shado and KALTBLUT magazine are taking three of Europe’s biggest cities, London, Berlin and Amsterdam, and investigating how and if young people are turning to music collectives as safe spaces of political community that traditional politics is failing to provide.
It’s 5am at re:mise, a nightclub located in the bleak riverside zone of Berlin’s Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. The music has stopped, and, like the other 200 or so partygoers, I’m sitting on a sticky, sweaty floor. A space has been cleared at the front, and drag performer Lilith the Quing sits on a stool with a microphone, hosting a bawdy series of performances and discussions, received with snaps and squeals from the crowd. Then, after about 30 minutes, the high-BPM, trance-adjacent techno rumbles back into life, and the party continues – that is, until vegan breakfast and group yoga at 11am.
This is Fluidity, a new-gen ‘raving experience’ run by the collective fluid.vision – and, like many of its kind in Berlin, it’s a party with a purpose. That means going far beyond the now limp-feeling “no sexism, racism, homophobia or transphobia” messaging, or the vague mention of an on-site awareness team. Instead, fluid.vision is an activist collective, coupling their events with art projects and educational workshops, and centring topics outside the usual ‘queer Berlin discourse’.
Having recently moved to Berlin at the time, attending Fluidity felt like a sudden and unexpected entrance to the world I was seeking. Other events, which had upheld the Berlin stereotype of being geared towards more typically masculine gay men, hadn’t quite clicked for me. But Fluidity was an explosion of queerness in limitless, borderless forms, and there I met the people who still form a large part of my social circle today.
A fragile culture
The work of fluid.vision is “twofold,” explains Barto, a member of the collective, drawing the distinction between ‘activist’ and ‘political’ work. Passionate and convincing even over Zoom, they assert that “just the fact that we are having a party that is meant for queer people is inherently political, but it doesn’t make it activism.” fluid.vision’s goal is to do both.
Berlin’s music collectives have seemed increasingly activist in recent years. Perhaps that’s out of necessity: despite the common perception of Germany’s capital as a haven for partying and creativity, many collectives are fighting for survival in a hostile economic climate. Covid proved that the existence of the scene must not be taken for granted, and, since then, the city’s rent crisis has meant that many venues are shutting up shop.
Barto outlines to me the multiple spaces which have held Fluidity, even in the party’s short history. Open-air club CURA closed last year due to a lack of funding, and Fluidity’s current home, re:mise, may soon be destroyed to make way for an upmarket property development. Spurred on by gentrification, the problem is accelerating: in just three months from November 2022 to March 2023, average rent costs in Berlin rose by a staggering 27%. Mensch Meier – which Barto counts as one of only two remaining collective-run, explicitly political clubs in Berlin – looks set to close this year as a result. That would leave only one, about:blank, itself plagued by anti-Deutsch, pro-Zionist controversy.
In the face of this adversity, it’s easy to see why Berlin-based music collectives have become disenfranchised with a status quo that’s pricing out their culture. But wider political frustrations also play a role. According to Deutsche Welle, support for Germany’s centre-left government has sunk to an unprecedented low; meanwhile, the far-right AfD party (Alternative for Germany) is rapidly gaining ground.
Earlier this year, a referendum over whether Berlin should bring its target for climate neutrality forward from 2045 to 2030 was thwarted by a disastrous turnout: only 18% of the electorate voted, compared to the 25% needed to enact the legislation. For most young people in the city, that was a huge blow – and for me and my circle of friends, who mostly aren’t German citizens, the lack of the right to vote made it all the more frustrating. Thanks to groups like Letzte Generation, however – who have since upped the ante, glueing themselves to roads and planning new waves of protests – consciousness of the climate crisis has far from died out in Berlin.
What is the state doing?
German authorities are cracking down on leftist demonstrations generally. In early June, Letzte Generation were accused of 580 different criminal offences, while properties connected to them were subject to police raids. Last month we’ve also seen the criminal conviction of Lina E, a violent left-wing activist who carried out vigilante attacks on neo-Nazis. ‘Free Lina’ graffiti has been a common sight around Berlin since the start of the trial in 2021, and few condone her extreme tactics – nonetheless, this final court verdict feels like a watershed moment for alarm about leftist violence, and tension between police and youth protesters.
That said, Berlin does a lot to keep its cultural scene thriving, especially for young people. Since 2021, clubs in the city have been recognised by law as ‘cultural institutions’ as opposed to ‘entertainment venues’, meaning they receive more government support, tax breaks, and looser regulations in terms of noise and location. And this year, the city rolled out the Jugendkulturkarte, a scheme which gave all 18-23-year-old Berliners €50 to spend on cultural activities in the city, with many nightclubs and concert venues participating.
fluid.vision itself is alive today thanks to the Draussenstadt initiative, a fund set up in response to the struggles faced by artists during lockdown. “It was a dream,” Barto recalls. “Nobody paid for entry, and everyone got a decent wage for their work. We were able to offer education, offer art, offer everyone a space.” But they’re also aware of the flip side. The Draussenstadt initiative, as they read it, was also a damage-mitigating attempt by the government to bring illegal lockdown raving under control – to bring people who were operating outside the system, and therefore threatening it, back in.
Going it alone
In many cases, musicians choose to keep the future of the scene in their own hands. Founded in 1998, female:pressureis a transnational network of women*, AFAB, transgender, transfeminine, transmasculine, intersex [+gender optional], genderqueer, gender nonconforming, a-gender and/or non-binary DJs, musicians, composers, producers, visual artists, agents, journalists and researchers working in the realms of electronic music and visual arts.
As well as operating a database with over 3000 members, they carry out vital research on representation in DJing, hold events in Berlin, host a podcast, and use their platform for activism both inside and outside of the electronic music space. They’re a prime example of musicians coming together and forming political alliances on a scale larger than the collective, and doing so without the interference of any higher power.
As both researchers and organisers, female:pressure hold a unique perspective. Sarah Martinus, a.k.a. C-Refund, gives me an idea of the vast array of musical, political activities being carried out by its members. “[Some] are DJs who run collectives for young femme folks to get an entry into synthesisers. Others are YouTubers who teach online about music production. Others are artists who have a particularly anti-racist approach. Others are rave-makers who offer safer dance floors.” And Sarah herself is positive about the direction of the Berlin scene: “In general, I love the fact that collectives like weeeirdos and Hamam Nights just got included in the Berghain roster.” Without the political aspect to the work of collectives, Sarah says, that wouldn’t have happened. “In the past it was an extremely AMAB and cis male-dominated arena, and I’m proud to see that change.”
Giving yourself a chance
But the music doesn’t have to be explicitly activist. The family of artists under MOTHER.LOADING take a looser approach. MOTHER is, founders Leanne Mark and Soul Suleiman tell me, a “weird mix between a collective and a production company.” They partner with brands like Highsnobiety to create content with more purpose, shoot music videos for the likes of Brutalismus 3000, and much more besides (if that’s not enough, Leanne and Soul also head up Floorgasm, a favourite among Berlin’s queer, slutty nights).
Like fluid.vision, MOTHER came together during the pandemic – a targeted response to the dwindling of creative spaces in which BIPOC and queer people could flourish at the time. But Leanne downplays the activism. “There is definitely a socio-political aspect to our work,” she explains, “but I wouldn’t give ourselves that much of a pat on the back because, really, we just wanted to give ourselves a chance.” Leanne and Soul are activists themselves, but when they attend protests, it’s as individuals. And when it comes to Floorgasm, they don’t feel the need to advertise their zero-tolerance for discrimination. For Leanne, that’s “baked in” – if you have to think it, you’re not welcome.
“Not every trans person has to be an activist,” Leanne clarifies. Or, in Soul’s terms, “as POC, as queer women, everything that we are doing is political in itself, even if it’s not purely with that intention.”
When I ask them which musician most represents the values of MOTHER, they both reply, as if telepathically, with Tina Turner. It’s a fitting choice: although Turner’s explicitly activist work was extensive, it isn’t what she’s remembered for. When she became the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone, the messaging, to use Leanne’s words, was baked in.
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Whether explicitly activist or political by necessity, it’s hard to find a party in Berlin that doesn’t take a stance. The city’s hallowed party status means it must lead by example for electronic music scenes around the world. It’s that same sanctity of club culture, however, that can make progressive partying unpopular, especially among older Berliners. Their grumblings about the lost ‘glory days’ of Berlin’s nightlife are, in some ways, entirely founded: it’s certain that today’s organisers are having to adapt to enormous social and political obstacles which require a more considered, thoughtful approach.
Perhaps it’s true that in this increasingly expensive European capital, the wildness of the 90s is no longer possible – but collectives are proving that with care, attention and a little creative thinking, electronic music in Berlin can continue to thrive, and young people globally can be better off for it.
What can you do?
Donate to hashtagwhatnext, an organisation raising funds in response to the new anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda. fluid.vision are holding their next night in aid of them.
Read more about the politicisation of Berlin’s nightlife in this article.