She sang in the bands Space Cowboys and The Ocean Club, co-founded the Love Parade and recorded vocals for local cult band Die Haut. Since arriving in Berlin in 1987, American-born artist Danielle de Picciotto has become the city’s consummate insider.
Now she’s published her first book, The Beauty of Transgression: A Berlin Memoir, a deeply personal account of decadent 1980s and 1990s Berlin and the culture warriors, eccentrics, junkies and avant-gardists that defined it.
Why write your memoirs?
I started writing the book in 1995 when I realized that you forget things you think you’ll never forget. Originally, I thought I’d just write all my memories of Berlin as a city, but eventually I came to write it in three different layers: my story, the story of Berlin and its development, and then a third-person story made of impressions or expressions of a certain feeling.
Why did you choose a layered approach?
I just couldn’t decide between the third-person and the ‘me’. I’m a multi-media artist, so I use these different media styles to express different things – and I sort of do that with language too.
You write eloquently about the death of close friend [former Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten keyboardist] Roland Wolf in 1995. How did his death change your life?
It changed it completely. I had never dressed in black before, always in colours, so my whole aesthetic changed because of it. And I was a lot more careful in terms of how I approached friendships and people who were important to me. It was just, “Okay, what is really important? What would I do if I had to die tomorrow?” That’s when I started becoming kind of a workaholic. Because I felt like I was being chased by the hounds of hell. Before, I was a lot more easygoing.
What was it like to live in Berlin before the Wall fell?
For one, there was a total feeling of paranoia all the time. You were still in a war zone, basically. There was the feeling that you were in an exceptional situation, bad or good, but there was no way that you couldn’t notice it. When you passed those borders, all of your luggage was checked. They went through your music, books and magazines; they played the tapes you had in your car. And they would treat you like they hated you personally. It was a nightmare.
Berlin in the 1980s was also… a lot of partying?
Back then, living in Berlin was easy financially. You only had to work once or twice a week in a café, and you could easily pay your rent and have enough money to invest in your art. So it all became one thing, and partying was part of your art. There was this small place, Berlin Tokyo, and it was one of the most amazing clubs in Berlin. They had constant art happenings, exhibitions, films, DJs experimenting with music, fashion shows. Things have changed. Even though it’s a cheap city, it’s not as cheap as it used to be.
Is it easy to be Alexander Hacke’s wife?
A lot of people think that I’m lucky to be with a famous rock musician, but it’s not that simple. Because as a woman, if you’re affiliated with someone well known who is a man, you’re in a position of being exactly that and not more. As an artist, it’s lethal in a way. I mean, sure, more people see your stuff, but there’s this really strange psychological thing that makes people say, “Well, if she weren’t together with him, would it still be interesting?” There are all these strange projections.
Has that ever affected your desire to collaborate with your husband?
It’s never been a question of not collaborating with him, but it’s definitely always been important for both of us to continue doing things on our own. Because otherwise you feel like you’re a ghost or you’re disappearing. As an artist, as soon as you don’t know what you actually want to say, your work becomes bad.
Do you think Berlin is still an exciting city?
I think it’s definitely still an exciting city. All of the exhibitions I’ve seen recently and all of the new venues that have opened since I left three months ago are amazing. Berlin is like this wild thing. It always has been. It always will be.
De Picciotto will read from her book at Kaffee Burger on October 26, an event featuring musical accompaniment by her husband and frequent collaborator, Einstürzende Neubauten bassist Alexander Hacke.