Over the course of this year, Berlin has seen many well-known club establishments temporarily close due to the pandemic. However, the shut down of spaces has not stopped many ravers and partygoers from seeking new thrills in and around the city’s borders. Is this the new stomping grounds for Berlin’s party circuit?
Text by Damien Cummings
Photos by Clara Janisch
“We like to party. We like, We like to party.” So goes the immortal mantra of the 90s Eurodance flock, The Vengaboys. Irksome as it may be, it is hard to disagree with their point. Even if tickets for the Vengaboys are in about as much demand as a second wave.
Nowhere, however, are those words more true than in Berlin. The oft-proclaimed party capital of the world, Berlin is perhaps the social embodiment of that one mind-searingly repetitive motto. Little wonder then that pent up in lockdown and boggled by the minutiae of safety regulations, the more intrepid of Berlin’s party people are actively leaping into the only lurch left to them: the soft undergrowth of the forests of Brandenburg. Since the situation in Berlin has been reasonably mild in comparison to many places around the world, we have had the immense privilege of largely avoiding the ravages of the virus. To some, the idea of a life – above all, a summer! – left unlived forced the resourceful to their feet.
With the first glimmer of an easing in Berlin’s lockdown rules came a series of infamous parties in Neukölln’s Volkspark Hasenheide. All weekend, every weekend, the congregations were closer to a techno-happening than a fully-fledged rave, yet the excitement was palpable. The adrenaline pumping through lockdown-leadened limbs to loud music and the race against the clock with the police was exhilarating.
At the time of writing, the official line from the Berlin Senate is that discos, clubs, and similar establishments must remain closed. In fact, the prevailing feeling among nightclub owners is that they do not expect to be able to open indoors until at least 2021. Yet, as corona regulations are being gently loosened – in spite of rising numbers, which might eventually lead to a reversal of course – parties quickly spread across the city and seized the attention of the global media.
So, with clubs closed, concerts cancelled, and festivals punted into 2021, Berlin’s party faithful are dialling back the clock as raves return to the forests of Brandenburg. The official information from Pamela Schobeß, Chairwoman of the Berlin Club Commission (a lobbying group for the interests of club culture in Berlin), is that “the scientists have told us that outdoor events are not that dangerous.” Try telling the police that. But one sure-fire way to avoid that buzzkill is to venture deeper into the idylls of Brandenburg. Locations as far out as Fangschleuse, a village in Brandenburg’s idyllic Löcknitzer Wald – for which the term sleepy would hardly do justice – find themselves the unwitting hosts to the 48-hour lifestyle of their cousins from Berlin proper. Or the vast, abandoned Chemiewerk Rüdersdorf, which seems almost obscene were it not to be resuscitated as a sanctuary for industrial-strength techno.
The dedication of rave organizers in scouting for locations speaks not just to the passion for dancing and the deep-rooted commitment to club culture in Berlin, but also raises further questions about the definition of spaces and building of community. Study after study has commented on the profound psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic. For many people attending these raves, dancing is not just a hobby, it is a social necessity: an expression and construction of identity and community. Forging new spaces and redefining existing ones is an important part of the creative dynamic that has made Berlin special and kept it at the forefront of cultural innovation.
Berlin’s unique history of being a divided city and its reunification after the Wall fell led to the interesting and exciting spaces and scenes that rushed in to establish the supremacy of Berlin in terms of cool. Take the Reichsbahnbunker in Berlin’s Mitte district. Constructed in 1943 as an air-raid shelter under Nazi rule, the incoming Red Army soon converted its vast halls into a prisoner-of-war camp. In the general freedom and euphoria that electrified the city after the Wall fell, the space was reborn as Club Bunker in 1992. It is a clear example of the insatiable appetite of artists for legitimate spaces and the unique ability of common people to redefine the nature of a space simply through their interactions with it. Club Bunker quickly earned a stellar reputation as one of the hardest techno clubs in a city not short on competition. Replete with darkrooms and exhibition space, it was a venue where people danced in the face of totalitarianism. It was totally transformed by nothing more powerful than the manner in which people experienced it.
It’s all fun and games until the building regulations catch up with you. Club Bunker had to close in 1997, but was reopened as a private museum in 2008 by successful art dealer Christian Boros. It is now home to his private collection and his family, which reside in the penthouse. Constructed by Berlin-based architect Jens Casper, it is the kind of abode worthy of the glossy pages of the highest-brow coffee-table literature and a world-class cultural institution. While some may rue its transformation from creative space to arts space, there’s an argument to be made that it contributes to the cultural profile of the city and draws the international art crowd, not to mention their checkbooks.
Sure, it’s easy and popular to parrot the cliché public outcry against gentrification, but let’s not forget the thing that attracts people to Berlin in the first place: not only it’s amazing club culture, but more generally it’s open-mindedness and acceptance of all. Berlin enthusiastically embraces all those lost souls who come here and feel understood and accepted for the first time, lets them be themselves and live their lives. But that should mean also accepting their wealthy cousins, who bring in the money to sustain those creative livelihoods, who can afford to buy the art that’s being produced. Sorry, it might drive up some of the rent. But it’s also paying it.
It’s important to be nuanced. To be sure, the replacement of other famed club Tresor by the soulless Mall of Berlin is a loss to the club landscape. But instead of blanket protesting every new real estate development, rejecting lucrative dotcom jobs and investment, we should welcome the additions to our cultural landscape. Let’s celebrate the fact that one-time utopic haven of artistic expression, Kunsthaus Tacheles, will become home to a new outpost of renowned photography museum, Fotografiska, which is committed to social topics and cultivating community. They will exhibit all types of photography, from social interest to landscape to staged to portrait, from emerging artists to most revered. What an enrichment that will be. More is more.
Or, to stay with the Boros example: They just collaborated with Berghain during Gallery Weekend Berlin to produce an exhibit featuring over a hundred local artists, from emerging to international heavy-hitters. What a beautiful love letter to Berlin, celebrating its strength, its creatives, in its most revered hall, a world-famous nightclub. It was an innovative partnership between unlikely players who deeply understand and love Berlin, want to support the local talent and give back, and found a creative way to make lemonade in corona times. The show was Berlin proud.
There is a clear relationship between creativity and crisis. It is important not to romanticize the concept, but rather to understand that crises remove our access to the tools we need to relate to our collective social experience. Indeed, the drive to find creative solutions to this crisis has tapped into Berlin’s unique creative capital. When the going gets tough, Berliners get going… out! Which is exactly what they have been doing this summer, with some resourceful clubs reinventing themselves as biergartens, taking the party outdoors in the daytime and serving light food to make up some lost revenue. Other groups carved out their own spaces, found alternative formats, be it even with synchronized playlists on earphones while socially distanced in the woods.
Public spaces, and the rights to their use, are long a standing battleground in the fight for free expression. From bunkers in Pankow, to the endless forests of Brandenburg, to autobahn underpasses, ravers ought to have the right to transform empty, abandoned, or simply forgotten places into hubs for artistic expression. In this way, the community appropriates the ability to figuratively redraw the map of Berlin in the image of the city that they wish to experience. In doing so, more often than not, these places thrive. Take a walk through the ill-fated Bikini Berlin – a concept shopping mall-cum-ghost town – if you wish to see the difference between a commitment to community and a commitment to third-rate coffee.
While the crisis shuttered dance spaces, it has also engendered a certain agency in those grassroots players privileged enough to take advantage of it. “Culture – in general – has been so degraded by late capitalism, that many of the scenes built upon principles of escaping that reality have instead become wholly consumed by it. But there will always be a sect of ravers who do not care for legal spaces. A group who do not care for what is supposedly a subversive, alternative form of culture being slowly transformed into table service techno,” says one local rave organiser who naturally prefers to remain anonymous.
Eli Steffen – a member of the collective behind one of Berlin’s most famous clubs, ://about blank – offered a poignant insight into the power of club culture: “Clubs are places where you can escape the normal situations and expectations of society. People can live their desires and their identity in a subversive way without judgement. We are trying to simulate an emancipated society. In a way, I think techno reflects a kind of horizontally organized project for reality.”
A large part of the intensity of rave culture is that in one night – one instant – these ideals are reified. In its temporary nature, the events themselves exist in a liminal space unbeholden to the pitfalls of institutionalism. Ravers look for nothing but the ability to express themselves. As one rave organiser puts it, “Even if the clubs are open next summer, I honestly believe that there will be more raves than ever before.” Simply because raving – and illegal raving, especially – is an exercise in collective and artistic agency. In times like these, when our agency is denied us, we celebrate those finding and defining new spaces and practicing safe community.
This essay is taken from the current Numéro Berlin issue on Kreativität, which can be found in shops or ordered online here