Gegen: An Alternative to the Alternatives

Gegen's been going strong for four years now, and guess what?  Yours truly was the first blogger to write about them in English when they debuted at MIKZ club.  There's not much left to say that hasn't already been said by me (or by Gegen - man, do they love to write!) so on the eve of tonight's party, Ass, I'm reposting this piece that I wrote for Alternative Berlin's blog in 2012. Enjoy!

Alternative.  What does the word even mean these days?  In its origins, the word alternative was used to label anything that could not be easily categorized or was non-mainstream.  Over time, those un-categorizable tendencies settled into categories of their own, becoming the subcultures that most of us are familiar with: goth, indie, punk, rave, hippy, hip hop and so on.  Every alternative scene starts out nameless and ambiguous but eventually resigns itself to becoming just another label with unspoken rules and codes that its participants are expected to obey. The queer scene is no exception to this rule.

So where do the people who fall outside of all of the predefined alternatives go if they want to freak out without feeling like they’re just freaks?  Even in a city as big and underground as Berlin it can be hard  to escape definitions and expectations but the experimental queer club Gegen is doing a good job of trying.  Gegen puts on regular, themed parties at the legendary Kit Kat Club in Mitte.  Its aim is to create parties that are  ‘queer’ in every sense of the word, not just in terms of  sexuality.  The Gegen crew and its followers are not afraid to bend genders, defy definitions, subvert stereotypes, mix metaphors and basically, to mess with your mind.  Their parties blur the boundaries between the different alternative categories with the glee of children making mud pies. Their promotional material is intentionally vague, as if to warn party-goers in advance: “Abandon certainty, all ye who enter here”.

Appropriately enough the theme of Gegen’s next party on March the 2nd will be “Alternatives. “  Although no lineup has been announced for it yet, my experience with the club suggests that it will once again act as a meeting point for people who want to celebrate and explore their extremes without moving towards a fixed destination.  Or, as the Gegen crew puts it, “GEGEN does not want to be underground or overground. It wants to be/come ANOTHER GROUND – definitely a playground”.
Previous Gegen parties have brought together emerging underground styles such as witch house and zombie rave with experimental bands from all over Europe, warehouse techno, improvised live performances and followers who have, one way or the other, fallen between the cracks of  various alternative labels. Berlin today may be threatened by conformity and gentrification but Gegen continues to celebrate the deep, dark fault lines that keep its parties rocking.


Halloween Preview: Dancing With the Dark

Leaving Berghain last weekend, I saw two bright beams shining through the mist in the pitch black, pre-dawn sky.  They were yellowish white, and looked exactly like a pair of lights from a construction crane.

My first thought was, "Shit, they're building another high rise in Friedrichshain??"  But after a while the mist cleared away and I realized that those two orbs in the sky were actually a pair of stars: Venus and Jupiter, in fact.  The veil dropped between the sky and the earth, and suddenly everything seemed like one big extension of the dark dancefloor I'd just left behind, dotted with glimmering lights that stretched all the way to the edges of space.

I'm used to leaving a party in the morning and being shocked by the sight of the waking world outside, doing its thing, blissfully oblivious to whatever's been going on inside the clubs and bars.  But this time, the 'world' I was seeing was millions of miles away and it was still close enough to clearly see.  It even seemed close enough to touch.  And so bright, for a couple of planets that aren't  even real stars. 

It seemed like a visual metaphor for the fact that a person doesn't really have to 'be a star' in order to make an impact on the cosmos. As long as they're loud and proud and close enough to others to be seen, they can keep on passing changes on down the chain-reaction of events.

As I passed by the bouncers at the door to the club, I also felt like I was witnessing a visual cosmic pun.  Astronomically speaking, Jupiter is a kind of bouncer for the inner solar system.  It screens out nasties (like the asteroid Schumacher Levy 9) that might mess up the balmy green planet we're prancing around on, alongside Venus.  As in heaven, so on earth and so on.

This glowing conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars is going to last all weekend, right through Halloween and All Saints Day.  Millions of people worldwide still believe that a 'rift' between the worlds opens up on October 31st and November 1st, and allows us to see a little bit of what's outside of our Earthly reality.  It seems kind of fateful that at the same time of year, we're getting a clear view of what's happening in the 'heavens above'. 

Berlin's nightlife scene is also taking a long-range perspective this weekend, fusing sensations and perspectives from different eras, lands, and corners of the world to express those timeless certainties about death, sex and rebirth.  The theme underlying all of them seems to be the same: we need to embrace the dark before we can see how bright the light is.

On Saturday October 31st at new Prenzlauerberg venue Horns and Hooves, "One of the last surviving female sword swallowers and artiste extraordinaire returns to open her own venue: a hoofy, horny mix of club, cabaret, circus and piano bar."  The night is being organized together with co-founder of the HM Stubnitz and CCCP bar, two Berlin institutions that meld Cold War decor with a modern ethos and futuristic sounds. About as timeless as you can get!

On Sunday November 1st there is Mexican themed noise-industrial-experimental-ambient arts fest Dia de Muertos at Maze Club.  Including "Performance Artwork dedicated to Mexico and its War On Drugs supported by the US government which is bringing Death to innocent civilians."  Alongside this will be a performance by live industrial artist who incorporates "constant sonic research on Shamanic and Ritualistic music" into her performance.

All day long on Saturday October 31st is Samhain on the Spree at Wagenburg Lohmuehle just east of Goerli park.  This is a Halloween-slash-abortion rights soliparty.  As if getting an abortion isn't scary enough, the prospect of a world full of unwanted children, and unhealthy, unhappy mothers carrying unfulfilled dreams is far worse, as many northern Irish folks can tell you.  Accordingly, the festival is being co-organized with the help of the Irish community.  It features cheeky, creepy events like a Monster Baby Rave and performances by the likes of Mad Kate (see photo above).  But there's serious talent there as well, as this track by Atma shows.

Fight Together, Dance Together at Mensch Meier brings us another transcendental perspective: it's run by an alliance that helps out refugees in Berlin, believing that humankind needs to share what is has left and cooperate to survive, not to destroy it all, and each other, by fighting.

Mensch Meier is a sprawling, tangential gathering place in Storkower Strasse that seems to change every time I go there.  They will have information stands from 20.00 by the organizers, Bundnis fur Bedingungsloses Bleibrechts (try saying that five times fast!  It means 'Alliance for the Unconditional Right To Stay').  Party starts at 23.55 and is 10.00 Euros to get in. 

For traditional underworld fare in a calmer setting, head to the Kastanienkeller (Kastanienallee 85, Prenzlauerberg) on Saturday October 31st.  They're putting on an exhibition of 'drawings from the crypt, postapocalyptic photography and demonic/mummy drawings.'  It starts at midday and it's right under the anarchist bean collective Morgenrot cafe.  You're guaranteed to leave quaking, either from fear or drinking too much of their amazing coffee.

If you just want a straight-up free party where you can dance like a machine, then try the
No signal party at Wrangelstrasse.

Finally, next weekend is Gegen's annual Samhain trans-everything spectacle at the Kit Kat club, on November 6th.  As they say on their website: "To explore darkness shall allow you to experience blinding colours."  I couldn't have found a better way to describe what you can expect from Berlin this weekend.


Photoblog: BLO Atelier Arts Space

Last week, I stumbled upon Blo Ateliers, an art space that's been managing to keep "one of the most interesting and largest artist communities in eastern Berlin" hidden from me for the last four years, despite being right on my doorstep in Lichtenberg.  

It doesn't feel like you're going to an art venue; the road's cracked and flooded and leads towards what seems like the deadest of ends.  There are signs telling you to stop, that the yard's for rail employees only, even as a handwritten sign promises that there's an free exhibition on.

After a few seconds' hesitation, like the kind that I get before every new discovery made in Berlin (is this a new find, or is it all in my mind?) I went ahead in. 

A courtyard opened up and around each crumbling building in the complex, the litter of half-finished sculptures, DIY gardens and pointed statements written in graffiti and kept carefully clear of encroaching trees & vines.  All gradually offered clues that there was more than bureaucratic tedium going on in here. 

There was a free exhibition in the Ateliers' Kantine, a sparkly, glittery space gradually filling with people who were playing dress up with the zeal of a kid exploring their flamboyant aunt's attic, or their mad uncle's shed.  An exotic looking guy in a silk robe and oriental makeup pointed me in the right direction for the free exhibition, a sound installation in the back of the building.

It made the smallish space seem much bigger and complex than the four neutral walls suggested.  It seemed like an homage to an activists who'd been exiled or fled Berlin in the 1930s, and though I didn't really stay long enough to get the gist of his life story it succeeded in bringing a bit of history to life in this 1920s style industrial complex that seemed to fit in better with the past than the present.  Later, droves of people started turning up for a marriage ceremony that involved even more glitter and stage costumes, and left them to it. 

Blo Atelier does regular events on its stage and hosts occasional festivals.  It also has an open doors day at least once a year.  The people are so friendly there, I get the impression that anything going ont here would be one of the most inviting and least pretentious experiences one could find in a space devoted to the arts in Berlin.

The complex is located at Kaskelstr. 55 in Lichtenberg, in the alley next to S-Bahn Noldnerplatz. 


Fall Uprising: Views of the CETA / TTIP March

Fighting for the right to live, eat, breathe... and party... at last Saturday's demo

On the surface, the Stop TTIP & CETA demo last weekend was a mass uprising in all of the usual ways: there were signs, costumes, chants and dance tunes.  People marched and made demands.  But the demo was a lot more than just the sum of its parts.

It wasn't just that there were more people there than at any demo I've been to in Germany; their feelings about the cause were also tangible, full of new variety and depth. They were the feelings of a variety of people: families, kids, teens, pensioners, working classes, black bloc anarchists, ad-hoc hippies... all of which were blended into a colourful mass by this same, multifaceted awareness of a shared threat.  All of them aware that the TTIP, CETA and the corporate tunnel-vision that they represent, are just anti-them.  Anti-whatever-it-means-to-be-free.

That seemed to be true for everyone there, regardless of what freedom they wanted.  People I spoke to about it were almost left speechless by their jumble of fears and anxieties about the trade agreements, verbally tripping all over themselves to get the words out of their mouths. Not because they were vague or unsure about how these agreements could affect them, but because they were aware that it could affect them in too many ways to count.

You can't just pick one cause.  Standing up against CETA and TTIP isn't something that you can do a single issue at a time.  The only way to successfully stand against it is by being: alive and free, human and healthy, and determined to stay that way.  Maybe that was why all 250,000 people and their millions of supporters seemed larger than life: they were dead set against this pact, with every fiber of their beings.

And that's fair enough, because the threats posed by CETA and TTIP also sprawl across every level of existence: law, environment, human and animal welfare, water, health care.  These two vast agreements are jam-packed with ways to undermine our current lives, cultures, health and welfare plans and career.  It's an all or nothing kind of deal.  

The sunshine and leaves helped keep everyone energized as we marched down Friedrichstrasse, through the stiflingly dull government quarter, and into a beautiful riot of fall colours in Tiergarten that a cacaphony of music, speeches and beer still couldn't manage to overshadow.  Anger would have kept us warm even if it would have been overcast though.  It wasn't a dejected anger, but upbeat: a  certainty that these deals have to be scrapped, that people can't allow them not to be scrapped.  Survival as we know it depends upon it.

If self assurance alone can make change happen, then the TTIP and CETA are doomed.  There was plenty of it there on Saturday, and that's something that no amount of dirty money can buy.


Clearing the Air About Berlin

"Berlin shows no clear CO2 reduction trend since 2008."
from Soot Free Cities' clean air report, 2015.

Bagger 288, the world's scariest biggest coal-extracting machine. 

This post isn't about Berlin's underground life but its overground life: trees, crops, water and wildlife (including the exotic and unpredictable species of humans who live here).  What's the one thing that they all depend on?  Air.  

In 2011, Berlin was ranked the city with the best clean air policy in Europe in a Soot Free Cities report.  In the last five years, however, it's fallen to fifth place.  To anyone who's noticed the constant greyish haze on the horizon in recent months, this is probably not such big news.  It is, however, something that you won't hear about in the mass media.  That's why I've decided to write this post and 'clear the air' (pun intended) about it.  

Despite being about as above-ground as you can get, air quality in Berlin still seems to be an underground issue.  Few in the activist scene seem concerned about it.  The Stop A-100 anti-motorway movement touched on it briefly, but that movement seems to be in hiatus now that the motorway is going ahead as planned.  There was a small movement against the expansion of Schoenefeld airport a few years ago, due to pollution concerns, but it seems to have vanished into thin air (sorry - did it again!). 

Maybe that's because the issue of air quality just doesn't stir up as much controversy as things like refugee rights and affordable housing do.  Yet at the same time, it transcends them.  Everyone in Berlin is affected by air quality, or will be in the future.

The declining air quality in Berlin seems to have been affected by three things: official apathy, an increase in cheap flights, and a rise in coal energy in Germany.   

The shortcomings in Berlin's official stance on air pollution are covered in the Soot Free Cities report, the highlights of which are below:

Reduction of Local Emissions: "PM10 has increased at measuring stations with high traffic volumes. Daily limit values were exceeded at some stations in 2014."  Nitrogen is also higher than average.  This suggests an increase in car traffic.  Personally, I've noticed huge traffic jams in my area daily,  on roads that had a very light flow two years ago, so it's easy to see how that could add up to a rise in car pollution. 

Low Emissions Zones: "Berlin's LEZ has led to significant emission reductions. Soot emissions from exhaust pipes decreased by more than 50% and NOx by about 20%."

Clean Public Vehicles: "The bus fleet in Berlin is already completely equipped with diesel particulate filters.  One fourth of the city’s cleaning vehicles today are fuelled with gas. 400 new utility vehicles (garbage vehicles, power sweepers etc.) will possibly use SCR systems or hybrid engines."  Quite a lot of that is in the future, so I guess we'll have to wait for the next report to see how they did. 
Public transport: "The city shows little activities [sic] to expand public transport despite a continuous increase of customers."  (And they're raising the prices).

Cycling: "The expansion of the cycling network [...] was too small compared to the increasing demand..." As anyone cycling past the East Side Gallery or Brandenburger Tor will have noticed!

Air travel wasn't included in the Soot Free Cities report, but the Berlin flight authority has said that air traffic's increased by 77% in the last 11 years.   Call me crazy, but there might just be a connection between that and Berlin's worsening air quality. 

Coal energy is also a huge issue, though.  For one thing, coal stoves are still common in Berlin's old buildings, despite being outlawed in most other metropolises due to air quality concerns. Also, Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Economics recently reported that:

"[While] CO2 emissions steadily fell from 1,051 million metric tons in 1990 to 813 million tons in 2011, in 2012 and 2013, CO2 emissions rose again to 841 million tons. This can largely be attributed to an increase in the use of lignite (coal) for electricity production." 

Coal isn't just bad for the air, it's also a major source of mercury pollution.  Mercury is incredibly toxic to the brain (see Mad Hatter disease) and makes any animal that consumes it unsafe to eat.  (It's because of mercury that salmon and tuna - and whale - are off the menu for most health-conscious people).  So this one isn't just a concern for Asthmatic Berliners.  But at least there is some hope on that front: in 2015 Germany agreed to reduce coal energy usage further to help meet its 2020 CO2 limits. 

In the meantime, readers of this blog who live in Berlin may be interested to know that Vattenfall, which is probably the most visible energy provider in Berlin, relies very heavily on coal.  Vattenfall is currently planning to sell their remaining coal reserves... but that isn't exactly reassuring (the new owner is probably going to want to burn that coal, too!).  There are plenty of alternative energy providers out there though, since Germany is a leader in that field. 

But I'm far from being an expert in this subject, so let me know what you think.  Is Berlin a green city or is it just green-washed?  Share your views in the comments box below!




Art Is The Answer: What Was The Question?

"Berlin is a prime destination on the bargain flight trail for now, and so its art scene is booming... for now.  But that boom obviously can't last forever.  The  forces that attract the world to Berlin - cheap oil, low wages, and the low prices they create - are unsustainable.  But so is the alternative: turning Berlin into a relentlessly gentrified enclave for the world's wealthy, where the prices are too high for artists and other people on low incomes to survive.  The city needs a new model if it's going to hang onto what it has here, and with so many creative minds present, there is a brief window of opportunity for the art scene to help create that.  Is the scene making the most of it?"


Hanfparade 2015 - Video Review

This week, I've been doing a lot of editing work and didn't feel like writing a post, but I have made this very short video about the Hanfparade, the annual weed legalization demo in Berlin.  It happened last Saturday, and all of this footage was shot in Tiergarten.

The theme of the parade was medical marijuana and there were some great costumes, stalls and signs to illustrate the value of using marijuana as a medicine, to make fabrics, and to highlight some of the other practical uses that 'the demon weed' has.  But since this blog's focus is on nightlife, the video shows scenes from the street party at the end of the parade, in Brandenburger Tor.

Hope you enjoy it :-)