Fresh from launching a new booking agency and comic book, local experimental artist Mary Ocher reflects on a wild year.
What is the Underground Institute?
The Underground Institute is an international booking agency and platform for culture, which I curate. We’ve been around nearly all of 2020, but everything has been rather hush-hush because of the wild year. Still, we managed to move forward with our formal launch, even if we had to jump through quite a few hoops. The Underground Institute is a fabulous little niche with a huge international network and a roster of mostly female experimental artists. We’ll have to recruit more agents as soon as people are not afraid of cancellations again.
You’ve also released an autobiographical comic book, Moop!
I really can’t quite remember how it came about. I think it started as a joke. People would often draw me and send me these images – apparently I’m very easy to draw. I asked Hamburg-based comic artist Olli Ferreira to make a few strips based on my stories from touring. Slowly, I started asking more artists and illustrators to send in strips, and after a couple of years I had enough to turn it into a proper book. There are my early days of busking in Berlin and dark incidents on tour in the US, plus parts of my early life. Growing up in the shadows of Tel Aviv and Moscow, and my return to those places years later as a musician.
The music industry can be ridiculous. One moment, you’re glorified and have access to some incredibly well-known folks and over-the-top experiences. Next, you’re being fed shit again and again, and alternating between the two in no particular order and having to play by the rules – or refusing to and dealing with the consequences.
Perhaps that is where the Underground Institute comes in. It is my attempt to create a new structure and not rely on these jaded, decrepit ones, usually run by older men with an agenda and exclusionary vision. People continue to seek mainstream success and approval, but that is an entirely different path from the one I have chosen for myself and the Underground Institute.
How has the industry changed during your time in Berlin?
I arrived in Berlin in October 2007. I was 20 years old and desperate to carve a place for myself. Nothing was waiting for me back in Israel, that wretched place. Berlin was a big playground, and perhaps to someone coming from Toronto or Sydney, it still seems like that today. But it’s vastly different now in my eyes. It’s more like a playground for real estate agents, and even for them it’s quite the battleground now. Of course, it’s partly our fault. We were mesmerised by the city and told everyone how incredible it was.
I used to criticise them, the bums. They were usually a little older, had been here since the ‘90s had to do nothing all day. I did not want to end up like them. But now that there is no space for them, I’m filled with a certain remorse. Perhaps they have moved to the countryside or somewhere they can still afford – those who didn’t overdose on drugs or alcohol. I’ve lived in the same area of Friedrichshain for the past 13 years and it is now incredibly posh, despite not really having any historical sites – though there are lots of nice coffee shops, vegan spots and fancy designer boutiques.
Friedrichshain is rich in squatting history and left-wing activism, but it is becoming less and less visible, you probably wouldn’t know it unless someone told you. It’s an oral history. There are no memorial plaques, apart from the one street renamed for the activist Silvio Meier who was murdered by neo-nazis beside an U-Bahn station.
What inspires you at the moment?
My recent recordings may remain secret and unreleased for quite some time. There’s ambient, minimalism and field recordings. As well as a couple of pop numbers, some Afrobeat-inspired rhythm patterns, a few metallic industrial snippets and some grand piano. We also picked up some new instruments we hadn’t used in recordings before. There’s an autoharp, and a gas tank to name a few. I’ve been experimenting with the Korg Minilogue, which was recommended by my pals Free Love and is really the most diverse and fun instrument I’ve discovered in a long time.
You have such a broad body of work across different formats. What does music provide that other mediums don’t?
Perhaps it’s the general notion of safety and the feeling you can’t do wrong. There are no rules and it’s up to you to judge whether there is something in a new idea or not. It isn’t driven by a concrete intention, though part of the curatorial process is defining a general theme or concept that is the common thread. It can be quite abstract sometimes. It’s challenging to comment on such themes without looking through the lens of your identity. It often results in something inauthentic. Still, our identity can also be restrictive. Identity shaped by experience must be a shared experience if others are to relate to it.
This is a time of great pressure for live music. Are you able to see any positives from this past year?
It’s too early to say, and anyone who does claim to know anything is full of shit. None of us have any idea what will happen. No one has experienced forced shutdowns and social distancing before. It is unprecedented. Less than a year ago, all of this was science fiction. Those who have been living according to an inner calling and not slaving away didn’t need an external force to remind them to reconsider their priorities, remind them of their childhood dreams, or feel the call to make new ones. Now, however, we are all forced to stop and count our blessings.
We are alive, and if we are in this part of the world we have plenty of socio-economic cushioning. I’ve just recently read that the lower-middle classes – I think it was defined as those who live in a rented flat in a city and can afford a vacation on a budget – are in the top 10 percent of the wealthiest people in the world. Isn’t that wild? These people are not millionaires, and that description covers nearly everyone we know. Most of the rest of the world is invisible to us and so is their suffering, especially in a time like this.