The History of Subverting Gender in Berlin Subculture

For the ninth installment of our Berlin Experiment series, Danielle de Picciotto—an artist, musician associated with Gudrun Gut’s Moabit label, designer and co-founder of the Love Parade—takes us through three decades of gender experimentation in the German capital’s subculture.

West Berlin in the ’80s had an air of apocalyptic melancholy about it, which went hand in hand with an attitude that radically questioned everything. Speed and heroin were the drugs of choice; on speed you could stay up for nights on end, while junkies delved into the introverted and darkly blissful spheres of mental introspection and intellectual self-analysis.

Men tended to be soft and androgynous in manner and appearance. Their look was feminine and their orientation bisexual. Everyone was bisexual back then, really. People didn’t distinguish between the male and female portions within themselves, so everybody screwed everybody else, regardless of gender.

The scene’s women pulled off a tough, militant look without forfeiting their femininity. A typical Berlin vamp wore white foundation, bright red lipstick and combat boots. As one of the central lessons of feminism, this new type of woman rejected any kind of cattiness. Women did not compete with each other—especially not for men. If you desired someone, you just came out and asked: “Hey, is it okay if I sleep with your guy?” Solidarity and supporting women was essential for men and women alike. For the first time, I got a glimpse of what a world without misogynistic discrimination could possibly look like.

Toward the end of the ‘80s, there was a palpable sense that something new was coming, in Detroit or London as well as Berlin. In mid-1989, [Planet resident DJ] Dr. Motte and I organized the first Love Parade. We wanted to finally leave those dark basements with their melancholy stink behind us and move out into the open air to celebrate life. This was the prevailing mood when suddenly, in November of 1989, the Wall came down and plunged Berlin into an altogether new situation. So began the triumph of techno.

The first Love Parade in 1989. Photo via Der Spiegel.
The first Love Parade in 1989. Photo via Der Spiegel.

Techno was an entirely new kind of music and a whole new culture that broke away from the ‘80s paradigm. More extroverted types of drugs like ecstasy and coke became more popular than heroin. Ecstasy made you want to dance all night instead of having long philosophical discussions, and when a whole club is on coke and ecstasy all inhibitions go out the window. All those after hours parties started to meet the need for group cuddling; people just wanted to keep hanging out together, snuggle up with one another, to relax and celebrate the community. It was not about sex.

Techno gave gender a neutral unisex surface where everyone was the same and wore casual clothes made for comfortable dancing. In the beginning there were many women DJing and running clubs, as the spirit of equality had been carried into the new era. That changed, however, around 1995, when Berlin became popular and more people. Step by step, stereotypical gender roles came creeping back in. Cattiness made a comeback.

Around the mid-‘90s, women started to disappear from the scene’s creative hubs. That changed again in the early 2000s as show and performance gained more importance and a decidedly feminine yet snotty kind of glam associated with queerness became popular. Alexander Hacke and I organized the regular techno event Badabing at Big Eden, which covered such a wide array of musical styles that people from lots of different scenes came together. We always had three bands, DJs, VJs, and performance art.

In 2003, we invited Michelle Carr from Velvet Hammer in L.A., which was one of the first burlesque troupes in L.A., and the one where Dita von Teese started. It was Berlin’s very first burlesque show. People thought we were doing strip shows, but burlesque is something different; it’s a cabaret show with music, magicians and homemade costumes that play with eroticism. Burlesque appeals to all sexes and transcends heteronormativity.

White Trash became the most important venue for the new scene because nothing could compare to its blatant craziness. Girls stripping on the bar, drag queens performed with bananas in their asses. There were also some amazing events at Maria with Peaches, for instance. Inspired by these developments, Steve Morell started the Berlin Insane movement. For the first time since the ‘80s and early ‘90s I got that feeling again: a sense of adventure.

Unfortunately, this energy was restricted to just a few clubs and dissipated toward the end of the decade. At the same time gentrification became more obvious and extreme. Berlin became the hipster metropolis, and masses of people streamed into the city because it’s considered hip. During the ‘80s Berlin was practically nonexistent on the world’s cultural map and therefore uninteresting for business. But today Berlin is an industry role model; it’s a party city drowning in tourists, part of a synchronized global development, yet in many areas, like architecture, it is far behind. For those who have experienced Berlin the way it used to be no other place will do—not even Berlin itself.

Click here to read more installments from the Berlin Experiment series, including Danielle de Picciotto’s memories of the first Love Parade. Her album Tacoma is out soon on Gudrun Gut’s label Moabit Musik.


Continue Reading

Klaus Biesenbach on Kraftwerk

Honestly, I don’t really know anything about the music world—I just know a lot of musicians.

So when I first contacted Kraftwerk in 1998 for the Berlin Biennale, while I was working with Christoph Schlingensief, I had no idea what to expect. I think at the time, Kraftwerk were at a point in their career when they had yet to decide if they really wanted to commit to the art world. The thing is, 1998 was also the height of the Love Parade in Berlin, and the organizers also asked them to take part, which they didn’t do. But I think maybe they were scared off because we both asked at the same time. It took a while, but they answered our call in 2007. That’s when we first started putting this in the works.

What we’ve done in the MoMA atrium is pretty much recreate Kraftwerk’s Dusseldorf-based Kling Klang studio, down to very minute details. Attending every show and being so caught up in the process, I’ve experienced the retrospective in a very specific way: The first night I was completely exhilarated; the second night I was irritated by the rhythm and duration; the third night I was completely addicted. It was like being on a bicycle, cruising along, eventually having to go uphill, and then coasting back down again and hitting your rhythm. Then it’s in your body. When I did the interview with Jon Pareles for The New York Times together with Ralf [Hütter] the word “tangible” kept coming up. Ralf said that when he speaks during concerts, he does so from inside the music. For the Trans-Europe Express show, they performed ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ which is all about Echo and Narcissus. These are the audio and visual reflections that are both sent and received, like a radio station transmitting and receiving, an artist looking and being looked at. It’s an excellent metaphor of what’s been done here at the MoMA, which has cost a considerable amount of money to produce and involved an incredible amount of building and restructuring. My colleague from the Whitney thought that the exhibition space had already existed. No, this was created to bring people into the image, into the cube. And within the cube, people are inside the cone of 3-D projection, which extends from the screen onstage to the projector in the back. Both the band and the viewers are literally inside the art. You can’t stand on the side. I told people when they watch, they have to be in the cone.

During the first dress rehearsal, when the sub-bass came on during ‘Kometenmelodie 1’, several light fixtures started rattling. We took the frequency out, because I thought the building would collapse—I thought the paintings would fall off the walls. We ended up solving the problem of course, but it gave us a scare. The fact of the matter is that when you’re curating, especially doing a retrospective, you give up your own personality. It’s the strangest thing. When I was doing Marina Abramovic, I had to completely dive into her world and live her speed and velocity. Or better: stillness and duration. It’s an intimate experience with a work of art. It means you have to be completely available. So I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk straight for the past four months. You know, with every artist, there’s a first work where the nucleus of all future ideas is contained. And that’s extremely important to know when creating a retrospective. Here it’s Autobahn, for me. That’s subjective, of course.

I think Kraftwerk have been artists from the very beginning, but they were kidnapped by their mainstream success. Of course, everybody is happy to be kidnapped by success, but it makes it more difficult to recognize who and what they are. Still, in the sixties and seventies their studio was right next door to Gerhard Richter’s. They could have drilled a hole in the wall and been right there. But honestly, not a lot of people have understood the extent to which Kraftwerk are and were artists, in Germany especially. Of course, I assume that people like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke got it. Joseph Beuys got it. Werner Herzog and Fassbinder got it. Katharina Sieverding got it. But not many others.

For me, Kraftwerk are very much children of the BRD, the Federal Republic of Germany. I am like a grandchild of the country, and Kraftwerk are father figures. The BRD, like the GDR, dissolved—it doesn’t exist anymore, but artistically speaking, it was all about Kraftwerk, Heinrich Böll and Joseph Beuys. It used to be that Germany had the first truly active Green Party, and culturally—in art and music—this played an important role. Beuys sang ‘Sonne statt Reagan’, and there were massive anti-nuclear protests, especially against the stationing of Pershing missiles. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz featured Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’, of course. I see all this in a very specific historical context, but also in an artistic one. The incredible thing is how Kraftwerk have been capable of not just updating but upgrading their material over the course of their careers.

Somehow it seems like people haven’t understood that the retrospective is an exhibition and not just a concert. People just don’t get that, and it’s been very hard to get people into a different mindset. It’s like with movies—film was the leading art form of the twentieth century, and it still hasn’t really made it into art museums. Museums can be so slow. With a time delay, art arrives with cinema, which is something I’m trying to push. I did Doug Aitken at MoMA which was big, cinematic images with no sound, then I did Pipilotti Rist, which was cinematic images with sound, then came Marina Abramovic, which was cinematic image with sound and live performance. And now it’s gone one step further. Kraftwerk is the fourth step. But there’s a fifth step, and I’m not sure what it is yet. A few months ago I went to the Cologne Cathedral to check out Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass works. And all I could think is what it must have been like a few hundred years ago to come from some mud-hut, some tiny town with no electricity, no heating, and see this incredible thing with image and sound. That’s what I imagined seeing and listening to Kraftwerk to be.~

Earlier this year we where reporting from the Kraftwer Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at New York’s MoMa, where we collected a lot of interesting takes on the legendary techno innovators from the likes of Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Klaus Biesenbach and more – Read them here.

Photo: Luci Lux


Continue Reading