I. Punk In General
Order and disorder
In the early 1980s, a punk band with the peculiar name KUKL descended on West Berlin. They played at Kuckuck (cuckoo), a cultural centre near the bombed out ruin of Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus. Kuckuck was a squat, one of a total of 170 that eventually existed in the western part of the city. Directly opposite lay a fenced-off plot strewn with rubble that had been reclaimed by nature since 1945: creepers, acacias, birch trees, undergrowth and tall grass. From early spring each year, a nightingale would sing here at deafening volumes. It sang to mark its territory, and it sang to drown out the noise from the street beyond the fence. The wasteland itself was criss-crossed by amateurishly levelled “streets” where drivers without a license could practise. The proprietor of the Autodrom, as it was called, was Harry Toste, also known as “Straps-Harry” (Harry suspenders), a transvestite with long, dyed-yellow hair and bright green knee-length stockings held up by a red suspender belt. Later, he was sometimes to be seen at Café Anal, a gay and lesbian punk bar in Kreuzberg. In 2004, Harry died aged 97.
In 1987, more widespread attention was focussed on this overgrown plot of land by an exhibition called “Topography of Terror” and, after several failed attempts, building work on a museum of the same name finally began there in the autumn of 2007. Here, on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, was where Himmler, Heydrich and Kaltenbrunner sat at their desks, at the nerve centre of the Nazi regime of political crimes and repression: the headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office.
Places in transition
This, then, was the setting in which the punk band KUKL played their concert. They didn't draw much of a crowd, in spite of being from Iceland - or precisely because of this fact. The band's singer was called Björk and the audience of no more than twenty people included the writer Max Goldt, who recalls a woman coming back from the toilet just before the gig started: “This place is disgusting!,” she said, “There's a pregnant twelve-year old in there, and she's pissing standing up!”
Björk had already caused a stir in Iceland by appearing on stage in an advanced state of pregnancy. An eye-witness from Reykjavik, the then 14-year-old Mohican-sporting punk Jón Atlason, later described this event in an article for the tageszeitung. Today, Jón lives in Vienna and works as a lector for Icelandic at the university. And Björk is a global megastar who opened the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Without Icelandic punk, no one would refer to the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson as an Icelander. Since punk, Icelanders are also allowed to be musicians and artists, not just writers like before.
Occupied spaces, material and immaterial
But what spaces did punk open up on the frontline in Berlin? The heavily subsidized western half of the city was governed by a conservative political caste who were not only fighting the Cold War against the East, but who also faced a hostile young population of its own consisting of drop-outs, freaks, anarchists and conscientious objectors. While rents ran at near unaffordable levels, property speculators allowed many houses to fall into disrepair. In spite of this, Berlin's media showed little understanding for the resulting wave of squatting, focusing instead on “protection of property”. Finally, Berlin's mayor Eberhard Diepgen coined the term “anti-Berliners” for all those he considered part of the alternative milieu. This was a rich breeding ground, then, for all manner of “parallel cultures”.
In many cases, the people squatting the vacant properties were poor students and the proactive unemployed. When art students occupied and renovated a house belonging to art collector Erich Marx, Joseph Beuys, whose work Marx collected, came out in their support and donated drawings for a “solidarity” exhibition. This atmosphere saw the emergence of the alternative daily newspaper tageszeitung, many fanzines, underground galleries, cinemas, clubs and small independent record labels. The scene drew on a wide range of groups: post-hippy alternatives, sneeringly referred to by the punks as “mueslis”; young men who refused any form of military service and who came to Berlin because the city's inhabitants were exempt; and activists from the women's, lesbian and gay movements.
Back then, the singer of Berlin band “Didaktische Einheit” (didactic unit) would perform wearing nothing but a golden jockstrap. Today, Hans-Werner Marquardt is senior arts editor at BZ, a Berlin subsidiary of Germany's biggest selling tabloid, the BILD-Zeitung. Today, the pet punks of Germany's yellow press are Campino and Ben Becker, following in the footsteps of the late lamented entertainer Harald Juhnke. Most of the squats have been legalized, often purchased by the squatters themselves.
The real and/or fake Heino
But were Campino and his band “Die Toten Hosen” (the dead trousers) ever really punk? Or was it more a question of hairstyles? In any case, just how decisive a hairstyle can be is illustrated by the story of their regular support band, “The Real Heino”. For many years, Norbert Hähnel, owner of the “Scheissladen” (shit shop) record store in Kreuzberg, took to the stage as a clone of the German popular singer Heino, sporting his trademark dyed blond hair and big sunglasses. In 1982, filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder bought LPs and homemade tapes from the Scheissladen for a film project.
The biography of The Real Heino sounded plausible enough: he, Norbert Hähnel, was in fact the genuine Heino, while the man who performed everywhere as “Heino” was a copy, a fake created by the record company. As Hähnel explained, he, the real Heino, had refused to play in South Africa as long as the apartheid system continued to exist, so the record company had immediately replaced him by a double who was now performing in South Africa under his name. The Real Heino continued with this play on identities until Heino, alias Heinz Georg Kramm, took his unwanted doppelganger to court in 1985. The loser refused to pay the fine and went to prison for several weeks instead. As this example shows, a true punk is dangerous and amusing at the same time. And because s/he wants to experience the here and now not just mentally but also physically, s/he seeks friction, constantly grating against the limits of a freedom that is supposedly boundless.
Speichel and Margot
In East Berlin, too, there were many examples of subversive and affirmative playing with reality. In the scene centred on the poet Bert Papenfuß, for example, there was a punk by the name of Speichel (saliva/spittle). Speichel called his little dog Margot, the first name of East Germany's Minister of Education, Margot Honecker. “Come on, Margot, sit! Good dog, give me a paw!” What grounds were there for any GDR police officer to arrest Speichel? In a documentary film, East German punks tell how they hired a Russian luxury car, a Volga, and drove in full get-up, with dyed hair and dog collars, onto the marketplace of a small town where a May Day parade was taking place. They wound down their windows and waved red flags at the baffled speakers on the platform. The speakers, rendered speechless by such behaviour, waved back.
In its 1987 edition, the East German dictionary of popular music finally included an entry on punk. The phenomenon was portrayed as a consequence of the capitalist system: unemployment and a lack of prospects = punk. Logically enough, the entry failed to mention a single East German punk band. It also included a typo that turned the “anti-capitalist West Berlin punk band” Die Tödliche Doris (deadly Doris) into “Die Tödliche Dosis” (a lethal dose) - a stroke of genius!
Aesthetics and resistance
In the East, as in the West, the officially recognized protest movement was represented by bearded guitar-playing bards. But East Germany's best-known exemplar of this type, Wolf Biermann, whose personal contacts to Margot Honecker can only be described as an open secret, hardly matched the aesthetic of the punk rebellion. In 1976 he was invited to give a concert in Cologne by Jakob Moneta, after which he was expelled from the GDR. Had he referred in his music to his former relations with East Germany's Minister of Education, by forming a band named “Love & Loathing In The Nomenclature” for example, Biermann might even have become part of the then emerging punk movement. Visceral loathing was a big theme in punk, as reflected in band names like Rotzkotz (snot puke), Kotzübel (gonna vomit) or Brechreiz (nausea). But the loathing of punk focussed more on the slippery-smooth body of the bourgeoisie and its loathsome character traits: opportunism, hypocrisy, self-righteousness.
With Biermann now acting as a committed advocate of George W. Bush's Iraq War and receiving an honorary citizenship from the City of Berlin for his courage and spirit of resistance, it's high time a monument was erected to the unknown East German punk. In the GDR, s/he was excluded from any kind of career and quite likely to be arrested at will and imprisoned for months. But as a consequence of this subversive and affirmative play with reality, the political impact and aesthetic influence exerted by punk in the GDR are not only underestimated and denied, but all-too-often quite simply overlooked.
Swastikas: taboo and provocation
Besides “Betoncombo” (concrete combo), “Die Ärzte” (the doctors) from West Berlin are still considered the authentic German punk band. In the early 1980s, they featured in Jörg Buttgereit's splatter films. Amateur Super-8 films enjoyed cult status in the punk scene and were screened in makeshift cinemas like Frontkino, Risiko, KZ36 and KOB. Here, first steps were ventured into zones of radically subversive form that had been considered taboo in Germany up to that point. In the punk scene, Germany's past resurfaced in entirely new form. Nazi symbols were appropriated and given new meanings. Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious pointed the way, marching down Parisian boulevards in a swastika T-shirt in Julian Temple's The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1979). In West Berlin in 1982, Jörg Buttgereit made Germany's first Hitler movie, Blutige Exzesse im Führerbunker (Bloody Excesses in Hitler's Bunker) that aimed to be neither a documentary, nor an educational feature film, nor a mystic artwork. Buttgereit's film is totally disrespectful, pure trash. “The younger ones among you might not recognize me…,” says Adolf Hitler, played by “the real Heino”, as he launches into a monolog. A reanimated Eva Hitler, née Braun, then castrates and chops up her lover, helped by a “Germanic breeding bull” cobbled together out of severed body parts, played by Buttgereit. Also the just died Sid Vicious was seen walking the streets again in a swastika T-shirt - in West Berlin, played by Oskar Dimitroff, aged two.
In 1982, film critic Dietrich Kuhlbrodt, who at the time also worked as a lawyer at Hamburg's regional court responsible for prosecuting crimes dating from the Nazi period, presented The Sid Vicious Super-8 film to readers of the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper as an alternative to the epic Der Untergang (The Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich, 2004).
Breaches of taboo: from subversion to affirmation
Neo-Nazis and “mueslis” alike found it hard to deal with this radically subversive mode of appropriating Nazi symbols. While Jörg Buttgereit acquired a deeper knowledge of the field, becoming an expert on horror and monster films, action artists like Christoph Schlingensief and the painter Jonathan Meese were later to draw on punk's legacy of taboo-breaking and genre games. As “neo-punks” or “art rebels”, they now affirmatively fill the void in postmodernity which the West covers up with its claim to absolute superiority: It's all just a game of signs and symbols - nothing is forbidden! But punk's impact on society is deeper than such an outcome would suggest. Thanks to their fast, friendly assimilation into the mainstream, the neo-punks were left with little time to use the experience of the past as a basis for an updated subversive aesthetic pointing beyond the endless round of forced scandals. The fact that Schlingensief now paints a bit like Meese and Meese produces plays at the Volksbühne theatre in Berlin reflects a superficial arbitrariness and interchangeability. The outer forms of subversion and affirmation are subject to constant change: Today, with the prevalent gesture of refusing all limits to personal self-realization, the “punk” label somehow seems to fit everyone.
There's punk, and then there's punk:
Wollita, the (post)punk
In 2004, Berlin's tabloid newspapers BILD and BZ aimed their biggest guns at an alleged “exhibition of child pornography” at Kunstraum Kreuzberg. Their main target was a life-size crocheted doll by the name of Wollita made by Françoise Cactus who based the figure on an advertisement for commercial sex taken from the BZ: “Horny woolly mouse (18), will do anything!” An absurd hate campaign began that was to last weeks. With worrying success: for the first time since 1945, a group of organized young Nazis demonstrated in the Kreuzberg district. Their banners and flyers reproduced the tabloid media's headlines and calls for the exhibition to be closed immediately: “If 'art' is suited to awakening the perverse fantasy of child molesters, then this 'art' should be banned!”
Two years later, a production of Ideomeno at the Deutsche Oper opera house in Berlin was taken off the bill due to fears of an Islamist threat. Worried about the state of our freedom, BILD, BZ and Tagespiegel newspapers asked prominent public figures to comment. Christoph Schlingensief's response: “We can't approach a culture that's 500 years younger than Christianity and demand: off with the burqa, on with a miniskirt, on the double.” Instead of analyzing “our” paranoia and talking about its consequences, then, Schlingensief inscribed himself into a mainstream that likes to demonstrate the boundless freedom of the “civilized West” by displays of naked female flesh. In 2007, the BZ awarded its culture prize to the “art rebel” Jonathan Meese.
For years, the post-punk BZ media victim Wollita has been fighting to receive this same award - as modest compensation. In the meantime, she's even had an elegant evening burqa crocheted specially as a way of giving the culture vultures at BILD and BZ access to entirely new intellectual and aesthetic insights and horizons.
“Punk's not dead!” shouted Berlin's punks defiantly. But its survival depended on post-punks finding new modes of body awareness and constantly rethinking what could be done with hairstyles. In some cases, “punk” even became invisible, manifesting itself as a naked, crocheted doll, or as a gentle, revelatory elf.
II. Punk In Detail
The most creative period for punk in West Berlin was between 1979 and 1984. On the one hand, there were the “hardcore punks” and their bands like Betoncombo and Ätztussis (corrosive chicks). And on the other a sprawling, more experimental music scene made up of young artists and intellectuals. In Berlin, these scenes overlapped, mixed and cross-fertilized to a far greater degree than they did elsewhere, and the romanticizing accounts contained in certain books of hard-fought street battles between different groups are perhaps a little exaggerated. There was a wild mixing of scenes that met in bars and clubs, occupying new spaces with names like Chaos, Risiko, Shizzo, Exzess, Dschungel, Frontkino, KOB, Penny Lane, SO-36, and in the late 1980s Kumpelnest 3000 and Ex'n Pop.
Red roses - with thorns
In the stuffy, decrepit West Berlin of the 1980s, the party never stopped. It was the only city in Europe without a curfew. At four one morning, I sat with the East Berlin writer Heiner Müller in Kreuzberg's proletarian late-night bar Rote Rosen, where East Müller and West Müller chatted about the festival of “Geniale Dilletanten” (brilliant dilettantes). This event, held on 4 September 1981 at the Tempodrom, a large circus tent next to the Berlin Wall, drew a crowd of over 1,200. This success came as a surprise, as the scene which assembled on stage for the first time that evening was disapproved of and rejected by professional rock musicians: all the dilettantish noise bands that developed out of West Berlin punk. The bill included Gudrun Gut from the band Malaria, Frieder Butzmann, Din-A-Testbild, Einstürzende Neubauten, Christiane F., Die Tödliche Doris, Frank Xerox (now known as DJ WestBam). Filmmaker Wieland Speck, now director of the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival, emceed the “Great Destruction Show”. Three years previously, he had appeared as a hustler in the last film with Marlene Dietrich, Just A Gigolo. From the front row, Dr. Motte threw full beer cans at the emcee. One can even say, then, that the roots of techno and the Love Parade were present here, even physically present. Much of the music produced on stage sounded terrible, shabby, amateurish and unprofessional; homemade instruments or therapeutic screaming to point of hoarseness, punctuated by sea shanties sung off-key by Zwei Mädels und das Meer (two lasses and the sea). In spite of this, the musical soup that was served up proved to be substantial and not without consequences. In his diplomatic bag, Heiner Müller smuggled back twenty copies of the Geniale Dilletanten manifesto (published by Merve) and handed them out in Prenzlauer Berg. They fell on fertile soil, as improvisation was in vogue in East Berlin at the time, with experimental bands often making their own instruments out of leftovers and playing with junk and scrap metal.
Glam and glitter
Glam rock and the opening up of gender boundaries and sexuality are further elements that flowed into punk. As the first gay bar in Europe to show itself without bricked up windows and without bouncers, the café Anderes Ufer (the other bank) opened in 1977 on Hauptstrasse in the Berlin district of Schöneberg. David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived right next-door, at number 155. Like Heidi Paris and Peter Gente from the Merve publishing house, they often visited the café, sometimes bringing French philosopher Michel Foucault with them. The painter Salomé reflected the erotic atmosphere when he performed half naked with his band Geile Tiere (horny beasts) at the Dschungel club. With hindsight, his performance, in which he played a “bitch” taking Luciano Castelli for a walk on a leash, appears as a queer version of Valie Export's famous walk with Peter Weibel on a dog lead. Though revolutionary in the act of running a gay bar in full view of the public, the organizers were less adventurous in their aesthetic tastes. The old, sperm-crusted sheets hung on the walls as relics by Blixa Bargeld were removed immediately, as were the unwearable designs from his boutique Eisengrau - ultra-loose-knit pullovers, or were they just full of holes? Salomé's water-lily paintings were better received. Not far from the Selbsthilfegalerie (self-help gallery) on Moritzplatz, the centre of the Neue Wilde group of neo-expressionist painters including Rainer Fetting, Elvira Bach, Bernd Zimmer and Helmut Middendorf, Klaus Theuerkauf opened his Endart gallery on Oranienstrasse, Kreuzberg's main drag, celebrating something that was perceived by the scene as “punk art”: not certainty and the propagation of truth, but the creative shaping of destruction. Paint, trash, obscenity and transgressions of the limits of political decorum were used to create something that set West Berlin (then “the heroin capital of Europe”, as Bowie later stated) quite clearly apart from other cities.
Punk meets art
Oranienstrasse was also the address of the punk club SO-36. In 1978, the leaseholder Martin Kippenberger entered into a fateful but now legendary dialog with the youth of the day. When he raised the price of tickets and drinks, he had to face “Jenny The Rat”, an encounter during which she demolished his face. He photographed his bandaged head and titled the work: Dialog mit der Jugend (Dialog With The Youth of Today). He then moved to Paris, where art didn't collide so heavily with art. In fact, Kippenberger conducted the first direct dialog between art and punk, as Jenny The Rat was actually just three years his junior.
The glowing reputation of Berlin's diverse independent music scene soon spread beyond the city limits. Even the fusty Berlin senate eventually realized this and appointed a “commissioner for rock” with a budget for funding bands. In most cases, the lucky newcomers vanished as quickly as they had appeared. As in East Berlin, the art institutions in West Berlin followed the official line. In both halves of the city, this almost always meant realism: Socialist Realism in the East, critical or neo-expressionist realism in the West. The few exceptions included Galerie René Block, founded in 1964, showing work by artists like Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Nam June Paik. There was also Galerie Gianozzo, Galerie Jes Petersen, Galerie Eisenbahnstraße and Künstlerhaus Bethanien, where “non-realist” artists were offered a platform. From 1981, Ursula Block's gallery GELBE Musik (yellow music) brought together fine art, punk, New Music and avant-garde. It is regrettable that the Berlinische Galerie, a museum specialized in art made in Berlin, purchased hardly any key documents, no performance or concert videos, no Super-8 films or artworks from the punk or “Geniale Dilletanten” scenes. The East Berlin scene was luckier in this respect, as the Leipzig gallerist Judy Lybke carefully put together an archive of all her underground Super-8 material after the demise of the GDR in 1989.
Nina Hagen, punk icon
The expulsion of Wolf Biermann generated a mood of resignation in East Germany. His stepdaughter Nina Hagen also left the GDR, moving to London. Her achievements include reconciling the “alternative” and punk scenes in the West. In her music, she mixed the demands of the women's movement for increased self-determination with insolent “Fuck Off!” gestures à la punk. Although her music overall was conventional and eclecticist, she became the face of Berlin punk in the arts and society pages of the broadsheets. In an interview, she revealed that her role models included Valeska Gert, who played Mrs. Peachum in the 1931 film of The Threepenny Opera. And Hagen's hairstyle, black lipstick, make-up, gestures and use of grimaces really are very reminiscent of this impressive dancer, writer and artist.
III.: Punk Past and Present
Valeska Gert: ur-punk
Valeska Gert was Berlin's first punk, a proto-punk. In the 1920s, she danced procurers, prostitutes, traffic - as a cinematic choreography in which she explicitly included cuts. While Hitler published Mein Kampf (my struggle), the title of her first autobiography was simply Mein Weg (my path). Valeska Gert worked with G.W. Papst and experimental filmmaker Walter Ruttmann. She called for music consisting of nothing but noises. In its time, with its proto-fascist fetishization of the harmony of physical forms à la Leni Riefenstahl, her grotesque dancing must have been perceived as alien or incomprehensibly subversive. For the Dadaists, Valeska Gert was far too prosaic, too direct; for the Surrealists, she was too conscious, too concrete. For both, she was probably too emotionally physical and obscene - at least for a white woman. In a diatribe from Goebbels' propaganda ministry about “degeneration” in modern art, she is the only German Jewish woman artist cited, and her “grotesque dance” gets two mentions. She was late in emigrating to the USA, where she immediately clashed with the organization of exiles that called on her in a letter not to make hateful remarks about her country of asylum. Her reply: I didn't hold my tongue in Germany under the Nazis, so why should I keep quiet in a democracy? In New York she ran The Beggar Bar.
From Beggar Bar to Goat Stall
After the war she returned to the destroyed Berlin and opened Die Hexenküche (witch's kitchen) in the west of the city. In KZ-Aufseherin Ilse Koch, she danced and sang a female concentration camp guard, a number that was thirty years ahead of its time. The West Berlin audience, she complained, only wanted to see Social Democrat, anti-Communist cabaret. The authorities, too, harassed her wherever they could. Frustrated, she moved to the North Sea island of Sylt and opened Der Ziegenstall (the goat stall), a bar whose interior would not have looked out of place in a 1980s punk club: straw in cribs, old furniture, graffiti. At the Ziegenstall, as the landlady approvingly noted, the guests bleated and were milked. She was offered cameos by Frederico Fellini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In 1975, Ulrike Oettinger made the experimental film Die Betörung der blauen Matrosen (bewitching the blue sailors) with her and Tabea Blumenschein, and in 1977, Volker Schlöndorff made a documentary about her life. Immediately after Valeska Gert's death in 1978, her heir, the journalist Werner Höfer, had the Ziegenstall demolished. Her papers, already thrown out as trash, were rescued at the last minute.
Pogo dancing, Berlin style
The pogo is a punk dance where the dancers leap up and down and collide with each other in mid air, and one might say that Valeska Gert invented a Berlin version of it. With her reflection of the present, which she expressed directly in and with her body, and with her irreverent approach both to the canons of art and to the predominant ideals of physical beauty of her time, Valeska Gert is usually referred to today as a dancer. This is a simplification, as she could equally be seen as a precursor of performance art, as a living sculpture, or as a unique total art work. In November 2006, a small street in Berlin's Friedrichshain district was named after her. On Sylt itself, there is no memorial to this outstanding artist.
Chaotic Holidays on Sylt
Walter Benjamin describes the specific changes in body awareness in big cities, where sensory perceptions must be instrumentalized and organized to a huge degree to guarantee survival in an accelerated everyday environment. Punk is an attempt to feel and become aware of the body and its interactions with its surroundings in a different, direct way. Including the insight that permanent disorder is necessary. Without awareness, no friction.
Today, the island of Sylt with its masses of tasteless, postmodern holiday homes and pressure to conform is quite barren in aesthetic and material terms. When German Railways launched its promotion campaign for a cheap “Weekend Break” ticket, the authorities on Sylt fought hard against it - for fear of an invasion of less well-off tourists. They demanded that the special offer should exclude the island, linked to the mainland by the Hindenburgdamm. This had consequences: on 27 March 1995, hordes of punks stormed Sylt to hold their “Chaos Days”. “Punk's not dead!” they chanted. The island's mayor, shopkeepers, and cultural officials were appalled by the invasion. Not only does friction facilitate direct physical experience - sometimes art is created in the process.
From: Punk. No One is Innocent: Art - Style - Revolt, KUNSTHALLE Wien, Gerald Matt, Thomas Miessgang (Ed..), Verlag der Kunst, Nürnberg 2008