Berlin is beginning to wake once more.
For cities and citizens around the world, the effects of the pandemic go almost beyond description. Our safety has been threatened, freedoms have been restricted and life and culture put at risk by the virus and the necessary measures put in place to combat it.
While we are still a long way from feeling the fresh air on our faces as we exit the tunnel on the other side, things are clearly improving in much of Europe, as they have been in the UK in recent weeks.
As of the 19th May, outside gastronomy has been permitted again in Berlin. This has sparked new hope that people may be able to enjoy some semblance of a normal summer, with beer gardens throwing open their gates and with tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavements on every street. There are even indications that open-air parties will soon be allowed, bringing dancing, glitter and bass back to a city that has felt sombre and eerily quietly for so long.
The Clubcommission Berlin has been around since 2000, supporting its 100-plus members, promoting the value that club culture has to the city and its people, carrying out research, and liaising with various stakeholders and political bodies.
With the summer months now upon us, many bars and clubs will be hoping to get as many people through the doors as possible, given the universally catastrophic financial impact imposed on them by 10 months of shutdowns.
In the spring, many reached out to fans and patrons, selling furniture and artwork from the venues through StartNext fundraising campaigns in a bid to survive the initial lockdown.
In addition, the Clubcommission and Reclaim Club Culture began an initiative called United We Stream, with funding from the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Europe. This has raised money for the scene (and other causes, such as human rights organizations providing aid in Colombia as it faces a humanitarian crisis caused by tax reforms) by livestreaming DJ sets from around the world multiple times a week.
Leichsenring was complimentary about the support that the Berlin scene has received, saying that “especially on the Berlin level, we had exchanges with almost every senate that is related to us, from social to cultural, to economic to city development.”
The regular exchanges were critical to making sure that both sides were aware of the pressures and obstacles that the other was facing. As will come as no surprise to any Berliners, Leichsenring admitted that the Commission was “more aligned with the Berlin politicians than with the federal laws and regulations”, which have for many years been more conservative than the politics in the capital city.
There has clearly been a lot of positives in the interactions between Commission and the governments, with “a lot of individual support when some venues were in danger”. To the credit of all involved, the fear of mass closures has, to date, not come to pass.
But there is still genuine cause for concern. As restrictions continue to loosen and open-air parties are permitted, the reduction or removal of the essential state aid may still be fatal to some. The worry is that the reduced numbers of attendees at socially-distanced events simply will not cover the running costs.
On whether there was a list of member venues that were facing closure imminently, Leichsenring said that this is not being seen right now, but “there is a high chance that there will be some concerns when they are able to restart, just because it is unclear how artists can travel, unclear because some venues are depending on touring artists. We don’t know when they can start to tour through Europe”.
Studies carried out by the Commission have shown that the industry is reliant on tourism for up to 30% of its income.
However, it is not just a one-way deal. Almost a third of tourists who come to the city do so in order to experience its nightlife. In 2018, a Clubcommission study found that the scene had contributed nearly €1.5billion to the Berlin economy. Techno tourists paid, on average, more than €200 each while in the city. Added to the fact that around 9,000 people were directly employed by the clubs prior to the pandemic, the position it plays in the city is clear.
As well as lobbying for governmental support, the Commission has also worked in tandem with organisations around the world in order to create the Global Nighttime Recovery Plan (GNRP). This lays out in detail how clubbing and nightlife culture can be brought back safely and how it can better be integrated into modern city planning.
At nighttime.org, you can find information on various test events and studies from across the world. For example, a warehouse event was held recently in Liverpool featuring Jayda G, the Blessed Madonna and Sven Väth. Over 6,000 guests attended over the course of the weekend, with results showing that the event was no more dangerous than going shopping.
What appears clear is that open-air events are far safer than those held indoors. This fact enabled the clubs to hold dozens of open-air parties between the end of June and late October 2020. The same is certainly hoped for this year, especially given the Clubcommission’s ongoing efforts to promote events on available land.
The events of this spring have intensified work already in progress. Since 2013, Berlin Clubcommission has been facilitating dialogue with event organisers, policymakers, researchers, and business associations to identify appropriate spaces for outdoor gatherings, educate organisers on best practices, and simplify processes for holding safe, legal, and sustainable events – Global Nighttime Recovery Plan, Chapter 1
Leichsenring was of the opinion that “we do not need to do the same kind of event all over Europe. I mean, that is why we are in Europe and we can also learn from each other”.
As to the measures that may be used to keep any future events safe, he confirmed that rapid antigen testing is “one of the tools to make the safe spacer”.
Rapid testing is already used widely in Berlin, with all residents permitted to be tested at least once per week at state-funded centres. Negative tests are required to visit the hairdressers, enter most shops or to go to a bar or restaurant. It is helpful both for guests and employees “just to feel safer in the environment where you work and where you stay”.
The irony is that, since so many of the club employees have sought temporary work in vaccination and testing centres, finding staff for reopening clubs may be a challenge for many.
Griessmuehle was forced to shut its doors for good at the beginning of the year after the land was sold on to a property development company, which refused to extend the lease. The support from the community and the securing of a new premises will go some way to making up for the loss. Nonetheless, the culture’s often precarious existence was brought home to many.
There has also been staunch resistance to parties being held during the pandemic, even with the appropriate safety measures.
A Pornceptual party, famous for its sexual openness, held at Alte Münze, was broken up by the police in October, with officers accusing the attendees and organisers of breaching hygiene regulations.
While the organisers and venue categorically deny that the rules were broken, reiterating that the event was entirely legal, the event was criticised by certain news outlets.
Allegations also arose from numerous attendees that police officers at the scene referred to guests as “disgusting” and “perverse”, while handing out individual fines to 13 guests.
The following week, Salon zur Wilden Renate had its Overmorrow performance and exhibition event closed down by the police, who once again cited breaches of hygiene regulations. The club gave full details in a blog post, and have pointed out that while they were subjected to three previous controls by the authorities, not a single issue was found.
While public health and safety is absolutely paramount, these actions also appear as attempts to encroach upon the social liberality and often loudly and proudly queer culture on display in such spaces. This is made clear when the events are compared with the illegal party held in Soho House by Italian fashion company Bottega Veneta in April of this year. The now-infamous party was reported to the police and was widely criticised on social media. However, as of yet, there are no whispers of consequences for the organisers.
We asked Leichsenring whether the Commission was concerned that there may well be similar problems after reopening. His answer was that this is always a risk for the culture and that “we have to create awareness around it, because there is a lot of stigmatisation happening”.
However, he also said that it wasn’t currently a pressing issue for the Commission, as “everybody is positive of reopening, slowly but surely”. With the optimistic mood in the country, it’s time to look ahead once more.
There has been some good news this year for the future of clubs in Germany. On the 7th of May, the German Bundestag passed a motion in favour of categorising clubs as cultural institutions alongside opera houses and theatres. They are currently listed in the same bracket as cinemas, casinos and brothels.
The significance of this is potentially huge, with the legal status of clubs forever in question in densely populated areas like Berlin’s Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain district.
The problems of uncommercial and counterculture in a capitalist society have grown more acute in these pandemic times. But Clubs have been swamped out of Berlin long before Corona. – Anias Meier, Spokesperson for Mensch Meier
It remains to be seen how effective the change would be once written into law, but it strikes as a symbolic win for the scene nonetheless and elevates its status in the national conversation.
Looking ahead, then, there is hope. There is reason to believe that we will get back to dancing together, smiling, laughing and living in those spaces that we love so dearly.
And to those who say that this is simply not a priority during the pandemic?
“The question is where you put your priorities at,” says Leichsenring. “There is definitely a big discussion. We are a pluralistic society and a democratic system, so I think it is definitely also worth looking into you know what are for instance people doing who don’t have a family here in their city? Or who are part of a community that is meeting in these kinds of spaces?
“Everybody has their own values and I think we should not start to judge over others. I think music and meeting and socialising is part of our human identity”.