Techno music, which was born in Detroit but popularised in Germany in the late 1980s and 1990s, is the subject of a new exhibit at the Centro Cultural Kirchner (CCK) titled “Clubraum Berlin” (Berlin Club Room).
Curated by Heiko Hoffmann, editor-in-chief of the definitive German techno music magazine, Groove, the exhibit seeks to convey the political importance and social context of techno music in 1990s Berlin. Last Saturday, a special opening featured refreshments and a live interview of German DJ Sven von Thülen by Argentine music critic and journalist Pablo Schanton. Mr. von Thülen then played a DJ set in the CCK’s panoramic 9th floor space.
The show, which has previously traveled to Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, is in part inspired by von Thülen’s book ‘Der Klang Der Familie: Berlin, Techno, und die Wiende’ (The Sound of the Family: Berlin, Techno, and the Fall of the Wall). Translated into Spanish in 2015, the book argues that the techno music scene provided a unifying space for East and West German youth in the early 1990s. In the abandoned warehouses where DJs hosted illegal raves to the streets where Love Parade demonstrators marched in support of international peace, techno was the soundtrack to nights of hedonistic excess and political demonstration.
The one-room exhibit features, on one side, a circular arrangement of seven speakers, each emitting pulsating beats crafted by a different techno DJ. The speakers face out from the centre of the circle, so when walking around the outside you can hear each track fade smoothly into the next.
The wall behind the sonic installation displays photographs from Martin Eberle’s series Temporary Spaces. The images include shots of the nightclub interiors including the legendary E-Werk, but all are empty, forcing the viewer to imagine what happened in the spaces. Eberle’s photographs suggest far more than they actually reveal about the clubs. In the interview, von Thülen was similarly vague. “The idea of a club is a space where everyone is liberated… you can live experimentally.” The exhibit serves to further the mystique of Berlin’s techno scene, but does not provide many concrete details.
The wall on the opposite side of the room plays a short movie on loop. It is a compilation of short clips: four friends dancing spasmodically at an outdoor rave; city lights passing by as seen from inside a taxi; a DJ spinning a turntable. Some of the clips, like one showing German youths sitting on top of the Berlin wall, evoke a specific time and place. Others, like a shot of young people walking on the street with dyed hair and mohawk-style cuts, could fit into many stories of youthful rebellion.
Given the history of techno and its roots in underground nightclubs, the location of Clubraum Berlin feels jarring. In the CCK, techno is contained in a well-lit, white-walled room that is open to the public from noon until 7pm. On Saturday afternoon, the lucky few who scored a ticket for the show’s early opening could browse the gallery and listen to tracks from Rødhad, Modeselektor, and others while sipping red wine and eating hors d’oeuvres.
Putting techno in a museum seems to suggest that it is in the past, yet most of the DJs featured in the circular speaker installation are still performing, and many did not even begin their careers until after the 1990s. The back of the room features four tables covered with pamphlets promoting techno parties and raves—fully two of the four are devoted to events that happened in 2015 and 2016. Hoffmann’s exhibit draws a connection between the past and the present.
The result of the show is not to argue that Berlin’s techno culture is a thing of the past, but to remind visitors that today’s techno music does have a specific past. In an era where techno has become synonymous with the catchy EDM (“electronic dance music”) played at nightclubs and raves and outdoor festivals around the world, the exhibit makes the claim that techno was political before it became commercial.
Clubraum Berlin is on now at the CCK (Sarmiento 151) – the multimedia exhibit is open to the public Wednesday-Saturday (including holidays), from 12pm-7pm.
The show will also include special screenings on the weekends. On Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th October, and Saturday 5 and Sunday 6 November, the film ‘B-Movie: Lust and Music in West Berlin 1979-1989’ will be screened at 4pm in CCK Auditorium 513. On the same days, the film ‘Death of the Hippies: Long Live Punk!’ will be screened at 6pm in CCK Auditorium 513.