Last Weekend in Berlin

Hello there! I bet you’ve been wondering where I’ve been. The short answer is: in Chicago. The slightly less short answer is: on the job market and applying for every fucking post-doc on the planet. So, things have been a little busy over here. Also, relocating across the Atlantic, writing new dissertation chapters, revising old dissertation chapters, submitting two new journal articles and reviewing two books is keeping me rather occupied.

But I’m back. I’m no less busy—that’s for sure—but I have days and days worth of ideas and stories that I want to publish here and I’m quickly realizing that there is never a “good time” to sit down and write new, unsolicited, non-deadlined material. But before I even post a link to that amazing set of sketches about Berghain or comment on the recent spate of homophobia-related violence or write a short essay on the problem of doing academic work on a “fun” topic…I want to indulge in some nostalgia and write a brief review of my last weekend in Berlin this summer. Some of the events described here will reappear as a feature in Resident Advisor very soon (i.e., the Luna Land party and the drama behind it), so stay tuned for that, too!

Part of what made this weekend especially epic was the presence of a friend from Britain, whom I had met last spring at DEMF / Movement (in Detroit). In the interest of privacy, I’m going to give him the obviously fake name of Milhouse, which should also make for some amusing resonances with The Simpsons as you read through this.

Luna Park - Broken Swan Ride

The Swan Ride at Luna Park...without the swans

Thursday, Aug 26: Heiligenfeld #1 at Watergate

Milhouse arrived in the early afternoon, and we spent the rest of the evening getting food and getting settled in. While walking past Watergate at midnight, we saw that the lineup was already ridiculously long, so we decided to head home and wait until about 2am. In the meanwhile, another friend of mine (let’s call her Polina) joined us at my place for some beer. It was nice to relax and wait, but maybe not the best decision: the line was still long at 2am, and so we ended up taking 45 minutes to get in.

But at least the long wait in line gave us the opportunity to observe Watergate’s new door procedure. I’m not sure when and why they instituted this, but on that night they had essentially two levels of “selection” at the door of the club. Or, to be more precise, they had selection going on both in line and at the door.

The door to Watergate resembles a loading dock, with a short set of stairs leading up to a concrete slab platform that then leads into the side of the building. On previous nights, the queue for the club would go right up to the top of these steps, which was blocked by a velvet rope that would be opened or closed by bouncers and the doorperson. There also was an additional wooden staircase on the other side of the dock, which was reserved for people on the guest-list. The right side of the main staircase was separated with stanchions, leaving a space for people exiting the club (or refused from entering).

Tonight, there was an arc of movable metal barriers set up several paces away from the bottom of the steps, with two passages: one for the line, and one for those leaving / guest-lists. At this barrier, there stood a bouncer, who would let some people in and turn away others. We had assumed that this was the main point of selection, but once we got near the top of the stairs, we realized that the woman at the door was also turning some people away. The (hetero, white, German, early 20’s) couple in front of us were first told that they couldn’t come in, and then after some quiet pleading, the guy of the couple pulled up his jacket to reveal a t-shirt with the name and logo of the headlining DJ, after which the doorwoman let them in.

From what I could gather, Watergate had separated two aspects of door policies: disqualifying traits vs. insufficient traits. The bouncer was turning away large groups—especially single-sex groups of men—drunk people, young-looking people, and obvious tourists (i.e., people speaking something other than German loudly). In other words, he was working from a list of “unacceptable” traits, any of which would be sufficient reason to deny you entry. The doorwoman was appeared to be doing a more fine-grained selection along dress, demeanor and probably familiarity (i.e., are you a regular?), which seemed to be looking for fans of the DJs, connoisseurs of the music, scene “insiders,” and all those other terms we have for people who supposedly belong to “the scene” before they belong to the crowd of that particular dancefloor on that particular night. Instead of being a clearly rule-based set of decisions based on attributes that are individually deal-breaking, the doorwoman seemed to be adding up a set of positive attributes and judging whether they provided sufficient evidence of insider status. This was confirmed by the fate of the couple in front of us, who were initially denied but then later accepted once one of them displayed an object (i.e., a Pan-Pot t-shirt) that served as an index of fandom, knowledge, and previous experience.

What’s interesting about this (in addition to giving me clarity on how decisions at the door are made) is how it complicates the notion of “subcultural capital.” Subcultural capital is a term coined by sociologist Sarah Thornton in her book, Club Cultures: Music, media, and subcultural capital (1996), which she adapted from Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capital.” Bourdieu created the concept of “cultural capital” to refer to the kinds of possessions and capacities that we can trade on for social status, such as: expert knowledge, social connections, the display of “proper” taste, fashion, habits, ways of speaking, vocabulary, and so on. Notably, cultural capital doesn’t replace other forms of capital (especially cold, hard ca$$$h), but works with it and can be sometimes converted to and from it; for example, you need money to buy designer clothes so that you can look high-class. So, if cultural capital refers to those sorts of things that accrue social value to you in society at large, subcultural capital does the same for smaller, non-dominant cultures like “underground” music scenes. When people talk about “street cred” or “bona fides,” they’re usually talking about subcultural capital.

According to most scholars of “underground” scenes—and most other people in popular media, using other vocabulary—gaining access to their spaces usually require an evaluation of one’s subcultural capital. When we talk about this situation, though, using terms like “street cred” or “subcultural capital” encourages to cast this as uniquely about positive, additive attributes. What I mean by positive attributes is that subcultural capital is something you have or you don’t. You can lack it, but you can’t have uncapital or some form of negative cultural capital. But then, how do we account for attributes that actively impede our social access? It’s one thing to lack the knowledge to wear the right clothes to an event, but it’s another thing to wear something that is all wrong for an event. It doesn’t just not help you, it disqualifies you. And what I mean by additive attributes is that we usually imagine that the decisions made at the door of a club involve adding up all your bits of subcultural capital until you pass some sort of threshold for “OK, he’s cool.” But what about negative attributes? Are they just subtracted from your total “coolness rating,” or do they work differently?

This two-step setup at Watergate provides something of an answer to these questions. What the doorwoman is doing is the typical evaluation of subcultural capital as positive, additive attributes. To put it over-mathematically, she “reads” people at the door for any markers of subcultural access, adds them up, and makes a decision about whether it’s enough to qualify them for entry. But the bouncer at the metal barriers was doing something completely different: he was evaluating people for certain disqualifying attributes (e.g., being drunk, a large group of men only, looking too young, looking like a tourist), not all of which had to do with being insufficiently subcultural. These attributes weren’t additive but totalizing; that is, having any one of these attributes was enough to get you turned away. The doorwoman was using a sort of checklist, while the bouncer was running through a “decision tree.” What this teaches us about the doors of clubs is that getting into an (A) club isn’t just about acting and appearing sufficiently (A), but also about not being/doing (B, C, D…), where (B, C, D…) are not necessarily the opposites of (A). Anyway, back to the story…

In retrospect, we made some strategic decisions about qualifying and disqualifying traits while we were in line. I stood at the front of our trio, since I had the longest history of getting into Watergate successfully (i.e., I might be a familiar face by now), I looked a bit older than most of the people in line (which tends to be a bonus in a lot of Berlin clubs), and I had a lot of the little markers of “scene membership,” like: wide-gauge captive-bead earrings, a three-day beard, and a minimalist track top. Similarly, I kept one arm around Polina’s shoulders, since Watergate was a predominantly straight club and still tended to give women easier entry. These were all “qualifying” traits on which we were trying to capitalize by bundling them together and presenting them conspicuously. At the same time, we tried to downplay any attributes that might be deal-breakers (disqualifying), such as language and tourism. As the person with the most German proficiency at the time, I stood at the front of the group and took care of all conversation with the bouncer and the doorwoman. We spoke quietly with each other in English while in line, and we ceased speaking English entirely when we got within earshot of the door staff.

All that may seem overly laborious and complicated, but it actually organized itself rather quickly and subtly. It says something about “insider knowledge,” experience, and habit that we were able to negotiate all of this between ourselves with a brief conversation: “I’ll stand at the front and do most of the talking.” “Sounds good.” We didn’t need to discuss why; it was just understood.

In any case, we were waved past both checkpoints without any questioning and found ourselves inside at around 2:30 am. To our profound annoyance, though, we discovered that Anja Schneider had played at midnight. Who puts on a big name like her at at midnight? We all wondered if maybe she had another gig in town later that night. On top of that, we discovered that Pan-Pot had already been playing (again, far too early for a headliner in Berlin), and that they only had about 30 minutes left in their set. We checked our jackets and then didn’t even bother buying drinks, instead pushing to the front of the line to see as much of Pan-Pot as we could.

Although we only saw about half an hour of Pan-Pot, the set was pretty good. It was a bit wobbly at first, but then soon settled into a grove of driving, focused, punchy tech-house. In keeping with the style of Mobilee Records (of which they are one of the flagship acts), the music had a slightly bouncy house feel to it—aided by mobile and rhythmically active basslines—but none of the smoother, soul-inflected house sounds you might find in other kinds of tech-house: no drawn-out organ chords or vocals here. Instead, the focus was on a minimalist texture with prominent percussion.

Similarly, Format:B started around 3am and played a set of tech-house that meandered at first and then became really solid. Their sound was slightly housier and more melodic, but still in with in “thick-textured minimal” style that could be contrasted with the thinner, abstract textures of Ricardo Villalobos and much of the Perlon.

At 6am, Format B’s set was winding down and we wanted a break from the frenetic, overpacked main room, so we headed down to the waterfloor to see Heinrichs & Hirtenfeller. I think this was probably my favorite set of the night. Their sound was more sparse and yet with more of a sexy house feel to it. Melodic elements and sustained sounds were more frequent, and repeating patterns of sound would unravel over much longer durations. The mixing was thus also slower between tracks, and the overall BPM felt closer to 124 or something. The overall sound was more relaxed, and yet the stripped-down texture of their set made everything still feel focused and precise.

By 8am or so, Polina had walked out to the smoking area (on a deck floating on the river Spree) and made friends with some amusing characters. One was dressed in what bordered on bourgeois yacht clothing, while another wore a cacophony of styles and had carried a minutely small ukulele. Milhouse and I went out and joined her for a while, and then decided it was time to head home. The walk home was pretty uneventful, although we took a moment to stop in a bakery and savor the fun of having a pre-sleep breakfast on a Friday morning, when everyone else was going to work.

Friday, Aug 27: Shed record release party at Berghain

Considering we got to bed at around 8am, it’s probably not surprising that Milhouse and I slept in rather late. But still, we had business to do during the day. I was going to a Norwegian friend’s birthday that night before going out with Milhouse, and I had promised to bring a bowl of my famous ocopa. That required some shopping at the Türkischer Markt (Turkish Market) down in Kreuzberg, which usually closed in the early afternoon. We put ourselves together and headed over there, and then made a leisurely trip back home to make the ocopa itself. By the early evening, we headed out to Friedrichshain to do some shopping for Milhouse (although I ended up buying some clothes myself). I was surprised to see that some of the shops stayed open until 10pm or even midnight. Berlin, you’ve changed.

We thought we were running late as we headed off to my friend’s birthday party, but we ended up being one of the first to arrive (typical). There was a great mix of Norwegian, Danish, German, American, British, Belarussian, and Canadian folks at the party, which made for some good conversation. Happily, I was able to put Milhouse in touch with some of the people I know who write for Resident Advisor (Milhouse writes for Data Transmission, the UK-based competitor).

Milhouse and I wanted to get to Berghain (see also) early so that we could catch Daniel Stefanik, who was spinning the opening set up in Panorama Bar. We thought that, if we got there near midnight, we might actually miss the usual early queue. The other folks who were going out that night were still drinking and rolling spliffs, so we decided not to wait for the rest of them and to head out on our own. We even sprung for a taxi, which always feels like such a luxury in Berlin.

The line wasn’t all that long, in the end. Maybe it was because tonight was a special album-release party for Shed and they had opened up the main room in Berghain. They only open Panorama Bar on Fridays, usually. Adding the capacity for Berghain means probably an extra 1,000 people can fit into the space (the overall capacity is around 2,000).

In any case, Daniel Stefanik’s set was a bit disappointing. There was nothing particularly bad about it, but it just failed to excite us and get our attention. I suppose that’s the problem with spinning opening sets, though. We took advantage of the downtime to buy some drinks and go find our friends.

By about 3 or so, Shed was scheduled to begin his set downstairs in Berghain. We grabbed a good spot near the front of the room, next to several of my friends, where we hung out for most of the set. The set itself was good, although not the mind-blowing event that everyone seemed to be expecting. It started off with a long ambient introduction, followed by slowly churning pulses that led into a sort of slow-motion techno grind.

Sometime during the set, it occurred to me: “I wonder what the darkrooms look like on a Friday?” Since the Berghain room isn’t usually open on Fridays, and since the darkrooms are attached to the main Berghain room, the crowd that usually populates the darkroom wouldn’t show up tonight. Indeed, tonight there was a dearth of the usual kinky gay menfolk that one sees on a Saturday. Instead the place was populated mostly by techno nerds and hipsters.

I mentioned this to Milhouse and we pondered this mild, titillated bemusement. Then curiosity got the better of me and I went to go find out. I walked through the entire space of the darkrooms a few times over, and all I saw were three solitary men—none of them actively hooking up—who seemed a bit lost in the empty space. I went back and reported this to Milhouse. During the next DJ set, curiosity would get the best of him, too.

We stuck around in the Berghain room for DJ Surgeon’s set, an old stalwart of pounding, dark, Detroit-style techno (although he’s actually a Brit). His set was great if you’re into his style: dark to the point of almost drowning, cavernous ringing techno, old-skool distorted synths. There were even some moments of dubstep and jungle, which I suppose was a nod to the breakbeat style that has dominated UK for a few years now.

By 6am or so we headed upstairs to Panorama Bar to see what was going on. This duo called Manamana was spinning (a combination of DJs Map.ache and Sevensol). It was surprisingly good—not in the sense that I was expecting less from them, but in the sense that I hadn’t heard of them before and it was a pleasant discovery. Their set moved between punchy minimal house and smoother dubby house, with occasionally soulful, “classic house” elements. It was a really nice way to end the night.

I don’t exactly remember when we called it a night, but we headed home by about 9 or 10am. Not bad for a Friday!

Saturday, Aug 28: Luna Land, Bar 25 and Berghain (again)

Luna Land

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we slept in again. We got up at around 4pm and started putting ourselves together hurriedly, since we had dinner plans back in town later that evening, we were in a bit of a hurry to get to the Luna Land party. We made it to the space in Spreepark Plänterwald by about 6pm.

So, I’ll be writing a story for Resident Advisor in a few weeks that covers the whole interesting story behind this party, so you’ll have to wait for publication to read about it in detail. (Don’t worry, I’ll post a note here when it’s published.) In the meanwhile, here’s the briefest version:

  • Spreepark Plänterwald a.k.a. Luna Park is an old DDR-era amusement park in former East Berlin, which went out of business and has been abandoned since the early 2000s.
  • Bar 25, which has failed to renew its lease at Holzmarktstraße 25 for next year, has been eyeing this property as a possible location.
  • The Lula Land party was being organized by Minimoo, a promotion company based out of NYC.
  • Minimoo was previously responsible for Minitek 2008 in NYC, which was, by all accounts, an organizational disaster.
  • The folks at Bar 25 and their loyalists were none too impressed that: a) some American promoter was scooping them on their potential new location; and b) this promoter’s last attempt at a large-scale festival was disastrous.
  • Drama and intrigue ensued. Read the full article when it comes out!

So we got to the party expecting the crowd to be rather Proll-intensive (“chav,” “yobbo,” “trash,” “racaille,” “gino,” “provincial/suburbanite”…think Jersey Shore); this often what large outdoor mega-parties like this tend to attract. While this was mostly the case of the people that we saw walking with us to the festival, but once inside we were surprised to see how mixed the crowd was inside. In fact, there were a number of familiar insider / techno-hipster faces in the crowd. We also ran into Polina and some of her friends, who hadn’t slept from the night before. Now that’s stamina!

Quite by accident, we just happened to arrive at the stage next to the Ferris wheel as Marc Schneider was playing. This made me feel like a bit of a stalker, because I had seen him spin maybe 5 times this summer in Berlin, usually in small, intimate spaces. In any case, he was mixing his usual blend of dub house, old-skool “classic” tracks, and “classic”-sounding house.

We also saw Lee Curtiss spin in a stage set up behind a set of fake German-Alps-style houses. The buildings formed a semi-circle that faced the DJ and encircled the dancefloor, so the sound was surprisingly good for an outdoor space. Curtiss’s set was just right for a late afternoon set: it was mostly slow-burning house with a lot of soul and disco inflections, à la Wolf + Lamb. There was this one track with hilarious lyrics sung by a plaintive male voice threaded through a harmonizer:

“My baby does K[etamine] all day
She doesn’t wash her hair
She doesn’t wash her clothes
My baby does K all day
She just sits on the couch
Watching TV shows”

I was told a few weeks later by Seth Troxler that this is an unreleased track that will be coming out on Wolf + Lamb soon, but I don’t have the title or anything. I’m desperate to find this one! It was kinda amazing.

Bar 25

Anyway, we took pictures of nearly everything we could until 8pm rolled around. We headed off to the train station to head back into Berlin for dinner at Bar 25. Yes, Milhouse had made reservations at Bar 25 for dinner (as a thank-you gift for staying at my place). Bar 25 does have a rather upscale restaurant in the back, which has a schedule that overlaps somewhat with the bar. As a result, Milhouse discovered that you could get a table at Bar25 early in the evening and then stay for the bar itself, which meant that you didn’t have to wait in line. More importantly, you didn’t have to get past the infamous “Door Nazi” (a doorwoman who is famed for her arbitrary and often cruel rejection of partygoers).

The bar was practically empty as we walked through to the restaurant. There was the standard lo-intensity minimal playing in the “cabin.” The restaurant was really busy, though; it was packed full of people, most of them looking to be mostly “bohemian-bourgeois” middle-aged couples and a few “artsy” older types. We had the option of waiting for a table indoors or sitting on the balcony. We chose sitting on the balcony, although we regretted it once the night got really cold. On the upside, the view over the river was gorgeous.

So, after dinner (which was DELICIOUS), we hung out for a bit in the Bar and grabbed some drinks. There was this group of 5 or 6 American guys dressed in a rather amateurish facsimile of leatherman outfits. We were sort of stunned that they got in, considering that their outfits were rather shoddy (and even disrespectful) parodies of a sexual subculture that is important to the Berlin scene in general. There weren’t any leatherdaddies there on a Saturday night, but by Sunday night they might have some stiff competition. Milhouse and I remarked that they would probably have been turned away violently if they had tried that at Berghain.

They were also really drunk and rowdy, often play-fighting with each other and slamming into people around them, who were clearly losing patience with them. A few minutes later, someone from the bar spoke to them and they calmed down a bit.

Milhouse pointed out that one of them has a red face and a distant, glassy stare and the rest of them seemed suddenly much quieter. Suddenly, the red-faced one bolts for the door of the cabin. Milhouse thought that the look he had on his face was one of “I just took too much K, and now I’m going to vomit.” His theory was that someone from the bar gave them K to shut them up. There’s no way to confirm that, but it sure worked.

House Party / Nap Time

Two of my old party buddies, Bob & Donna, were back in town tonight and were going to celebrate Donna’s birthday at Panorama Bar, so we synchronized the rest of the weekend with their plans. They had just arrived into Berlin and were staying at another friend’s apartment, so we decided to dash over to their place, hang out for a bit, and then go home for a nap. We’d get up early in the morning and make it into Panoramabar for Dinky’s set at around 7am.

We ended up sleeping a bit longer than we expected, so we got into Berghain closer to 8am. But at least we got a few hours of sleep!

Sunday, Aug 29

Berghain / Panorama Bar

In line in front of us (there was a very, very short line at the door), a group of 6 Spaniards were trying to get in: 5 men and one woman. For some reason, they decided that the wise thing to do is to break into pairs, two of them being gay male pairs. This seemed of a stupid decision at this point, seeing as the line was only maybe 10 people long and the bouncers (including Sven) had seen them coming well before as a group. In addition to that, all the guys looked very much the part of hetero, Mediterranean-style macho Eurotrash, so the fact that they were awkwardly holding hands wasn’t convincing anyone. They didn’t get in.

Dinky’s set was very nice, although we were distracted during most of her set finding the rest of our friends and catching up. This was my last weekend in Berlin, so nearly everyone I knew in Berlin had come out to party with me. Yay!

We ended up going down to the Berghain room at 9am to see resident DJ Marcel Dettmann, who was in fine Berlin-techno form. We eventually had to leave to catch Tama Sumo, but I heard that he played for 8 hours. Tama Sumo, a Panorama Bar resident, came on around noon, se we headed up to see her. She’s been a favourite DJ of Bob & Donna for a year or so, and the last time I saw her spin (my first weekend in Berlin) she was fantastic. Tama didn’t dissapoint! She started off with some classic house tracks, then turned surprisingly hard and acid-tinged (mostly classic acid house), then moved back to disco near the end. Normally, she’s known for playing disco-heavy and “classic” house, so the acid-house tracks were a bit unexpected…but totally welcome.

From 4pm to 8pm was Kristian from Âme. AMAZING, amazing, amazing set. Sooooo good. He laid down deep, sexy, driving house; it was still minimal in its own tightly-focused way, but more than anything else it was dark and warm and full of pulsating movement. It was Donna’s birthday and she was a big fan of his, so she was in heaven. Some of our other friends wrinkled their noses at the fact that Christian was spinning only from CDs (Berghain/Pano fans can be a bit conservative in that way) but Donna didn’t give a fuck.

By about 7pm, it was time for Milhouse to catch his plane, so I walked with him back to my place, waited while he packed his bags, sent him off, and then headed right back to Berghain. What was crazy, though, was what happened as I was leaving and later returning to the club…

As we went down the stairs of Panorama Bar, we saw a few people gathered around a guy who was sitting on the stairs—wiry and clothed in slightly gothy black rags—who was clearly far too fucked up on something. Someone tried to give him water and he choked it back up on himself as we walked by and started convulsing. One woman said something in German to the effect of “I’m getting someone” and darted past us on the stairs, looking grimly determined. Another girl, who seemed to be connected to him, put her hands to her mouth and started making short, almost theatrical screams and running back and forth across the landing. Sensing that we would only be in the way, we headed down to the coat-check. As we headed past the stairwell to the door, I could still hear the girl yelping.

When I came back in a few minutes later, the same woman’s voice rang in through the entrance hallway, this time closer and yelling, “No!…No!…” over and over. I headed to the coat-check and peered quickly over my shoulder to see the scene on the couches in the far side of the entrance hall. The paramedics were there and that same guy was now lying still, strapped with restraints to a gurney that they were preparing to wheel away. The girl was lying on her back on one of the couches, held down by four or five people who were trying to calm her down. From what I could gather from her shrieks and the words of the paramedics, they were trying to convince her to stay at the club and sober up rather than get into the ambulance with her friend (for obvious reasons). What do you do in that situation? You certainly don’t want to keep partying if someone you love has been sent to the hospital, but now you’re in such a state that you can’t accompany him/her and maybe you can’t even go home. Add to that the fact that whatever intoxicants you’ve taken are probably amplifying and distorting your emotional systems… Everyone’s had a story of dealing with a stressful situation while partying, but this went well beyond the realm of “stressful.” As I was checking my jacket, I kept wondering if I was watching someone die.

Unnerved, I headed back upstairs and tried to enjoy the rest of Âme’s set with Bob & Donna. Shortly after 8pm, Len Faki [LINK] came on for the closing set of the night. We all found it an odd choice of booking, considering that Faki was a resident that usually played in Berghain. His pounding techno sound felt out of place at the end of nearly 24 hours of house music in Panorama Bar. Nonetheless, it was a great set if you were in the mood for that kind of techno.

Most of my friends weren’t, and several of them started to say goodbye and head home. Bob & Donna managed to be convinced by another friend to head over to Bar 25 for some Sunday-night afterparty fun, so I went with them at around 10 or 11pm. It was dark and rainy out, which was just the LAST thing you need after a long night of partying.

Bar 25 (again)

Bob & Donna were on Shonky’s guest-list, so we were able to walk to the front of the line and get in with them. On a late Sunday night at Bar 25, this was a life-saver. There were easily 100 people waiting in line in the rain, and that line moves terribly slow. We headed over to say hi to Shonky in the “cabin” near the water, but interior was so packed that we just couldn’t stay. We headed over to the open-air “circus” area, which was partially covered by a tent where we could take refuge from the rain. They were playing very old house and soul tracks as well as some songs from the 80s. It was slow and very morning-after-the-morning-after house, but that’s OK when you’ve been up and dancing for so long. We ran into a pair of Irish friends who had been crossing our paths frequently over the past two days. They hadn’t slept since Saturday morning and they were both walking K-zombies. I have to admit that I got some amusement out of watching them try to hold a conversation.

By 2am, I run out of steam and decide to call it a night. It’s still raining and I have to cross through the muddy, sandy area behind Berghain to get to my place. At one point, I step right in a puddle of freezing, dirty water. Still, it was OK. I told myself that Berlin was weeping over my departure.


  1. Wow, that Panorama story is insane. If he did die, do you think you’d eventually hear about it through the grapevine? Or is the scene not so closely knit (or is death not a sufficiently unusual occurrence…)?

    Interesting point about subcultural capital not collapsing straightforwardly into a single dimension of “value.” I find it interesting that—at least in some subcultures—the most valuable signifiers (t-shirts, styles, references, etc.) seem to be precisely those that would be completely meaningless to outsiders. Not necessarily ugly (i.e. negative “mainstream” value) but just baffling, even to the point where they wouldn’t necessarily be recognized as signifying anything. Like, how many people would know that a “Pan-Pot” shirt had anything to do with music?

  2. Thanks, pashultz! I think, if it wasn’t my last night in Berlin, I might’ve heard about it by asking bouncers or other staff the next weekend. In my experience over there (and in Berlin clubs in general), you would usually see: at least one or two people looking vaguely unwell on any night; someone be spectacularly ill (i.e. throwing up in the bathroom, freaking out) once every few weeks; and something that requires medical attention once or twice a year. HOWEVER, that’s what you see as a clubgoer / dancer / consumer. I suspect that staff see a lot more of all of these categories. Berghain certainly isn’t going to publish statistics on drug-related ambulance calls and deaths (although I wonder if the state keeps track of that? probably not, knowing Berlin politics), but severe medical emergencies and deaths certainly aren’t commonplace.
    Also, Berghain has a capacity of roughtly 2000—which it regularly achieves—of which maybe one third are tourist-clubbers from out of town and one third are locals that only go to Berghain infrequently, so there is a “grapevine” of sorts, but most people aren’t tapped into it. That doesn’t make these two-thirds “outsiders” to the intimate community of Berghain, though; I think there is a strong desire for a sort of anonymous and impersonal intimacy that interferes with the development of a rumor mill…without making the community less tight-knit.

    Also, that’s a great point about how “valuable” subcultural signifiers are often not necessarily negative to outsiders, but just valueless / baffling / unremarkable. This is partially how subcultural capital as knowledge is converted to subcultural capital as actual physical objects; knowing what to wear and then being able to read these markers off others are both material practices of a kind of epistemological possession or good. I guess that’s what makes the most valuable signifiers so valuable: they aren’t easily legible to outsiders, which makes it hard for this system of elitism to be “invaded” by those who merely possess financial capital, i.e., you buy your way into it without first knowing what to buy, which requires already have some insider knowledge.

  3. I would just like to congratulate you on your exquisite writing! A while ago I read your Berghain profile (while continuously nodding in recognition) and then today came back here again after your RA piece was featured on the Facebook page of Berlin Mitte Institute.

    However, as an electronic music enthusiast and master student living in Berlin, I cannot imagine you doing these marathons every weekend and still retain this level of discourse. Am I right? Otherwise I’m very jealous, because I know I couldn’t do it 🙂

    1. Hey Jeroen,

      Well, yes, I’m living back in Chicago right now, where the partying schedule is much less intense. =] Essentially, when I’m in Berlin, I’m usually there for 2 months or so, so I go out as much as possible, and then write down “field notes” from memory either as soon as I get home or the day afterwards. THEN, during the “down time” in the week, I make the field notes into more substantial reports. In any case, my analysis/writing mode usually happens AFTER my visits to Berlin.

      But I’m applying for a couple of year-long fellowships for research in Berlin, so I may have to develop a new “production schedule”!

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