By the mid-’90s, Berlin’s club scene was practically bubbling over with anarchic, creative energy. This exuberance spilled out beyond the city limits into the countryside surrounding the city in the German states of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
As in the city, the new administration of the post-communist former East that controlled these areas had yet to fully organize itself. From the void sprang forth limitless opportunities for sometimes legal and sometimes not open air parties thrown by a diverse assortment of crews from Berlin and Hamburg. One of the first and most active crews was Pyonen, who, in 1995, threw the first Nation of Gondwana festival.
Originally fashioned as an open-air alternative to Berlin’s Loveparade, Nation of Gondawana has since become one of the most cherished festivals in Germany.
This Friday, July 19 marks the beginning of the festival’s 25 edition. TEB senior editor Sven von Thülen connected with Pyonen founders Andre Janizewski and Markus Ossevorth to look back at the festival’s early days and learn how it has managed to become more professional without sacrificing its identity.
How did Nation Of Gondwana come to be?
Markus Ossevorth: We started Nation of Gondwana out of necessity. After the 1994 Love Parade we didn’t get into the Eimer club because it was too packed.
Andre Janizewski: We didn’t even get to the bouncer.
MO: The whole street in front of the club was filled with people. Back then, there was still fallow land next to Eimer. Somebody had lit a bonfire and there were hundreds of people hanging out that wanted to get into the club. And since Eimer wasn’t particularly big to begin with, it was clear that none of them would make it into the club. That really annoyed us, and Andre said to me, “Next year we will do our own party during the Love Parade weekend, then we don’t have to worry about getting in or not”.
AJ: The next step was to find a location. Somehow, we got in touch with two pretty dodgy guys who were planning to organize a big rave at SEZ on Landsberger Allee. The idea was to join forces with them. We went ahead and booked DJs and live acts. As the date of the party came closer we slowly but surely realized how shady our partners actually were—we ended up pulling out of the deal at the last minute. Problem was, we already had all these artists booked. There was a lot of pressure. We then decided to find a location outside Berlin to do an open air.
MO: It was at the eleventh hour.
AJ: We called a bunch of the real estate offices and administrations around Berlin. In Altlandsberg we finally got a woman at the real estate office on the phone who seemed to be able and willing to help us.
MO: Her name was Katharina Bär.
AJ: She said that she doesn’t know of any location that the municipality could offer us, but that she and her husband had just bought a big property which might be suitable for an open air. She invited us to come and check it out. One hour later we arrived on a field in the middle of nowhere.
There were six-foot thistles everywhere. That was basically all we could see. She told us that they had a tractor that we could use to mow the field. Out of desperation we told her that we would rent it.
One week later, we came back. After the field was successfully mowed, we could suddenly see a few trees on the horizon and upon further investigation we realized that there was a little lake on the property too.
MO: Our mood rose significantly.
AJ: That was a very welcome surprise. We only had two weeks to promote the event.
MO: We told all our friends, and then we went with our little flyers to the Love Parade and distributed them there. That worked really well. At the end of the day we had 1500 guests. We had no clue about organizing an open air, and we also had no money. Our first DJ booth was built from a piece of scaffolding that we got from a friend at one of the squats in Berlin-Mitte.
The line-up was still pretty heavy on trance and goa, right?
AJ: Mahasuka was the headliner. It was trance, sure, but state of the art.
What did you do after the successful first Nation? And what was the owner’s feedback?
AJ: The Bär family wanted to develop their property. Their plan was to turn it into a cultural outdoor facility with changing events. Nation of Gondwana was basically the first test balloon, and in the first year, they even rented it out to us for free. Ultimately, their plans weren’t realistic though. The whole thing was flat land. There was nothing that could’ve softened the volume of the sound system. You could hear the bass drum from 10 kilometers away. We did a few more parties there, but we had to move the sound system every time, so we didn’t blast the same village as the previous year.
MO: We even had all the necessary permits. But to be fair, back then, that didn’t mean a lot. All these administrative offices around Berlin, which were all in the former GDR, didn’t really know what they were in for when we applied for a permit. Since the reunification, only five years had passed, and they had no idea about construction permits, emmissions laws or noise reduction. We simply got a piece of paper from the local regulatory authority that functioned as the permit.
AJ: The fact that the mayor of Altlandsberg was a man called Ravindra Gujjula, the only Indian mayor in Germany, worked in our favor, too. Because he saw events like ours as a perfect marketing tool for the region. His agenda was to promote Altlandsberg as a cool and liberal small city close to Berlin. Hence his openness to our ideas. His whole administration really helped us out a lot. Even years later, when we didn’t do any events there anymore we still had a really strong connection with them. They also taught us how to approach different administrations and how to talk to them most effectively. That was a huge support. And we passed the knowledge that we gained on to other promoters who wanted to organize open airs in the region. You can’t compare it to today’s standards though.
MO: Back then, you only had to deal with the trade office and the regulatory agency. That was it. Today, we have to talk to twelve administrations annually, plus an official acceptance of construction work, which takes hours every year. We also need to have a security concept, which is a fifty-page-long document.
AJ: Doing an open-air rave was still pretty new. In that sense, we were pioneers. You only had the people who did the Voov festival in Berlin and the U.Site crew in Hamburg, which started the Fusion festival a couple of years later. We were especially close with the U.Site people. They had good connections to affordable diesel generators and knew a guy who had a sound system. They helped us out with equipment and logistics.
MO: On the other hand, we knew a couple of people at the art school in Berlin-Weißensee who did amazing installations. We complemented each other very well.
You switched locations in 1998. Why?
MO: Simply put, the festival had gotten too big for a small town like Altlandsberg.
AJ: Their infrastructure wasn’t built for the amount of people that were flocking to us. In 1996, we had 3500 guests, which was already stretching the limits. Nobody could’ve predicted the surge of guests in 1997, though. All the roads were completely blocked by parking cars in a radius of kilometers on end.
MO: it was quite dramatic.
In hindsight, what do you think was the reason for the disproportionate increase?
AJ: 1997 was the second Love Parade on Straße des 17. Juni, and it exceeded the one million mark for the first time. Within the Berlin scene, word had also gotten around that Nation of Gondwana was an excellent alternative to the madness of the Love Parade. It was like a tidal wave.
MO: I will never forget the local policeman that drovehis car to the festival site to demand that we do something. He smelled like he had had a couple of drinks already, and he was beside himself. I got in the car with him, which I instantly regretted because it became immediately apparent that he was more under the influence than I had anticipated. We drove and drove through the small corridor that was left by all the parked cars. “Look at this!” he gestured wildly. “All these cars have to go.” I told him that the only possible way to deal with it would be to tow them all. To my surprise he answered: “No, we can’t do that to these people.” I replied, if that’s the case we might as well drive back to the party and grab a beer. He looked at me for a second and said: “You’re right, let’s do that.”
AJ: We paid quite a bit of money to the local farmers afterwards. Thousands of people had run over their fields and destroyed their crops.
MO: And then we set out to find a new location.
AJ: We continued to do smaller and less noisy events in Altlandsberg. For instance, the Chaos Communication Camp, the annual get together of the hackers from Chaos Computer Club. We found a new location for Nation of Gondwana in Groß-Köris.
MO: That was a complete disaster.
AJ: For the first time, the numbers of our guests dropped. Significantly. We were pretty naïve and thought that our audience would move to the new location with us. But we didn’t account for the fact that it was a lot harder to get to Groß-Köris than to Altlandsberg. The weather wasn’t in our favor either. We had 3000 guests, but we calculated with 5000.
You did a lot more than just Nation of Gondwana. Tell me a little bit about your other endeavors.
AJ: Yeah, we organized quite a few illegal parties and open airs in and around Berlin, too. As we said before, back then it was a lot easier than today. There were very few landscape conservation areas yet. It took around ten years after the reunification until they were established. We definitely partied in a lot of places that are landscape conversation areas or nature reserves today. We weren’t aware of all of this back then. And, to be frank, nobody really cared anyway. Partying was the main thing.
MO: Having said that, it was always very important to us that we leave no traces. We cleaned up after ourselves as long as necessary. And more often than not our guests would help us do it. It was a shared understanding from day one.
AJ: It would’ve been really stupid to leave scorched earth. Especially if you’d found a location that was managed by local authorities who were generally open to give out permissions for such events.
Around the same time, you also ran a weekly club, which didn’t really have a name but the name of the street it was in. How was that compared to organizing the festival?
AJ: The club was at Schlegelstraße, in Mitte. It was open from 1996 until 1998. We started in the basement and we slowly took over more and more of the building.
Did you actively look for a location to start a club?
AJ: Not really. Back then there were all these big loft buildings that were bought up and eventually developed. That usually took a couple of years and the project managers were often pretty open to rent it out to artists and people like us for temporary use. That was also a good way to popularize the project and to make it interesting for investors. I knew the building at Schlegelstraße because I had organized a party there with someone other than Markus.
MO: Oh yea, you cheated on me once. I remember.
AJ: I hit it off with the project manager right away, and so I asked him if it was possible to do something more permanent at Schlegelstraße. When we finally opened our club there were already a few galleries and artist studios. We rented the basement. Luckily, noise protection was still not a thing in East Berlin.
MO: Nobody lived there anyway.
AJ: And those who did usually didn’t have a telephone. You could hear the sound all the way up to Invalidenstraße. There weren’t as many buildings there back then.
It was an illegal club, right?
MO: At first. But we had a visitor very early on: detective chief superintendent Schultze from the State Office of Criminal Investigation, department for trade offenses.
That guy came to the club?
MO: I think it was our second weekend. We had just opened the doors, and there were no guests yet. Suddenly an elderly gentleman in a trench coat came up to me asked what we were doing here. “Who wants to know that?” I replied. He then presented his badge and demanded that we should give him a tour through the club. At the end of it he told us to visit him in his office in Moabit. Monday morning at 8 a.m. sharp!
AJ: 8 a.m. on a Monday! That was a real challenge for us.
MO: We made sure that we were on time, which wasn’t all that easy for us. But we pulled it off. I’ll never forget the moment we stepped into his office. It really was a sight to behold. It was plastered with fanzines, magazines, flyers and other nightlife stuff. Detective chief superintendent Schultze seemed to be in the know about Berlin’s underground club scene like few others.
AJ: He knew literally every illegal club or bar in town. And there were a lot back then. That was his job. Every time he heard about a new one, he went for a visit and made the owners more or less the same offer he made us. “I give you one year to get a tax number and become a legal business. If you haven’t sorted out your shit by then I will shut down your establishment.”
MO: He was a total loner. He did all of this on his own.
AJ: His main thing was that he didn’t want people to take the piss. He even said something like this to us. He reported us for seven offenses.
MO: Part of the deal was that he would stop his investigations once we could prove that we were a legal business.
AJ: As the first measures to take on right away, he strongly recommended that we form an association, and that we give out membership cards to our guests. He told us to disassemble the drink menu and instead put up a sign that said, “Drinks for voluntary donation.”
Had becoming legal ever seriously crossed your mind before this day?
AJ: We had thought about it. And, in a sense, we agreed that we wanted to do that eventually. But until superintendent Schultze knocked on our door, there really wasn’t any pressure to do so. Suddenly it got serious and we had a deadline, too.
MO: Up until then, we had done everything as private individuals, without a tax number.
The tax authority in East Berlin was still not up to speed yet. In all these administrations they definitely had other problems and bigger fish to fry than to try monitor businesses like ours.
AJ: At that point, we also got clearer on the general direction we wanted to take with all of this. We both had stopped our academic careers for good and had started to concentrate on organizing events, raves and parties. And shortly after we registered our event agency, Artevent, we opened our first bar. Those things were our daily business then.
Why did you stop running Schlegelstraße?
AJ: Eventually the owners wanted to start the restoration of the building. That went hand in hand with a huge spike in monthly rent. They basically wanted us to pay for the restoration. It was time to leave.
MO: After three years we realized that running a weekly club was physically and mentally strenous. So we decided to become a proper event agency and registered as a limited liability company.
AJ: And then we found ourselves in the midst of the first dotcom boom. Investors were pouring insane amounts of capital into new start-ups in the city. A hefty chunk of that money was used for flashy events in some of the greatest locations you could imagine. Back then, there were only three event agencies in all of Berlin. That meant that we had an abundant amount of clients and a lot of work. For the first time we could actually make a good living with all our activities.
MO: This affluence of money and projects stopped in 2002. From one day to the next, it all seemed to be over.
AJ: The dotcom crash hit us hard.
MO: To make matters worse, the 2002 edition of Nation of Gondwana had been a financial fiasco for us, too. One of the reasons was heavy rain. Those things combined nearly tanked us for good. After 1998, it was our second massive financial crisis we had to deal with.
As time progressed, the anarchic anything-goes period of doing illegal open airs in Brandenburg slowly came to a close. When was the first time you realized that the tide was turning?
AJ: In the early 2000s, things started to get more difficult. In 2003, Nation of Gondwana was set to happen at Schloß Dammsmühle, a big decaying old neo-baroque estate. There had been a couple of events before us, but for some reason they wanted to ban us from doing ours. The whole thing turned into a legal stand-off between us and the local authorities, including the police. The party and the after hour were pretty good though.
MO: We got a last-minute permit from the court in Frankfurt an der Oder. During the night, we suddenly got a surprise visit from a hundred-strong police unit. The leader of the unit brushed off our objections to their interference with the words: “I don’t care what a court decided, I am the law here.” He said that in the presence of our two lawyers, who couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
AJ: He also made another snide remark: “1000 people on the dance floor, and I only have six bullets in my gun.”
MO: We didn‘t know that there was an election campaign going on in the region. One of the candidates, the mayor of the town, was running as the law-and-order-guy. The leader of the police unit was his neighbor. You do the math.
AJ: There was a woman from the regulatory agency with us the whole night. We walked around and measured the noise level. At some point she declared that we are too loud now, and that she has to cancel the whole event. We weren’t too loud though. Later, we found out that there was a party of the local firefighters in a neighboring village which was pretty loud and even with that additional noise, there had been only one complaint via phone. The woman from the agency was stubborn and within five minutes the police unit was on site. It was clear that they had waited in close distance for her to call.
MO: The whole thing was rigged.
AJ: They took us to court later, and we won on every account.
When did you start to have lawyers present, when did you start to need them?
AJ: Markus studied law for a while. One of his classmates, who eventually actually finished university and got a degree, was my neighbor. He started to work as an intern for us. In 1999, he started to help us, when we tried to get permits at Grünefeld, the Nation of Gondwana location to this day, for the first time. Others had tried to get a permit for the location before, but they all had failed—so we took him with us as legal counselor.
MO: We didn’t just call them or send letters, we actually went to visit the one administration that had always refused to issue a permit for an open air in Grünefeld. Nobody had done that before. They told us what the challenges and expectations were, and we set out to fulfill all their demands and meet all their expectations.
AJ: At that point we were pretty sure that time was running out on the anarchic days of of doing big semi-legal or illegal open airs. We were right. You can’t do anything like that anymore. You’d have a hundred-strong police unit in your ass in no time. And they won’t mess around but end the party.
Speaking of Grünefeld. This year marks not just Nation of Gondwana‘s 25th edition, but it’s also the 20th time it will happen at Grünefeld. That’s a long period. How has your relationship to the people in Grünefeld and the neighboring villages developed over time?
AJ: Once we realized that this could be our permanent location, we started to look at what we could for the people in Grünefeld.
MO: You can’t just waltz into a small town or village with the attitude that all you care about is your annual rave. That wouldn’t fly very well, especially over time. So we started to look for opportunities where we could help them out, too. Over time this turned into a number of very close-knit connections and friendships.
What does “helping them out” entail?
AJ: We spoke to a lot of people and two things initially came up again and again: the youth center and the kindergarten. So the first thing we did was donate stuff they needed at these facilities.
MO: Over the last five years, we have donated around 30,000 Euro. The kindergarten was pretty run-down. Now it is a really lovely and in-demand place. We also made sure to integrate the people that live in and around Grünefeld in the festival. The local fire fighters, for instance, do a big food stand free of charge so all the proceeds end up in their pockets.
AJ: We also have one dance floor that is booked by young local DJs. They were all kids when we did the first Nation of Gondwana in Grünefeld. We’ve known them since they were toddlers. We also invite them to play in our bars in Berlin.
Speaking of booking, over the years the Nation was a pretty familial event which more or less featured the same 10 to 15 DJs and live acts every year. At the end of the 2000s, you changed your booking policy and started to book more international acts. How did that come about?
AJ: True. For the longest time, our booking pretty much consisted of friends and friends of friends, with a core of DJs and live-acts that played every year. In 2005 or 2006, after ten years of Nation of Gondwana, Markus and I sat down to discuss how we would proceed with the festival. There were two choices, either continue in the way we’d done it in the past, with a comparatively small but dedicated audience, or we’d start to invest in booking with the aim of growing the festival, steering it in a more professional and sustainable direction and attracting a new generation of guests, while staying true to our roots. Markus wanted to keep it familial, and I wanted the change and take the risk. We agreed that we’d give it a try to see what happens when we book bigger names. It paid off right away. We nearly doubled our audience. After that we knew: To really professionalize, it was time to invest not just in the booking but also in the infrastructure. It wasn’t enough anymore to have five or ten latrines and power units that would shut down three times in the course of a night.
MO: And shortly after that, we were informed that we’d need a building permit from now on.
What does that mean?
AJ: When you reach 5000 guests who also camp on the festival site, you need to provide a certified camping space, which is approved under building law. That means you have to have drinking water on the site, street lighting, emergency exits and roads etc. To meet all these criteria in Grünefeld we had to invest a lot of money within one year.
MO: We had to commission an architecture firm to plan the whole thing for us. This plan then went to the building authority and from there to eight other authorities that added their terms as well. The whole process involved a lot of bureaucracy.
AJ: And it cost us 150,000 Euro. The only way to recuperate that within a year was with a more international booking and a bit of luck.
Since then, Nation has developed from an insider tip to an internationally recognized festival.
AJ: Our standing has definitely developed since then. Back in the day, people would hear the name Nation of Gondwana and the first associations they had were goa trance and something with hippies. For the last couple of years, the amount of booking agencies from all over the world that contact us has drastically increased.
MO: We still have one disadvantage. We are the smallest fish in an increasingly competitive festival ocean. We are independent and don’t have big sponsors with deep pockets.
AJ: The DJs and live-acts that play for us, especially the A-list ones, really burn to play at Nation. It wouldn’t work any other way. We can’t compete with the fees other festivals are paying. I still remember getting the call from Dixon’s agent that said, “Dixon really wants to play your festival!” He was the first to approach us like this. Luckily, there is a number of internationally acclaimed artists that have fallen for our festival and are okay with the smaller budget because they know that they will have an exceptional time.
The overall development of the festival and the growing professionalism are two reasons why ticket prices have continuously increased over the last years. At some point a few years ago there was quite a bit of criticism about that. As a reaction you posted your complete calculation on social media. I was pretty impressed by that move back then.
AJ: We are children of the techno underground, we both come from punk as well. In those scenes it is normal that people are skeptical when things suddenly get more expensive. And some feel especially entitled to scrutinize our business.
You could’ve ignored that.
MO: I think it’s important to be fully transparent. I prefer an open debate because I trust that one of the results is a deeper understanding of how much it takes to organize an event like this. Not just monetary. They can see where the money goes and that sometimes your hands are tied, and you have to do things a certain way.
AJ: The subliminal accusation that we hoard millions of Euro is pretty annoying nonetheless. Twenty years ago, the budget was €30,000. This year’s Nation costs a little over one million. And that is our risk. When shit hits the fan, we are on our own. Don’t think that any one of those people criticizing us would swing by with a 100k to help us out. To be fair, since we shared our full calculation, we pretty much don’t have these arguments anymore though.
MO: This year tickets cost six Euro more than 2018. Our calculation suggested that we’d have to raise the price to more than 14 Euro. But we didn’t want to do that. At the end of the day, we are kids of the ‘90s. We have danced at hundreds of raves, and we can’t charge any more than 120 Euro for the weekend. That’s money not everyone can easily spend. As corny as it sounds, we are not money-driven. It’s an important factor, of course, but our main priority is to make sure that we have a lot of fun doing what we do. And to this day, we have an absolute blast at Nation of Gondwana.
Published July 17, 2019. Words by Sven von Thülen.