how gray was my 'mauer': the nostalgia for berlin aesthetics
originally printed in HiS Voice magazine, Prague, 2009 ('20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall' special)
Blixa Bargeld photographed by Peter Gruchot
On my side of the trans-Atlantic ‘pond’, the pop-cultural fascination with Berlin has often resulted in a portrait of the city as being in the grip of a collective ‘death drive’: in this portrayal, Berlin is the city where the world’s most beautifully misshapen cultural creatures go to make one final, intense howl of self-affirmation before falling into the welcome embrace of oblivion. Of course, having developed a cavalier attitude towards their ultimate demise, the remainder of their days are spent in a near-constant state of burning sensual rapture fueled by whatever chemicals, sexual encounters and other ‘threshold experiences’ you can conceive of. It doesn’t hurt that, in this vision of Berlin, the forces of law enforcement, government and bureaucracy seem to be on permanent holiday, leaving behind a dark grey shell of a metropolis whose citizens occasionally crawl out from the rubble to engage, unsupervised, in the above activities. This romantic appraisal of Berlin culture seems to have gone into overdrive once the New Wave film and music worlds began exchanging their intercontinental missives in earnest- just witness the 1982 Slava Tsukerman film Liquid Sky, a paragon of giddy New Wave excess, in which the sneering and highly unlikable junkie poetess 'Adrian' dreams of “goin’ to Berlin, baby!” when she’s not shouting out her hit song-poem “Me & My Rhythm Box” before a lobotomized audience of club kids costumed like cybernetic macaws. Given the behavior of Adrian and Liquid Sky’s other characters - which seems to consist completely of narcissistic styling, drug devouring, and intervals of crushing anticipatory boredom - we can take this longing for Berlin as a hint that it is a Utopia for such behavior. Of course, we don’t have to venture into the Liquid Sky’s fictional realm of luminous decadence to find people who daydream about Berlin as a backdrop for personal encounters with glamorous liebestod: I remember one of my own former girlfriends being so enamoured of this mythical atmosphere, I must have had to sit through Wim Wenders’ quintessential Berlin film Der Himmel über Berlin a dozen times, merely to see the scene where Crime & The City Solution strut their stuff before an arch-decadent crowd of Gothic wastrels. Based on the popular Lydia Lunch / Nick Cave template, they appear to be intensely contemplating the collapse of the world while simultaneously speeding it on with whiskey, cigarettes, narcotics, PCBs from excessive hairspray, etc. etc. Now then, this is still far from the giddy heights that ‘Berlinophilia’ can reach: although it’s probably inactive now, I was once pointed to a website wholly devoted to one woman’s erotic fixation with the Berlin Wall.
The mythologizing of post-war Berlin subculture, if not romanticizing the ‘death drive’ outright, does at least envision a place where tragedy and ruin cast moments of real love and ingenuity in a more noticeable relief. This holds true even for the dour East Berlin of the GDR, whose use as the staging ground for recent films like Goodbye, Lenin and The Lives of Others makes the film protagonists’ acts of self-sacrifice that much more easy to highlight (owing to the critical successes of these films, “Ostalgia” seems to be turning into a cultural genre all of its own.) This is not to say, however, that all of this is a foreign projection, and that Berliners themselves have completely shied away from using their city’s once-ominous atmosphere as a framing device for their art: the famed SO36 club (built from the remnants of a former supermarket) had its grand opening, the sarcastically-titled “Mauerbaufest”, coincide with the date of the Wall’s completion. Henry Rollins, in his tour diary Get In The Van, amusingly denounces the space as one of the darkest and dankest he’s ever visited- quite an appraisal coming from the man whose publishing imprint, 2.13.61, has acted as a happy home for aforementioned Berlin favorites Lunch and Cave. Meanwhile, many of the popular fictions regarding the city’s mordant troubadours while not outright fabrications, are romantic exaggerations: while Einstürzende Neubauten’s vampiric Blixa Bargeld may not have actually slept in a junkyard (as he’s portrayed doing in the Sogo Ishii film of Neubauten’s Halber Mensch), he was certainly one of many in the Berlin scene of the ‘80s that ‘improvised’ his living conditions. Fellow Berlin composer Frieder Butzmann claims that Bargeld “simply used a cellar as an apartment…Blixa and Andrew [Unruh, also of Neubauten] lived out this death-and-concrete aesthetic in earnest,” while Bargeld himself confesses to squatting in a home without utilities and leaving his frozen foods outside to cool in lieu of a freezer (long-time followers of Neubauten probably know the happy end to this story, in which Blixa eventually survives his period of severe emaciation and becomes an enthusiastic gourmand.)
With so many competing versions of the ‘Berlin mythos’ on the market, it can be hard to develop a view of where romantic projections end and objective reality begins: recent efforts to re-package and re-assess Berlin’s distinct underground (especially over the years 1978-1984) tend to favor the ‘decadent’ and druggy end of the musical spectrum to the detriment of the one which focused more on improvisation and hand-made ingenuity, e.g. Joseph Beuys’ student Conrad Schnitzler (r.i.p.) and his endorsement of home-made “kitchen music” distributed via hand-copied cassette. Why this is the case, exactly, is also difficult to determine without getting involved in the risky game of guessing at people’s undeclared intentions- perhaps the honesty of the ‘beauty-through-bleakness’ aesthetic is just more marketable now, with a niche market composed of disillusioned souls for whom the 21st century’s icons of globalized material progress (Tesco chains, and what have you) are one giant, intrusive, laughably fake Potemkin village. In such a world, it’s at least understandable why some would pine for the cold uncertainty of the former walled city, whose geniale dilettanten (the name given to Berlin’s loose-knit collective of new wave outsiders in the early 1980s) come out at night to make sheet-metal madrigals and to cast audio spells for the decline of man.
If we can overcome our own personal biases, though, and take a holistic approach to reviewing this scene, we can conclude that both the tendencies of romanticized desperation (‘live every day as if your last’) and simple ‘making the best of what’s available’ existed in more or less equal amounts. Sometimes they were adversarial, but often there was a symbiosis of ‘death drive’ and its would-be opposite, the constructive salvage and re-appropriation of Berlin’s urban waste products. The enigmatic figures of Gudrun Gut and Blixa Bargeld are good exemplars of this: while both of their flagship musical projects (Malaria and Neubauten, respectively) fed off of the city’s negative energy, in turn invoking thirst and fear in their terse lyrics, they themselves are far more complex personalities. A placard hung in Gut’s now-legendary Eisengrau boutique read “whoever sleeps, misses out” (this was mischievously placed above a bunk bed for people also lodging at the space for the evening), while her extra-musical activities betrayed more of a desire to craft a parallel world than to just revel in the mythical darkness of the city. When not providing the rhythmic basis for a band called Mania D. (literally ‘manic depression’), Gut was an inventive seamstress, with a playful penchant for mixing ‘constructivist’ colors with all variety of neon (“colors that bite”, in her words), as well as crafting fashion items from airplane safety belts and other cast-off items. Frieder Butzmann –who briefly participated in the improvisational electronic group ‘Liebesgier’ alongside Gut, weighs in on the question of Berlin’s environmental influence:
“We felt like we were fighting in a frontline city. We were proud. However, in contradiction to what [new wave band] Ideal said with ‘Ich steh auf Berlin’, we weren’t proud of the city itself...rather, about ourselves. About this oneness of life and work.”
Such a rejection of ‘regional identity’ on Butzmann’s behalf seems to have freed him up to innovate himself: his seminal ‘Wachsalon Berlin’ single, recorded with the different wash cycles of laundromat washing machines as its primary instrumentation, still stands as an unsung landmark in the brief history of machine music. At the time, Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine named the record as its “single of the year.”
"Fun, fun, fun, on the Autobahn?" Not exactly, but it is a 'Super
8 happening' at the Berlin Wall. Photo by Arno Dittmer, 1981.
Berlin’s home-grown Super 8 filmmaking scene provided another interesting example of the friction between ‘death chic’ and playful, even ebullient experimentation. Super 8 filmmakers were never too far removed from the local underground musicians who provided the soundtracks to their films (quite a few of the surviving Super 8 pieces have no narration, or function purely as music video clips.) Some, like the team of Ingrid Maye and Volker Rendschmidt, handled both filmmaking and audio chores. Maye and Volker’s brief 1980 film Ohne Liebe Gibt Es Keine Tod [Without Love There Is No Death] may nod in the direction of the Berlin scene’s stereotypical grimness with its title, and with its mildly sinister soundtrack of persistent synth growl, but the video content is little more than a coolly detached female model contentedly rolling around in front of a strobe light, leaping in midair, posing, and lounging in a primary-colored flat- a fairly harmless display of sexy fun antics.
The first wave of German punk rock, that had arisen almost concurrently with the Deutsche Herbst terror dramas of the RAF [Rote Armee Fraktion], very quickly gave way to a more industrially-flavored avant-garde: this being a form of art and music that, itself, has always been torn between two kinds of Weltanschauung: there was the romanticist, ‘magical’ view of the world which saw circuitry and technological reproduction as no less than a modern means of sorcery, and there was a utilitarian, pragmatist approach which saw musicians ‘stealing’ the information editing methods of bureaucratic control systems in order to do battle against them. These seemingly contradictory approaches (one concerned more with personal gratification, and the other with re-organizing society) have survived up until the present day, and their propensity for being swapped back and forth between musical projects has led to artistic permutations more suited to the present digital age. The different factions within this already marginal subculture had, in contrast to the "punk-vs.-kunstler [artiste]" battles previously raging in Germany, co-existed with a minimum of internecine violence, limiting their antagonisms to the occasional cutting remark in a fanzine interview. The increased influence of such industrial-style groups on the Berlin scene perhaps suggested a growing number of individuals who wished to bridge the romanticist-realist divide, to see what was possible when merging the better aesthetic elements of both the paranormal and the mundane.
The annual Berlin Atonal festivals from 1982-1986 (although not exclusively featuring ‘atonal’ music, in spite of the name) quickly became the local forum for tracking the developments in this culture. Footage of past ‘Atonal’ festivals, if nothing else, at least displays the potential for bracing volume and bewildering abstraction to be used in a number of different ways. The group Non-Toxique Lost, performing Ich Sah Hanoi Sterben at the 1983 edition of the festival, offer a fine introduction to the “Berlin Atonal” aesthetic: a propulsive and emotive attack guided by enraged shouts from the curiously named Sea Wanton, and with the ironically placid, bespectacled Achim Wollscheid generating guitar noises that bring to mind radioactive worms quivering on a steel floor. Other contributions to the festival, from the likes of La Loora and Die Tödliche Doris, were more inventively skewed in terms of stage pageantry; these bands favored surrealistic story-telling and choral flourishes over the death knell of electronic noise that other ‘Atonal’ bands served up- however, they themselves were certainly capable of releasing some electrified sturm und drang when they felt it necessary.
Judging from the recorded and anecdotal evidence we have to work with, vital humor has never too far out of the Berlin underground picture, no matter how some death-fetishists may choose to remember their Teutonic heroes- for one, what could be less deathly serious than Mr. Bargeld’s carrying around a credit card with his [legally changed] stage name printed on it (bargeld being the German for ‘cash’?) In the meantime, Die Tödliche Doris’ conceptual wizard, Wolfgang Müller, has kept busy by becoming an “elf expert” and publishing books of Icelandic fairy tales. While many lesser artists would be all too happy to pander to Berlinophiles’ thirst for melodrama, it looks like the more established ones could care less about stoking these melodramatic fires- such an act would compromise their own hard-fought uniqueness in the process, relegating them to an ‘ambassador’ role that leaves little room for further artistic growth. Incidentally, one of the manifestoes of Die Tödliche Doris offers an interesting perspective on all of this:
“The first LP of the group carries the title ‘ ‘ and demonstrates: The Deadly Doris has - like every person - the most different faces: she is at times clever and at times dumb, at times loud and at times quiet, sometimes pretty and sometimes ugly. But never all at the same time.”
Could it be, then, that this very organic ambiguity and malleability is as much a feature of the Berlin music subculture as its much-vaunted “darkness”? Others are free to draw their own conclusions, but I feel that the past actions of Berlin’s inimitable post-industrial subculture, when placed under a powerful enough microscope, show a culture informed by a desire to try all that is possible in the given circumstances, rather than one that simply makes an idol out of raw severity.