abstract forms. The pulsating images echo the sound – or the other way around. TENSION opens a communicative space between the visual and the music. Beginning slowly, the piece evolves so organically, that the tension builds without me noticing. My eyes are guided by the beautiful colors and shapes and suddenly I find myself immersed in the throbbing electronic sounds and the faster-moving and flashing images.

Portrait XO at RambaZamba Theater (Photo by Camille Blake)

The Freedom to Take Risks

The commissioned works presented this year, are so different that it is hard to imagine that they all fall under this curational umbrella. But I guess this goes to applaud the team for selecting a range of artists from such diverse musical backgrounds. Because of the individual needs of each project, the funding is also used differently.

 “[The funding] gave us the freedom to take risks, to not have to pander to the demands of the money-making market, it gave us the chance to research and grow, intertwine with other humans in our search for answers.”Anika

For Portrait XO, creating a project with such technological finesse, was difficult within the period of time. “The main challenge was trying to achieve a custom workflow in a short period of time. We had to develop the interactive and new visual elements while I was also composing new music,” she remembers. The process of working on the custom coding for the project took longer than expected, but they were able to achieve a lot regardless. Pamela explains that there is no fixed time frame for the artists. The final show at the Pop-Kultur is a guideline, but the way the work unfolds before that is for the artists to organize. And in the end, what the artists take away from this is more than pivoting in one evening. Portrait XO says: “These new learnings have given birth to new ideas of how we want to improve for future shows.”  

“I think it is always good to get as detailed as possible when budgeting for new opportunities like all the tech requirements, rehearsal spaces, and try to imagine different types of outcomes based on time and budget. So have like this grand idea with no budget in mind first, then be flexible enough to scale down if needed. I think it is a good challenge to have, to learn how to juggle budgets and time in a way that is supportive and helps learn what is needed to continue to thrive.” – Portrait XO

Finding A Stage

Witnessing several of the commissioned performances at Pop-Kultur 2023, I was amazed by the diversity in creative approaches that were displayed. The unexpected nature and surprising elements of each show resembled the unique character of Berlin’s creative scene where you never know who the surprise guest on the stage of a Poetry Meets event might be or which exhibition at a small NK gallery will leave a lasting impression. The value of this format is obvious: it minimizes the boundaries for just a moment and lets the artists levitate in their creative cosmos. And then invites us to experience the culminated fruit of their artistic wanderings in one evening.

Portrait XO sees great value in continuing this type of workflow and support of creatives. “It is a great opportunity for artists to get some budget to try new ideas. And it is always great to have a deadline while being supported by such a great team of people who really want to see artists thrive in their own creative visions.” When I ask creative producer Pamela about her wishes for the future of the program, she says: “I want to continue doing this format and to provide a lot more artists with this special space. So many ideas have not yet been shown or heard and I hope that they will get the chance to find their stage at our festival.”

You can read about all of this year’s commissioned works on the Pop-Kultur website