What comes to your mind when you hear the word “Düsseldorf”? In my case, the name of North Rhine-Westphalia’s capital triggers images of blond women in bakeries, medieval architecture and boredom, because of the “-dorf” part, which simply means “village” in German. The impression is a flawed one, of course; Düsseldorf is a rather large, wealthy city inherently linked to the development of the arts in postwar Germany. Its Fine Art Academy is famed, its river promenade gorgeous, its beer tangy and its significance for electronic music undisputed (hello, Kraftwerk). Talking about music: I was able to convince myself of these qualities during a first visit a week ago on the occasion of Open Source Festival, an event founded by Philipp Maiburg and bringing together an eclectic mix of promising local bands and international acts such as Austra or Trentemøller. Additionally, the festival showcases contemporary art projects by students of the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and a specially commissioned stage design by artist Tim Berresheim. The inclusion of contemporary art within a music festival seemed like a decisive argument to me, because unfortunately, my musical taste is a sharp as the one of a blobfish; I know less about music than my grandma does about fidget spinners, and have been listening to more or less the same iTunes playlist since I’m 18. It mainly consists of a dreadful mix between genuinely bad pop-music, corny movie soundtracks and 2009 vocal house sets by uber-commercial Israeli DJs. Aside from broadening my musical horizons, the thought of actually trying to evaluate something I know so little about seemed like an angle worth exploring, and so off I went. The trip was planned with surgical precision in order for us visitors to witness the many highlights of Düsseldorf: before the festival even started, I’d seen an ephemeral cultural space in a former mail distribution center (including an underground shooting range on which German mailmen used to train their dexterity with guns, since they apparently needed to be able to handle a weapon); marvelled at the very poignant videos exhibited at the Julia Stoschek collection (special mention to Reynold Reynolds & Patrick Jolley’s mindblowing work); listened to a well-informed guide talk about the perks of fire-proof standards in four brand-new underground stations, each one individually conceived by a different artist; and tasted Düsseldorf’s signature Altbier, more coarse, tasty and satisfying than its Munich counterpart (it’s the only one I’m more or less familiar with). After all this, I went back exhausted to my hotel and turned in before midnight like a productive member of Rhineland society.
The next day, we were brought to the pleasantly odd festival grounds: a horse race track on a woody hill, which gave off a nice “Kentucky derby meets 1980s German upper middle-class” vibe. In that environment, I could easily picture ladies with names like Gisela or Dagmar placing timid bets on solid horses while readjusting the belts on their white capri pants. Equipped with my seventeen bracelets, press passes, backstage badges and so on, I wandered the area, which felt quite exotic to me. Here comes my second disclaimer: as you might have guessed, I’m even more unfamiliar with outdoor music festivals than with music itself. It’s a big thing where I come from, and I don’t deny the appeal of feeling the transcending qualities of a good beat (am I using the word correctly?) wander through a crowd of five thousand human beings. But there’s just something about that smell of a hot lawn that makes me want to run away as fast and far as possible. It’s not because I’m a snob – I know many snobs who love outdoor music festivals – but a subconscious childhood trauma must have cemented my distaste for cheerful ambiances and summery gatherings of strangers.
Performances took place on three stages: one for young talents from the region, the Carhartt WIP stage for international alternative acts and the main stage for the bigger, more mainstreamish players. There were food trucks and small local businesses selling everything a festival-goer might feel tempted by: drinks, fancy sandwiches, quirkily embroidered t-shirts, etcetera. Pretty quickly the place filled up with people, including a surprising amount of children, and the musicians started to play. Love Machine, a band of bearded men in hippie clothes, warmed up the rather serious attendees, the majority of which seemed rather well-off and in their mid-thirties, with Woodstockian hymns to, well, love, and other emotions. A total game-changer – at least for someone like me, who can’t hide his general photophobia axolotl-like carnation – was the possibility to enjoy the music from the race track’s tribune, sheltered from the heat and with the option to sit down. Many might argue that standing and sweating are what make a festival an authentic experience; I for myself was thrilled at the prospect of enjoying the concert this way instead of feeling the sunlight’s unforgiving sizzle on my pale complexion amidst a swamp of wet, unknown bodies.
I took a break from Love Machine’s gang of hirsute gentlemen and was given a tour of the art installations on view by the students who had produced them. The works by Thomas Reul – a trippy animation of a figure endlessly falling down and hitting invisible obstacles, shown on the screens where race results are usually displayed – and Andy Kassier – a multimedia reflection on white male douche-dom, including an hour-long Instagram story and a banner depicting the very white bare-chested artist riding an even whiter horse on some cliché white beach – felt executed with ease; they seemed exciting evidence of the artists’ interest in exploring the flaws and weaknesses of contemporary individuality.
As painfully little as I know about the topic, I’d say that altogether, the music was good. Aside from Love Machine, I must mention a few acts in particular, such as Austra. I sort of knew them, and wasn’t disappointed: somehow their music sounded like honey dripping down a chunk of ice in a gothic cathedral. There was a tall, jumpy keyboard player I thought looked entertaining, and singer Katie Stelmanis gave it her all wearing mustard-colored tights, which I found courageous given the high temperatures. Another highlight was Antilopen Gang, which is German rap, a genre that isn’t easy to get into unless you’re German (I’m not) and like rap (I’m open to it, but for the sake of honesty would need to give a soft no to that too). However those guys were clearly the stars and seemed genuinely at the top of their game: finally I saw people shouting and jumping and raising their hands, creating these fascinating patterns that look like waves in an ocean of flesh. While it goes without saying I’d never heard of them before checking out the festival’s line up, Antilopen Gang had me and the crowd in their pocket, jumping and moving and rapping fast and well, until they asked us to say “Deutschland muss sterben damit wir überleben” – Germany must die for us to survive, which seemed a bit too radical of a request for the audience, judging from the barely perceptible response it uttered after being asked repeatedly by the three singers to repeat the sentence. The G20 chaos in Hamburg, unfolding concurrently, probably didn’t help either to motivate attendees to utter such polemic words.
The third and maybe most striking performance was the one of Gaika, a lanky Londoner with fantastic stage presence and music I wouldn’t dare to categorize: sometimes it sounded like a funeral chant for one of the characters in “Mad Max: Fury Road”; sometimes like a bulldog running and barking in the belly of a Transformer; at other times, I simply felt as if I were on a post-apocalyptic Caribbean Island, watching a sunset and about to burst in tears. The whole thing sounded both dystopian and hyperreal, and Tim Berresheim’s stage design added to the impression: while some elements were taken down upon the singer’s request, the artist’s trippy, guerilla-like digital illustrations still framed Gaika and his musicians, making the scenery look like the entrance to some nasty, anarchic and terribly tempting revue.
Altogether people looked like they were having a good time – in a grown-up, West-German way. I didn’t witness any excess, didn’t step into a pool of puke or see someone almost overdose on acid. Instead people wore ear plugs to shelter themselves from any physical damage the music could have potentially caused and seemed pretty concentrated on what they were listening to. I guess in Düsseldorf, attending a festival is as much a serious hobby as hiking or rail transport modelling. I enjoyed myself too I must admit. It’s hard to make something wrong when combining good art, good music and good food; but not that often does one actually find a situation in which these three things are combined correctly though. Open Source Festival was able to do so. Before I left the next day, I thought that I had actually experienced a very undervalued cultural landscape, and that the clichés in my head about the town had been erased. Or let’s say almost, because three of the blond women in bakeries I had so vividly imagined prior to my trip turned out to be the managers of the hotel I was staying at. They were, of course, incredibly nice, slightly sassy and full of a motherly affection that would be a motive of its own to come back, aside from good music on a horse race track.
Text: Karim Crippa