A Multi-Sensory Guide to Isabel Lewis’ 5 Favourite Nights in Berlin

Isabel Lewis' hosted occasions harness all the senses to create immersive, collective moments — so who better to ask about the most immersive experiences Berlin has to offer?

If you unknowingly stumbled into one Isabel Lewis’ “Hosted Occasions” — combining elements of installation, dance, sound and often food and scent-making — you could be forgiven for thinking you’d just stumbled into the most wonderful party of your life. Yet calling the occasions “parties” does Lewis’ work a disservice. There’s a frustrating dichotomy whereby art which is pleasant or not aggressively challenging is considered somehow inferior — but applying this to Lewis’ Hosted Occasions belies the amount of research and careful consideration which goes into crafting each multi-sensory experience. Lewis’ work is unabashedly the product of someone who’s resisted the call of monomania, and who is deeply curious about the multi-sensory assault of everyday life. Lewis has hosted occasions at Frieze London, Kunsthalle Basel, and the Dia Art Foundation ; today, she will share her latest occasion, an “indoor garden” with live music and improvised dance, at the first chapter of Karma Ltd. Extended at ACUD MACHT NEU.

Ahead of Karma Ltd. Extended, I met Lewis in a coffee shop on Paul-Lincke-Ufer, not too far from her Kreuzberg home. She touched upon the motivation behind her multi-stranded work and research: “I’m interested in all kinds of formats for gathering and collectivity, and what a liberalised form of collectivity could look like in the 21st century.” Given Lewis’ work is focused on collectivity, a sense of occasion and crafting multi-sensory moments, I wanted to pick her brain about which nights and moments in Berlin most successfully harnessed these elements. Lewis was kind enough to share the stories behind five of her favourite nights in Berlin, and the sensory experiences which made them so memorable, across the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sound and sight.

Isabel Lewis, “Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights”, Tate Modern, March 2017. Image: Alexander Coggin.

SMELL

If we are talking about intense sensory experience had going out in Berlin, an obvious place to start is Berghain. Much of my artistic research is around finding ways to open up other sensory modalities beyond sight and activate all the senses in my work — so as part of that research, one time I decided to spend a night in Berghain primarily focusing on my sense of smell. I avoided other influences that night — no drugs, no alcohol — and just tuned into the scent. I spent some time before I arrived activating my sense of smell. I know the inside of Berghain and all of its areas extremely well, but it was a completely new experience being guided by my sense of smell! Often in Berghain it’s more about suppressing your sense of smell, because it’s so intense.

I remember that whole night so clearly — the sense of dramaturgy as the different smells unfolded. First, you’re hit by the marijuana smoke, and then about 30 years worth of piss smells in front of the downstairs bathroom, near the coat check. Moving up, you get the smells of the dark room, which smells completely different to the dancefloor — and the main floor has all these different zones of smell, all these different spaces within the space which smell distinct. It felt like it opened itself up as another universe. The club was a huge mix of different human intensities— turmoil, ecstasy, elation, violence, love. By focusing in on my sense of smell I had one of the most psychedelic experiences I’ve ever had.

SIGHT

There’s a new club called Melancholie Discothek 2 which is a special place, because it’s the scale of a house, but it has this incredible, booming sound system in it. To get inside, you go through what looks like a disused späti — one of the beer refrigerators opens into this narrow corridor, and you’re in. I think it used to be a shisha bar. Very intelligently, the owner has left the decoration more or less the same, including these 3 meter-high fake palm trees, installed this massive sound system and enhanced the lighting. There’s something about the scale of the place in relation to quality and size of the sound which creates this very specific vibe.

There’s one particular night I was in there, at a party I co-host with Marcelo Alcaide and many friends called REIF. The lights were switching between blue and red, and kept alternating in a rhythm like a heartbeat. There was a huge amount of fog pumping out of the fog machine so that you could barely see a meter ahead of you. I remember being on the dance floor, lost in this thick cloud in a very private moment of dance floor reverie, and looking up at the second level of the club. On the balcony there were three women in silhouette, winding their hips in the red and blue light in a brief clearing of the fog. It was a super beautiful moment, very sensual. I could feel the bass and the heat of the bodies around me without seeing them. The ambiguity of the situation made for a powerful experience.

Isabel Lewis, “Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights”, Tate Modern, March 2017. Image: Alexander Coggin.

TASTE

One of my favorite restaurants in Berlin is Lode und Stijn on Lausitzer Straße, right here in my neighborhood. Not only is the quality of the food extremely good, it’s also quite simple and contemporary. Their plating is unfussy and the dishes are elegantly arranged on nice, simple tableware. When I go there, I feel like I’m in any other major metropolis with high-level food culture. Food culture is definitely coming up here in Berlin — but I’ve lived in Paris and New York, so it’s always nice to go to a place in Berlin that feels like it’s engaged in contemporary food discourse.

I don’t usually eat a lot of meat, but when I do, I really go for it. I go for carnal things like steak tartare. It was on Lode und Stijn’s menu, and I was curious to try their version of it. It’s such a classic dish and it’s been reinvented so often; I think you can tell a lot about a restaurant from their steak tartare. Lode und Stijn’s is perfectly sized, not over-the-top, and served on this very crunchy bread with a side salad of endive and toasted flax seeds. It had a few capers which were fried, and added this bit of crispness to the texture. Rather than a raw egg, they had an oyster dressing. It was very sexy. First of all, you could tell the meat was very good; it had that taste of perfectly dry-aged high quality beef. Then you got a slight sweetness out of the dressing, which contrasted with the bitterness of the endive. The crisp elements were especially clever, because tartare has that very distinct, mushy texture which needs some counterpoint. It was such a gratifying experience, in terms of flavour and texture. I had it over a month ago, and I’m still talking about it!

TOUCH

There is a monthly party I organise in Berlin called Bodysnatch, which has been going for six years. We usually do it in Monarch (this month, it’s happening at Paloma Bar), and there’s something about that specific, hectic, somatosensory experience you have when you’re pressed against so many other bodies dancing like mad. The concept of Bodysnatch has always been to create an ecstatic dancing experience. It started out as a hip-hop party, but it’s grown to include a much broader range of styles. It’s very bass-focused, ass-shaking music. There’s always something truly celebratory about Bodysnatch that I think has to do with the great diversity of people that attend regularly and that happen to come up from Kotti on a Tuesday night — people really just, like, get down. They dance with total abandon.

The sensuality of being pressed up against so many hot and sweaty bodies and the way the whole room sways generates this profound sensation. And I need that — I’m always especially grateful for Bodysnatch when it’s cold and grey outside, like it is now. I think these kind of overwhelming sensory experiences are not always “beautiful” in a classical sense, but their intensity is still compelling nonetheless. It’s something I work on with my art — crafting spaces and situations that bring forth a heightened awareness of the senses and sustain it long enough to become not only an individual experience but a shared one. Tonight, for example, I’m hosting a space inside Karma Ltd. CHAPTER ONE, an exhibition at ACUD MACHT NEU. I’ve installed the space with quite a lot of plant life thanks to the wonderful support of Späth’sche Baumschulen in Berlin-Treptow. In this indoor garden I will be generating and mixing music and voice that I will in turn respond to with dance. The dances I improvise will then inform the development of the sound in the space so that I will be performing a kind of duet between sound and movement. Just as the sound and installation fills the entire space, so will my dancing, there is no stage area.

Isabel Lewis, “Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights”, Tate Modern, March 2017. Image: Alexander Coggin.

SOUND

I recently did a small, guided exercise and sound performance for the Into Worlds Conference at Martin-Gropius-Bau. Acoustically, Martin-Gropius-Bau is a fascinating place; there’s about a 5-7 second reverb in their Lichthof which makes it quite a challenging space for electronic music and beats. I decided to play big beats there that were heavily slowed-down to have enough time to reverberate in the space without running into each other too much. This was layered with some drone sounds and smaller melodies and textural sounds to carve out the sonic space. To prepare this show I had to do a lot of fun research into subwoofers, which are truly a whole world unto themselves. There are people who dedicate their whole lives to finding the deepest sub-sound. Anyways I began exploring the different brands, their power in relation to their size, and also checking out impressive sound systems here in Berlin clubs. I wanted to be able to generate that massive sound, and moreover, that gut-rumbling feeling.

With the technicians at Martin-Gropius-Bau, I managed to find some subwoofers which were big enough to move the air in that huge, huge hall. In this situation, the phenomenon of sound waves moving through space was so palpable. I initially had the idea of spreading the four subwoofers out across the room, but when we tested that, I kept finding these holes as I was moving through the space. There were moments where you could really feel the bass and everything was vibrating — including the glass panels in the ceiling, which they were quite concerned would come crashing down. (We were all ready to run for cover, just in case.) But then there were these holes where the soundwaves from the subwoofers bouncing off the walls were basically cancelling each other out. So we decided to stack the speakers all together in one corner of the Lichthof and then the bass seemed to be distributed pretty evenly throughout the whole room. Getting to be in the beautiful Lichthof of Martin-Gropius-Bau after hours when it was almost empty and play these massive bass beats was so luxurious. The mighty boom of the speakers was almost terrifying, and it was truly thrilling to feel the entire architecture tremble and vibrate just the way my body and inner organs were.

Isabel Lewis, “Tate Live Exhibition: Ten Days Six Nights”, Tate Modern, March 2017. Image: Alexander Coggin.
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