It might be a city built on sand but going underground in Berlin lands you between a rock and a hard place: on one side, the raw, existential rock-soul-noise drummed up by Einstürzende Neubauten and any number of unstable units permed from the small pool of artists, chancers and nay sayers they started out with in early 1980s West Berlin; on the other, the precisely calibrated monochrome Techno ricocheting off reinforced concrete walls in subterranean bunkers and abandoned industrial plants in the lawless grey zones opened up in the Eastern sector when the Berlin Wall was breached and brought down in 1989-1990.
Of course, much else has happened before and after and around these two black hole energy fields in the 30 years since Einstürzende Neubauten launched in 1980, especially after the Wall came down and made Berlin the default destination for outsider types from all over the world, among them former DDR artists like Carsten Nicolai and Rammstein, the latter conceivably being the biggest German group in the world. But none of it is so deeply rooted in the city and its ongoing endtime dramas of total war, destruction, occupation, cold war division and reunification as the music Neubauten hammered out on old West Berlin’s foundations, or the Techno scene that stealthily colonised wastelands of ruin after the collapse of the DDR.
With so much to tell about themselves and where they come from, these two grand narratives continue to overshadow all the city’s other smaller, yet no less revealing stories. The good news is you can find many of these untold stories in Danielle De Picciotto’s Berlin memoir The Beauty Of Transgression. An American artist who drifted into West Berlin via Cologne in 1987, she has been a shyly reluctant protagonist yo-yoing back and forth from the sidelines to the dead centres of all the great and small histories she has been actively involved in; and her diaristic accounts of them patchwork together an extraordinarily vivid and comprehensive portrait of Berlin city lives, her own and other creatives. These were frequently eked out in impoverished conditions, albeit ameliorated by a support network of scene bars and clubs and galleries either offering waitressing work or free drinks to artists on the other side of the counter.
De Picciotto is one of the very few people granted free passage between the city’s rock and a hard place. Shortly after her arrival in Berlin she became partner to Dr Motte, with whom she helped launch Berlin’s Love Parade. Another enduring friendship through the book is with Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the Tresor club; though Motte participated in The Untergang Show where Neubauten et al announced their existence, and Hegemann was the organiser of the early 1980s Industrial/Noise showcase Atonal festivals, the respective scenes gravitating around the city’s rock and a hard place rarely had anything to do with each other.
As an artist without a clearly defined portfolio, De Picciotto has worked for 30 plus years on both sides of the divide, only for her contributions to go largely unrecognised. She has acted as fashionista, dresser, stage designer, events organiser, exhibition curator, film maker, adviser, musician, vocalist and more; much of the time, her energies have been expended in the service of making others look good, or in creating costumes and backdrops for the memorable happenings that advance Berlin’s reputation as a laboratory for louche, decadent art experiment wherein the usual laws of gravity are suspended and hierarchies of high and low culture are turned upside down.
Unfortunately it’s not to easy to upturn or overthrow that other hierarchy, which seemingly only permits women to act in a supportive capacity to the more serious work of men; it’s unsurprising but no less shocking to see such a hierarchy repeatedly reasserting itself in the supposedly more enlightened Berlin underground circles De Picciotto passes through. And that’s despite the presence in these pages of so many extraordinary women, among them Gudrun Gut, who also moves freely between rock and Techno circles. Working with Gut and others, Picciotto grows optimistic about the changing status of women in the underground. But her relationship and eventual marriage with Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke quickly shattered any dream of sisterhood when she found herself the target of murderous envy from the more extreme female fans clammering for the group’s attention. Happily, their relationship has held true, with De Picciotto and Hacke now equal partners generating a series of mixed media projects incorporating literature, music and film, and pitched beyond the long shadows cast by Berlin’s rock and a hard place.
Danielle De Picciotto’s The Beauty Of Transgression: A Berlin Memoir is published by Gestalten. She’ll be reading from her book, with music supplied by Alexander Hacke, at the Idler Academy, London at 7pm, 2 December.