Care Politics In The Berlin Music Scene
Berlin's music scene is powered by certain values. Agathe Blume looks at how policies of care are threatened by the city’s gentrification.
Clubbing in Berlin has always been something different – countless people recall how it has entirely changed their perception of dance music.
Many clubs in Berlin, big or small, have started as spaces for queer and marginalized people. One can easily notice flyers that loudly say 'no racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.' next to coat checks or in the bathroom stalls.
Taking pictures is strictly forbidden in many of those venues, allowing dancers to express themselves more freely and stay in the pure euphoria of the moment. The parties that last for 48 hours – sometimes even for 72 hours – warp the perception of time, adding to the feeling that what happens in the club belongs to another world.
But spaces change, as does the rest of the world. And our world has gone through a lot over the last few years. Gentrification has been changing Berlin's landscape and the socioeconomic demographics of its inhabitants for years already, only accelerated by the pandemic.
The imposed isolation during the pandemic also reminded us how much of our lives have been sustained by care of and for others. In the meanwhile, there has also been a developing sense of social equity over the years, holding accountability to the claimed ‘inclusivity’ of clubs to a higher standard of public scrutiny.
One prominent example of gentrification affecting the scene was Griessmuehle, one of the most beloved underground music clubs in Berlin and host to queer parties such as Cocktail D’Amore, being evicted from its original building in Neukölln in January 2020, as the landlords allegedly wanted to turn the space into an office site. Hundreds of people gathered to protest the closure of the club, with the then-deputy mayor of Neukölln also there to support the cause. The club has since found another permanent venue in Schöneweide, which is further out than its previous venue, and renamed to Revier Südost.
“The pandemic and the clubs closing accelerated the gentrification in many ways, and I see more and more grassroot clubs disappearing.”
This comes from Marum, a multi-disciplinary artist and a co-founder of mina and infinity rug. Marum voices concerns that the prominence of care politics could fall to the wayside:
“There are new clubs opening here and there, but you can also see that they’re definitely sustained by capitals that do not align with our values that we want to see mirrored in the club culture.
So it’s not just about the disappearance of clubs, but what kind of clubs we see emerging from this process of gentrification. I think this will inevitably change the kind of parties that inhabit those spaces.”
After two years of effective closure, many venues are also faced with staff shortages following the Great Resignation during the pandemic. Lutz Leichsenring, the spokesperson of the Berlin Club Commission calls the effects of COVID-19 one of the industry's most persistent issues:
“The most dominating concern that the venue owners have now is COVID-19 and the uncertainties that follow.”
However, Berlin is also a city where the club scene’s contribution to the city’s culture and economy is more publicly recognized. In 2021, a federal law that recognizes clubs as cultural institutions, rather than as entertainment venues, passed in the parliament, and now awaits the German Federal Ministry of the Interior to finalize its details.
Leichsenring is quick to highlight the significance of such legislation:
“Changing a law like that happens every 30 years, so it's something very special.”
In the status quo, entertainment venues operate under a stricter building and zoning regulation. They are barred from many areas of the city, leaving them not a lot of options aside from city centers and hybrid commercial and residential areas that have the most expensive rent in the city, which has been a hostile condition for grassroot clubs to establish themselves.
Leichsenring praises the flexibility this move affords veues in Berlin:
“Changing the category to cultural venues gives us more flexibility, because as opposed to entertainment venues, cultural institutions can operate almost anywhere in the city, even in residential areas.
You just have to make sure that you're not having conflict with your neighbors or with other businesses there, which is tricky, but not impossible to solve.”
Leichsenring goes on to warn that this change may take some time to have it's desired effect:
“I don’t think the law would change the club landscape immediately, but perhaps more in the next five to ten years.”
Despite the ominous threat of gentrification and the aftermath of the pandemic, the city’s grassroot dance music community is also working hard to uphold the important values that the underground club culture strives to cherish.
Marum looks at the Berlin Techno scene in particular as an example of care politics coming further to the forefront of dance music:
“The Berlin Techno scene has been tapping into the queer-feminist, anti-racist politics, which also brought care politics that intertwines music with healing practices.”
Marum also hears this reflected in the sounds coming from Berlin clubs:
“Before the pandemic, the music was getting faster and more intense, but since the pandemic, it seems like people have been finding more balance.
All in all, it’s been really exciting to witness people exploring different sounds within the electronic music and rave scene that are not just about self-expenditure and velocity, but also accountability, community, reassurance, care, and grieving.”
Indeed, care politics has become a more salient part of club operations in Berlin over the past couple of years. Increasing number of clubs are creating a team of awareness staff, to whom people can reach out if they feel that their boundaries were violated or assaulted during an event.
The aforementioned Revier Südost is one of the clubs that established an awareness team, following an incident where there were allegations of homophobia and racism of the venue’s staff, after which the club has temporarily shut down in order to come up with a new set of policies to improve their inclusivity and awareness.
Also, as Russia launched its full-on unproved invasion of Ukraine, and as the clubs reopened in Berlin the week after, a long list of Berlin clubs and promoters united to throw fundraisers to help people affected by the war.
“It’s exciting to see parties are becoming more aware of their capability to mobilize crowds and energy for mutual aid, and to use music as a vehicle.”
This comes from Marum, themselves having played at a fundraiser for Ukraine at Oxi Club.
Leichsenring notes that a changeable social climate requires adaptable venues and promoters:
“There were also trends before COVID-19 where people were drinking less alcohol, living more consciously with what they eat, and also how they travel.
On the other hand, we also have a generation that lost basically two years of their life experience, of their sexuality, of their ability to travel the world and meet people. And maybe that also leads to the Golden 20s, celebrating as if there was no tomorrow.
I think clubs and venues have to adapt to these changing needs. What kind of space do you need? Where's it located? What's the size? How much rent are you able to pay when people don't drink there? How do you make money? These are the kinds of questions the venues have to ask themselves now."
The club scene in Berlin and elsewhere now seem to stand in a pivotal moment of its existence, grappling with the global force of soaring housing prices and the uncertainties of the pandemic. But as we’ve seen from hundreds of people showing up to protest the eviction of Griessmuehle, and achieving to have clubs legally recognized as cultural venues, Berliners are not going down without a good fight to protect their clubs and the values they represent. The history of the city has shaped the Berlin club culture, and the club scene upholds the grassroot spirit of the city.
For many, the two years of silence has made what clubbing meant for the community clearer than ever. Berlin club culture was not just about hedonism and escapism as many outside of the scene readily portrayed – it was also where people sought healing through somatic movement and connection with others, while exploring and developing one’s own identity and boundaries with others.
The absence of this unique space has allowed us to realize how much the community of strangers with common joy and values mattered to our lives. Wherever the turn of history may be headed, this would give another fuel for Berliners to stand firmly for their scene.
Agathe Blume is a freelance music journalist, DJ, and a co-founder of Berlin-based collective Un:seen.