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DecoderCourtesy of Barbican

Did cyberpunk film Decoder hint at tech’s control?

Muscha’s Orwellian vision of anti-muzak riots will screen as part of the Barbican’s Berlin Calling season

Activist filmmaker Laura Poitras’s gripping documentary Citizenfour has focused attention in recent months on something we should all be worried about: the growing use by states of tech for mass surveillance and control. Her camera as a witness records whistleblower Edward Snowden as he reveals the extent to which the US and British governments have been covertly and indiscriminately storing up the content of our text messages and emails. The film is so alarming because it underscores that the tech we’ve become so reliant on – invented to supposedly enrich our lives – now has a complexity beyond the average citizen’s understanding, leaving us vulnerable to it being used against us in ways we are powerless to detect or resist. It’s an Orwellian vision already glimpsed in sci-fi dystopias, and adds a new layer of relevance to 1984 cult classic Decoder. Showing at the Barbican on January 19 as part of its Berlin Calling season, Decoder shows what fledgling fears about rule through tech looked like on the eve of digital technology’s rise.

FM Einheit of German industrial band Einstürzende Neubaten – which in its early days appropriated steel and found objects from factories for new means – stars in Decoder as a young noise freak who plays around in his home studio remixing the sounds of daily life he’s recorded. He notices that the muzak routinely pumped out in fast-food chain H-Burger acts as a kind of lulling, environmental sedation. Inspired by an encounter with a noise-pirate high priest (played by Genesis P-Orridge of industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle) and a dream in which a cassette recorder is dismantled by an electronics shopkeeper (William Burroughs, in a scene shot in London’s Tottenham Court Rd by Throbbing Gristle’s Sleazy), FM steals the muzak tape from H-Burger. He remixes it so the sound rouses the customers from munching on their fries with robotic, placid contentment, inducing a riot. He’s targeted for his rebellious actions by a muzak corporation hitman, though the hired killer is distracted from his task by his crush on FM’s girlfriend, a punk peepshow worker who prefers the company of her pet frogs to humans. She’s played by another iconic figure of the 80s Berlin underground – Christiane F, whose memoir of life as a teen junkie in notorious railway station Bahnhof Zoo was the basis for another cult movie showing in the Barbican programme, the Bowie-soundtracked Christiane F (1981).

In its cyberpunk vision of a tech-savvy dissident, Decoder is a surreal mix of radical ideas simmering in the Germany of three decades ago – when people had only just started buying home computers, and analogue tape-recorders were as high-tech as it got for fighting the power. Klaus Maeck, who ran a record store in Hamburg and had previously shot the punk and industrial scenes on Super 8, had the idea for the film after immersing himself in the revolutionary ideas of American counterculture genius William Burroughs, and enlisted Muscha, a young filmmaker from Dusseldorf, to direct.

Burroughs had experimented with and advocated the ‘cut-up’ technique of random rearrangement as a means of revealing the true nature of reality, free of the power-hungry distortions that conscious structuring is inevitably tainted with. He suggested in his book The Electronic Revolution that if you record something then reinsert it into reality by playing it back, imposed chains of association and their indoctrinating effect could be ruptured. These ideas influenced noise artists such as Genesis P-Orridge, who vowed to break apart the subliminal manipulations of environments programmed by stultifying brain-washers such as muzak.

Decoder shows what fledgling fears about rule through tech looked like on the eve of digital technology’s rise”

The mayhem on the streets that we see in Decoder is archival footage spliced in of actual riots in Berlin when US president Reagan made a state visit in 1982. Many young inhabitants in the western half of the still wall-divided city had had enough of what they regarded as an imperialistic American presence imprinting itself on the culture, and symbolised by the spread of new burger chains. There was a vibrant underground of left-wingers, punks and activists squatting in buildings across the city. The authorities confiscated hundreds of tape recorders from the demonstrations that had been blaring out sounds of gunshots and helicopters: experimentation with noise disruption as protest tool was real and happening.

A ramshackle mash-up of coloured filters, absurdist conversations and industrial noise, Decoder is an embodiment of the experimental, DIY spirit that still draws artists to Berlin in their droves, even as gentrification is transforming the city apace. The vanguard community of digital privacy activists based there now counts Poitras among their numbers, as she avoids the strenuous border checks and harsh regulations that threaten her work in the US and UK. Decoder is the perfect throwback viewing to ask what’s changed since we’ve hurtled into the digital domain – and remind ourselves that understanding the tech that surrounds us may now be more urgent than ever.

The Berlin Calling season at the Barbican runs from January 8–29