The Berlin Underground: Cultivation and Preservation of Subculture
Is the “underground” dead in 2018? One gets the sense in contemporary life that the concept as it were in previous generations has changed considerably. In an era where ideas and cultural tendencies transmute at unprecedented rates, is there still such thing as an “underground,” and if so where does it exist?
Firstly, how does one define the “underground”? Ideas of the underground are amorphous, however, it can loosely be defined as somewhere in which subculture thrives, be it aesthetically, artistically, sonically etc. The “underground” serves as a necessary antithesis and counterpoint to the mainstream signifying and breeding “what is next” in the larger cultural milieu.
Thus the relative invisibility of the “underground” to the average person is of the utmost importance to its own preservation. It is a precarious relationship. Too much visibility and the “underground” along with the subcultures it tends to engender become too easily co-opted by the mainstream, too little visibility and the “underground” stifles its own ability to cultivate itself. This is what makes the position of the underground in 2018 an uneasy one. Frank Zappa was once famously quoted as saying, “The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.” However, in an era in which ideas, sounds, references, and experiences, which once were relegated to exclusivity in the underground are now all accessible at the tap of a touchscreen, the mainstream and underground are merging.
So does the underground still exist? In places like Berlin, some might still say yes. Well known as an epicenter of the underground in contemporary culture, the city has long cultivated subculture in its thriving techno scene over the years. The success of the scene is a case study in the cultivation and preservation of subculture. Matthias Bernt, Britta Grell and Andrej Holm in The Berlin Reader: A Compendium on Urban Change and Activism write “Today, Berlin is one of the most important cities for electronic music worldwide. At the same time, it has kept its experimental, self-made and innovative character. This has made Berlin different from many other cities, where nightlife diversity exists only as simulated “air” controlled by large entertainment companies.”
So how has Berlin maintained an experimental and innovative character in its music and nightlife scene when so many other cities have fallen victim to gentrification and subsumption by the mainstream? The answer lies in the basis on which Berlin’s underground was conceived, and the ethos of the scene that has carried through to this day.
During the 1970s and 1980s, a politically rebellious subculture evolved in Charlottesburg, Kreuzberg, Schoenberg and other districts of West Berlin. It was based on new social movements comprised of squatters, students, and social outcasts, culturally located between Punk, Industrial and New Wave. Felix Denk author of Der Klang der Familie maintains that the fall of the Berlin Wall that followed this period was the beginning of the new underground in Berlin.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 changed everything for Berlin and also for its music and ‘spirit.’ The center of subcultural activities moved to the eastern part of the inner city.” Techno in a sense brought the east and west of Berlin together following the wall coming down. As the new wave scene of the west mixed with the techno-centric sound of the east, “People from either side built a new party scene together in the ruins of the partition. With an abundance of deserted spaces suddenly made available to them, a former no-mans land was transformed into a raver’s paradise.”
The proliferation of the Berlin underground was bolstered by the precarious economic and cultural milieu of the time. Following the wall coming down a specific urbanistic situation in East Berlin presented itself. Bernt, Grell and Holm describe the situation in saying it was “Characterized by the massive vacancy of commercial and residential buildings” in which “common spaces free from economic restrictions were in abundance.” The urban youth of the 1990’s saw itself reflected in the new centrality of the audience: People were no longer just passive consumers but as dancers constitutive elements of raves.
Thus, Berlin’s underground formed the basis of the cultural infrastructure of the new city. A culture based upon rebellion and the rejection of commercial interests, of artistic innovation rather than profit maximization, something that has remained entrenched within the ethos of the city to this day.
Jan-Michael Kühn in The Subcultural Scene Economy of The Berlin Techno Scene lays out how Berlin’s creatives have conserved the underground culture of the city. “For the passionate, business orientation remains strongly limited by the cultural institutions of the music scene. They don’t start making other music just because it is more profitable. They relinquish economic opportunities because the feelings of enjoyment and freedom experienced through the music are more important to them. They see economic activity as being able to get by instead of pure profit-maximization… Sociologically speaking, they draw boundaries around their aesthetics and modes of production. It is a form of resistance not primarily rooted in class but in the preservation and defense of aesthetically-based life-worlds.”
As a result of the entrenchment of subculture in the identity and infrastructure of the formation of the city after the wall came down, the underground in Berlin is much more than a passing fad or a form of cultural capital. It is an institution that is continuously fighting for its survival out of a cultural necessity. Where other cities underground communities slowly evolve into the mainstream, Berlin’s underground remains resilient. This is what separates Berlin in many ways from other cities when it comes to the preservation and authenticity of the underground. Its why Berghain is the most exclusive club in the entire world, and its why other cities continuously attempt to emulate the subcultures of Berlin.
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, theatre school alumni, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.