Notes from the Berlin Underground

Danielle de Picciotto’s Berlin memoir begins with her arrival in the divided city in 1987, though its story follows threads back into her and her family’s past as well as the dark, glittering history of the German metropolis itself. Artist, musician, filmmaker, curator, co-founder of the Love Parade and more, she brings a wealth of experience and personal ties to illustrate a fascinating era in modern cultural history.

In recounting her numerous friendships and artistic collaborations over the years De Picciotto introduces a veritable portrait gallery of the city’s arts scene. Electronic musical artist Gudrun Gut, DJ and co-founder of the Love Parade Dr. Motte, underground artist Jim Avignon and arts impresario Dimitri Hegemann are some of the figures that played notable enough roles in her life to have whole chapters devoted to them. There are also a number of fellow expats that passed through Berlin and made a mark with their art or music as well being another independent spirit added to the mix.

German keyboard player Roland Wolf, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame, is probably the most vividly rendered character in the book outside of its main subject. His tragic death in a car accident proved to be a major turning point for De Picciotto in many respects, among which was reevaluating the importance of her art in her life.

She saves the portraits of her husband Alexander Hacke and his band, Einstürzende Neubauten, for near the end of the book, a way of building up to her point about the present and future of Berlin’s unique sensibility. Because for all the blending of art forms and mediums that characterized those heady underground days – where it seems like everyone exhibited their art work, made films, wrote, played in a band, designed fashion or furniture and then took breaks to arrange parties (and presumably eat and sleep), it is clear that the touchstone for the Berlin underground has always been music.

From the mournful, wailing guitar music of Crime and the City Solution through its electronic opposite in techno and onto the electroclash bands of the naughts, the book has a running soundtrack of sorts, bringing the readers into cavernous bars and clubs with an immediacy that translates well into words.

_mountains of madness_

Growing up in public

The Berlin existence De Picciotto describes takes place in a public, communal scene, and she provides a thorough insider’s history on seeing Nick Cave, Mick Harvey and members of Einstürzende Neubauten drinking at the legendary Ex’n’Pop, of improvised dance parties, the gay club scene and the emergence of techno clubs in the 90s such as E-Werk. As vivid as the descriptions of the nightlife and music are, some of the most interesting passages linger over the haunting architecture of many of these locations.

One of these describes an abandoned electrical substation near Checkpoint Charlie that would later house E-Werk. De Picciotto and a friend held a black and white themed dance party in this “maze of grimy tunnels, tiled shower rooms, rotting stairways leading to deserted cubbyholes filled with mysterious, indecipherable manuscripts,” an underground space so large they were unable to find its borders.

Divided and unconquered

Yet of course it was not only similar artistic sensibilities that created the exceptional closeness found in Berlin’s underground scene. After all, virtually every city has some kind of underground scene and like New York’s Downtown they often have the feeling of being a self-enclosed world. The difference was that Berlin really was self-enclosed, divided and cut-off.

“I soon realized that in Berlin everyone knew each other because of the Wall, which made getting in or out difficult and tedious. It was a situation comparable to a nightliner, filled to the brim with musicians who have to get along for months, ultimately developing a very courteous manner of approaching one another.”

As much as The Beauty of Transgression is a memoir of one artist’s life, of an era of underground art and music, it is also the story of a city going through a series of unique changes. De Picciotto’s last apartment in divided Berlin was directly adjacent to the wall, so that when it was being torn down by souvenir collectors they would ask to plug their drills into her building’s electricity. She recounts the transformation that overtakes Berlin Mitte in the mid-90s from the vantage point of running a gallery on the corner of Alte Schönhauser Strasse and Münzstrasse, as well her and other fellow underground denizens’ often hopeless attempts to enjoy nature by living in the countryside surrounding the city.

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Lost world

De Picciotto maintains a clear-sighted but not pessimistic view of the creeping commercialization of the city, with gallery and studio space becoming too expensive for artists to afford and people with nothing to contribute trying (and succeeding) in latching on to Berlin’s singular cultural landscape. Yet seeing Einstürzende Neubauten’s international fan base as well as the growing interest abroad in her own work she comes to the conclusion that the Berlin sensibility is very much alive, if not exactly in the same form as when she first encountered it:

“But it had not only been the actual buildings, streets, bars, clubs or cafés I had fallen in love with, it had been the vast alliance of uncomfortable and obstinate viewpoints bowing to nothing, resisting the multifaceted seductions of trends, marketing strategies, VIP adulation, religion, cults, or luxury, the tools that our society uses to influence or engineer people’s lives. I had been watching the city changing and not understood that the truth lies beyond the façade.”

The article was originally published on Readux

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Categories: Book Reviews

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