A year ago, I set out on a musical pilgrimage, to attend the “Nameless Endless” festival at the Berlin Funkhaus. Invited by the Michelberger Hotel, 100 artists from all horizons gathered for a week of independent, artist-driven, commercial-free musical experiments to create a unique experience. Artists “[opened] their hearts and [showed] themselves as they most of the times only do to their friends. New music, that they [had] not played before or old music that they [played] in new ways.” Our shared journey felt like an invitation to a new kind of family.
The experience brought together my two loves – the wonder of pilgrimage and the alchemy of music. It further confirmed a hunch I’d been cultivating, that creativity can be approached like a practice, a path to the heart. Coming home was like waking up from a wonderful dream, and I knew that connecting with the people who had opened the way to such magic could only be special.
And it was! Over the summer, I was delighted to finally meet Azar Kazimir, one of the festival’s architects, and the Michelberger Hotel’s Creative Director. Beyond the archetypes and symbolism that pervade his work as a graphic designer and illustrator, we spoke for the better part of the morning about creative transformation and the shift in the music scene, the spirit of inclusiveness and egolessness that are intrinsic both to the hotel and the festival, and about learning from mistakes.
Above all, Azar highlighted how the gifts of trust and connection, personal responsibility and independence lay the groundwork for less consumerism and ultimately, for openness and change: “If you want change, change. Change yourself.”
Can you introduce yourself – how are you a creative person?
My name is Azar Kazimir. I work at the Michelberger Hotel, and have done since 2008. Creativity expresses itself in many different ways for this job – it involves graphic design for all the various needs of the hotel, for example posters for events or online such as for our websites. We have other members in our little family, like a coconut water, or a schnapps drink, so my work will involve, say, packaging design for those things. Also I work inside the physical spaces of the hotel, working with architects and interior designers. I also work on clothes… So it encompasses a very wide breadth of things, which is why it’s so fun.
How did your creativity start expressing itself, before the professional manifestation?
I’m just me, doing things the way I’ve always done them, since as long as I can remember. Drawing has always been something I’ve needed to do, the way to express myself I feel most comfortable with.
You have a great attention to detail – would you describe yourself as a perfectionist?
Definitely. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Would you say that a theme runs through your work, both here, and in your personal work? A lot of symbols seem to be recurring…
That’s definitely true. Recently I found a bunch of drawing books from when I was really young – four, five, six, seven – and actually, it’s pretty much the same work! [Laughs] I think everything gets laid down extremely young. The fairy tales, stories and images that you’re exposed to when you’re very young come out. I’m totally convinced of that. Forests, mountains, moons, animals… It’s all archetypal, children’s stuff in a way.
Recently I was noticing that I was drawing a lot of mandalas, circular images and started looking into that. I read that Jung noticed that the urge to do them comes at periods of intense personal growth, and that was exactly what was and is happening to me. I find it fascinating that even in the most individual of scenarios, behaviours can still be universal.
There’s a wonderful book of symbols put together by ARAS (Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism) and published by Taschen. I often find myself going to that. Fire, circles – I’m fascinated with the colour gold, at the moment…
You mentioned your family and its influences, and I wondered how much of that still influences you now…
My mum was a wonderful painter, especially strong with her use of colour. One painting of hers that I really love is one of rocks around a fire and it still hangs in our living room at home. Recently, I’ve found myself working on sketches for a painting of a fire. I wonder if that came to me because of that earlier painting. Music is also a big part of my life, and I still listen to the same music my dad played in the house as a child. Everything seems to be connected…
The way you’re shaping your world, the way you’re giving a form to your world – are they meeting your highest intentions?
One of the central themes of my life is beauty. I’m enthralled by the way things look. I suppose you could say that sounds quite shallow, but all I’m trying to do, in all that I do, is express my idea of beauty, trying to capture something I see in my mind’s eye.
I’m curious about why you qualify it as “shallow” – beauty is a platonic big deal…
We always get told that beauty is skin-deep and that you should look below the surface. That’s totally fair and true, but I suppose I always fell into this very old idea that beauty equates to goodness. Which on one level is rubbish, and on one level, no, it’s not rubbish. [Laughs] Since I think that my talent or my sensitivity lies in that nebulous area of beauty, it comes back to my way of doing good.
If people resonate with what you’re doing and see that as beautiful, then you’re bringing them goodness and pleasure, as well, and that radiates…
Yes. At the moment, my work is definitely not particularly profound. My background is in fine art and sculpture but I definitely would not call what I do now Art. It’s commercial creative work. But that’s wonderful too, that has its own place.
Drawing & Painting
At the moment, I’m going back to drawing and painting again. Trying to figure out if I want to paint – it’s a massive period of change for me. Everything has happened to me in the last six months. I’m also looking at the future – I don’t know what the future will be and that’s a wonderful feeling.
Are you in an excited place of transition, more than a worried place?
There’s nothing to worry about because the universe will provide; it always has and it will. Everything is about change and cycles. I’m trying to challenge myself to change, to walk into it and figure it all out. It’s a figuring out phase. Maybe I contradict myself too, but that’s all part of the process.
It’s interesting that now, though, I’m starting to look in the other direction, where I came from. Doing this more practical visual work, which serves a function to contain something or to advertise and promote something, is becoming more and more of a struggle for me. I’m drawn to using my work and my energy, which I’m coming to terms with as being finite, on things that are meaningful to me.
How are you working through that? What direction is it taking?
I’ve been involved with this hotel and the people here since 2008, so this will be the ninth year. It is very rewarding now, but it was especially rewarding for a very long time because my personal work and the work that I was required to do for this place were one and the same. I was able to put myself, my ideas, and how things should be done – everything – into that work.
If you get to that place as a designer, you’re really, really lucky. I think that’s the place of fulfilment. But of course, this business has developed, grown… In earlier times, a bar menu could be whimsical and playful and silly, more like a comic book perhaps. Now the bar menu is more like a spreadsheet which can be changed easily and then distributed around other places for printing or putting on-line.
We used to have a working creative studio here. There were five people, including myself: two graphic designers, one fashion designer, one interior designer and one web developer. This meant we could do so much. However we closed the studio at the end of 2015, primarily because the needs of the hotel had changed. That was challenging for me as previously I could really focus on what I needed to focus on while other people took care of other things. I function and feel much better going in a linear way, one task after another (and I also believe my work’s better for that too), rather than multiple things on the go at once. It’s definitely about energy being so precious and finite. What you do dedicate your energy to has become really important to me. Staring at a screen and doing a menu is exhausting for me, for my eyes. But I’m working here and I have responsibilities; I really do try to live up to those. Sometimes it’s not so easy. This is all to do with the changing nature of where I am.
It’s not a dissatisfaction, it’s negotiating myself around that territory and trying to feel out what fits, what works, what doesn’t, what I can and can’t allow myself to do – being coherent in all of those decisions or realisations. How to position oneself when one’s environment is changing and one is changing.
In working life I noticed that people are so quick to blame their problems on their work… but 99% of the time, the issue lies within the person, it’s not the job. So you have to resolve the things inside yourself to find satisfaction in the things you do around you. Always look to yourself before you start looking to the things around you for the problem.
It sounds like you had the ideal situation of your personal work and your profession being melded at first, and now the playfulness has waned a bit – is it the ransom of success? Things need to be more functional now…
It’s a very positive and healthy thing; we all have trajectories, we all grow up, mature. On a day-to-day level, this has to be the same. The challenge is for me to find my place with it.
Occasionally, we have a concert poster or something will come up, like the festival, but on a day-to-day basis, the work I do here has definitely changed. And I don’t say that with any resentment or regret. I’m comfortable with the whimsical and the poetic and the purposeless things, because in there, I find magic, and I’m not comfortable with the spreadsheet approach to doing things – but I understand the need for that.
Generally, when someone approaches you for artwork, what’s your process?
It used to be a nightmare for me, when people would say, “You’re free; do what you want.” That’s also something that’s definitely changing; I’m much more comfortable with that now. Maybe now is when I start to have something to say. Maybe I had nothing to say before. Maybe I was just good at drawing shapes and colours. This is something that’s very exciting for me!
There’s this very famous quotation from Hokusai about how he thought everything he did until the age of 70 or 80 was crap… I can start to be able to understand that. But the lives that we live are so demanding on our bodies, and the last years have definitely taken a big toll on me physically. In order to go on being productive and creative as you go forward, your body needs to be able to go along with you on that journey.
Squaring that circle is definitely going to be a challenge. The festival itself was incredibly draining, demanding, exhausting… It pushed a lot of people to their edges. There were definitely a few times when we were right on the edge of it. And with exhaustion, you lose the ability to think.
Moving beyond Resistance
Going back to your actual practice, do you get stuck, and if so, what helps you get through the feeling of being stuck?
I do get stuck, of course. I find resistance is quite a powerful tool. Someone asks me to do something, and I don’t want to do it, and I go away, think about it, and that resistance gives me the energy or power to dig into something. If I get stuck, I quite often go look at old books. I’m not very interested in contemporary art or design. I tend to try and look at old paintings – I mentioned Hokusai -–or Japanese prints or graphic design… Reading literature.
Getting stuck would imply not moving, and I think I’m always moving, but I guess not always moving in the right direction, or going in circles, going backwards. The only time I suppose I would get stuck is when my body fails and I run out of energy.
Do you approach a resistance as a personal questioning, as well? “I’m resistant to this project because…” Do you go all psychological on it?
No, because I’m not a great thinker. I try not to think too much about things. If I’m brutally honest, I’ve begun to find it difficult when people tell me what they want or tell me to do something. Yet that, as a graphic designer and illustrator, is what you do! You are answering a request, or a brief – that is what you have to do.
Now, I just don’t like being told what to do (in the sense of a designer/client relationship). That might be signalling a shift in me, from providing a service to a place where I’m saying, “What is important now is what I have to say.” This personal work distinction is a new one – I never made it before and never wanted to make it before, never had to make before.
What I define as personal work is work where no one has any input into it. No one is saying, “I don’t like this,” or “Can you change that,” but these things are what graphic designers or illustrators or creatives have to do. I notice within myself an increasing difficulty with managing that. I don’t think I’m becoming more egotistical. I don’t think I’m becoming more selfish or more arrogant or any of those things…
It’s my personal voice wanting to speak. Perhaps, before, I didn’t have that voice, so I was happy to fill that space with the requests and wishes of others and find my own beautiful way of taking that and expressing it in whatever object, poster… It takes me back to the point of finding it easier to just do what I want.
You mentioned your intention for “playful openness and collaboration” in the festival “manifesto” – how does that play out when you’re running a business?
The first important thing to say about the hotel and the festival – we really want to be inclusive. Everybody is welcome. No one is interested in doing anything cool or elitist or exclusive. We want to have grandparents along, we want to have children, businessmen, romantics, the cool kids and so on.
However, the way that we communicate externally, through the way we write or the images we make, well it’s pretty idiosyncratic, a manner we feel connected to. Therefore, those communications are only going to resonate with people who share similar values or ways of seeing the world. I think that’s the filter here.
We’ve had ninety-year-old grandmothers staying here and loving it, or businessmen from stuffy companies, and no matter who you are, your age, or how much money you have in your pocket, those things don’t really define you. The spirit – the soul inside is the connecting thing. The hotel (and the festival) is simply a collection of like-minded souls. When they come and stay or when they go to the music festival, that’s reinforced. This is a tiny hotel; the music festival was tiny, so clearly there are more than enough people who are a bit like us in the world to make this work.
For someone who’s just going on booking.com and doesn’t know all this, do you sense that your vision is “infecting” them, in a positive way? Do you sense a shift in other people?
For sure, there will be guests who come here, freak out, and want to leave. There are people who will come and say, I wasn’t expecting this, I appreciate this new experience…
Michelberger Music Festival & Egolessness
You mentioned the festival… In September 2016, the Michelberger was home to 100 artists for a week, so that a very diverse range of musicians could create new music, resulting in the two-day Nameless Endless festival at the Berlin Funkhaus.
The first thing that greeted us was a giant banner spelling out PEOPLE, encapsulating one of the festival’s themes, collaboration… How do others fit into your work?
I’m not really a collaborative person. In general, I’m a person who likes to work on their own. The festival was a very collaborative process; it was a challenge for me. That came from the artist who was collaborating with us on the visual stuff – Eric Timothy Carlson. The PEOPLE banner was his piece.
One of the themes was egolessness. It was the premise of this festival to put all of that ego stuff aside. For me personally, it was letting go of trying to have any control over the visual part of things, as I usually would. However, I wouldn’t have considered myself a participating artist. Next time, I would like to participate at an artist level, rather than as more of an organiser.
Likewise, artists were announced by their individual names, and not their band names. Can you tell me more about that?
We just didn’t want people to come along expecting a certain band to play. And if we do it again, I would not even want to announce any of the artists’ names. We talked about not doing it, but there is the simple practicality of having to sell 4,000 tickets one day, and 4,000 tickets the other day – and we had to sell the tickets. Now that we’ve done this once, I hope that it might give us a credibility to say, “This is the next thing, whatever that’s going to be. Come with no expectations. You don’t know who’s going to be there.” That sounds way more exciting to me!
Festival: Expectations v. Growth
To me it felt like going on a musical pilgrimage – there was something sacred about the whole process. We waited in queues, whether for a concert in one of the large halls or an intimate set in a studio, without ever knowing who or what we would hear. And the reward was playful exploration, a raw kind of joy, connection. When Nadine [May] popped by earlier, she said, “The ones who stayed left with open, blessed hearts. That was a big part of what we achieved.” People could see queues either as an obstacle, or almost as a rite of passage. If you were trusting and open, what awaited you in the studios was always a surprise. It was a great gift, but you did have to put aside any expectations.
But also, we’ve all become accustomed to having things be so easy, and have what we want without the hard work that life normally entails. We are faced with this problem every day. People are putting in the hard work and the sheer dedication and commitment to something – it’s very difficult.
It was such an amazing assortment of artists, everything that went into the festival was so carefully thought out – the attention to detail is awesome at the hotel as well. But people are so used to everything being perfect because they are paying for it… maybe it takes away the element of gratitude and appreciation.
And we’d never done something like that before. We made a bunch of mistakes…. But they were well-intentioned mistakes! Everyone wanted to make the best possible experience for the guests, the artists, the people who worked to get that thing off the ground. As with this hotel: none of us had any previous hotel experience when we started it.
That’s beautiful! [Laughter] But it might come with some difficulties.
Yes, it does! We made many mistakes with the hotel; we got so much stuff wrong, stuff we’re still dealing with now.
Did the experience of the festival feed you? Do you feel that you got something out of it?
Oh – massively, yeah! It was incredible. Everybody involved learned and developed and grew so much. You also gain confidence in yourself that you can organise something like that… Friendships were made more profound through that, which will lead into where this will go… It was one of those great life experiences that you go through. Life is difficult, exhausting, challenging – but I would say the balance was just right.
Another very exciting thing is, of course, to do with the festival and how that will go forward. For a lot of the people who were involved in it, it was a very powerful experience, especially for a lot of the musicians. I think it was a reminder of what they would like music to be: spontaneous, collaborative, without all of the crap that’s connected with the industry of music, with a very close connection with the people that you’re playing around with, feeling freer I suppose.
We’re now thinking about how this will go forward – what does this mean, how will this express itself in the future. There is definitely a very strong will on the part of those involved to take this energy and this momentum and to go forward with it into something else. We don’t know what that will be yet. There’s a lot of talking and a lot of thinking, but it will definitely go forward. I’m sure there will be other events in the future.
Festival: Relationships v. Consumerism
It definitely felt like an important shift in the music scene. And beyond music, what you are doing feels very different.
There is a shift in happening in the music scene but I don’t think the festival was responsible for that shift. It was more a manifestation of the currents or energies that are going on around. It was a drop in the ocean. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful drop for the small number of people, including the audience – no distinction between anybody – for a good amount of all the people who touched it.
From the audience’s point of view, there was a sense of AHA – there are people who experience things like I do, and who are willing to put the energy and work that goes into making this happen. We might be just a drop in the ocean, but we exist.
Exactly. This whole thing of going to festivals, or live concerts in general, it’s appalling – horrible. You have thousands of people, it lasts an hour or two… So many people hate the experience of a live gig.
It strips away all the intimacy, all the sacredness…
It’s a kind of consumerism. Bands are brands. You go see that band, you’ve ticked it off. Very rarely has it got anything to do with something else – especially at festivals. What we’ve also learned through this is it’s such a turnoff for the musicians too. Nobody really seems to enjoy the ways things are now.
Why are we doing it? I guess because it’s a machine with its own massive momentum. The bands get told that they have to do those things. They have to make a living and good for them. But still… if you’re a creative person, the cheque that you’re getting – is that the most important thing? In the end, I suppose you want to be excited to get on the stage, and not knock the same thing out every night. Many artists dislike it and find it unfulfilling, so that’s where this thing came from. How would we love to present music, or have music played? How would the musicians putting it together love to do something? All of the artists who were involved had an amazing time. And why wouldn’t they? They were put in their playground, this place was closed, and they had the run of it…
The reason the festival came about, and the only way it could possibly happen, is because of the close relationships between the groups of people involved in making it happen. Those relationships came together through the hotel. The musicians stayed with us and we developed a bond with them through the years, and that’s why it would be a very difficult model to replicate elsewhere unless you happen to have long-standing friendships with a bunch of great musicians. And when we talk about doing something ‘non-commercial’, we have the credibility for people to believe that. We’ve created a safe space, where they know that everything is built on trust. For me, that’s the unique thing that we have, and it’s all come through the hotel. Without the hotel, there would be nothing possible.
You are able to open up to create something new if you feel safe, and that’s part of what you’re offering…
Yeah, and to know that you won’t be taken advantage of; there’s no question of any trust being abused. It would be nice to think of that model being duplicated, and we have had some emails from people who’ve said, “I was really inspired, and look at what we’re doing here…” and that’s really nice to see, but in the end, it all comes down to personal relationships. There was no money exchanged between us and the artists, which was also a very important part of it. As we’re discovering now, that’s an incredibly powerful thing – that trust and that gift, because it means that the potential and the possibilities going forward are very interesting.
The real power, the real core of this is in the live performances – the connection between people in a space, with the possibility to be open, to be changed. We always bring ourselves to “the core is the live performance.” It’s so easy to go off in many different tangents.
Change & Personal Responsibility
Is that even an intention, for you, to change the world in this way?
My subjective answer to that question would be no. We all see with our eyes what is happening to the world, the way it’s going. What I feel is that the only possibility for change is if you do what you’re doing, with your own vision, and on a small level, maybe someone sees that and it might set something off. But if you set out to change the world… pff… I’m not sure…
It’s quite anarchistic. We create our own bubbles, and this hotel, architecturally, is like a bubble. Certain aspects of the outside world are discouraged from entering into this space and we just do it in our own idiosyncratic way, for better or for worse.
In the conversations that have happened since the PEOPLE event, one thing that’s become clear to me is that if you set out to try and do something and if it has any connecting points whatsoever with the existing industry, you’re pretty much doomed to fail. The only chance to do something new is if you make yourself completely independent. Those existing, failing structures will fight so hard not to lose their dinner, and it’s the same for politics, or the car industry, the music industry – all of these rotten, mammoth structures are just realising that they’re standing on quicksand and they’re fighting hard. Leave those all alone. Don’t get involved with them. Otherwise, they will corrupt you.
You’re talking about change from the ground up; it has to come organically…
If you want change, change. Change yourself. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re lucky; we have a business here, so we can do it in our way. You have to look to yourselves, don’t look to your politicians, or your political parties, or your record label, or whatever… You have to do it yourself. That’s the only hope for the future.
Do you sense a shift, personally? What has shifted? You mentioned transitions – what’s going on, and is it connected?
That’s a bloody hard question! [Laughs. Pause] I don’t really know… At the moment, I’m primarily concerned with myself, my creative work, and how that finds expression and fulfilment… I don’t focus too much on the world around me. There are other people in this group who are far more powerful in looking around and seeing what shifts in other people are.
It’s very coherent with what you’ve just said about, “if you want to change, you need to change yourself…”
How do I run my life so that it’s not a burden on other people, so that I have a positive impact on those around me, even on the smallest level, in my workspace – so I don’t affect the people around me negatively…? I’m really concerned with looking to myself, so that my footprint in the world is as good as it possibly can be for the few minutes that I have on the planet.
Taking responsibility for your actions…
What’s your closest experience to a state of connection, or being? How does that trickle into your work?
There’s this statement that everything is connected, which many people understand intellectually, they have a sense that it’s true, but I wonder how often people really feel that in their body that it’s true.
I love being in the sea. If you go into the sea and you don’t have any goggles or snorkel on, and you just dive in, close your eyes and go down into the water and relax, in those moments, I physically feel connected with every single thing in the ocean. The water is the medium where you really feel that connection. And the air is much the same as water – it’s just a different consistency.
It’s a really tricky question… Music is a powerful tool for connecting. I love working with music, working with musicians… I definitely want to do more art for records. I don’t know if that’s where I’m searching for connection…
Bliss, rapture, being… these words – does that notion go through your work? Are you looking to have that transpire?
I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I find those in other places. I find those in nature, in the sea, walking in the mountains. Nature is a very important part of my life. In love… I don’t know if that is really a part of my work at the moment. Although I noticed that there’s a really great book, Yoga Art, from the seventies, by Ajit Mukherjee. It’s out of print, and it’s a collection of art from Vedas, and it looks like my work! There are circles and points…
Another way of putting it might be: do you create from that place?
Not really, but ideas do come in those times. Something clicks, you file it away. But I would have to be living a different life for that. I would have to be living in a natural place, with time and space to be able to do that. I’m in the middle of a city, I work 9-10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week – the life is not conducive to that. Maybe one day it will be.
You mentioned a place that is very special for you. How does it fit in?
My parents have a finca in a very isolated place in the south of Catalunya, off the grid. I spend quite a lot of time there. It’s probably the most magic place that I found in the world. When I go there, it definitely nurtures and heals me. It’s super, super important in my life. I see myself retiring there when I get to the point when I want to grow tomatoes and push goats around. As long as I have contact with that place, I know that I will be fine.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
There are some very exciting things that are happening. In hotel we’re turning the fourth floor into rooms. We’re working with a wonderful architect in London called Jonathan Tuckey. He does a lot of his work through sketches and making models – he doesn’t really use computers so much. This is a fantastic because mostly all the other rooms in the hotel were built in 2009, and at that point, we didn’t know anything about anything. Like how a room has to work, how it has to wear, how it has to be cleaned and enjoyed – we hadn’t much of a clue about those things and so we’re still reacting to the challenges that the rooms and the spaces present us with from those original decisions.
Now, with this floor, we can put all of our knowledge into it, and we can proactively deal with all of those situations that we know will arise. I wasn’t that involved in the design of most of the rooms in the hotel. At the beginning, I was more concerned with the graphic work; I didn’t have such a wide focus as I do now and so I never really felt that the rooms and the space really represented me, who I am, my vision, my aesthetic ambitions. Now with these rooms, I’ll see myself in those spaces. It will really underline or strengthen my identification with the physicality of this space.
What is your gift – how do you most enjoy being remembered?
One thing I’ve learned is that the way we see ourselves bears absolutely no relationship to the way others see us. So I’ve given up thinking about that stuff! One of the nicest things someone has said to me was actually at the festival from Brandon Reid (who manages The National), a very sharp, professional, capable kinda guy, who said during some mad moment: “Whenever I see you, I feel calm, because everything feels like it’s under control when you’re around.” And I was like, what??? I don’t see myself like that!! Inside, I feel like I’m a sort of fiery, volatile kind of person and I don’t think I radiate calmness! So is his perception of me more accurate than my own? One thing I struggle with myself is self-confidence. I put myself, my work, my contribution down too much. I make myself small, which annoys me. I don’t know why I do that. I don’t need to – I’m in a circle of trust, with people who support and trust me. I know that my work has a simple value in itself.
All images © Azar Kazimir
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