'So much cooler back then': exhibition recreates Berlin techno club culture

Visitors are promised a taste of the newly reunited city’s 1990s underground music scene

If you can remember it, you probably weren’t there, as the old adage goes. What was true of the summer of love generation applies also to Berlin’s 1990s techno scene, the subject of the city’s latest blockbuster exhibition.

The brainchild of the team behind Berlin’s nostalgia-drenched DDR Museum, Nineties Berlin promises thrill-seeking tourists a taste of the fabled parties of the 20th century’s last decade.

Visitors begin their interactive experience with a 16-minute film to set the scene. It’s 1990. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the east German state has melted away and many east Berliners who have left to seek new opportunity in the west.

New arrivals flood the empty spaces, bringing with them a radical new sound: techno. Before long, hordes of party people have conquered the abandoned warehouses and factories. Music, art and dance blossom in the ruins of the disappearing state.

Things get personal in the exhibition’s next room, where 13 talking heads jabber all at once from a circle of inward-facing video screens. Musicians tell of unemployment benefits that gave them endless time to experiment, while squatters and hooligans explain how they exploited the chaos for their own gain.

Winding past a life-sized mockup of the Berlin Wall, visitors then enter a labyrinth dotted with shrines to lost venues designed by former residents of the artist squat Tacheles, which closed in 2012. Finally, in a mirrored DJ booth, they learn how the Love Parade grew from a humble street party in 1989 into a 1.5 million-strong mega-rave a decade later.

The exhibition samples a list of Love Parade anthems from artists such as Emmanuel Top, Westbam, Felix, D-Shake, Kernkraft, Underworld and Faithless.

Multimedia display at nineties berlin exhibition
Multimedia displays take visitors back to the Berlin of the 1990s. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA

Exhibitions like this are all good fun, says Tobias Rapp, author of the 2009 book Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset, but no one should mistake them for serious history.

“Pop culture has always needed to glorify the past,” says Rapp, who himself moved into an east Berlin squat in 1990 and lived through the city’s techno heyday as a student raver. “It’s always better where you aren’t. Of course, that’s largely rubbish. This 90s nostalgia has a lot of blind spots. East Berlin back then wasn’t some kind of subcultural paradise. We had to fight.”

He means that literally. Back then, groups of neo-Nazis roamed dimly lit streets looking for a scrap, remembers Rachel Clarke. The Scottish performer moved into an east Berlin squat in the summer of 1991 and has called the city home ever since. Gangs routinely attacked those who looked or sounded foreign, she says.

Neo-Nazis weren’t the only issue, says Clarke, who endured freezing winters in unrenovated buildings with bad plumbing and dangerous wiring. “It was horrific really, in some ways,” she says.

And, of course, not everyone was into techno. For many east Berliners struggling to adjust to new realities, the influx of partygoers from the west was a source of bemusement.

Anja Kahlau grew up in the east Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. She had just turned 18 when the wall fell in 1989 and moved out of her family home into a squatted housing project. Before long, a techno club sprang up next door.

“We often didn’t get any sleep,” remembers Kahlau. “Techno wasn’t really my thing. We threw parties of course, but they weren’t as excessive.”

Much more than the three-day-long raves, those who lived through the real 1990s Berlin say it’s the empty space they miss most.

“We felt freer because there was more space,” says Clarke, who remembers holding kids’ film workshops on urban wastelands that have since been blanketed with blocks of high-rise flats. “The space didn’t have a price on it, it belonged to everybody.”

Now, she says, the premium on living space has made Berliners more uptight. But Clarke, who remains active in the city’s vibrant theatre and arts scene, doesn’t think the story’s over. She’s learned to look beyond skyrocketing rents and the flood of designer boutiques, hipster coffee shops and foodie street markets.

“Look to the spaces in between,” says Clarke. “You’ll still find niches in Berlin where a lot of people are able to fulfil their dreams.”


Josie Le Blond in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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