Almost a year after I first travelled to Dusseldorf on my Kraftwerk-inspired Trans-Europe Express rail tour, I returned to the city at the height of summer and found it alive with interesting contemporary art, music, creative people and striking architecture.
Open Source Festival
The main purpose of the visit was to check out the Open Source Music Festival, a relaxed, one day affair held in the Galopprennbahn Race Grounds a few miles outside the city. The compact venue worked really well, making it easy to flit from stage to stage or just chill out with an Aperol Spritz or Fritzcola in one of the bar areas.
About Open Source
Open Source is now in its 11th year and showcases emerging indie, hip hop and electronica acts, (mostly German, but a few American / international acts were also on the bill) across 3 stages, the main stage, the Young Talent Stage and the Carhartt Work in Progress Stage.
Festival Director Philip Maiburg told us that, unlike most German music festivals, Open Source was a deliberately uncommercial venture, more concerned with highlighting up and coming acts, along with some local contemporary art, in a family-friendly environment, than making money. Bearing this out was the fact that the only particularly well-known act on the bill were headliners Hot Chip.
I didn’t get to see everything, but here are a few highlights.
One of the joys of festivals is that they expose you to new acts you would probably not normally discover on your own. That was certainly the case with Balkoniengang, an ebullient local hip hop crew of skinny, tattooed white boys. They came at us with tonnes of energy and really whipped up the small mid afternoon crowd on the tiny Young Talent Stage, where punters were enjoying batting about the inflatable beachballs in time to the lo-fi, headnodding metronomic beats.
In a similar category for me were seasoned American Afro-Jazz outfit Idris Ackamor and the Pyramids, whose snazzy gold costumes and breezy reggae vibes brightened up the mid afternoon slot on the Main Stage.
Apart from Hot Chip, Get Well Soon were the only other artist I had any previous awareness of. They had a track on one of the (much missed) Word Magazine’s CDs way back in 2008. Since then their style has evolved a little. Frontman Konstantin Gropper has a rich, deep, velvety croon of a voice overlaid on an impressive, fairly anthemic Arcade Fire-ish wall of sound.
There was a fair bit of buzz surrounding suave, homegrown art rockers Stabil Elite. I only caught the tail-end of their set, including a intriguingly moody number about a night train which naturally caught my attention, but what I heard sounded fairly promising and recalled the likes of Roxy Music and 80s bands sharing a similar smoky, gloomy aesthetic, such as It’s Immaterial, Furniture and Swansway.
While their headlining set was fairly short, Hot Chip certainly did not mess about, dispensing few pleasantries and with Alexis Taylor taking to the stage in what looked like an unholy hybrid of an outsized beekeeper’s hat and a sombrero, the band blasted their way through a crowd-pleasing, hit-laden set-list with plenty of vim and vigour. Over and Over, Ready for the Floor, One Life Stand, all came one after another in quick succession.
Apart from the unexpected joy of hearing the And I Was a Boy from School (from second album and in my view their best work, the Warning) the highlight was undoubtedly their poignant cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark, which they closed their set with and which prompted a cluster of fans to spontaneously light their sparklers.
Food & Drink
There were a number of good quality gourmet food trucks at Open Source, catering for meatlovers and veggies alike. I can vouch for the Philly Cheese Steak and the delicious frozen yoghurt served with fresh fruit and nuts, and yes there were a few traditional bratwurst stands too, which meant I could scoff a punnet of hot chips while watching said band.
The sponsor Fritz Cola’s stands were very much in evidence, with fridges well stocked with their new botanical ice tea brews. Being a non beer drinker, I appreciated the abundance of alcoholic alternatives, including prosecco, wine, aperol spritz and most mainstream spirits.
Art at Open Source
One of the interesting features of Open Source is that it showcases contemporary art, mostly by students at the Dusseldorf Academy who apply for a set number of slots. The artists use the venue’s native spaces for unique works, such as one who applied Instagram filters to the windows of the race ground’s ticket booths and another who used the venue’s small broadcasting kiosk for an audio installation of hypnosis recordings.
I have to be honest here and say that I was not especially convinced by all of the art I sampled, which was rather ‘hit and miss’, but of course such things are deeply subjective and I had to admit that a concerted effort had been made to showcase work that was experimental and conceptual.
The Salon des Amateurs
The Salon is actually the cafe attached to the Kunsthalle Art Gallery, once again cementing the seemingly symbiotic relationship between Dusseldorf’s art and music scenes. It’s also been a key venue for the city’s electronica music scene hosting regular club nights, overseen by Detlef Weinrich, AKA as Tolouse Low Trax. I’m not much of a clubber these days, but I was quite happy hanging out here long into the wee small hours for one of the festival’s more low-key after parties.
It felt like a place where the local head-nodding music cognoscenti hang out, without being too knowingly hip for the likes of me. It had a cool, loungey vibe, wasn’t too packed, had an excellent, remarkably clean sound system and a very pleasant terrace.
If you’re interested to learn more about the club and its history, read this article, which dubs it as ‘the post Kraut hacienda.’
The piece explains how the club was originally set up in 2004 by a coterie of former Kunstakademie alumnus as an art scene hangout, inspired partly by legendary Düsseldorf venues from previous decades, such as the Creamcheese and Ratinger Hof, which the likes of Kraftwerk, Neu!, La Dusseldorf and other key players would all regularly frequent.
From the terrace you can also watch the huge band of young revellers who seem to gather outside the K20 Gallery just across the street, and from the side you can also see down into Heinrich Heine Alle in the Aldstadt (or ‘old town’), which is often referred to as ‘the longest bar in the world’ due to the sheer density of its watering holes. (One of the DJs at the Salon remarked about the Aldstadt ‘Ah that’s the real Germany down there. You might see some fights later.’ We didn’t.)
Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang Studios
Another major highlight of this trip was the chance to return to Kraftwerk’s original recording studio Kling Klang, where the band ‘worked’ until around 2009. All of their classic albums were recorded here, from 1972’s Autobahn through to 1986’s Electric Cafe, so this is hallowed turf indeed for vintage electropop anoraks.
Last time we came here we just hung about outside and just took lots of pictures, but this time we actually got to venture inside. The studio on the ground floor has been used by Philip and his cohorts for a series of art happenings, gigs, recordings, photoshoots and other creative presentations all of which are being collated into some form of forthcoming release. More news on that when we get it.
Participating musicians came from the Rheinland area (Stefan Schneider, Kreidler, Wolf Müller, The 23s, Stabil Elit) joined by international artists (ESB aka Yann Tiersen / Carl Stone / Henry W) fine artists (Tim Berresheim, Mischa Kubal) and Arts Academy students (Harkeerat Mangat, Weisser Westen, Kayla Guthrie. You can see more info on this project (in German) on this page.
Inside Kling Klang
The studio has been emptied of any recording equipment but there were still a few signs of its former life dotted about, including the insulated walls, the studio’s master controls, the telephone used in promotional photography for the Electric Cafe album and the gorgeous, giant musical note which is thought to have been made by none other than the band’s percussionist and all round ‘handyman’ Wolfgang Flur.
Flur is famous not only for his ribald, controversial confessional memoir about his time in Kraftwerk, but also for constructing a futuristic, cage-like electronic drumkit which was played with sensors. He’s still performing and recording new material.
You can see why the band liked the low key location of the space, which is set on the rather unprepossessing street Mintropstrasse in Dusseldorf’s red light district, complete with a grubby island bizarrely heralded with a cluster of tatty tires and palm tress.
Philip told us that the street has always been one of the most rundown areas of an otherwise prosperous city, popular with junkies and dealers, so presumably this gave the band a veneer of anonymity (and maybe also some edgy, urban cool back before subsequent generations of technoheads outside of Germany anointed them as cultural demigods?) before the arrival of the internet meant that their hordes of fans could easily locate the place and make their pilgrimage.
And that iconic Elektro Muller sign above the door? Apparently it belonged to the previous owner, a humble electronics business of the same name. The band decided to keep it to protect their anonymity, plus I suspect they rather enjoyed the irony too.
These days the building is used by a variety of creative businesses, ad agencies, film companies and one or two music studios.
‘From station to station, back to Dusseldorf City…’
And just a few minutes walk around the corner of course is Dusseldorf Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main railway terminus, so the band could almost certainly hear the trains pulling in and screeching off in a cacophony of ‘metal on metal’ while they were busy recording Trans Europe Express and other classics of that golden era.
Inside Kling Klang we were greeted by a gathering of local musicians, most of whom had been involved in the previous summer’s Open Source Residencies, including Philip and Angela of avant- garde performance art electronica duo Weisser Westen who kindly gave us some of their beautifully rendered vinyl works.
Düsseldorf Art City
To fully appreciate Dusseldorf’s music scene you have to also be exposed to its contemporary art. Most musicians are also visual artists and vice versa, and many are fuelled by the city’s legendary Kunstakademie, where the likes of Fluxus artists Joseph Bueys and Gerhard Richter studied or taught, followed by the likes of photographer Andreas Gursky, who produced the most expensive photo artwork ever sold.
The Academy was also where Kraftwerk’s two lynch-pins, sole surviving member Ralf Hutter and co-founder Florian Schneider, first met Emil Schult who was a driving force behind the band’s iconic record covers and visual ideas in general.
Even putting to one side the seismic impact of their groundbreaking electronic music, Kraftwerk’s early performances were more akin to art happenings than straight forward rock gigs, adding a multitude of media into the mix.
Dusseldorf is a very modern city which was heavily bombed in WW2, and consequently most of the city’s architecture is stridently post-war, so the abundance of contemporary art that permeates the city’s streets is a welcome tonic.
That said, fans of modern architecture will certainly want to go for a stroll around the Medienhafen area (or ‘media harbour’) where many of the city’s creative businesses now reside in a stretch of former wasteland to take in Frank Gehry’s buildings, the TV Tower (there’s a nice bar at the top and the light installation on the outside of the Rheinturm by Horst Baumann is the world’s biggest digital clock) and perhaps stopping to enjoy a sundowner while enjoying the river view from the swish Bean-like Pebble Lounge.
There’s Sarah Morris’ striking, multi-coloured ‘Hornet’ mosaic, Joseph Bueys’ stovepipe peeping out surreally from the wall of the Kuntshalle.
Then there are six realistic statues placed on podiums called ‘the stylites’ – one of a photographer greets you immediately outside the front entrance of the Hauptbahnhof – dotted about the city. These are the work of artist Christoph Poggeler.
Hell, even the city centre’s main park, the Hofgarten, has benches illuminated with strip lighting, probably installed to provide nocturnal safety and deter vagrants from using them as beds, but they still lend the park an art installation vibe somehow.
Dusseldorf Cultural Walking Tours
If you’d like to learn more about the city’s art, Dusseldorf Tourism has put together this handy walking tour of the city’s key cultural sights.
Their music tour, We Love Music, launched originally to celebrate the city hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2011, is also well worth the time and covers all the bases you’d expect, plus a few more, such as the city’s links with ‘schlager’, a type of cheesy easy listening favoured by post-war Germans before Kraftwerk and co reset the city’s cultural clock.
The NRW Forum
So it was only fitting that we were taken to several of the city’s leading art institutions. One of the more experimental we were shown around, even by Dusseldorf’s standards, was the NRW Forum. Some of the highlights here included a retrospective of Swiss artist Olaf Breuning, whose irreverent work makes sly nods to the likes of Picasso, Edvard Munch and whose lurid, large-scale photographic pieces also recall the kitschy humour of Jeff Koons at times.
Also on display at NRW was the ‘Planet B: 100 Ideas for a New World’ exhibition, which takes inspiration from Thomas More’s 500-year old work ‘Utopia’ with over 20 artists working together to respond to the work’s themes in a very modern context, taking in areas such as food hacking, the smart city and alternative economies. Some of the most interesting ideas I saw were the camp police uniforms re-imagined to make them seem more approachable and an electric car powered by the conversation of its passengers.
The absolute standout though was the utterly bewitching Uuutopia installation. Here in one corner of the gallery the Ben J Riepe company choreographed a troupe of dancers enclosed in a strange, golden tin foil coated landscape, which was constantly shifting and being adapted, sparsely decorated with models of deer and rabbits, in a semi-improvised performance of extraordinary choral Corsican singing.
The result was like staggering across some long lost tribe in the wilderness. It was utterly spellbinding and made me wonder if the local electronica artists might collaborate with the group on a recording.
A similar installation in Planet B featured a makeshift rocketship, where a team of resident artists all lived, slept, ate and worked around the clock for weeks on end.
Kunst im Tunnel or ‘Art in a tunnel’ is exactly that, a small gallery that makes use of a tunnel below the Rhine Promenade. When I visited it was free and the exhibition was about an volcanic eruption on Indonesia in the 1816, which apparently was part of the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. No, me neither!
For those of you who (like me) appreciate modern art in smaller doses, it’s an ideal space to explore. The English-speaking guides are friendly and knowledgeable and help interpret the works in a non intrusive way.
The cafe outside is also a perfectly pleasant spot to watch the Rhine go by.
The K20, and its companion the K21, are more conventional gallery spaces housing special exhibitions alongside major permanent collections of modern art over several floors, including works by the likes of Rene Magritte, Jean Miro and Max Ernst, to name just a handful.
As in many big galleries, the staff here can be a little stuffy. I was told off for standing to close to one painting, which was safely behind a rope anyway. There is some great stuff to discover here but you probably need a few hours to do it justice.
Getting to Dusseldorf
It perhaps goes without saying that Dusseldorf is easily and enjoyably reached (how else?) by train. You can get there with a direct service from Amsterdam which takes around 2 hours. As you might expect, German trains (including their high speed service the ICE, easily one of Europe’s best) are reliable, affordable, comfortable and excellent.
From here you can also easily reach Amsterdam’s little brother, the smaller city of Utrecht (where Karftwerk played at the opening stage of 2015’s Tour de France). Attractions here include the Miffy Museum (Miffy’s creator Dick Bruna hails from the city) the futuristic Tivoli music venue and this giant tea cup, which I have never been able to learn anything about.
To reach Amsterdam, simply get a Eurostar service to Brussels Midi. Bear in mind that Eurostar is now more affordable than it’s ever been. If you can be flexible about exact train times Eurostar now offer special £25 one way tickets.
The way it works is that you just select your rough time of departure – morning, afternoon or evening – and they will allocate your ticket to a specific service. From Brussels, you can transfer to a fast speed Thalys train, which takes a mere 100 minutes to reach Amsterdam Centraal.
We sampled Thalys’ Premier Class on last summer’s trip and found the food and service on board to be of a very high standard indeed, though of course you may be perfectly happy with standard class on such a short journey.
The city of Cologne makes for an easier day trip, being just 30 minutes away by train. The rivalry between the two cities is legendary (and we did spy some hipster walking the streets sporting a ‘Fuck Koln’ t-shirt) but as all the musicians told us, actually these days there is a lot of collaboration and cross fertilisation between both cities’ music and art scenes.
Handily, the Cathedral is right outside the main station, it’s on the banks of the river and the city’s pleasant old town is nearby too.
Between my two trips, I took so many pictures of Dusseldorf that it seems a shame not to use more of them, so I’ve compiled this simple gallery to showcase just a small handful of them. Enjoy!