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John Riceburg: The end of the commie holiday

Kicking off Jun 29, the Fusion festival is turning 20 – and, if rumors are true, this year's gathering might be the last. John RIceburg looks back at flying caterpillars, apocalyptic bunkers and an experiment in anti-capitalist entertainment.

Image for John Riceburg: The end of the commie holiday
Fusion 2013. Photo by Marcus Sümnick (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kicking of Wednesday, June 29, the Fusion festival is turning 20 this year – and, if rumors are true, this year’s gathering might be the last. John RIceburg looks back at flying caterpillars, apocalyptic bunkers and an experiment in anti-capitalist entertainment.

My memories of Fusion tend to run together. Snaking through the crowd on a Saturday night, with multicoloured lasers shooting overhead, we stumbled into a robotic tiger as big as a VW bug, shooting fire from its nostrils. A bit further, two men stood in bulky insulated suits on pedestals doing kung fu moves as blue arcs of electricity sizzled from one to the other. Through the night sky, a glowing green caterpillar, at least five stories high, was slowly following us.

Does this sound like some kind of shroom-fuelled fever dream? No comment. But I do have photographic evidence that these scenes were real. They’re all from a festival that takes place each year at the end of June, 100km north of Berlin at a former Soviet air force base.

The area is strewn with oddly symmetrical hills – concrete airplane hangars camouflaged as grassy knolls. A few hundred Berlin lefties gathered here for a dance party in 1997 – and the rest, as they say, is history. The Soviet style of communism had crashed and burned. But Kulturkosmos, the non-profit organisation behind Fusion, aimed to create five days of Ferienkommunismus (“holiday communism”), a space without hierarchies or oppression or commerce. And hundreds of thousands of Fusionistas have signed up in the last two decades.

The second I first crossed through the “Embassy” (i.e. entrance) in 2011, I knew this was the music festival I’d been waiting for all my life. The hills are decked out with red flags and the organising team is known as the “Central Committee”.

Not only is water available for free, you can bring along whatever food you can carry. (There are also stands selling exclusively vegetarian snacks, most run by independent restaurants or enterprising groups of friends.) There is no uniformed security – most of the jobs are done by volunteers who get a rebate in exchange for working a few shifts. Most shocking for Germany: Strangers make conversation with each other. I still can’t believe it. One friend said that you’re less likely to get sexually harrassed at Fusion than at any other festival in the world. Another opined: “The only place where communism works.”

Then again, not everyone experiences Fusion the same way I do. Take one colleague of mine, who cut my rhapsodising short with “You mean that druggy, bro-y techno orgy?” It’s true that, thanks to higher-profile music headliners and an increasing reliance on minimal electro, more and more people are showing up who don’t get the “holiday communism” vibe. That’s how you meet dentists from Passau who come in Audis and bring grills for making steaks. Once I even saw a lawn chair with a German flag – which is streng verboten!

And all these newcomers are making it harder and harder to get in. Ten years ago, you could buy a ticket at the gate – cheaper fans just hopped the fence. Now, you have to participate in a lottery the previous December. This year, something like 180,000 people applied for the 60,000 tickets. And forget about sneaking in – two years ago they put up a double fence with barbed wire. Lots of people have unhappy associations with a place in East Germany promising “communism” and offering a death strip.

Yes, the dream of an anti-capitalist utopia amongst the lakes of Mecklenburg might have grown too big. If recent rumours are to be believed, the organisers are unhappy with their runaway success. They are going to take a break in 2017 for a re-think. Or, as my Facebook feed informs me, this might be the last Fusion ever.

So is there any way to force your way in for a last look? Nope – not even for me. That’s right, your beloved author is one of the thousands of unfortunate souls who were denied entry this year. I have tried to call in every favour I could to get through the fence. It’s just too full. So we, the ticket-less, can engage in pensive mourning in Berlin that weekend. Or, we can go dancing, since most of the good clubs will be empty.

And we can pray that a new anti-capitalist festival emerges in two years’ time. Every year for the last five years, on Sunday around 5am, I would sit atop one of the hangar-hills to watch the sun rise over the sea of tents. The lights, which in the darkness had been overwhelming, suddenly looked dim. Partiers walked by slowly in the dew, their faces grey. Despite our exhaustion, we knew that the party would peak again in just a few hours.

Holiday communism has suffered a setback – like the collapse of the Soviet Union for year-round-communism. But I am sure it will rise from the ashes again.