A bearded Icelander in a boiler suit starts pounding the exposed strings of the disemboweled piano in front of him, and the space below deck begins pulsating with distorted, echoing rhythms.
To transform the sound, the man’s plucking and palming are being run through a laptop, an iPad and other electronics by Andreas Wetterberg, a member of Illutron, a floating art collective moored off the Copenhagen peninsula of Refshaleøen. But the piano is just the beginning. “Things are only going to get crazier now that we can play around with rocket engines and all that stuff,” he says of the experimental music scene on this former bridge-laying barge. “There’s a group of us doing stuff with old pulsejet engines – it’s basically a very primitive jet engine – but imagine it being used as a musical instrument: it has a tone to it which is really wild.”
It was a similar fusion of art and industrial technology that enthused Peter Madsen – the rocket maker suspected of murdering Swedish journalist Kim Wall – when he moved his workspace to this same barge a decade ago.
Madsen built a cannon on board which he set up in Copenhagen’s City Hall Square, encouraging people to let him destroy possessions like MP3 players and phones by shooting them into a concrete wall. His home-built submarines Kraka and Nautilus were used in a spectacular Submarine Ballet, where dancers performed half-submerged in the middle of Copenhagen harbor. Nautilus itself was launched in 2008 with an all-night party on this same cramped lower deck.
But with prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen set to charge the 46-year-old with the murder of 30-year-old Kim Wall, it’s an association most want to forget. “It makes me really sad because this fantastic, creative environment is going to be forever connected with this,” says an artist who shared a rusty hangar with Madsen on Refshaleøen, the former shipyard where Illutron is now based, back in 2005. “Not all people are into killing other people just because they’re alternative.”
He’s been meeting others who were close to Madsen a decade ago to try to make sense of it. “It’s like you have a small village and the fool in the village did something that can never be forgiven. It’s been really hard for all of us, although obviously not as hard as for Kim’s family.”
Wall, whose work had featured in the Guardian, New York Times and Time magazine, joined Madsen on board Nautilus on the evening of 10 August. Her boyfriend raised the alarm early the next day when she failed to return home.
Madsen initially claimed to have dropped her off on a quay near Illutron, but later admitted that he had dumped her body in the sea, saying she had died in an accident on board.
Her torso, with its head, arms, and legs sawed off, was found two weeks later washed up on a beach on nearby Amager island. There were 15 stab wounds on the body, 14 of which were around the genital area.
In the weeks running up to the Illutron event, police had found her head and legs and a saw in bags weighed down with metal, and said they had discovered videos of women being decapitated on Madsen’s computer. They’ve since found her two arms.
Despite this grim backdrop, the atmosphere on board Illutron at the Pulseworks sound art event is positive. Enthusiasts descend on the artists to ask questions about microphones and looping algorithms. Others seem to be there simply for a few beers with like-minded people. There are people in their early 20s, others in their late 50s; some fashionable in an arty, alternative way, others very much not so.
Madsen’s parents split when he was six. He went to live with his 69-year-old innkeeper father – who Madsen would later compare to the commander of a Nazi concentration camp for the cruelty he had inflicted on his half-brothers. But his father encouraged his son’s obsessions with rockets, submarines, and balloons, even building him a workshop at their home in a small village 100km west of Copenhagen.
By the time he was 15, Madsen was devoted to his projects to the exclusion of all else, with little in the way of a social life, and after he turned 18, no time to complete his engineering studies or get a normal job. When he came to Refshaleøen in around 2004, aged 33, to finish building his second submarine, Kraka, it transformed him.
“Our circle and social life exploded, and all the off-the-wall people who have here completely opened my eyes,” Claus Nørregaard, who worked with Madsen on Kraka, tells journalist Thomas Djursing in the book Rocket Madsen: Denmark’s DIY Astronaut.
Half Machine, a dance collective based in Freetown Christiania, the giant squat which borders the peninsula, bought an industrial barge at scrap prices in 2007, and Madsen moved his workshop onboard. “The parties were filled with robots and strange buttons you could push which made things happen,” Nørregaard remembers.
“Everywhere there were flashing lights, floating platforms with fires and DJs on. People ran around naked, stood on their heads or crawled around the tower. It was all about being as strange as possible.”
Half Machine was from its beginnings about technology. Inspired by the Burning Man festival and contemporary circus, and with “meltage man and machine” as its underlying theme, its first event in Christiania in 2003 featured things like a “human robot”, where the audience could pull levers to move the arms and legs of a suspended dancer.
But the people behind it were dancers, artists, and musicians, so anyone, like Madsen, who could actually weld, was welcome.
Refshaleøen is now at the point where artists are starting to get priced out by design studios and computer games companies. Noma, voted the world’s best restaurant four times, is set to reopen on its fringes in February. Its former head chef, Matt Orlando, opened his own restaurant here, Amass, in 2013. The enormously successful food market Copenhagen Street Food plans to move here.
But at the time Madsen arrived, it was deserted. The pension funds which had bought the land when the shipyard went bankrupt in 1996 delayed building apartments, judging that there were too many competing harbourside developments. And they struggled to rent out the empty workshops, hangars and shipbuilding halls. Madsen moved into a rusty hangar beside a windswept expanse of flat concrete slabs.
“It was a creative environment where there was space for being different and doing unusual things,” says the artist who shared space with Madsen. “Peter obviously lived in the hangar, which I didn’t mind.”
Although it was only a 20-minute cycle ride from central Copenhagen, Refshaleøen was a world apart, with views of the Sound, the straits separating the city from Sweden, and to three offshore forts. Other artists and musicians rented out buildings on the island as studios, and a small alternative community lived in brick buildings among the deserted offices, workshops and rusty perimeter fences, giving the island the feel of a post-apocalyptic village with half-crazed inhabitants welding strange machines out of scrap.
Madsen, in his early 30s, became involved in group sex and alternative swingers’ events, a preference which is likely to feature prominently in his upcoming trial.
“He enjoyed talking about it, so we all knew that he was promiscuous, but we all thought it was in a respectful way,” the artist says. “He was a sadist. He would call himself a sadist.”
The submarines Madsen had built had already made him a well-known figure in Copenhagen. But when he teamed up with Kristian von Bengtson, an architect who had done work for Nasa, to work on an amateur attempt to send a manned rocket into space, he became a celebrity. The launch of Copenhagen Suborbitals’ HEAT-1X rocket in 2011 was covered by newspapers and television stations across the world.
Before long they were being shadowed by two competing documentary teams and had tens of thousands of space obsessives following their every move online. According to the artist who worked alongside Madsen, the attention went to his head.
“Very few people I know were still talking to Peter. I had my last conversation with him 18 months ago, and I told him I didn’t want to have anything to do with him,” the artist says. “He was getting increasingly megalomaniacal. He was just too much.”
A few weeks after the Illutron event, I meet a man in his early 20s at the hangar of the Rocket Madsen Space Lab.
The hangar, a 10-minute walk from Illutron over puddle-strewn flat concrete, is the same one Madsen shared when he arrived on the peninsula in around 2004. And it’s where he returned to relaunch his mission to send a man into space when he was thrown out of Copenhagen Suborbitals 10 years later.
Von Bengtson walked out first, sick of Madsen’s angry accusations that he was trying to steal the limelight. Then the remaining members expelled Madsen, citing his refusal, perhaps inability, to follow agreed plans. The rivalry between the two space programmes was the subject of the article Wall was working on.
“I’m just helping out clearing things up,” he explains, as he shuts the metal door behind him. But he doesn’t want to comment further: “We’ve had journalists trying to break into this workshop, ringing us up all the time. Journalists are quite low for us right now.”
Madsen’s own space venture looks almost certain to be wound up.
Destination Moon, a group based on Illutron which aims to build a working replica of the rocket from the Tintin book of the same name, fears that the association with Madsen will lose sponsors.
But at Copenhagen Suborbitals in the next-door hanger, development is forging head. “This is what you could call ‘tin city’,” bellows Morten Bulskov, the organisation’s logistics manager, as he takes me inside. “You have nine metres to the ceiling. All the heat is up there.”
The cavernous space, once used for painting ships, is an amateur engineer’s paradise. There’s a large-diameter pipe-cutting machine, metal-milling machinery, prototype fuel tanks, half-built rocket parts, a rig for testing rocket engines. Together with his friend and colleague Rune Henssel, Bulskov shows me the Heat 1X rocket and recounts how, as fans, the two of them attended the launch in 2011, watching it veer horizontally and then crash into the sea at more than 500kmph.
“Rune and I were sitting in a rubber dinghy about 140m from where it landed in the water… which was, errr, interesting,” says Bulskov, grinning.
Behind the rocket and its snapped-off nose cone, there’s a photo of Madsen in a hard hat and fluorescent vest. They show off the white Nexø II rocket, lying horizontally on a stand.
“It was supposed to have flown this summer…” Bulskov says, before Henssel takes over.
“But the weather gods and… ‘events’ got in the way.”
Both concede that “events” – the death of Kim Wall and Madsen’s arrest – have been a blow. “We hadn’t really worked with Peter or spoken to him at all since 2014, but still it affected us, of course it did,” Henssel says.
“We don’t know what happened. It’s not the Peter we know,” Bulskov adds. “A lot obviously happened between 2014 and today, because we didn’t see that coming.”
When other members of the team start to arrive for the November 2017 strategy briefing, I’m asked to leave and it’s easy to understand the suspicion. For space obsessives like Henssel and Bulskov, Copenhagen Suborbitals is more important than almost anything else.
Out on the upper deck of Illutron, Shape of You by Ed Sheeran wafts over from the Halvandet nightclub on the next quay, drowning out the more experimental sounds from down below.
Crowds of journalists will doubtless again descend on this peninsula when Madsen’s trial begins in March. But the dancing silhouettes visible through a window across the water, enjoying a rather more conventional Saturday night, arguably represent the greater threat to this inspiring creative playground.