8-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.GDR.8-1.4 | Smith­PDF


Abstract | This essay exam­ines the encounter between West­ern coun­ter­cul­tur­al groups and the urban land­scape of East Berlin in the years imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Focus­ing on squat­ted hous­es, the under­ground tech­no scene, and exper­i­men­tal art projects, the essay argues that coun­ter­cul­tur­al groups who were active in East Berlin in the ear­ly 1990s devel­oped a pecu­liar set of prac­tices that were char­ac­ter­ized both by their campy aes­thet­ics and by their tem­po­ral inde­ter­mi­na­cy. The essay posits that these exper­i­men­tal tem­po­ral prac­tices were only pos­si­ble due to the lay­ered his­toric­i­ty of urban space in the dilap­i­dat­ed, inner-city neigh­bour­hoods of East Berlin.
Résumé | Cet essai étudie la ren­con­tre entre les groupes con­tre-cul­turels Occi­den­taux et le paysage urbain de Berlin-Est suite à la chute du Mur de Berlin en 1989. A tra­vers une analyse des squats, de la scène tech­no « under­ground » et des pro­jets d’art expéri­men­tal, l’essai sou­tient que les groupes con­tre-cul­turels act­ifs dans le Berlin-Est du début des années 1990 ont dévelop­pé un ensem­ble de pra­tiques car­ac­térisé à la fois par leur esthé­tique maniérée et leur indéter­mi­na­tion tem­porelle. L’essai avance que seule l’historicité imbriquée de l’espace urbain dans les quartiers pau­vres et dilapidés du Berlin-Est a ren­du pos­si­ble ces pra­tiques tem­porelles expéri­men­tales.

Jake P. Smith | Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go

Adventures in Communism:
Counterculture and Camp in East Berlin

I. Space and Place in East Berlin

In the months and years fol­low­ing the fall of the Berlin Wall in Novem­ber 1989, Berlin became some­thing of a lab­o­ra­to­ry for the Ger­man nation, a space in which urban plan­ners, politi­cians, activists, and artists could exper­i­ment with new con­stel­la­tions of what it meant to be Ger­man at the end of the tumul­tuous 20th cen­tu­ry. How­ev­er, as the debates sur­round­ing the Pots­damer Platz, the Palace of the Repub­lic, and the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al in Berlin as well as sim­i­lar dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing the Frauenkirche in Dres­den and his­toric archi­tec­ture in Leipzig clear­ly illus­trate, the attempt to remake the nation through the built envi­ron­ment was a high­ly con­tentious process.[1] This was espe­cial­ly true in reuni­fi­ca­tion-era Berlin, a city that anthro­pol­o­gist Wolf­gang Kaschu­ba described as “open, unde­fined, tran­si­to­ry,” a space that, in the wake of the fall of the Wall, sud­den­ly found itself with­out fixed points of social, cul­tur­al, and polit­i­cal ref­er­ence (235). On the one hand, the inde­ter­mi­na­cy that char­ac­ter­ized Berlin’s urban land­scape gen­er­at­ed deep feel­ings of unease stem­ming from a wide­spread fear that Ger­mans would be unable to find “a com­mon sym­bol­ic gram­mar” through which they could begin to reestab­lish the bonds of mutu­al belong­ing (Kaschu­ba 235). On the oth­er hand, many groups expe­ri­enced the open­ness of Berlin, and espe­cial­ly East Berlin, in these years as a form of lib­er­a­tion. Indeed, in the ear­ly 1990s, left­ist activists and coun­ter­cul­tur­al groups from across Europe descend­ed on East Berlin neigh­bour­hoods such as Mitte, Friedrichshain, and Pren­zlauer Berg, where they squat­ted in hun­dreds of build­ings, orga­nized ille­gal tech­no par­ties, and opened exper­i­men­tal art gal­leries, thus trans­form­ing the dilap­i­dat­ed urban land­scape of these neglect­ed areas into some of the late-20th century’s most cut­ting-edge envi­ron­ments for exper­i­men­tal cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. In the ear­ly 1990s, East Berlin was, against all odds, the place to be.

Why, though, were West Ger­man coun­ter­cul­tur­al youth, and even­tu­al­ly alter­na­tive youth from across the globe, so enam­ored with East Berlin? What led them to imag­ine the crum­bling land­scapes of “real exist­ing social­ism” as pre­em­i­nent locales for adven­ture, play, and exper­i­men­ta­tion? Draw­ing from argu­ments devel­oped by Hans-Liudger Dienel and Malte Schophaus, we might con­clude that the unique affec­tive pow­er of these neigh­bour­hoods stemmed pri­mar­i­ly from their lack of place­ness, their resis­tance to the aurat­ic pow­er of the nation. Accord­ing to this read­ing, the affec­tive empti­ness of these neigh­bour­hoods made them ide­al loca­tions for coun­ter­cul­tur­al life. As “waste­lands,” they were excit­ing because they “offer[ed] emp­ty spaces where behav­iour [was] not so defined by dom­i­nant cul­ture” and where youth could appro­pri­ate and trans­form the land­scape for their own pur­pos­es (133). While true to a cer­tain extent, this nar­ra­tive places the locus of cre­ativ­i­ty almost entire­ly in the exper­i­men­tal prac­tices of the coun­ter­cul­ture, thus imply­ing that equiv­a­lent forms of artis­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion would have arisen in any sim­i­lar­ly emp­ty urban set­ting. Alter­na­tive­ly, draw­ing from cul­tur­al crit­ics such as Andreas Huyssen, we might posit an inter­pre­ta­tion in which the emp­ty hous­es, the crum­bling façades, and the obso­lete envi­ron­men­tal mark­ers were attrac­tive pre­cise­ly because of their his­tor­i­cal qual­i­ties.[2] As loca­tions that bear vis­i­ble traces of a dif­fer­ent past, the emp­ty spaces of Mitte could serve as authen­tic refuges from the unset­tling tem­po­ral veloc­i­ty of the present, as bunkers where one could resist the mod­ern injunc­tion to “melt into air.” East Berlin, in this inter­pre­ta­tion, was a liv­ing muse­um, a space where dis­af­fect­ed groups from across the world could escape into nos­tal­gic enclaves of roman­ti­cized authen­tic­i­ty.

Both of these arguments—that urban spaces such as Mitte func­tioned as waste­lands in which youth were free to exper­i­ment with alter­na­tive sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and that these spaces pro­vid­ed access points to what was felt to be a more authen­tic past and thus served as refuges from the vicis­si­tudes of modernity—are valu­able but insuf­fi­cient tools for under­stand­ing the pecu­liar excite­ment gen­er­at­ed by the urban land­scape of Wende-era East Berlin. The anthro­pol­o­gist Anja Schwan­häußer offers an alter­nate expla­na­tion for the lure of East Berlin in her essay “The City as Adven­ture Play­ground” and her book Kos­mo­naut­en des Under­grounds: Ethno­grafie ein­er Berlin­er Szene. Accord­ing to Schwan­häußer, his­tor­i­cal­ly res­o­nant spaces in the city cre­at­ed a unique atmos­phere in which par­tic­i­pants in tech­no sub­cul­tures could orga­nize events that cel­e­brat­ed the plea­sures of the here and now. The urban land­scape, in oth­er words, facil­i­tat­ed nov­el sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ences that both drew from the affec­tive pow­er of his­tor­i­cal spaces and super­seded them. Although con­vinc­ing in many respects, Schwanhäußer’s ethno­graph­ic account of the Berlin tech­no scene fails to ful­ly elab­o­rate on the rea­sons why the his­tor­i­cal­ly res­o­nant spaces of East Berlin proved to be such attrac­tive atmos­pheres for youth sub­cul­tures.

In the pages that fol­low, I extend Schwanhäußer’s argu­ments by sug­gest­ing that the effer­ves­cent buzz sur­round­ing Wende-era East Berlin can­not be attrib­uted either to a decon­tex­tu­al­ized unfold­ing of coun­ter­cul­tur­al fan­tasies in an emp­ty urban waste­land nor to the inher­ent­ly aurat­ic qual­i­ties of his­tor­i­cal­ly res­o­nant spaces. Instead, I argue that the urban land­scape of East Berlin facil­i­tat­ed the devel­op­ment of new tem­po­ral prac­tices by giv­ing res­i­dents and vis­i­tors free reign to trans­gress the bor­ders between the past, present, and future.[3] The cul­tur­al the­o­rist Phillip Weg­n­er makes a sim­i­lar argu­ment in his dis­cus­sion of Rem Koolhaas’s engage­ment with the Berlin Wall, argu­ing that, in the wake of Novem­ber 1989, the area sur­round­ing the Wall became “a het­ero­topia, open to a range of pos­si­ble ‘symbolizations/ his­tori­ciza­tions,’ a place, in short, where­in his­to­ry might move in a num­ber of very dif­fer­ent direc­tions, and thus once again become the site of col­lec­tive polit­i­cal strug­gle” (Weg­n­er 291). This is not to sug­gest that East Berlin’s urban land­scape was devoid of his­tor­i­cal mark­ers. Quite the con­trary: it was lit­tered with the frag­ments of world his­tor­i­cal ide­olo­gies and the shat­tered dreams of utopias past. Rather than deter­mi­na­tive, all-encom­pass­ing tem­po­ral struc­tures, though, these mate­ri­al­ly encod­ed pasts exist­ed in a state of simul­tane­ity, in what—drawing from the his­tor­i­cal the­o­rist Rein­hart Koselleck—we might think of as “tem­po­ral lay­ers” [Zeitschicht­en]. The pecu­liar land­scape of East Berlin, marked as it was by the frac­tured mate­r­i­al remains of what his­to­ri­an Eric Hob­s­bawm has termed “the age of extremes,” came to serve as some­thing of a his­tor­i­cal theme park where dis­af­fect­ed youth from around the world could dance with the ghosts of the dead, where they could cre­ative­ly dwell in the mate­r­i­al traces of lost life­worlds and, in so doing, escape once and for all from the oppres­sive tem­po­ral­i­ties of the 20th cen­tu­ry. East Berlin offered spaces in which coun­ter­cul­tur­al youth could recre­ate them­selves as time-trav­el­ing bricoleurs, adven­tur­ous explor­ers who felt as if they had the pow­er to inter­vene in and tran­scend the flow of his­tor­i­cal time, to live dan­ger­ous­ly at the edge of mean­ing­ful exis­tence. This essay thus argues that East Berlin—with its wealth of sym­bol­i­cal­ly laden spa­tial ruins and its dis­card­ed mate­r­i­al accou­ter­ments of world-his­tor­i­cal ideologies—served as the per­fect set­ting for the emer­gence of a new cor­pus of exper­i­men­tal tem­po­ral prac­tices (evi­dent in music, per­for­mance, video art, and club cul­ture), which I will read as a form of his­tor­i­cal­ly ori­ent­ed “camp con­scious­ness.” Before mov­ing into a dis­cus­sion of camp, how­ev­er, it is worth dwelling for a moment on the ways in which coun­ter­cul­tur­al groups them­selves described life in the urban land­scape of East Berlin, an area they affec­tion­ate­ly referred to as “the Zone.”

II. The Zone as a Space of Adventure

Long after the cham­pagne bot­tles had been cleaned from the streets and the eager East Ger­man crowds had spent their wel­come mon­ey, the Wende retained a mag­i­cal qual­i­ty for the autonomous and coun­ter­cul­tur­al left. Through­out these months, tens of thou­sands of pro­test­ers took to the streets in colour­ful cos­tumes; new ten­e­ments were squat­ted dai­ly; tech­no par­ties like the famous Tek­knozid events pro­lif­er­at­ed in emp­ty build­ings and aban­doned fac­to­ries; and activists from East and West Ger­many came togeth­er in the streets and squares to dis­cuss their visions for the utopi­an future. Accord­ing to Jochen Sandig, youth at the time felt as if they “were in a realm of pos­si­bil­i­ties where dreams could come true. [They] encour­aged, inspired and chal­lenged each oth­er. For a brief and pre­cious moment, dif­fer­ent rules applied” (qtd. in Fes­el and Keller 55).

Clip 1: Sag niemals nie. Dir. Kollek­tiv Mainz­er Strasse, 1991.

This sense of unbound­ed opti­mism is clear­ly evi­dent in one of the open­ing scenes from the 1991 film Sag niemals nie (Nev­er Say No) in which the view­er is ini­tial­ly con­front­ed with a ruined, almost oth­er­world­ly land­scape of crum­bling build­ings in East Berlin. Dra­mat­ic ambi­ent music inten­si­fies the feel­ing of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic gloom as the cam­era pans across the des­o­late land­scape. Sud­den­ly an upbeat gui­tar riff cuts through the exis­ten­tial dread and a whim­si­cal Peter Pan fig­ure skips across the screen. The scene then imme­di­ate­ly shifts into one of joy­ful exu­ber­ance and infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ty, a Nev­er­land replete with crowds of peo­ple in the streets, fig­ures rap­pelling down the front façades of crum­bling build­ings, fes­ti­vals, groups of punks repair­ing apart­ments, graf­fi­ti-cov­ered walls, fan­ta­sy, effer­ves­cence, life. In anoth­er film from the peri­od enti­tled Petra Pan und Aru­mukha: Der Traum von ordentlichen Anar­chis­ten (Petra Pan and Aru­mukha: The Dream of Order­ly Anar­chists), a sim­i­lar Peter/Petra Pan fig­ure appears again, non­cha­lant­ly skip­ping across the land­scape and stop­ping from time to time to spray-paint a num­ber on a wall, rep­re­sent­ing the num­ber of squat­ted build­ings in the city. At one point we even see Petra spray-paint the num­ber 1000, thus indi­cat­ing the belief that this time around the “move­ment” was unstop­pable, that anar­chist youth were ready to take over the world.

Not only did activists find in East Berlin an almost lim­it­less num­ber of venues in which to real­ize their dreams, they also found a world that was itself utter­ly fan­tas­ti­cal. Writ­ing about his expe­ri­ences at clubs and in squat­ted build­ings in Mitte in 1989-90, Anton Waldt not­ed:

[Y]ou just walked over—and sud­den­ly you were in the Zone! Muse­um vil­lage East Berlin: an orphaned area, sparse­ly set­tled, the stock of aban­doned apart­ments, build­ings, and fac­to­ries was inex­haustible […]. The tem­po­rary anom­aly of East Berlin was not just end­less­ly excit­ing, but also obvi­ous­ly part of some­thing much big­ger. A crazy per­son [who lived in the squat­ted apart­ment fac­ing the street] devel­oped a the­o­ry that the TV tow­er at Alexan­der­platz was at the cen­ter of a par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tor for time trav­el. (Waldt 128)

Sim­i­lar­ly, anoth­er par­tic­i­pant in the scene, Danielle de Pic­ciot­to, not­ed that enter­ing East Berlin “was just like some of [her] favorite children’s books where a per­son could just open a door and enter an entire­ly new world” (qtd. in Denk and von Thülen 109). This fan­ta­sy land­scape was not, how­ev­er, mere­ly an Alice-in-Won­der­land-style inver­sion of nor­mal life; it was a world that seemed frozen in mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent times at once. It was the long 20th cen­tu­ry in the form of a minia­ture. Not only did build­ings in neigh­bour­hoods such as Mitte exude a sense of the Pruss­ian past, they also bore vis­i­ble traces of the Jew­ish res­i­dents who lived there pri­or to the rise of Hitler, of spring 1945 when the Red Army took Berlin, and of the 40 years of social­ism. This lay­ered his­toric­i­ty of the urban envi­ron­ment was not lost on the new res­i­dents. Accord­ing to Hen­ner Mer­le, for exam­ple, “there was a tan­gi­ble sense of his­to­ry. We were in the exact spot where all these events we’d only pre­vi­ous­ly read about had tak­en place. On the one hand it was slight­ly oppres­sive, but on the oth­er hand it opened up entire­ly new per­spec­tives for us to view the present” (qtd. in Fes­el and Keller 101). Walk­ing through the rub­ble-strewn streets of the “Zone,” in oth­er words, was akin to enter­ing an uncan­ny Nev­er­land, a strange com­bi­na­tion of Peter Pan and the Plan­et of the Apes where the urban land­scape rep­re­sent­ed both a utopi­an alter­na­tive to the present and an unset­tling reminder of the trou­bled past.

The under­ground tech­no par­ties of 1989-90, in par­tic­u­lar, helped to facil­i­tate these adven­tur­ous jour­neys through the land­scapes of the past. In their fore­word to a col­lec­tion of inter­views on the Berlin tech­no scene of the ear­ly 1990s, Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen write:

Sud­den­ly there were all of these spaces to dis­cov­er: whether a tank cham­ber [Panz­erkam­mer] in the dusty no-man’s-land of the for­mer death strip or a bunker instal­la­tion from the Sec­ond World War, whether a closed soap fac­to­ry on the Spree or an elec­tric sub­sta­tion across from the for­mer Reich Avi­a­tion Ministry—all of these spaces, which had been made obso­lete by recent his­to­ry, were sud­den­ly the scenes of danc­ing and music, which was rein­vent­ed on almost a week­ly basis. (Denk and von Thülen 9)

Dis­cussing their dis­cov­ery of one such locale, the founders of the wide­ly renowned Tre­sor club in Berlin Mitte expressed their amaze­ment at the tan­gi­ble traces of the past that emanat­ed from the space, which had served as the bank vault for the old Wertheim Depart­ment Store in the years pri­or to its Aryaniza­tion in the 1930s. John­nie Stiel­er, an East Berlin­er and one of the club’s founders, not­ed: “This was prob­a­bly what if felt like to dis­cov­er some Aztec trea­sure. None of us could even speak. We just walked around silent­ly with our lighters” (qtd. in Denk and von Thülen 139). Tech­no DJ Ter­ri­ble remem­bered how Tresor’s founders were con­stant­ly jok­ing that they had found a tun­nel lead­ing to the sub­ter­ranean Führer bunker where Hitler com­mit­ted sui­cide (qtd. in Denk and von Thülen 141). Kati Schwind, remem­ber­ing her first encounter with the space, not­ed that one “could feel [its] his­to­ry” (qtd. in Denk and von Thülen 148). Dmitri Hegemann—who had found­ed the Ufo club in West Berlin in the late 1980s and helped to orga­nize the Aton­al Fes­ti­vals in the ear­ly 1980s—called it “mag­ic.” Feel­ing as if “the walls were talk­ing to [him],” he couldn’t help but to think “about the life sto­ries behind them, about the joy­ful moments and the fam­i­ly tragedies” (qtd. in Künzel’s film).

The build­ings, it seems, were whis­per­ing secrets from the past, bear­ing wit­ness to the lives of those who had lived and worked there, to the count­less Berlin­ers whose futures had been cut short by the Nazi regime. They were both arche­o­log­i­cal sites where one could uncov­er the mys­ter­ies of lost life­worlds and sacred access points to the buried night­mares of the Ger­man past. Although per­haps the most famous, Tre­sor was far from the only club in East Berlin that exud­ed a sense of the past. In dis­cussing his expe­ri­ences in the exper­i­men­tal music space in the base­ment of the squat­ted art com­plex known as Tacheles, for exam­ple, Ulrich Gut­maier described the scene as fol­lows: “a laser beam crossed through the club from left to right. Like a fin­ger point­ing to the future, which touched a his­to­ry that seemed to have stopped in 1945 when Berlin­ers spent their nights in the air raid shel­ters wait­ing for the Red Army” (12). The Tacheles, and Mitte more broad­ly, was an “open wound,” a his­tor­i­cal worm­hole that “cat­a­pult­ed you into the imme­di­ate post­war peri­od” (27). This time around, though, the post­war turned out to be fun, with­out a doubt, but also immea­sur­ably strange—an exot­ic, adven­tur­ous trip through the uncan­ny. Rem­i­nisc­ing about an inci­dent in which squat­ters in Mitte found mum­mi­fied corpses in one of the build­ings and then brought them into the liv­ing room, Gut­maier writes:

[E]ven the dead were for a brief moment part of the every­day. They dwelled in the same space as the liv­ing. It was a Car­ni­val where the low and the high switched places. One did not need to have mum­mies in the liv­ing room in order to see the death and the destruc­tion of the city. One was remind­ed of it in front of every door. East Berlin was full of remains. Every stroll through the streets took you by ruins, waste­lands, fad­ed inscrip­tions that adver­tised prod­ucts and stores that haven’t exist­ed in fifty years. Their own­ers were all long dead. (57)

In anoth­er sim­i­lar­ly odd instance, the squat­ters at the Bergstrasse, which was infa­mous in the left­ist scene for hous­ing mem­bers of the sex­u­al­ly exper­i­men­tal (and, in many cas­es, abu­sive) Indi­an­erkom­mune, unearthed a 100-year-old corpse from the Sophien Ceme­tery in Mitte, sup­pos­ed­ly to use in some sort of sin­is­ter, satan­ic rit­u­al. Accord­ing to an offi­cial quot­ed in the Berlin­er Zeitung, “the grave­stone, pieces of bones, the cross, and the corpse had been arranged as if for an occult meet­ing” (qtd. in Palmer). With its domes­ti­cat­ed corpses, par­ti­cle accel­er­a­tors, occult rit­u­als, ruins, and, of course, its futur­is­tic tech­no sound­track, “the Zone” was indeed a strange place, ripe for his­tor­i­cal adven­ture and coun­ter­cul­tur­al explo­ration. There was, how­ev­er, a method to this mad­ness, one which in the fol­low­ing sec­tion I argue we think of as a fun­da­men­tal­ly campy form of tem­po­ral trans­gres­sion.

III. Counterculture as Camp

Accord­ing to Susan Son­tag, camp is a mode of per­cep­tion that rev­els in the unnat­ur­al and the arti­fi­cial, that “sees every­thing in quo­ta­tion marks” (280). “The whole point of Camp,” Son­tag argues, “is to dethrone the seri­ous. […] More pre­cise­ly, camp involves a new, more com­plex rela­tion to ‘the seri­ous.’ One can be seri­ous about the friv­o­lous, friv­o­lous about the seri­ous.” She goes on: “Camp—Dandyism in the age of Mass Culture—makes no dis­tinc­tion between the unique object and the mass-pro­duced object. Camp taste tran­scends the nau­sea of the repli­ca” (288-89). Unlike uni­ver­sal­ist dis­cours­es that apoth­e­o­size their own val­ues as abstract uni­ver­sals and thus mis­rec­og­nize con­tex­tu­al speci­fici­ty as decon­tex­tu­al­ized truth, and unlike nation­al­ist dis­cours­es that recon­tex­tu­al­ize such abstrac­tions with­in the over­ar­ch­ing geo­graph­i­cal, tem­po­ral, and racial frame­works of the nation, camp prob­lema­tizes the rela­tion­ship between sin­gu­lar­i­ty and repli­ca­tion by trans­form­ing all fixed def­i­n­i­tions into per­for­mances, plac­ing every­thing in quo­ta­tion marks, and refus­ing to con­sis­tent­ly dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the seri­ous and the friv­o­lous, the nat­ur­al and the arti­fi­cial. It is impor­tant to note, how­ev­er, that camp is not nec­es­sar­i­ly iron­ic. Indeed, where­as irony aggres­sive­ly uncov­ers the con­struct­ed nature of social phe­nom­e­na from an osten­si­bly objec­tive crit­i­cal van­tage point, camp rejects the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of such an objec­tive locus of cri­tique. Rather than attempt­ing to extri­cate itself from the inau­then­tic, camp rev­els in the inter­sti­tial spaces between real­i­ty and rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Although Son­tag does not go into great detail about the rela­tion­ship between camp and tem­po­ral­i­ty, she does note at one point in the essay that as a cre­ator of dis­tance, time can increase the campi­ness of an object, argu­ing that “things are campy, not when they become old—but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frus­trat­ed by, the fail­ure of the attempt” (285). Tem­po­ral­ly ori­ent­ed camp con­scious­ness, then, is a way of relat­ing to past objects and nar­ra­tives in which one nei­ther dis­miss­es them as irrel­e­vant rem­nants of bygone times nor regards them as all-deter­mi­na­tive pat­terns of expe­ri­ence. The past, like the present, is constructed—it is “real” but only with­in its own his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions. Objects and places that are sat­u­rat­ed by the past are thus simul­ta­ne­ous­ly authentic/auratic and con­struct­ed. Adopt­ing this campy per­spec­tive on the past allows its prac­ti­tion­ers to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dwell with­in the con­crete spaces of the real and tran­scend them alto­geth­er. The past becomes a series of masks which one can put on and take off at will while still rec­og­niz­ing them as con­tex­tu­al­ly embed­ded real­i­ties. Michel Fou­cault makes a sim­i­lar, if ulti­mate­ly more nihilis­tic, point in his dis­cus­sion of genealog­i­cal his­to­ry writ­ing: the crit­i­cal, genealog­i­cal his­to­ri­an “will push the mas­quer­ade to its lim­it and pre­pare the great car­ni­val of time where masks are con­stant­ly reap­pear­ing. […] Tak­ing up these masks, revi­tal­iz­ing the buf­foon­ery of his­to­ry, we adopt an iden­ti­ty whose unre­al­i­ty sur­pass­es that of God, who start­ed the cha­rade” (94). Campy per­spec­tives on the past, in short, allow peo­ple to come to a more objec­tive, dis­tanced under­stand­ing of his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency, even as they induce an expe­ri­ence of trans­gres­sive joy stem­ming from the ver­tig­i­nous occu­pa­tion of mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent tem­po­ral­i­ties at the same time.

This is a use­ful way for think­ing about the unique sce­nario that arose in the east­ern sec­tions of Berlin in 1989-90. As the over­ar­ch­ing tem­po­ral frame­works of social­ism crum­bled, they both left behind a diverse array of dis­card­ed and dis­con­nect­ed frag­ments in the form of Lenin stat­ues, Red Army uni­forms, Tra­bis, aban­doned build­ings, con­sumer goods, fur­ni­ture, and pho­to albums, and revealed a lay­er of Nazi-era his­tor­i­cal remains, which the con­quer­ing youth armies of Kreuzberg, Ham­burg, Freiburg, Ams­ter­dam, Lon­don, New York, and Tokyo could col­lect and recon­fig­ure into mag­i­cal tools for trav­el­ing through time and space. In nav­i­gat­ing the frac­tured tem­po­ral land­scape of East Berlin, activists mobi­lized this form of his­tor­i­cal­ly ori­ent­ed camp con­scious­ness in order to assume a more “authen­tic,” more anchored, iden­ti­ty by dwelling with­in the embed­ded, aurat­ic objects of the past. It also allowed them to tran­scend such tem­po­ral­ly and con­tex­tu­al­ly spe­cif­ic modes of exis­tence alto­geth­er, to trav­el adven­tur­ous­ly through the lay­ered sed­i­ment of lost life­worlds. Instead of attempt­ing to cre­ate new abstrac­tions by re-anchor­ing these frag­ments of shat­tered pasts into some pre­ex­ist­ing, over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive of his­tor­i­cal progress, the cul­tur­al anar­chists of the Wende—primed by over a decade of regen­er­a­tive cul­tur­al fan­tasies that had been kept alive through the small-scale activism of the Autonomen (unaligned, anar­chist activists) and through the cul­tur­al prod­ucts of new wave move­ments such as the Neue Deutsche Welle—used these traces of the past to a cre­ate a cos­mol­o­gy of campy expe­ri­ence, an iden­ti­ty that was both real and sim­u­lat­ed, root­ed and root­less. The inter­sti­tial spaces that emerged dur­ing the Wende func­tioned as the nec­es­sary stages upon which the prac­ti­tion­ers of coun­ter­cul­tur­al camp arranged the tal­is­man­ic objects and belief sys­tems of utopias past. In so doing, they man­aged to both call atten­tion to the under­ly­ing his­toric­i­ty and con­tex­tu­al speci­fici­ty of puta­tive­ly ahis­tor­i­cal ide­olo­gies and forge a new sense of self—a campy mode of exis­tence in which the adven­tur­ous sub­ject stood at the thresh­old between unde­fined, inter­minable expan­sion through time and space and con­tex­tu­al sub­jec­tive coher­ence. Camp, in short, allowed its prac­ti­tion­ers to dwell in the ecsta­t­ic spaces of the “betwixt and between.”[4]

Clip 2: The Bat­tle of Tun­ten­haus. Dir. Juli­et Bashore, 1991.

Per­haps a few exam­ples are in order here. In a par­tic­u­lar­ly out­ra­geous per­for­mance at the Mainz­er Strasse Tun­ten­haus—a noto­ri­ous­ly kitschy locale replete with "cur­tains in the win­dows and any num­ber of pret­ty pic­tures on the walls, and frilly can­dle hold­ers and pink chif­fon around the lamps” (qtd. in Arndt 45)—a group of men, some of whom were dressed in drag, donned Free Ger­man Youth (FDJ) uni­forms as they sang social­ist songs and waved the East Ger­man flag in front of a rau­cous and appre­cia­tive crowd (Bashore). One might rea­son­ably look on this episode mere­ly as an indi­ca­tion of the coun­ter­cul­tur­al left’s ter­ri­ble taste, but it is dif­fi­cult to deny the tru­ly astound­ing nature of the per­for­mance. Here we see a group of (pre­sum­ably) west­ern autonomous activists in drag, wear­ing uni­forms from an East Ger­man youth orga­ni­za­tion, all the while ille­gal­ly occu­py­ing a build­ing in the heart of East Berlin, which at that point was still the cap­i­tal of the GDR—a his­tor­i­cal car­ni­val indeed! The actors and the audi­ences in these campy per­for­mances occu­pied a posi­tion of extra­or­di­nary pow­er. In the inter­sti­tial spaces of the squat­ted land­scape, they took cen­tre stage in the recon­fig­u­ra­tion and rescal­ing of ide­o­log­i­cal total­i­ties and cre­at­ed new forms of oppo­si­tion­al socia­bil­i­ty that were premised on campy mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tions of volatile episodes from the Ger­man past. This was his­tor­i­cal pas­tiche as sub­jec­tive lib­er­a­tion, a campy mas­quer­ade ball that mocked time itself.

Fig. 1: Mainz­er Strasse squat­ters stand­ing beside the Kom­mune 1 table they pre­vi­ous­ly stole from the tageszeitung news­pa­per. Umbruch Bil­darchiv Berlin.

In anoth­er exam­ple from the Mainz­er Strasse, squat­ters mocked the lega­cy of the West Ger­man left by hold­ing a din­ner par­ty at which the atten­dees, most com­plete­ly naked save for their ski masks, sat down for cof­fee and cake at the famous table from the late 1960s Kom­mune I in West Berlin, which they had pre­vi­ous­ly stolen from the offices of the tageszeitung.[5] In a fly­er announc­ing the fact that the table was stolen, enti­tled “Be wild and do awe­some things!” and signed by the “Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Rov­ing Hash Rebels,” they wrote: “This table is a social-rev­o­lu­tion­ary rel­ic and has for a long time had no busi­ness being with you. You have noth­ing to do with social or rev­o­lu­tion” (Zen­tral­rat der umher­schweifende Haschre­bellInnen). The edi­tors of the tageszeitung prompt­ly respond­ed in an arti­cle with the com­par­a­tive­ly under­whelm­ing title “Give the table back!” in which they angri­ly wrote: “The table has served the anti­au­thor­i­tar­i­an and left­ist move­ments over the past twen­ty-one years ten times more than it will a group of West-squat­ters in an East Berlin house” (“Gebt den Tisch zurück!”). The edi­tors of the tageszeitung, it seems, were clear­ly not in on the joke.

Clip 3: Video Mag­a­zin # 3. Dir. AK Kraak, 1990.

The mys­ti­cal, pagan-inspired prac­tices asso­ci­at­ed with the far right were also campi­ly incor­po­rat­ed into the squat­ted urban land­scape of East Berlin. In a fly­er enti­tled “Ger­ma­nen­in­fo Nr. 1” from August 1990, the authors ini­tial­ly con­formed to the estab­lished pat­terns of a for­mu­la­ic self-intro­duc­tion. They began by not­ing that they were a group of West­phalians who want­ed to con­vey their ideas to the pub­lic. These ideas, how­ev­er, were far from typ­i­cal. They includ­ed: “the reten­tion of archa­ic shaman­ism […] the con­ser­va­tion and pro­tec­tion of mag­i­cal places of wor­ship and hal­lu­cino­genic plants […] com­plete infor­ma­tion against col­lec­tive stul­ti­fi­ca­tion [Ver­dum­mung] and the cre­ation of a cre­ative chaos—using all media from com­put­ers to telepa­thy” (18). This same group also sub­mit­ted a video to AK Kraak, which opened in a wilder­ness set­ting with peo­ple in leather jack­ets and jeans method­i­cal­ly build­ing a phal­lic shrine atop a spir­i­tu­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant rock for­ma­tion. After a few min­utes a naked man emerges from the near­by pond and begins drink­ing from a skull while anoth­er semi-naked man dis­cuss­es the pol­i­tics of squat­ting, the heal­ing pow­er of the sun, and the fas­cist mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of mys­ti­cism. Con­tribut­ing yet more absur­di­ty to the scene, a cat scram­bles to remain perched on the speaker's almost naked body, elic­it­ing pained breaks in the mys­ti­cal solil­o­quy as well as peals of laugh­ter from the cam­era crew (AK Kraak, Mag­a­zin #3).

In anoth­er par­tic­u­lar­ly telling instance, the elec­tron­ic musi­cian and club pio­neer Daniel Pflumm trans­formed the name and the dam­aged aes­thet­ic of the sign on the elec­tri­cal shop he squat­ted into the label “Elek­tro,” which he then put on t-shirts, records, and adver­tise­ments for his events. This tac­tic of osten­ta­tious­ly incor­po­rat­ing aes­thet­ic traces of the Ger­man past into the squat­ted land­scape was quite com­mon in these years. Indeed, oth­er locales such as Far­ben, Friseur, Obst & Gemüse, and WMF also assumed the build­ings’ names in East Berlin that they had ille­gal­ly occu­pied. For Ulrich Gut­maier, such aes­thet­ic appro­pri­a­tions of social­ist cul­ture were a “stroke of genius” since a “dam­aged logo is more seduc­tive than one that is intact because it con­veys a sense of ephemer­al­i­ty.” He goes on to argue that Pflumm’s logo for Elek­tro man­aged to “com­press a par­tic­u­lar time and a par­tic­u­lar place into one sign” (193-94). In oth­er words, Pflumm and his col­leagues com­bined the frag­ments of the past with what they envi­sioned to be the sounds of the future in order to pro­duce new con­stel­la­tions of expe­ri­ence in the present.

Oth­er coun­ter­cul­tur­al activists went well beyond the incor­po­ra­tion of aes­thet­ic traces of the GDR and, like the squat­ters at the Mainz­er Strasse Tun­ten­haus, began incor­po­rat­ing mate­r­i­al objects from the social­ist past into their every­day lives. Some used the aban­doned objects of social­ism as fash­ion acces­sories; Mar­co Bölke, for exam­ple, remem­bered tak­ing pro­tec­tive hel­mets and masks from an aban­doned fac­to­ry to cre­ate club­bing cos­tumes (qtd. in Denk and von Thülen 170). Sim­i­lar­ly, Ulrich Gut­maier recount­ed a par­tic­u­lar instance in which a group of squat­ters were thrilled to find a box of hats from the East Ger­man children’s cir­cus that they could use in their own per­for­mances (107). Oth­ers took fur­ni­ture to dec­o­rate their clubs, bars, and homes (Denk and von Thülen 108). Bas­t­ian Maris hap­pi­ly remem­bered how he and his friends drove by the Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty every Wednes­day to pick through the refuse of “forty years of GDR his­to­ry in the form of sci­en­tif­ic equip­ment,” which they then installed as art pieces at the Glow­ing Pick­le, one of a num­ber of exper­i­men­tal art gal­leries that popped up in the Sche­unen­vier­tel in the ear­ly 1990s (qtd. in Fes­el and Keller 184). The group of artist provo­ca­teurs con­nect­ed to the Mutoid Waste Com­pa­ny took this pro­cliv­i­ty for exhibit­ing the aban­doned objects from the social­ist past to new heights when they dis­played tanks and even aban­doned jet fight­ers through­out the city. Refus­ing to abide by accept­ed tem­po­ral frame­works and to respect the bor­ders of his­tor­i­cal epochs, the activist-artists of this peri­od thus took part in an effer­ves­cent car­ni­val of his­to­ry, a trans­gres­sive reen­act­ment of mul­ti­ple tem­po­ral­i­ties at once.

The musi­cal prac­tices asso­ci­at­ed with tech­no were also impor­tant ele­ments in this campy recon­fig­u­ra­tion of the past. Accord­ing to Dmitri Hege­mann of the Tre­sor club, his­tor­i­cal­ly sat­u­rat­ed venues such as the Tre­sor gen­er­at­ed “a sense of aston­ish­ment at the real his­to­ry of the build­ing [that] went hand in hand with the plea­sure of appro­pri­at­ing the loca­tions. […]. His­to­ry had washed up this space at your feet, and now it was a mat­ter of mak­ing it your own some­how” (qtd. in Rapp 63). The repet­i­tive beats and pell-mell sam­pling asso­ci­at­ed with tech­no proved to be a par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful tool for mak­ing the past one’s own. Music, accord­ing to the the­o­rist Simon Frith, is one of the pre­em­i­nent media for exper­i­ment­ing with time: it “enables us to expe­ri­ence time aes­thet­i­cal­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, and phys­i­cal­ly in new ways. […] Music, to put this anoth­er way, allows us to stop time, while we con­sid­er how it pass­es” (149). He goes on to argue that musi­cal per­for­mance “offers us not argu­ment but expe­ri­ence, and for a moment—for moments—that expe­ri­ence involves ide­al time, an ide­al defined by the inte­gra­tion of what is rou­tine­ly kept separate—the indi­vid­ual and the social, the mind and the body, change and still­ness, the dif­fer­ent and the same, the already past and the still to come, desire and ful­fill­ment” (157). Writ­ing about the pro­cliv­i­ty of cur­rent music to reen­act the past, Simon Reynolds makes a sim­i­lar argu­ment con­cern­ing the nature of record­ing and sam­pling. As “ghosts you can con­trol,” he argues, record­ed music “is pret­ty freaky, then, if you think about it. But sam­pling dou­bles its inher­ent super­nat­u­ral­ism. Woven out of looped moments that are each like por­tals to far-flung times and places, the sam­ple col­lage cre­ates a musi­cal event that nev­er hap­pened; a mix­ture of time-trav­el and séance” (313). As a musi­cal form that con­sists of fast beats and sam­pled quo­ta­tions from oth­er musi­cal gen­res and from every­day life, tech­no fits these descrip­tions well. It enabled dancers and musi­cians to reor­ga­nize the rhythms of the body and of the loca­tion into a col­lec­tive algo­rithm for expe­ri­enc­ing and exper­i­ment­ing with space and time.

Rem­i­nisc­ing about his expe­ri­ences in these years, David Wag­n­er, a par­tic­i­pant in the scene, wrote:

Once upon a time, Berlin-Mitte was a wish-ful­fil­ment zone […]. Mitte was a fren­zy of repur­pos­ing. The mag­ic phrase was “tem­po­rary use.” Jet fight­ers aban­doned by a retreat­ing super­pow­er man­aged to become mon­u­ments in the very heart of the city. And the names of the new occu­py­ing forces? Art and amuse­ment. Emp­ty streets, crum­bling façades—was the war still on? Or had it per­haps not even tak­en place here? Didn’t every­thing look like the 1920s, didn’t it all look like a film set? […]. It was so easy to be amazed. Mitte had dropped out of time—and was stuck in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent pasts at once. Pre-war and pre-pre-war, part­ly GDR and part­ly some strange inbe­tween-era where once again Ger­many had ceased to exist but its new ver­sion hadn’t actu­al­ly come about yet. Mitte was in a gap. It became the mag­ic city of the inbe­tween. It became a wish-ful­fill­ment zone, every­thing was pos­si­ble. There was danc­ing. There was danc­ing and drink­ing. And the eyes of the ruin-dwellers sparkled with the hap­pi­ness of those who are in the right place at the right time […]. It was tremen­dous in the rub­ble, it was a gigan­tic play­ground. (5)

This unique com­bi­na­tion of the unset­tled tem­po­ral land­scape of East Berlin with the trans­gres­sive cul­tur­al forms devel­oped by West­ern coun­ter­cul­tur­al groups gave the “Zone” its extra­or­di­nary affec­tive pow­er and made life in the rub­ble so shock­ing­ly tremen­dous. In spaces such as Tre­sor, Tacheles, Elek­tro, Friseur, and the Mainz­er Strasse, coun­ter­cul­tur­al youth could trav­el through var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal epochs and dwell with­in the world-his­tor­i­cal ruins of crum­bled utopias and, in so doing, they could both under­mine the puta­tive inevitabil­i­ty of tem­po­ral pro­gres­sion and joy­ful­ly trans­gress the bound­aries of time. Much like the par­tic­i­pants in the youth move­ments of the ear­ly 1980s, the anar­chists of the Wende felt them­selves to be “the fleet­ing mer­ce­nar­ies of humor, […] the world ban­dits, dri­ven by the won­der­ful essence of the unre­al, drunk and liv­ing in the here and now” (Vidon 305). In 1989-90, anar­chism reigned supreme in Berlin once again.

IV. An End and a Beginning

Yet once again, the chaos and anar­chism of these years fell vic­tim to the world’s harsh real­i­ties. Indeed, the efflo­res­cence of campy exper­i­men­ta­tion met a seri­ous road­block with the bru­tal evic­tion of the Mainz­er Strasse squat­ters in Novem­ber 1990. The chain of events lead­ing to the evic­tion of the Mainz­er Strasse com­menced on Novem­ber 12th, as activists gath­ered to protest the clear­ance of the Pfarrstrasse 112 and the Cothe­niusstrasse 16.[6] The sit­u­a­tion quick­ly esca­lat­ed over the fol­low­ing days as masked activists from across north­ern Europe—and, if the author­i­ties are to be believed, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the Hafen­strasse squat in Hamburg—built bar­ri­cades in the streets, threw rocks and Molo­tov cock­tails from rooftops, and adamant­ly refused all demands that they vacate the area. Thou­sands of police offi­cers moved in on the morn­ing of Novem­ber 14th and, after hours of vio­lent con­flict with squat­ters and their sup­port­ers, suc­cess­ful­ly took con­trol of the street. In the wake of the evic­tion, in which numer­ous peo­ple were injured and almost 350 arrest­ed, many react­ed with anger, sad­ness, and dis­be­lief. Where­as con­ser­v­a­tive city offi­cials depict­ed the events as mere crim­i­nal­i­ty and argued that the Mainz­er Strasse res­i­dents “man­i­fest­ed an appalling rejec­tion of all the peace­ful val­ues that con­sti­tute our soci­ety” (Sen­atsver­wal­tung für Inneres 2), oth­ers harsh­ly crit­i­cized police vio­lence and state duplic­i­ty. An essay writ­ten in the wake of the evic­tion, for exam­ple, not­ed: “the fact that left­ist and antifas­cist lit­er­a­ture was destroyed, reminds us of bygone times and throws a large shad­ow on your sup­posed ‘under­stand­ing of democ­ra­cy’” (“Herr Mom­per, Herr Mendibu­ru!”). Many of the neigh­bour­hood res­i­dents joined the crit­i­cal cho­rus with some claim­ing that the police actions were rem­i­nis­cent of fas­cist times and oth­ers lament­ing the fact that with­out all of the squat­ters, the Mainz­er Strasse was once again “damned gloomy” (qtd. in Eng­wicht and Eng­wicht 5).

In the wake of the Mainz­er Strasse evic­tion, the bound­less opti­mism and the campy anar­chism of 1989-90 began reced­ing into the back­ground. Fol­low­ing the “Müs­li” strat­e­gy of the ear­ly 1980s, a num­ber of squat­ters shift­ed their focus towards devel­op­ing alter­na­tive lifestyles with­in the squats and secur­ing long-term rental agree­ments.[7] Activists in Mitte even looked into the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fol­low­ing the exam­ple set by squat­ters in the ear­ly 1980s by secur­ing Pat­en (spon­sors) in order to insure “that the squats can remain as cul­tur­al and social food for thought [Denkanstoss]” (Form Let­ter to Poten­tial Pat­en). Oth­ers fol­lowed the pat­tern of the “Mol­lis” by aban­don­ing coun­ter­cul­tur­al infra­struc­ture in favor of ever more rad­i­cal modes of vio­lent oppo­si­tion.[8] In the Volxs­port dec­la­ra­tion, “Klarheit für Berlin” (“Clar­i­ty for Berlin”), for exam­ple, the authors not­ed that they “de-glassed” the SPD offices and des­e­crat­ed those of the Alter­na­tive List. They then repro­duced state­ments of sol­i­dar­i­ty from cities through­out Ger­many and Europe. One state­ment from Han­nover seethed: “Our hate is bound­less. We know that it is not just about Berlin but about all of the squat­ted build­ings and cen­ters, and about all those who are involved in the fight” (Volxs­port 10). A sol­i­dar­i­ty dec­la­ra­tion from Italy enti­tled “A Fire Unites Us” not­ed:

[A] line of fire and revolt against the rul­ing class­es has erupt­ed, against their banks, their cities, and their deci­sions. It is a fire that leaves marks, a fire that unites us and above all our inde­struc­tible joy and anger to fight, to destroy the linch­pins of the impe­r­i­al soci­ety, to weave a net­work of oppo­si­tion­al forces and to work our way along the path of lib­er­a­tion. (Volxs­port 12)

Employ­ing the vio­lent rhetoric of the Autonomen, they argued that the bat­tle must be tak­en to new heights, that Berlin rep­re­sent­ed one small the­atre in the increas­ing­ly glob­al con­flict between Us and Them. Although it lies beyond the scope of this essay, it is safe to assume that many of the more rad­i­cal activists of these years sub­se­quent­ly shift­ed their atten­tion to the anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ments of the late 1990s and 2000s such as the 1999 Car­ni­val against Cap­i­tal­ism, the anti-G8 protests in Genoa in 2011, and the recent Block­upy protests in Frankfurt/Main.

The evic­tion of the Mainz­er Strasse may have sig­naled a nascent split in the coun­ter­cul­tur­al left of the Wende peri­od, but it was far from the end of the campy cul­tur­al forms that rose to promi­nence in these years. Just as the West Ger­man youth move­ments of 1980-81 left an indeli­ble mark on the cul­ture and the pol­i­tics of the 1980s, so would the campy activism of 1989-90 fun­da­men­tal­ly trans­form the cul­tur­al land­scapes of 1990s Berlin. Indeed, those who expe­ri­enced the Nev­er­land of East Berlin in the months and years after the fall of the Wall are still lead­ing groups of eager pil­grims back to the future. They come from Lon­don, New York, Tokyo, and Barcelona in search of the city’s oft-tout­ed alter­na­tive atmos­phere. After mak­ing a quick pass through the city’s offi­cial sites such as the Bran­den­burg Gate and the Muse­um Island, they flock to the tech­no clubs, art gal­leries, street cafes, and cul­tur­al cen­tres to expe­ri­ence the Rausch (intox­i­cat­ing elec­tric­i­ty) of Berlin.

Some of the main venues for expe­ri­enc­ing the effer­ves­cence of the ide­al­ized Berlin are the tech­no clubs that stub­born­ly cling to the city’s land­scape. Indeed, where­as many of the ille­gal squats were cleared (or legal­ized as alter­na­tive hous­ing) in the ear­ly 1990s, the tech­no clubs remained open spaces. Accord­ing to Anton Waldt these clubs rep­re­sent­ed “states of excep­tion” that bore “strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties” to the “ener­gy, inten­si­ty, [and] bru­tal pathos” of the three-day long bat­tle over the Mainz­er Strasse. The Tre­sor club, Waldt goes on to argue, was premised on a rad­i­cal sense of inclu­sion. Indeed, the dance floor was a point of sub­jec­tive “inter­sec­tion,” which, at times, seems like the “navel of the whole damned uni­verse” (130). Locat­ed in an old indus­tri­al build­ing near the Riv­er Spree, the Berghain offered sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences:

[It was the] birth­place of mem­o­ries, Heimat for drag queens, shel­ter for the insane […] and the res­i­dence of atmos­phere […]. No one who entered Berghain could ever for­get the moment when they moved from the steel steps to the dance floor. The spir­it was pal­pa­ble in the entire Berghain that here every­thing was pos­si­ble. […]. The moments in Berghain were always enor­mous. The feel­ings were too inten­sive to be real. You didn’t know whether you had land­ed in the mid­dle of hell or heav­en. You just con­stant­ly trans­gressed your own bound­aries and when you final­ly came out into the old world, you need­ed days to work through every­thing that you had done, seen, and heard in these twen­ty hours. (Aire 187-88)

At times, the dance­floor ecstasies spilled out onto the streets and began to resem­ble polit­i­cal protests. Writ­ing about the Love Parade, in which tens of thou­sands of Berlin­ers and vis­i­tors danced their way through the streets, Slavko Ste­fanos­ki not­ed that “it was a move­ment, a phi­los­o­phy of life. We were liv­ing at the cen­ter of the world” (qtd. in Gut­maier 207).

Although tech­no clubs are cer­tain­ly among the most pop­u­lar loca­tions for expe­ri­enc­ing the unique­ly campy sub­jec­tiv­i­ties asso­ci­at­ed with fin-de-siè­cle Berlin, they are far from the only such venues. Describ­ing a pecu­liar bar named Sniper, for exam­ple, Andreas Busche writes:

The Sniper knows no begin­ning and no end: a loop that one can enter and leave like a video instal­la­tion in a muse­um. The club as tem­po­ral medi­um. […]. On a screen in the back of the shop the most bizarre video col­lages were run­ning every evening: news clips, B-movies, pornos, car­pet bombs over Bagh­dad, obscure music clips from 3rd gen­er­a­tion VHS, every­thing cut togeth­er, chopped up, super­im­posed, reassem­bled, looped, stretched into eter­ni­ty. [These loops] put the audi­ence into a moron­ic [debilen] trance-like state. (171-173)

Added to all of this was a “nerve induc­ing sound […] an unre­lent­ing muzak of Euro-Dis­co, gab­bers, clas­si­cal, white noise, Asian plas­tic pop, easy lis­ten­ing, and trashy film dia­logues. Plun­der­phon­ics.”[9] Despite all of this, “the chaos had its method, every object had its place” (171-73). As the aes­thet­ics of the Sniper bar illus­trate, the camp con­scious­ness devel­oped by the urban coun­ter­cul­tures dur­ing the Wende is not only far from extinct, it seems to be an all-per­va­sive mode of alter­na­tive expres­sion in post-uni­fi­ca­tion Berlin and, increas­ing­ly, in exper­i­men­tal youth scenes from Lon­don and New York to Tokyo and Seoul.

Per­for­mance art, espe­cial­ly in and around the for­mer­ly squat­ted apart­ments and cul­tur­al cen­ters of the east­ern sec­tions of the city, also remained an impor­tant vehi­cle for ini­ti­at­ing curi­ous onlook­ers into the pecu­liar rites of anar­chist camp. Vis­i­tors to the increas­ing­ly fash­ion­able neigh­bour­hoods of Berlin-Mitte in the late 1990s, for exam­ple, would like­ly have been struck by the absurd activ­i­ties tak­ing place in and around the for­mer­ly squat­ted build­ing on August­strasse 10, bet­ter known as the Kul­tur und Leben (Cul­ture and Life) Project, or KuLe. The slo­gans paint­ed out­side of the build­ing read: “Destroy what,” “Resis­tance requires,” and “are pigs”—all of which were com­i­cal­ly incom­plete ver­sions of pop­u­lar polit­i­cal slo­gans from the squat­ting move­ment of the ear­ly 1990s. The res­i­dent artists cre­at­ed a wide vari­ety of sub­ver­sive the­atre per­for­mances.[10] For exam­ple, in one piece enti­tled “Moths in the Light,” two artists from Prague prob­lema­tized the rela­tion­ship between pub­lic and pri­vate spaces by engag­ing in an inti­mate, acro­bat­ic dance on the out­er scaf­fold­ing of the build­ing, thus trans­form­ing the façade of the house into a “ver­ti­cal stage” for the “pub­lic per­for­mance of pri­vate inti­ma­cy” (Rada). Anoth­er project, enti­tled “Cat­walk,” also played with the bor­ders between pub­lic and pri­vate by pro­ject­ing scenes from inside of the build­ing onto the out­er façade such that onlook­ers could, in a sense, see through the walls.

V. Camp, Capitalism, and “Profane Illuminations”

Where­as alter­na­tive tourists vis­it­ing Berlin tend to find such exper­i­men­tal cul­tur­al forms high­ly appeal­ing, a num­ber of left­ist crit­ics in the city have called atten­tion to the urban counterculture’s trou­ble­some lack of polit­i­cal per­spec­tives. Uwe Rada, for exam­ple, pub­lished an arti­cle in the tageszeitung in which he was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly amused and per­turbed by these per­for­mances: “where does the space of self-irony end, and where does seri­ous­ness begin” (Rada)? The author of a short­er arti­cle accom­pa­ny­ing Rada’s piece was much less ambiva­lent, acer­bical­ly not­ing that the “Tacheles is now noth­ing but a ruin of its for­mer self and sim­ply waits to be cleared. There are hard­ly any more polit­i­cal impuls­es com­ing from the squats,” and the only thing remain­ing of the once polit­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful squat­ting move­ment in Berlin, the author con­clud­ed, was “Art, com­merce, fash­ion” (wera). Join­ing a long and illus­tri­ous line of left­ist crit­ics rang­ing from Jür­gen Haber­mas and Rudi Dutschke to Wolf­gang Kraushaar and Bernd Rabehl (who was well on his way to becom­ing the voice of right-wing nation­al­ism that he is today), these com­men­ta­tors thus dis­missed the anar­chist absur­di­ty and campy cul­tur­al forms of the coun­ter­cul­ture as apo­lit­i­cal, unre­flec­tive tools of cap­i­tal­ism. Indeed, in much the same way that the ide­o­logues of the 1970s had laughed off the coun­ter­cul­ture, and just like the Müs­lis and their sup­port­ers in the mid-1980s had dis­missed the absurd exper­i­men­ta­tion and out­ra­geous anar­chism of the non-nego­tia­tors, so again did the “seri­ous” left­ists of the mid-1990s deride the irra­tional per­for­mances and hedo­nis­tic dance par­ties as coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and fun­da­men­tal­ly nar­cis­sis­tic har­bin­gers of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and com­merce. As Andreas Huyssen has per­cep­tive­ly not­ed, “the left’s ridi­cul­ing of post­mod­ernism” should be con­sid­ered as part and par­cel of its “often haughty and dog­mat­ic cri­tiques of the counter-cul­tur­al impuls­es of the 1960s” (Huyssen, “Map­ping” 199).

To a cer­tain extent, these crit­ics have a point. Late-20th and ear­ly-21st-cen­tu­ry Berlin is indeed a hip locale of art, com­merce, and fash­ion, a “cre­ative city” to which artists, musi­cians, and alter­na­tive tourists flock for inspi­ra­tion.[11] This has not escaped the notice of place mar­keters with­in the city who have sought to cap­i­tal­ize on Berlin’s par­tic­u­lar appeal for the glob­al youth mar­ket by explic­it­ly cham­pi­oning the city’s clubs, nightlife, and cre­ative art scene.[12] A 2009 brochure from the Berlin Partner’s mar­ket­ing group, for exam­ple, not­ed: “Here you can be what­ev­er you want [because] Berlin is the place to be for indi­vid­u­al­i­ty” (qtd. in Colomb, Stag­ing the New Berlin 239). Nor has it escaped the notice of prop­er­ty devel­op­ers through­out the city who have attempt­ed to cap­i­tal­ize on Berlin’s rep­u­ta­tion for hip­ness by enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly “flip­ping” desir­able prop­er­ties in neigh­bour­hoods such as Mitte and Pren­zlauer Berg. The alter­na­tive spaces of Berlin are, so it seems, slow­ly being incor­po­rat­ed into the urban land­scape as the unique quirks of a “cre­ative city,” as the unwit­ting pawns of com­mod­i­ty cap­i­tal­ism. For Marx­ist geo­g­ra­phers such as David Har­vey, this incor­po­ra­tion of urban dif­fer­ence into strate­gies of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion would come as no sur­prise. Indeed, in his essay “From Space to Place and Back Again,” Har­vey argues that polit­i­cal projects based on oppo­si­tion­al iden­ti­ties are “eas­i­ly dom­i­nat­ed by the pow­er of cap­i­tal to co-ordi­nate accu­mu­la­tion across uni­ver­sal frag­ment­ed space” (24). As an alter­na­tive, Har­vey, like many oth­er Marx­ist crit­ics, calls for a mode of oppo­si­tion­al place con­struc­tion that refus­es to suc­cumb to the dan­gers of, on the one hand, roman­ti­ciz­ing place as the locus of authen­tic being and, on the oth­er hand, prop­a­gat­ing a naïve belief in the innate pro­gres­sivism of mass cul­ture, sub­jec­tive flu­id­i­ty, and end­less becom­ing. The only solu­tion, it seems, is for the coun­ter­cul­tur­al left to ground its anar­chist cul­tur­al prac­tices in a more respon­si­ble, more seri­ous form pol­i­tics.

It is undoubt­ed­ly true that the expe­ri­en­tial trans­for­ma­tions wrought by the coun­ter­cul­tur­al anar­chists of the Wende peri­od have con­tributed to the expan­sion of con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism. The coun­ter­cul­tur­al activists of the late-20th cen­tu­ry and the cul­tur­al objects they pro­duced have indeed large­ly reen­tered the pro­fane world of exchange val­ues and cir­cu­lat­ing com­modi­ties. Yet the fact that one can pur­chase an album or pay to enter a club does not, I would argue, neu­tral­ize the exper­i­men­tal spa­tial and tem­po­ral visions that have been encod­ed into these objects and spaces. Com­merce and atmos­phere, cer­tain­ly. But com­merce and atmos­phere need not be seen as nec­es­sar­i­ly anath­e­ma to rev­o­lu­tion­ary shifts in per­cep­tion and expe­ri­ence. Far from lead­ing to their imme­di­ate neu­tral­iza­tion, the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of these pecu­liar, utopi­an anar­chist prac­tices can serve as a vehi­cle, a Tro­jan horse, for spread­ing the regen­er­a­tive, campy tem­po­ral­i­ties of 1989-90 to ever larg­er audi­ences around the world. They can serve as cat­a­lysts for moments of what, draw­ing from Wal­ter Ben­jamin, we might call “pro­fane illu­mi­na­tions,” moments at which we real­ize that the tem­po­ral struc­tures that define our every­day lives are them­selves large­ly illu­so­ry, that the world is open and that it can thus be changed.[13] Although these fleet­ing moments of illu­mi­na­tion might not be in-and-of-them­selves rev­o­lu­tion­ary acts, they can pave the way for polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion by serv­ing as “step­ping stones to ‘anoth­er real­i­ty’” (Unverza­gt 11).

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Wiese­mann and Keller, direc­tors. Petra Pan und Aru­mukha: Der Traum von ordentlichen Anar­chis­ten. 1990.

Young, James. At Memory's Edge: After-images of the Holo­caust in Con­tem­po­rary Art and Archi­tec­ture. Yale UP, 2000.

Yur­chak, Alex­ei. Every­thing Was For­ev­er Until it Was No More: The Last Sovi­et Gen­er­a­tion. Prince­ton UP, 2013.

Zen­tral­rat der umher­schweifende Haschre­bellInnen. “Werdet Wild und tut schöne Sachen!” Papier­tiger Archiv, “Flug­blaet­ter ab 88.”

Clip and Image Notes

Clip 1: Sag niemals nie. Dir. Kollek­tiv Mainz­er Strasse, 1991.

Clip 2: The Bat­tle of Tun­ten­haus. Dir. Juli­et Bashore, 1991.

Clip 3: Video Mag­a­zin # 3. Dir. AK Kraak, 1990.

Fig. 1: Mainz­er Strasse squat­ters stand­ing beside the Kom­mune 1 table they pre­vi­ous­ly stole from the tageszeitung news­pa­per. Umbruch Bil­darchiv Berlin.

Endnotes

[1] On urban restruc­tur­ing and its dis­con­tents, see among many oth­ers Boden­schatz; Colomb, Stag­ing the New Berlin; Holm; Holm and Kuhn; Strom; and Vasude­van. On the pol­i­tics of mem­o­ry in rela­tion to Berlin's urban spaces, see Huyssen, Present Pasts; Jor­dan; Ladd; Meng; Rubin; Till; and Young. For an overview of the debates in these years, see Gey­er.

[2] On the tem­po­ral cri­sis of the late-20th cen­tu­ry and its rela­tion­ship to urban space, see Huyssen, Twi­light Mem­o­ries, as well as the essays in Hell and Schoen­le.

[3] Although I focus here on the role of West­ern coun­ter­cul­tur­al groups, it is impor­tant to note that sim­i­lar impuls­es emerged in the East. See, for exam­ple, the excel­lent set of essays in Fels­mann and Gröschn­er. See also the dis­cus­sion of late Sovi­et exper­i­men­tal artis­tic prac­tices in Yur­chak.

[4] On this con­cept see Turn­er.

[6] These squats were tar­get­ed because both had been occu­pied after July 24th, the date at which the Mag­is­trat of East Berlin declared no new squats would be tol­er­at­ed.

[7] Müs­lis (gra­nolas) refers to activists in the ear­ly 1980s West Ger­man squat­ting move­ment who advo­cat­ed for a de-esca­la­tion of vio­lence, for a com­pro­mise with the city admin­is­tra­tion, and for indi­vid­ual rather than col­lec­tive leas­es.

[8] Mol­lis (Molo­tov cock­tails) refers to the activists in the ear­ly 1980s squat­ting move­ment who refused to nego­ti­ate with the city admin­is­tra­tion and advo­cat­ed for vio­lent resis­tance to any attempts to evict the squat­ters.

[9] On the con­cept of “plun­der­phon­ics” and sim­i­lar exper­i­men­tal music gen­res like “hauntol­ogy” and “echo jams,” see Fish­er; and Reynolds.

[10] For a dis­cus­sion of this mode of sub­ver­sive the­atre, see Vasude­van.

[11] See, for exam­ple, Bad­er and Scharen­berg; Heinen; Lang; and Novy.

[12] See, for exam­ple, Colomb, “Push­ing the Urban Fron­tier”; Stahl; and Stevens and Ambler.

[13] See Cohen; and Buck-Morss.


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