Child’s Play: Currents Festival At E-WERK Luckenwalde

After attending E-werk Luckenwalde's Currents festival with her one-year-old in tow, Claire Sawers writes on the delights of experimental arts events where children aren’t just tolerated, but welcomed

Claire Sawers’ young son at Currents Festival, photo courtesy of the author

Suzanne Ciani was right there with me in my bathroom when I went into labour with my son. Or her music was at least. I’d added watery, blissed out tracks from her sublime first album, Seven Waves to the playlist I’d prepared to keep my head in a good place as my body did whatever it would need to do. Her new age electronic reveries would be exactly the thing to help me to transcend to a better place, I figured, and I was right, for the early stages anyway, before nitrous oxide took over Ciani’s job.

Two years earlier, Ciani had almost been in my living room too. I interviewed her over Skype before she played Dekmantel festival and she gave me an enthusiastic tour of her Buchla modular synthesiser through her laptop camera. We chatted spatial music, workplace misogyny and lipstick while she stroked her rescue cat Mouse in her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Bolinas, California.

“Spatial music is the next thing that people are going to absolutely want,” she told me back then. “That’s the order of the day. Movie theatres are a spearhead for it. I need a good soundsystem, that’s non-negotiable or it doesn’t work!”

I’d still never seen her play live though, so when I spotted that she was performing in an abandoned power plant just outside Berlin, I couldn’t resist the chance to share the same space, to be immersed in her quadraphonic sound. Unlike music festivals in the past, however, I now had a small child to factor in. I emailed E-Werk, the former coal power station in Luckenwalde where Ciani would be playing as part of Currents festival and was told my son would be very welcome. “There’s a sandpit full of toys!”, pinged back the warm reply, and I felt reassured hearing that the organisers often brought their kids along to events too.

So in early October, as the first fresh blasts of cold autumn air blurred with the last sun rays of summer, I took my son – four months after his first birthday – to an experimental electronic festival with a bonus sandpit. E-Werk had been supplying coal-powered energy to the town of Luckenwalde in the old east Germany for sixty years until it ceased operations in 1989, just after the Berlin Wall came down. It lay empty for three decades until the not-for-profit arts collective Performance Electrics moved in. They began producing ‘kunstsrom’, literally ‘art power’ – electricity generated with waste wood chips from the surrounding forests of Brandenburg state. The electricity powers the building as well as two bright yellow petrol pumps converted into e-bike and car charging stations. The idea is to create a network of them, dotted around Luckenwalde – and the surplus is fed back into the national grid. Reducing gas emissions is a big thing in Germany. Before wheeling my son’s buggy onto the 30-minute train from Berlin Südkreuz to Luckenwalde, I bought a bag of Katjes, my favourite German jelly sweets, and a bottle of Volvic, and both labels told me they were ‘klimaneutral’ just like Currents festival would be – making it one of the first of its kind.

Suzanne Ciani, photo courtesy of Currents Festival

The front door to E-Werk has an electric blue stained-glass window above it – a fist grabbing bright yellow thunderbolts. The curved ceiling of the entrance hall is studded with bare lightbulbs and leads up to the old turbine hall, where Ciani would be performing later. But first, the sandpit. Outside, we found an old metal trunk spilling over with tiny diggers and plastic balls and my kid was quickly shoulder deep in it, yanking out toys. A DJ friend who moved recently to Berlin had brought her six-year-old along for his first music festival. Soon one was pushing the other about on a tiny trike and we faded a few steps into the background for a cocktail at the outdoor bar. Two other babies were quickly sucked into their wheel-spinning orbit and the parents nodded at each other, raising glass tumblers of wine and cardboard coffee cups towards our gins. Once upon a time I’d have done my catching up by the festival smoking area or bar, this time my friend and I shoehorned two hours of chats in around a game of hide and seek, a nappy change and some kids gymnastics next to a wheelbarrow full of kindling.

Around six as the sunlight began to dip, we headed inside through the engine room, an incredible passageway with blinking lights next to buttons saying ‘netzkontrolle’ and old glass dials measuring pascals. Three toddlers, including my own, waddled nonchalantly past heavy duty steel doors, gazing up at crisscrossed metal chains, chunky pipes and machinery. A lone dog wandered slowly between coats on the floor as London and Bristol artists Wojciech Rusin and Jo Hellier performed their echoey electronic folk madrigals in front of swirling visuals of sleek Greek gods and howling wolves. My son was slaloming a wooden lorry between two plastic pint glasses on the floor as Belgium’s Ladr Ache began their set, but the lorry halted and his head lifted inquisitively when the female chanting grew into a rhythmic blur, yelping and wailing around didgeridoo blasts. While legs were stretched and drinks bought before Ciani’s set, I gave my son a strategic, soporific drink of milk before hoisting him into a sling on my chest. Not sure what his attention span would be like, or if I’d need to dart out if he got restless, I was swaying with him beside the door at the back of the room when a petite Ciani came gliding past us into the Turbine Hall. In a cropped black tuxedo jacket and blue-green specs, she took her place serenely behind her Buchla’s spaghetti swirl of cables. Soon low end rumbles were giving way to waterfalls of bleeps and accelerating swooshes. It was utterly magical, a cleansing outer space void morphing into an otherworldly rush of computerised majesty. Time melted and liquid pleasure dribbled around the large room. Celestial waves came crashing down and sensual, digital drips were soon lullabying my son to sleep. It seemed like absolute perfection when I noticed his eyelids droop then shut ten minutes into her set. Maybe it was simply the bedtime milk kicking in, or just maybe he was enjoying a warm flashback to the womb, reliving those liminal hours before he surfaced on Planet Earth.

My friend and I ducked out shortly after Ciani finished, missing Dopplereffekt and Lena Willikens but my son was now somewhere faraway in the land of nod, and I remained floating in another dimension, buzzing on a cocktail of fangirl high and raw mother’s relief that my kid hadn’t kicked off during the performance. Because the niggling fear is there, that the noise will disturb him, or he will disturb other people in the crowd, and maybe it’s better just staying at home to be on the safe side. So it’s a genuine joy, then, to discover music festivals where children are not just tolerated, but actively welcomed.

My hunger for live music had been sharpened during Covid lockdown. My son was born just as the restrictions were lifting again and as excited as I was about this new phase of motherhood, I was also determined not to fall into the dreary trap of always staying at home with him. His first ever music festival was Counterflows in Glasgow, a reliably amazing celebration of music from the fringes that I’ve been going to for years, and didn’t want to have to miss just because I’m now a parent. I remember in 2019 being so impressed watching the experimental drummer Crystabel Riley go nuts in her closing night performance, while her very newborn daughter was being rocked in the crowd a few metres away. Now I’ve got videos on my phone of my toothless son jiggling on my knee at Counterflows 2022, calmly taking in a frenzied, shapeshifting afternoon DJ set of drum and bass and Angolan kuduro by the writer Edward George, a member of London’s electronic group Hallucinator. My son was made very welcome at the 2023 edition of Counterflows too, this time with teeth. He cheerfully marauded just outside a 1960s Brutalist church turned community centre, the gorgeous Pyramid at Anderston, while inside, Australian cellist Judith Hamann slowed down time with her gloriously spacious low drones and overtones. I listened from outside and discreetly stuck my head in the door when I could, tag teaming with another parent friend doing exactly the same thing with her kid.

“Music is for everyone, I thought?” says Counterflows co-curator Alasdair Campbell, who along with joint head honcho Fielding Hope, believes that parents should still be able to access live music. “There is a lot of talk these days about inclusiveness in the arts but sometimes families get left out of this discussion,” he muses, as I nod deeply in agreement.

“At Counterflows we encourage parents, guardians and friends to bring their young children along to experience new sounds and the joyousness of live performance – being always mindful of young ears and also that sometimes it is best to duck out of an event. That choice is for the responsible person to make. The joy of seeing a row of pushchairs at the back of an event at Counterflows is such a positive thing. We also endeavour to support artists with young children by offering to invite partners to accompany them and also to provide childcare when needed.”

A suitably radical, yet utterly simple strategy from the experimental festival, and one that is shared by Helen Turner, co artistic director over at E-Werk.

“We are committed to ensuring that our events and programme are suitable for a multi-generational audience. We welcome everyone of any age to engage with everything that takes place across our site, and actively encourage families to join us and feel comfortable and welcomed in our surroundings,” Turner explains. “Many of our team, including myself and [co artistic director and artist] Pablo [Wendel] are parents and we want to support others to bring their families to our live events, exhibitions and to enjoy our site. We are very interested in children and young people as an engaged audience, who we must respect.”

Wojciech Rusin and Jo Hellier, photo courtesy of Currents Festival

In a climate where children in the UK are facing an increasingly diminishing access to the arts and music, thanks to significant and troubling Tory culture funding cuts over the past few years, it seems extra important to find ways for kids to still be exposed to art. The parents may well be suffering from diminishing access to the arts too, especially the evening stuff – newborn and toddler schedules don’t always gel well with nighttime programming. There are practical as well as pleasurable reasons why children should be made welcome at certain arts events and buildings too – in particular because of the utter nightmare that is childcare in this country. The recent UK budget may have pledged to make childcare more available to younger children, by expanding the current scheme that provides free childcare for working parents, but changes won’t start being rolled out until next year, with some improvements not kicking in until 2025. In Scotland, where my son and I live, it still remains to be seen exactly how the Scottish Government will apply new funding from the budget to improve childcare (prohibitively expensive, often unavailable or inflexible around changeable freelance working hours) north of the border.

In the meantime, the cost of a babysitter on top of the cost of a ticket to a show is probably enough to make me think twice about going, so if my child can come along, or take part in some form, I massively welcome it. Exposure to life changing art, dancing and music, just like unforgettable books or museums, or a trip to an outstanding festival is so important for parents and children, and being able to do it together makes all the difference. Being able to space out to Ciani’s spatial music in a German power station with my son is up there in the parenting highlights so far.

E-Werk Luckenwalde begins its new season ‘The Material Revolution’ this Saturday, 29 April, featuring a performance and installation by FM Einheit and collaborators, and exhibitions by Kira Freije and Agnes Denes

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today