P/Review: Lucky Number 2013

Winter is the season when Berlin gets that famous post-apocalyptic look to it:  the streets are empty, the wrecked buildings that people used to work in loom visibly over the more discreet, tidy ones they now live in; everywhere you look, the city's mottled grey shell is exposed by bare branches.  In the streets, nothing seems to move except a few furtive pedestrians, camouflaged in dark clothes that blend in with the post-industrial grime.  The crows and sparrows are silent, saving their energy to keep warm; the pigeons sip spilled beer and peck fallen drugs outside of clubs to blot out their existential despair.  Even the trains seem to have a touch of winter blues as they sluggishly creak their way between stations.  It's a bit bleak, if you get my drift. These weather conditions are perfect for checking out an exhibition like X Lab’s solo show of Ken Plotbot's work, this Saturday the 26th.  The show's dark nuclear graphic and post industrial atmosphere” and elektro-dubstep DJ sounds will no doubt complete the Apocalyptic Berlin  experience.  Starts 6:30 p.m.

Because nothing in the outside world seems to be changing very much, I've been reviewing the past two years of blogging about the seedy underbelly of Berlin nightlife.  I understand now why many people reflect and resolve to change their habits in January: it is one of the only ways of getting a sense of transformation when everything else is standing still.  Another way is by dancing to innovative new tunes, which Liquid Sky has helped me to do many times in the past year.  Talented, anarchic, unpretentious and refusing to play by any established party rules, they are a must for fans of adventurous sounds, obscure locations, and finding a space where boundaries end and creativity begins.  In 2013 they'll be hooking up with fellow avant gardists Michael Rother, FM Einheit, Mijk van Dijk while keeping up the great work with an ensemble of self-determined producers, helmed by Ingmar Koch.  Next big date on the Liquid Sky calendar will be Easter weekend... I'll be keeping my ear to the ground!

Back when I wrote my first entry for this blog, in 2010, there were still a number of active anti-squats around the city: Landsberger 54 and RAW in the east, and a bevy of derelict sensations in the central Mitte area, like Tacheles and Schokoladen.  They had been moulded by bombs and bad weather into shapes that might as well have been hallucinated by Gaudy.  In 2013 more than half are empty shells, covered in now-ironic messages about the right to housing and free spaces.  Brashly radical on the outside but dark and cold on the inside, these deserted relics are a poignant metaphor for Berlin's radical dream, which has left its stamp on city's surface despite the fact that very few people these days are actually, you know, living it.

The radical community has survived but it is being pushed ever further behind the scenes; for instance, the shrinking anti-squat scene is being replaced by a growing wagon-community scene in less residential areas.  Whenever radicals get moved on from a neighbourhood to make way for gentrification, though, all the relevant questions they raise about gentrification, and the feral capitalism that creates it, get moved on with them, swept under the plush carpet of unsustainable luxury.  Mindpirates is one collective that is still using its base in gentrified Kreuzberg to raise, and then answer, those questions.  The collective describes itself simply as an “artist group that works on aspects and issues of contemporary culture, sociology and ecology”.  No fancy imagery in the description - instead, they let their space provide that via an incandescent tapestry of backdrops, sculpture, and animated lights playing on exposed brick.  Their events explore activist themes from a kaleidescopic array of artistic angles, fusing the new aesthetic Berlin with the old, radical one.   Tonight Gegen's finissage at Mindpirates will be "questioning history and rewriting the past" via an exhibition of work by Erik Mittasch.

Aw shucks, seeing Mindpirates and Gegen working together gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling I get when two well-liked friends start dating! Gegen is one of the few party teams I can think of whose strong visual element comes from deep inside, at the cellular level of personality, beliefs and most importantly, action.  Week after week, I read event write-ups by imitators that seem aimed at making their superficial extremes sound as 'radical' as possible.  Could that be because the majority of these events are detached from any deeper cultural radicalism that would otherwise pull in the crowds?  Or am I just imagining that?  Anyway, Gegen stands apart from them because, when they say they’re doing a night of “human, animal and alien languages expressed  through poetry, spoken word, reading and collage,” I know I'll get a genuinely mutative experience and not just some freak show for passers-by to gawp from behind a velvet rope.  Gegen does freak shows for the freaks, where every artistic, psychological, philosophical permutation of the word 'queer' is realised and moved to the center.  They started off doing parties that blended style, counterculture, art and rhetoric but, as mentioned above, they've moved out into readings, exhibitions, and the streets.  That's where counterculture belongs!  I look forward to another year in which they'll loudly and proudly throw the mainstream into doubt.

This weekend Gegen return to their party roots with the huge, theatrical event Homopatik, a special, 22-hour Orgy-Mystery-Theater "hosted by the kingdom of electronic music TRESOR.”  They say that you have to go there to find out what it's all about, which is about right - the melting pot atmosphere depends entirely on who turns up.

Speaking of freaky style, 2012 saw some of the city's designers reclaim Berlin's radical chic from the Mitte fashion magpies.  Many of the hallmarks of Berlin’s creative, radical spirit have become the hallmarks of a vacuous 'gutter glamour' style over the years.  The punk hairstyles, the shredded gamine clothes, the tattoos and the anarchy symbols are still around, but they're increasingly detached from any meaningful, radical counter-culture. Hence, real squats sit empty while Berlin Fashion Week's Opening Party is called 'Squat House' and features fashionistas dressing up as anarcho-punks and posing against bare, graffitied walls, with Veltins and Red Bull sponsoring the event.

Mitte venue Food/ZMF, run by activist Penny Rafferty, is bucking the slacktivist, gutter-glamour trend.  The unpretentious, back-alley venue hosted an anti-fashion "show" at the end of 2012.  It seemed tailor-made to showcase moody, frustrated models and designer diatribes against consumerism, rather than to sell clothing.  This was very much intentional.  Shouting, ranting and storming off the catwalk, Penny's crew embodied an energy that has been pent up in the shallow confines of fashion for far too long. "Starting 20 years after the first waves of subcultures started on the Streets surrounding Rosenthaler Platz, Food/ZMF now seeks to redirect, reverse and recreate," reads the Food/ZMF blurb.  And not a moment too soon!
The "Berlin style" seems to have been reduced to a bunch of micro-brands that have the same goal as the macro brands: to earn money and make someone famous. And, okay, I too have watched 'The Sky Over Berlin" and fully grasp that a strong visual element has always been part of this city's appeal (in fact, styles haven't changed all that much since the film was made).  The difference between then and now lies in the willingness of radical-looking people to change a system that clearly isn't working for them, the city, or the world.  The current incarnation of that style is escapist because it has no ties any effort one could make to actually change things.  

Ironically, the radical style that Berlin's fashionistas are falling all over themselves to acquire only became popular because it was once associated with real escape: escape from repression via rebellion; escape from the housing market via squatting; escape from the system via anarchy; escape from bigotry via egalitarianism; escape from capitalism via DIY living; escape from fashion via absurdity.  The escape lay in what the people wearing the clothes did to free themselves.  If their style is associated with this city, it's only because Berlin was cheap enough that they could do that here.  But prices are rising now, probably because there a growing proportion of Berlin's population that thinks that, by buying up the city's buildings, styles and 'underground' clubs, they will get liberty included with their purchase, like a free set of batteries.  I reckon that, if the act of handing over money could achieve radical change, it probably wouldn't be legal!

Sounds For Berlin seem to get this.  Their openly-defiant but utterly inclusive free parties put people before profit every time.  They say: "We want to hold the Berlin Senate to the obligation to decriminalize subcultural events. We think it's fundamentally a good thing that there are commercially-operated venues, because tourists have to celebrate, too.  But there are plenty of partiers who can’t or don’t want to pay the sometimes-exorbitant drinks and entry prices.”
SFB started off last summer with a series of lively outdoor parties in East Berlin that got everyone dancing... except, maybe, the Senate!  And they have consistently brought together quality examples of every kind of music that makes you dance, fashion be damned.  Minimal is kept to a minimum while banging techno, tough house and breaky-psytrance also feature in their selective line-up. Sounds good to me!   

One final tip: London's radical party scene is  probably going to be making some waves in this city in 2013.

Check back here, or check out Club Alien's Facebook and Twitter pages, for updates about these events and more!

"If time doesn't change you, you're doing something wrong."

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Berlin, Germany
...is NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, activism, social media rights. Other publications that I have written for: OpenDemocracy, Urban Challenger, Siegesaeule, Alternative Berlin and Sensanostra.