It began back in May, when a series of now-infamous parties started popping up in Volkspark Hasenheide in Neukölln. All weekend, every weekend, crowds gathered for what was more of a techno-happening than a fully-fledged rave, with the excitement tangible as dancers awaited the police’s inevitable arrival. The illicit nature of the parties, combined with the novelty of being able to get back onto a dancefloor of sorts, made the gatherings – for want of a better word – infectious.
“When the police come for the first time, you just hide your drugs and smile,” says one Hasenheide raver who wishes to be known as Jeff. “In the beginning, we were just using Bluetooth speakers, there were probably seven different parties going on in that little corner of the park at any one time,” he recounts of the early days. He describes the weekly routine as a game of cat and mouse between ravers and police: “When the cops actually came the whole thing was kind of childish. We would turn the music down, put our masks on and pretend like nothing was going on with 50 people at 4am. They would leave, we would turn it back up and wait for them to come back. Honestly, I don’t think they had any idea what they were supposed to do about us being there.”
Soon, parties spread across the city. On May 31, one very public rave was met with a huge public outcry: a techno “demonstration” in support of the city’s struggling clubs attracted 3000 ravers partying on the Landwehrkanal – just outside the Klinikum am Urban hospital – on tightly packed rubber boats. Even nightlife lobby group Clubcommission Berlin distanced itself from the party collective which had organised the event on Facebook. City mayor Michael Müller criticized the rave as “irresponsible” and promised to crack down on techno hotspots. But whether it’s a WWII-era bunker in Pankow or the greenery of Brandenburg’s Löcknitzer Wald, there is no place too far for a true raver on the hunt for the beat. It wasn’t long before their antics caught the attention of the world media. Besides the obvious reasons for the tabloid outrage, other concerns included the fact that the Hasenheide raves drew police eyes towards a long-standing queer FKK zone in the park.
Still, those attending the raves see dancing as a social necessity, and so the growing critical attention from politicians, media and the police simply drove them to new places. “Once it became clear that the police were on a witch-hunt in Hasenheide, we had to keep going further and further out of the city,” says another raver called Waldon, who admits attending the parties every week during lockdown. “They told us that we were damaging the park – it’s true – but they were regularly raiding cruising spots, there was too much force, multiple vans, rows of police. People were literally running out of the bushes practically naked,” he says
Waldon also remembers moments of confusion on both sides of the Hasenheide line of conflict: “There was a weird moment in the early weeks – we were still using Bluetooth speakers back then, no generators – the cops rolled through at around 7am and we naturally thought, ‘oh fuck, here we go again’. But then they told us that there were no problems since there were no noise complaints – ‘just keep your distance, pick up the trash and everything is okay’.” And indeed, strictly speaking raves are not, in and of themselves, illegal. Gatherings of up to 1000 people are permitted as long as physical distancing rules are adhered to. This last requirements, however, is hard to fulfil for rave organisers. And so the game of cat and mouse continued: “The next week it was back to vans and searchlights, we had no idea what they were going to do whenever they showed up.” With this tense environment, dance music culture seems to have landed right back where it began: dancing together out in the undergrowth until the sun comes up. Of course, things are a little more complex than that.
Clubcommission Berlin, representing the interests of more than 200 of the city’s clubs, has responded to the lack of legal options by seeking out open-air spaces in the city where legitimate parties can be held. According to the group’s chairwoman Pamela Schobeß, “the information that we have from the scientists is that outdoor events are not that dangerous.” A small number of these supposedly safe parties have taken place, with successful events held in Spandau and futher afield, such as the Wilde Möhre festival in Cottbus. The problem, says Schobeß, is finding suitable locations. “Since not every club in Berlin has an outdoor space, we need to create legal spaces within the city that we can dedicate to parties.” Despite political backing by the Senat, the outstanding depth of German federalism means that the final decision on the legality of the parties rests with the individual Bezirk. Under their plans the Clubcommission promises events with toilets, bins, noise limits and track and trace – Ordnung, in other words. The proposal took off. “Within three days of finding a legal space, we’d have over 50 responses from interested parties, promoters, and DJs,” says Schobeß. And while the interest in new outdoor locations is undoubtedly good for Corona-era clubbing, as summer winds down it remains unclear how access will be divvied up. Will the biggest names get the pick of the spots? Or will all get a chance? Either way it is unlikely that the impromptu rave organisers are in with a shot.
To some in the party scene, any attempt to professionalise or regulate nightlife is not welcome. “There will always be a sect of ravers who do not care for legal spaces. A group who do not care for what is supposedly a subversive, alternative form of culture being fully capitalised on and turned into table service techno,” says a member of one collective be- hind a few mid-scale events in Brandenburg. “Many of the scenes built upon principle of escaping that reality have instead become wholly consumed by it,” they say. “Now, with the pandemic… people have returned to the age-old love affair with raving.” Those same ravers are quick to stress that any notion that the pandemic should give way to a return to “normal” is a non-starter.
The limits of ‘party politics’
For Berlin’s clubs, meanwhile, being able to open again – whether for a party outside or for non-dancing events – is a lifeline. Besides the human cost, the virus has had an enormous impact on the night-time economy, leaving the scene in danger of being brought to its knees. All are struggling. Friedrichshain club ://about blank has been renting its space behind Ostkreuz station from the local authority for the last decade, celebrating its 10th anniversary to the muted fanfare of total lockdown. Its uncertainties go beyond Corona: The club rents its space on short-term contracts which go up for renewal every two or three years. “We are used to living in a temporary mode but what we are experiencing now is a little bit more than the usual,” says Eli Steffen, a spokesperson in the ://about blank collective. “Until now, we always had a good response from the Bezirksamt, but it is not really up to them. Our future is dependent on the next decision concerning the A100 Autobahn (due to be built on the club’s site), the plans for the area and the building.”
Over the last six months, there has been a steady rise in the number of nightclubs organising private parties. For many of these venues, the ability to open under an alternative guise – such as recent plans by Berghain to open as a gallery and ://about blank’s community space events – has given them the confidence to host what are essentially invite-only, indoor club nights with a slightly reduced capacity. And faced with the future as it stands, some desperate club owners see a bending of the current rules as their only viable means of survival. Schobeß, also co-owner of Kreuzberg’s Gretchen, understands the frustration and worries that these ad-hoc situations may become the norm without serious governmental investment in the future of nightclubs into 2021. “We sympathise with club owners and fear that in the near future many venues will be forced into situations like this in order to make some money somehow,” says Schobeß. “In our club, for example, we could open to 36 people. We would lose money as soon as we open the door.”
The main worry for the Clubcommission is that desperate club owners without outdoor spaces will continue to find loopholes. Not only do they damage the solidarity that has for so long kept the club scene alive, but they also risk outbreaks of Covid-19, which will inevitably be linked back to venues and turn public opinion against nightlife. The commission fears that such a backlash would undo years promoting the value of club culture and result in a sharp cut in funding for clubs. Already, friction arises within the communication channels of local politics: The clubs speak to Clubcommission Berlin, who in turn talk to the Senat, who then talk to the Bezirk who, seeing illicit raves in their back yard, occasionally rebel. The ravers themselves go seemingly unheard
“We party because we need to,” says Waldon. “When I go to a rave, I’m pretty much just sitting on the floor, staring at the sky and talking to my mates. Sure, sometimes I’m dancing but why is it only a problem when I do that in the night, as far away from other people as I could possibly be?” Whatever happens to establishment nightlife, this regular raver doesn’t plan to stop.