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Atlas Interview: Ulrich Gutmair.








We got together with the writer and journalist Ulrich Gutmair again in Istanbul, and this time it was on the occasion of the Turkish edition of his book Die Ersten Tage von Berlin: Der Sound der Wende (Klett Cotta, 2013). It was published by Kolektif Kitap in May under the title of Berlin’in İlk Günleri: Birleşme Yıllarının Sound’u. The first time we met in 2019, he was here in Istanbul as a fellow of Kulturakademie Tarabya. I read the English sample translation and was fascinated by the powerful and peculiar atmosphere of the book. Because of the subtitle (“The Sound of Change”), my first impression was that it dealt mainly with the musical scene (i.e. house and techno music of the 90s) of reunified Berlin. But the book is actually so much more than that. It is an oral history of the first years of the new Berlin, of the collapse of the East German socialist system and of the unification of the two German states, and subsequently of the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods. It is a charming story of temporary, shattered, contradictory things: new systems, new values, new clubs, squats, art houses, and new lifestyles. A passage from the book shows eloquently what Gutmair means by “sound”:


The early nineties seem like a dream you can only vaguely remember the next morning while the soundscape still echoes in your ear. The sound of the Wende encompasses not only breakbeat, house and techno but pneumatic drills and rubble chutes, the compressed scales of a modem turning data into notes, nightingales singing at the best time for going out and the sound of a lark in the morning, as well as conversations on the edge of the dance floor, at gallery previews and in bars.[1]

I am so glad that we had a chance to do an interview, to talk more about the book, and to celebrate the Turkish edition. I am grateful to Ulrich for accepting my invitation, and for bearing with me despite my lengthy questions.


Let’s go back to the details of a magical moment in history.



Hotel Clou in Mauerstrasse 15. This later became Elektro.
@Illus Kümpfel, 17. 2. 1950 --- Hotel Clou in Mauerstrasse 15. This later became Elektro.



Basically, what happened was only captured in people’s minds and memories. People would tell stories about how it had been for this short magical moment. And I thought that one has to write down this mythology. This is the reason why I asked a lot of people to tell me their stories. It’s those stories which transport the experiences of those who were part of this moment.


Eda: You moved to West Berlin just before the fall of the Wall in October 1989. You were studying journalism at Freie University. The first years of new Berlin were the first years of your university education. You write in your book that you went to university during daytime and at night you frequented bars, clubs, and squats at Berlin-Mitte. What was the fall of the Wall and the re-unification of Germany discussed at the time like?


Ulrich: The fall of the Wall was of course an extraordinary event. Everyone understood immediately that it was a moment of historic significance. It really shook everything up. The fall of the Wall was the outcome of a Revolution, because a lot of East German citizens during spring and summer 1989 were almost constantly on the streets. They were organizing regular Monday demonstrations for example. In the end they forced their government to radically change its politics. In 1990 the first free elections in the GDR were held. And the new East German parliament decided that their state should become part of the West German republic. A lot of the more radical democratic groups of the East did not like this outcome, because they did not want the unification of the two states, at least not immediately. They had been hoping to change their own state, the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and wanted to pursue a “Third Way”. That means they wanted to install a system in East Germany that would be neither state socialist nor capitalist. But they were a minority. After the fall of the Wall the demonstrations and performances on the streets went on. Every day something new happened. So very quickly people stopped discussing the fall of the Wall and very practically moved on to the question of how things should be organized from now on.



Eda: In East Berlin, on the one hand, there was frustration, and poverty, on the other hand, there were people who threw out their old furniture of eastern, socialist production and bought new IKEA purchased with “welcome money” from the West German state. Many things, many transformations happened at the same time: poverty, capitalism, consumerism, fear and lightness. As one of your interviewees, Christoph Keller, says in the book, “It wasn’t only their jobs that people lost; it was their entire value system. Alcohol was one answer, and so was violence.”[2] And many people from East Berlin moved to the West within a short time. Can you tell us a bit more about people’s lives in East Berlin in the face of all those transformations, transitions and contradictions?


Ulrich: The transformations people in the East had to deal with were fundamental. People lost their entire value system, as Christoph stated correctly. All of a sudden, a lot of things people had learned and maybe believed in were not thought to be valid anymore. Before there was no unemployment, the state guaranteed housing for everyone. Women were very well integrated into the economy. The state provided kindergartens for everyone, so women could work. Now there was a capitalist welfare state instead. Many qualifications did not count anymore. Many factories and whole industries shut down, a lot of people became unemployed. So this transition caused a lot of stress for many people. I think the young ones adapted most quickly. Many older people struggled harder. But a majority still welcomed this transition because the old system obviously was morally and economically bankrupt.



Eda: Readers can also find many examples of the relationship between the political authority and places of the city. And in the center, there was Berlin-Mitte, where the "party" went on for all those years till the political authority was established. I want to zoom in to the party places. It is obvious that the music was the primary motivation that brought you and everybody to the clubs, and bars in Berlin-Mitte. Were there other reasons why these places that sometimes existed only for a short time or sometimes only for one night were so attractive to you?


Ulrich: We went to those clubs because we wanted to dance, but of course also to meet people. It was exciting, because in the clubs you had people from the East, from the West and a lot of people from all over the world. And some of the clubs were rather queer. People often made a lot of effort to create unique situations at those places. They spent quite some time to make everyone feel excited about them. And as the music developed quickly and every night something new seemed to happen, you did not want to miss it.



Eda: You said that there was a feeling of collectivity in the sense that any kind of behavior that could damage the spontaneousness and openness of the experience was not tolerated. According to your experiences, how did such a collective attitude develop?


Ulrich: Everyone who has children knows that they need rules and sometimes you even might think that they enjoy rules. Rules are very human, every society is based on rules even though many of those rules are not outspoken. And even a quite anarchic society is based on rules. It’s a great misunderstanding to equal anarchy with chaos. Anarchy is not chaos, it’s order without domination. Anarchy seeks to impose as few power structures as possible. The post-Wall society of squatters, artists and party people developed their own specific rules and because of the situation some people cherished a short text by Hakim Bey, who just recently died, where he outlined the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone.


With his concept the U.S. anarchist was trying to answer the question of how to enjoy the fruits of a revolution that never happens: “Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future?” Bey believed that there is a third option. He develops the “poetic fantasy” of a “guerrilla operation that liberates a piece of land, time or imagination and then dissolves to reappear elsewhere”. That’s what he called a Temporary Autonomous Zone. Bey saw forerunners of the T.A.Z. in the Caribbean pirate republics, the Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1918-19, the Spanish anarchist experiment and the “Free State of Fiume” in Italy after the First World War. The leader of Fiume, the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, declared music to be the organising principle of the state.


So it comes as no surprise that partying is another element of Bey’s T.A.Z.. He quotes Stephen Pearl Andrews who, in the nineteenth century, regarded the dinner party as the harbinger of a liberated society and believed that in the future no one would any longer be ashamed to believe in free love. For Andrews, the dinner party was the seed of a new society. Bey further developed this idea: “The party is always ‘open’ because it is not ‘ordered’; it may be planned, but unless it ‘happens’, it’s a failure. The element of spontaneity is crucial.” His definition of a party was simple: “The essence of the party: face-to-face, a group of humans synergize their efforts to realize mutual desires, whether for good food or cheer, dance, conversation, the arts of life; perhaps even for erotic pleasure or to create a communal artwork.”



Kunsthaus_Tacheles_stairway_with_Graffiti.JPG
Kunsthaus Tacheles Stairway with Graffiti. Source: Bundesregierung

Eda: Does such a kind of collectivity without authority still inspire you? Or rather, what would be the inspirations we can get today while building collectives and communities?


Ulrich: The answer depends on what exactly you are referring to: The quasi-Anarchy in East Berlin was caused by the change of political systems. The old system was brought down and the new system, the rules of the West, were not yet imposed. So, the old authorities in the East were insecure and even the police were kind of shy these days. They knew that they could not treat people like they did before. A concrete anarchist movement was the squatting of 130 houses in the first six months after the fall of the Wall. Usually the squatters organize themselves in a democratic way, addressing their problems in plena. And finally, there is according to Bey obviously the anarchic moment in the party itself. A good party is like a carnival, the rules of daily life do not apply. Of course, there are also rules to partying, but they are different.


This means that a lot of things that happened in this unique historic situation cannot be repeated easily or be seen as a blueprint. But of course, we can always learn from the party experience. A party should be based on the principles of emancipation. Everyone should be able to express themselves without being judged or even harassed. Everyone should be able to be happy in a temporal community like this.



Eda: What are the legacies of this anarchist tendency for today’s politico-cultural character of Berlin?


Ulrich: Before the Nazi regime came to power, Berlin had been a very modern, open minded metropolis. But you could still feel the legacy of Prussian authoritarianism and a mentality formed by National Socialism before the war and a law and order mindset in both parts of the city in 1989. In the East, it was socialist law and order, in the West it was anti-communist law and order. But the authoritarian petit bourgeois on both sides were challenged by the student revolt of the 1960s, by dissidents, squatters and cultural revolutionaries of all sorts. In 1989 it was their brief, anarchist moment. The liberal, anti-authoritarian spirit of Berlin that has a long tradition and was reinforced by the experience of T.A.Z is very strong to this day.



Eda: You have pointed out that in many clubs it was not allowed to take photos. Since recording those moments was prohibited, most of the memories and knowledge of this experience have disappeared. Your book is a treasure of those memories. Was that the initial motivation for you to write it?


Ulrich: Yes, the idea and the urge to write it arose from a feeling of loss. Berlin-Mitte was changing so quickly that after six, seven, eight years I felt that the initial energy was gone. Bars and clubs professionalized, a lot of houses were renovated or newly built. And because of that in some streets you wouldn’t recognise anymore the spots where you once partied. Indeed, in many clubs it was forbidden to take photos. And to my astonishment it was also not very easy to find pictures of the urban landscape either. Basically, what happened was only captured in people’s minds and memories. People would tell stories about how it had been for this short magical moment. And I thought that one has to write down this mythology. This is the reason why I asked a lot of people to tell me their stories. It’s those stories which transport the experiences of those who were part of this moment.



Eda: Was it difficult to bring together all these stories, sensations and memories which belong to a time and life so different from now?


Ulrich: It was hard work for sure, because of the many sources I used. I had to bring them together to tell a multidimensional story. But on the other hand, it was also easy, because the people I had asked shared many fascinating memories with me and also their explanations and thoughts about what had happened.



Eda: Many of the new subcultures of today’s Berlin are products of those few years. Can you tell us a bit about them and manifestation of anarchist spirit?


Ulrich: Some of the squats were evicted by old or new owners with the help of police, some were legalized and people got regular contracts. The squatting movement does not exist anymore. But the Techno and House scene, what once was called “Rave Culture”, had a great impact on Berlin. Berghain, the club where everyone wants to go at least once in their lives, is kind of a monument to this culture. I always point out that Berghain’s water taps are an architectural expression of a certain attitude to support the idea of raving as a communal activity beyond commercial interests. When you go clubbing you sometimes spend many hours on the dancefloor and it is very important to drink a lot of water. In a commercial club you have to buy water at the bar and often it’s quite expensive. But at Berghain those taps are big and you can quickly refill your bottle with free water. That’s the anarchic spirit of the early 1990s manifested in a small item.



Eda: There were also Neo-Nazi subcultures in Berlin-Mitte at this time. And there were acts of violence. Can we say that the reactions of the police to the violent actions of Neo-Nazis after the fall of the Wall have changed in favor of the Nazis?


Ulrich: The problem is more complex. In the central areas of Berlin those activities have been quickly contained by self organisation, countermeasures by Antifa and so on. But in the outskirts and the countryside around Berlin, a Neo-Nazi subculture was able to thrive after the collapse of the Socialist system. If police and courts did not do enough to prosecute criminal activities it is to a great extent the result of a weak civil society and the ignorance of the so called “center” of society.



German-edition-Die-Ersten-Tage-Von-Berlin
Klett Cotta, 2013

English-edition-The-First-Days-of-Berlin.jpg
Polity Press, 2022



Kolektif Kitap, 2022



Eda: There is a very good passage in your book beginning with the question “how long is now”. There you explain that “now” stands for what is present as experience, as history and remembrance. Considering the perception and practices of remembrance, experience and history, I would like to ask “how long is now” back then and now?


Ulrich: “How long is now?” was a graffiti on Kunsthaus Tacheles. I always thought this was a great philosophical question pointing out to the fact that the experience of presence or present time is very subjective. When you are a child, a sunny afternoon can feel like eternity. It does not matter if you are lost in an intense game or if you are bored. Dancing can bring about the same feeling. The experience of presence sometimes seems to come close to eternity. Of course, the past is always there but it is not determining your experience when you become part of the rhythm. And the future does not matter either. So, trying to answer your question, I’d say: Back then not only a night in the club often felt like a very long now, but also everyday life sometimes seemed to happen in a utopian place outside the continuum of time and space that usually is dominated by the demands of society. In other words, it was easier to feel like a child back then. But this of course is also linked to my subjective experience. Then I was in my early twenties, now I’m not.



Eda: Assume that we are in one of these clubs, surrounded by the euphoric core of techno music, its loop. You claim that this music establishes a certain kind of being in the present. Is it about the dance itself? How does it related to your body perception and being together with others?


Ulrich: The loop relates to the topic we have been talking about before. The loop fixes a short period of time in a lock. The repetition of a drum pattern or a bass line creates a feeling of eternal present that is slowly spiraling forward in time. This in turn is closely connected to your body movements because they are linked to those loops. If you dance for a while you are able stop observing yourself or even controlling your movements. Your body finds its own way of reacting to the music. This can feel like a transcendental experience. You stop to think. Your present existence is connected to the rhythmical flow but also responds to the movements around you. Your body is communicating with other bodies. You start to mirror or to answer your neighbors’ movements. And last but not least, you are a part of a crowd and everyone is moving together to the beat, which is the dictator of this scenario, a machine that is moving the people on the dancefloor: “Can you feel it?” is a question posed in a famous House track. And everything I have been talking about in this answer is contained in this “it”.



Eda: David Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to Berlin in the late 1970s. You write that if they did not move to West Berlin and record some of their music there, we would not talk very much about the West Berlin music culture today. Do you know if they made any collaborations with German musicians or have you encountered any other examples of a multicultural musical atmosphere?


Ulrich: Referring to the first part of your question: What I wrote was polemical. I wanted to make fun of the mythology of the wild 1970s and 1980s in West-Berlin. Of course, there was a fascinating scene of people who – in the spirit of Punk – created an avantgarde movement they called “Geniale Dilletanten”. The name means “Brilliant Dilettantes” and the brilliance of the dilettantes or – the other way around – the amateurism of the geniuses was already displayed in the name, when they mis-spelled dilettante as dilletante. West Berlin was a place where Berliners met with West Germans and people from all over the world who loved the morbid post-War charm of the place, which was a half-city cheap to live in, like the inner boroughs of New York at this time, and thus an ideal place to indulge in a bohemian lifestyle. Of course, there were a lot of encounters and collaborations between artists. I mention for example Wayne County who around this time lived in Berlin and changed her name to Jayne. She had a punk band called The Electric Chairs. There was also a vibrant scene of Turkish performers, because a lot of Turks had come as Gastarbeiter, guest workers to West Berlin. But usually those scenes did not mix. One exception was the punk club S.O. 36 that later became “Merhaba S.O. 36” and was run by Kreuzberg Turks. The place soon would host the now famous “Gayhane” night.



Eda: What were the differences between these West Berlin 80s clubs and the ones that were founded after the fall of the Wall in East Berlin?


Ulrich: The difference was due to the different musical styles. West-Berlin bars and clubs were places where people would listen to Punk, Industrial, New Wave and later also Country, because people like Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave loved Country music. In the late 1980s people started to organise House parties. When the Wall fell, House and Techno, but also HipHop, Raggamuffin and Jungle became the dominant styles in the new East Berlin clubs.



Eda: What kind of impact had these years on being a DJ as a performance artist?


Ulrich: In the beginning nobody cared so much about the DJ. Of course, people appreciated good DJ sets but it was not so much about the names of DJs that attracted people but rather certain nights that you would go to. Later DJs became stars and people started to dance like a crowd in a rock concert, facing the DJ. For old school ravers this was kind of ridiculous, because you dance with your crowd, you communicate with your fellow dancers, you are not celebrating the DJ like a rock star. If she/he is good of course you show it. But then you turn around again.



Eda: You are working on a new book about Punk music. You were here in Istanbul for the first time at the end of 2019 and for the second time last year in the middle of the pandemic as a fellow of Kulturakademie Tarabya. What have you discovered about Turkish Punk?


Ulrich: I have learnt that – because of the military coup in 1980 – there were not a lot of Punk bands in Turkey in the 1980s. I talked a lot to Ünver Şahin, who told me that when he studied in Ankara, he played in a band called Alien Nation, which might have been the first Turkish Punk band. I also have met Tolga Koçak, who played bass on the legendary Rashit album “Telaşa Mahal Yok”. He happens to be a fan of German Punk. I love the first album of Tampon, “Planet Tampon”, that only came out a few years ago despite the fact that the songs are much older. Tampon started as an all-female band as far as I know in 1994, but singer Aslı A.A. is still the front woman of the band. I saw them a few weeks ago and they are really powerful. Basically, I am still learning!



graffiti-on-the-west-side-of-the-berlin-a-glimpse-into-east-germany.jpg
Graffiti on the West Side of Berlin: A Glimpse into East Germany. Source: Bundesregierung

Eda: What would you say to people who still believe in the socialist myth related to East Berlin?


Ulrich: For some hardcore, unreconstructed communists and socialists, the popular revolution against the socialist regime in East Berlin is still hard to understand: How come the better society, this peaceful, antifascist, socialist society that had overcome capitalism, was toppled by mass demonstrations? The answer is: The German Democratic Republic was very authoritarian. It employed hundreds of thousands of people who worked for the Ministry of State Security. They not only spied on people, but they destroyed people whom they identified as enemies of the state. Sometimes young people were denied higher education just because they were wearing the wrong clothes. And one must add that the nomenklatura of the system was not very smart. In the 1950s the Politbureau of the Soviet Union wanted to sack the party leader of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, because the Soviet communists understood that he was not capable to understand that East German socialists should not copy the Soviet system. Because according to the analysis of the Soviet Politbureau, East German society and economy were more advanced than the Russian society, because capitalism there was more developed before the socialists came into power. Thus, unique policies to further develop East German society and state would be needed that took advantage of the higher level of development in the country. Ironically the Soviets couldn’t kick him out at the time, because workers organised an uprising against Ulbricht’s government. So Ulbricht had to stay in power. He was the most important man in the GDR until he was finally sacked in 1971.



Eda: Can you describe in a few sentences how and why this magic moment happened?


Ulrich: It happened, because a few developments coincided: The collapse of the Eastern Bloc, a musical revolution which mirrored technological innovation, and the liberalisation of society.



Eda: Because of the atmosphere of the same magic moment, this book easily could have a nostalgic tone, but this is not the case. It is obvious that you are not a nostalgic person but I am still wondering how could you manage to find all these witnesses who are also not nostalgic?


Ulrich: The people who are telling their stories in the book are smart. Each one of them knew that they had been lucky to be able to be there, when it was happening, in this outstanding moment of history. Radical changes like that usually happen as results of wars or bloody revolutions. But here it had happened because of a peaceful revolution. All of them were grateful and got a lot of inspiration and strength from this experience. And they know that nobody can take these experiences from them. It was impressive to see and feel that when I spoke to them. That’s why I think they don’t need to flee into the nostalgia of any kind. Nothing is lost to them. What they received and what they did is still with them.



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So what was the author listening to, and to which music was he dancing?

He answers that question with a great Spotify list bringing together exciting Techno, House, and Hardcore music from Detroit, NYC, London, Berlin, Chicago, and Manchester. Check it out!



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ulrich Gutmair was born in 1968 in Dillingen an der Donau, Swabia. He moved to Berlin a few weeks before the fall of the Wall. He studied history and journalism at the Freie University in Berlin. Gutmair, whose articles have been published in numerous magazines, has been the editor of the culture page of the Berlin-based daily newspaper TAZ (Die Tageszeitung) since 2007. He has been in Istanbul as a fellow of Kulturakademie Tarabya at different times since 2019. Currently living in Berlin, Gutmair is now working on a new book about punk culture in Germany.


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[1] Polity Books, p. 14 [2] p. 87.


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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Eda Çaça received her undergraduate degree from the Philosophy Department of METU and did a minor in psychology at the same university. She completed her master's degree at Bilgi University, Department of Philosophy and Social Thought. She was one of the founding members of the first academic cultural studies journal KÜLT published by Bilgi University Press. She worked in copyright agencies for about eight years and continued as the editor-in-chief of Kolektif Kitap for about five years. She founded a publishing community Atlas Publishing Lab in January 2022 and continues to work there as an agent, editor and scout.



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