Sunday, March 27, 2011
Build Your Own Berghain
"Boing Poum Tchak!" is a French techno website that has recently started publishing a zine. They invited me to contribute an editorial to the most recent edition and I was happy to accept. If you speak French, I'd encourage you to buy the zine, but for the rest of us, here is the English version of what I wrote. Keep in mind, I tried to write this in 'editorial' style, so the language and tone might be a bit different (then again, it might not). I am not sure if I even agree with everything, but the main purpose is just to throw a few ideas out there... Thanks to Pierre-Nicolas for inviting me to contribute to the zine, and to Luis who commented on a draft.
Build Your Own Berghain
Across the globe, people talk of Berghain in reverent tones: the techno Valhalla where Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock play marathon sets to a crowd of genuine enthusiasts that have made it past the equally legendary bouncer. It is much more than simply a Berlin institution; each week Easyjet and Ryan Air flights fill with clubbers wanting to get their fix. And for those poor souls that have yet to make the pilgrimage, Berghain becomes ‘Berghain’, a kind of magical techno wonderland that you can only dream of. In a recent RA interview, the Italian techno producer Obtane announced it was his favourite club, despite the fact he’s never actually been there. He is hardly alone. In techno circles, Berghain has increasingly taken on an almost mythical status, the place where the music never stops and all your techno dreams come true. And, of course, there are many very good reasons why Berghain is held in such high regard. Nonetheless, I think there is a danger of idealizing Berghain, misunderstanding it, and drawing the wrong lessons from it. When people from outside Berlin talk about how amazing the club is (and it seems like outsiders talk about it much more), they usually do so – either explicitly or implicitly – in reference to their own scene, suggested as inferior and lacking in comparison. In a certain sense, this may be true: it is hard to rival either the talent at Berghain’s disposal or the unique constellation of factors that have allowed for its creation and existence. Yet (implicitly) complaining about the lack of a local Berghain is hardly a productive attitude. Likewise, jumping on the next Easyjet flight and heading to Berlin as often as your paycheck allows for is potentially a pretty corrosive solution, both for your own scene (if there is one) and for Berlin’s.
Rather than uncritically valorizing Berghain, I want to suggest that a more productive approach would be appreciating it for what it is (on its own terms), and thinking about what generic lessons can be learnt from it. For starters, one element that distinguishes Berghain from many other clubs is the amount of emphasis placed on their resident DJs. At most places the role of the residents is just to keep the decks warm until it is time for the international guest to play. Berghain tends to be the opposite – while they get a constant stream of big name guests, the locals share equal billing. If anything, it is the residents that are usually the highlight. The immediate response to this might be: ‘Yes, but their residents are Marcel Dettmann, Steffi and lots of other amazing DJs’. Sure, but these DJs developed in a symbiotic relationship with the club itself. This emphasis on nurturing and supporting their own artists has played a vital part of their success, and I think it is a lesson from which many scenes could benefit. Another important point that can be taken from the example (rather than symbol) of Berghain is recognizing the way political, economic, social and cultural factors shape the possibilities for techno. Quite simply, it is hard to imagine Berghain existing anywhere outside of Berlin. On one level it is the distillation of a unique confluence of permissive factors combining with agency, opportunity and presumably some luck that has given rise to Berghain. There are not many places in the world where something like Berghain would be possible. So rather than wishing/hoping it could somehow be recreated, I think it is more useful to consider what opportunities and constraints are present where you are, and how these can be channeled productively. Organizers like Beyond Bookings in New York with their Bunker parties, the Bleep43 crew in London, the previously longstanding Optimo night in Glasgow, the Labyrinth festival in Japan, are all successful examples of people creating something important and special that is unique to their environment. Of these the one I know best is Labyrinth, and there is no way it could exist anywhere else in the world besides Japan. It is an event that productively engages with its environment, recognizing both the constraints and opportunities that exist. Ultimately what I am saying is that for the most of us that don’t live in Berlin, we should stop pining for Berghain and counting down the days until we can afford to jump on another flight. Instead, we should think of it as a positive role model, not to emulate, but a place to draw inspiration from. Quite simply, the aim should be to build our own Berghains, whatever they may be.
Speaking of Berghain, this coming Thursday 31 March they are having a special benefit event featuring Steffi, Nick Höppner and many others. The DJs are playing for free and all proceeds are going to Doctors without Borders. This is a really excellent idea and I wish I was in Berlin to be able to support it. Try to get down there Berlin ssgs and support a good cause!