Postcard From The Hague

Rewire Festival and a photography project documenting Den Haag’s underground

BY Robert Barry in Critic's Guides | 28 APR 17

Across the walls of The Grey Space, photos are roughly printed in black and white and pasted to the walls, like fly posters. I can see beer sprayed across a crowded dance hall; an electric guitar leaning against an amp, daisy-chained through a string of effects pedals; piles of cd-rs arranged neatly on a concrete floor, studied and traded by serious-looking young men. Sitting amongst the flyered walls sits a bulky old photocopier, as if ready, at any minute, to churn out countless more.

‘In Situ’, installation view, The Grey Space, The Hague, 2017. Courtesy: Bertus Gerssen

There’s a curious mix of the generic and the specific here. I recognize these scenes – or scenes very much like them – from gigs I’ve been to, growing up in Brighton and in London, and later, in towns all over the world, over many years. But, although even some locals have mistaken them for archive shots from the ’80s or ’90s, all of these pictures were taken here, in The Hague, between 2013 and 2015, by photographer Bertus Gerssen.

Performance as part of ‘In Situ’, The Grey Space, The Hague, 2017. Courtesy: Bertus Gerssen

I’ve come to The Grey Space for the launch of Gerssen’s new photo-book, In Situ, a special presentation as part of the city’s annual Rewire Festival. As I step into the basement downstairs, Leilani Trowell from the electronic duo Hexeneiche is eking a sequence of menacing bass rumbles out of a table covered in blinking flashing lights. Later in the evening there will be performances from local performance artist Jacco Weener and roots rockers Supersonic Blues. It’s an eclectic bill. But, as Gerssen tells me, as he was exploring the Den Haag underground with his camera, whether he was attending a techno party in an abandoned warehouse, a punk gig in a dank squat, or an experimental concert in a state subsidised venue like Studio Loos, he kept seeing the same faces. Finally, he realized: the scene was not always so much about the music as it was ‘a way of life’, a means of ‘coming together.’ He decided to focus his lens not on the bands, but the audience, the people who – as he quotes one such subject – ‘would only attend max. 30 person events.’

Bertus Gerssen, Mattresses at De Vloek, 2013–15. Courtesy: Bertus Gerssen

One of the most oft-used word in Rewire’s densely-packed programme is ‘scene’. When I speak to the festival’s founder and director Bronne Keesmaat, he’s keen to talk up the number of local acts playing and the festival’s ‘strong bond’ with local initiatives. But even beyond that, it seems like many of the visiting acts on the bill have come as ambassadors, in some sense, of their own local scenes – whether that’s Moor Mother and NAH repping the angry sound of young Philadelphia, Pussy Mothers showcasing the psychedelic disco of Glasgow’s Optimo crew, or Zs, Greg Fox, Horse Lords, and Cloud Becomes Your Hand – almost a festival within the festival over at the Prins bar on Friday night – speaking for their own experimental niche in Brooklyn. Where a photographer like Gerssen might celebrate the specificity of his own local network; a festival like Rewire can turn into a gathering of all the tribes, a united federation of subterranean micro-scenes from all over the world.

Slowdive playing at Rewire Festival 2017. Courtesy: © Rewire Festival; photograph: Parcifal Werkman

Keesmaat started the festival in the winter of 2011. Back then Rewire was more or less evenly split between the sonic and visual arts. Over its first few years, it featured work by, Cevdet Erek, Roger Hiorns, Haroon Mirza Ahmet Ögut,  and The Otolith Group. But by 2014, he decided to narrow the focus to sound and music. ‘The visuals arts and musical programmes were two different identities within the festival,’ he explains. ‘I felt the true synergy was lacking.’ Since then, they’ve put ever more emphasis on new music commissions and original collaborations, bringing unlikely partners together in often unusual venues, like factories, abandoned warehouses, and sacred spaces. This year saw a Lutheran church on the edge of the city’s Chinatown playing host to British electronic pioneer (and founder of EMS Synthesizers) Peter Zinovieff working with classical musician Lucy Railton in a scintillating piece for computer and cello which chewed up a series of extended instrumental techniques into a myriad microtonal fragments. Elsewhere, Amsterdam-based producer HOEK worked with artist Dieter Vandoren to create a deft choreography of blinking lights and processed field recordings. Jeff Mills and Tony Allen, two of the 20th century’s greatest rhythm scientists, traded beats across a high-tech hall designed by Rem Koolhaas.

Gaika playing at Rewire Festival 2017. Courtesy: © Rewire Festival; photograph: Parcifal Werkman

As I walked through town from venue to venue, my friend Remco Schuurbiers, curator of another local festival, TodaysArt, would point out buildings here and there that he used to know as squats. This place here, he would say of one place, they made great toasties – but it was difficult to order them because the DJ was always mixing gabba with speed metal records played at 78rpm. He spoke always, of such places, in the past tense. Gerssen, likewise, had told me his book had unintentionally become a ‘time capsule’ for a scene once ‘alive and vibrant’, but no more; decimated by the new squatting laws of 2010. But seeing local acts like Hexeneiche and the ‘music as not music’ of Das Ensemble Ohne Eigenschaften, squeezing in amongst the packed crowds watching the blistering noise rock of Sex Swing, a band straight out of David Lynch’s darkest nightmares, and swaying to the woozy dystopian dancehall of Gaika; I can feel Gerssen is right to believe there are still a lot of people here hungry for new sounds, new free spaces, and new scenes to emerge.

Main image: Rewire festival 2017. Courtesy: Rewire Festival, The Hague; photograph: Eel Chang Ming

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer from Brighton, England. His book The Music of the Future is published by Repeater.