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What we learned at the Dazed Secret Lecture in Berlin

At the Dazed and Huawei Secret Lectures gathering in the country’s capital, we listened in on words of wisdom from people who make the city tick

If we were looking for a more “Berlin” place to host our Huawei x Berlin event, we couldn’t have found it. The Kühlhaus is a backstreet grey box, unremarkable from the outside, that opens into a sparse, concrete interior set over several levels. It does that thing that Berlin does so well: simple, almost austere architecture that prioritises what happens inside more than what something looks like on the outside.

If we were looking for a more Berlin panel, we might have struggled in that regard too. Our assembled experts were experienced in Berlin, with decades in the city under their belt, but intrinsically other: this is a fundamentally transient city where the native Berliner is a rare breed and where outsiders predominate. In German, the word outsider - Außenseiter - can be translated as outsider, misfit, maverick and newcomer, depending on context, and our panel encapsulated that.

There is an artist, Alicja Kwade, who was born in Poland and has lived in Berlin since 1996 and a curator, Johann König, who founded the König Galerie at the age of 20 immediately after moving to Berlin from Frankfurt in 2002. Further along is Benjamin Huseby, a Norwegian who studied art, shot fashion photos in London and subsequently co-founded fashion label GmbH. Our final guest is Anastazja Moser, the Polish co-founder of Berlin Community Radio, one of the most influential actors on the cultural scene in the city.

The discussion, lead by Sleek Magazine founder Jeni Fulton, switched languages and subjects frequently, covering everything from origin stories – with so many outsiders in Berlin, everyone has one – and the pace of change in the city, to the role of Berlin within Germany and the effect that technology has had on its culture. Here’s what we learned.

CLUB CULTURE IS STILL WHAT MAKES BERLIN TICK

You think of Berlin, you think of clubs, but the extent to which the city’s cultural industries revolve around the dancefloor cannot be understated. “I went to raves in Norway when I was 13 and when I moved to London I went to raves,” said photographer turned fashion designer Benjamin Huseby. “When we started GmbH, we met on the dance floor, literally. I can’t say one because it was various clubs with various people. We met through going out and socialising”. The interdisciplinary nature of Berlin is exemplified by the clubs: everyone, whether artists, designers, writers or whatever, parties and everyone gravitates towards the clubs, where they meet and discuss ideas.

“Berlin is open and willing to collaborate,” according to Anastazja Moser. “There’s no attitude of ‘I’m an artist and therefore I don’t do music’. There’s this idea from the 70s that’s very lo-fi, you can start doing music even if you’re not a DJ. It’s something that encourages people to try and experiment.” Her radio station, Berlin Community Radio, is filled with people experimenting in music who come from backgrounds in other fields, allowing for a crossover of ideas and influences that exudes through the airwaves.

Of course, the low cost of living allows people the freedom to go out at night. “You study for free here, which means that you can go out and participate in club culture,” concluded Anastazja. “You are quite radical here.”  

“You study for free here, which means that you can go out and participate in club culture” - Anastazja Moser

THE INTERNET HAS ALLOWED BERLIN TO MARKET ITSELF TO THE WORLD

The internet is influencing Berlin like it influences everywhere, but Berlin is reacting in a way that makes itself unique in that environment. The draw built by bricks and mortar spreads digitally. Johann König founded his gallery to be like the old Berlin and migrated that spirit. “We made the glowing, attractive Berlin attractive to outsiders;” he told the audience. “We made the König Gallerie into a unique space like Berghain or SO36. In Berlin, we wanted to have an open house. We really want to contribute to the cultural landscape of the city.”

While it might not be in the anti-capitalist spirit of old Berlin, König has been able to monetize a reputation made by adhering to those inclusive, bottom-up ideals. They sold merch under the König Souvenir brand that went viral. “I think it has a lot to do with identifying with Berlin,” says König. “We did a talk about Brexit and launched our EUnify hoodie and that got shipped around the world.”

Anastazja Moser reflected on the power of brand Berlin around the world. “We always wanted to start making merch but resources were limited. We managed it and they sold out in 2 weeks. We shifted stuff all over the world - there is interest in the city as a cultural hub. I went to a shop in Mexico and someone was playing BCR. It’s been really organic.

BERLIN IS NOT GERMANY, BUT IT IS INTERNATIONAL

Before the wall came down, West Berlin was an island inside East Germany and physically separated from the rest of the country. It was always a mecca for outsiders, but they were as likely to come from Istanbul and New York as from Hamburg or Frankfurt. It is noticeable that, having started the discussion in German, we end it almost completely in English. “You can’t even order a coffee in Berlin in German anymore,” laughs Johann König. “That pisses off right-wing politicians in the Rhineland.”

“Berlin still feels more like an island in Germany;” said artist Alicja Kwade. She has lived in Berlin since 1996 - the longest of the panel - and can give an insight into how the city has changed over the previous two decades. “The art scene has got much much bigger. The negative is that it is much more difficult to become visible, you had more opportunities to be part of the language of the city. The positive thing that people have lost inhibitions.”

The internet has played a huge role in bypassing the rest of Germany, according to König. “Germany has become more Berlin. When I travel outside of Berlin, I see that. I think this is because of social media and the internet. The rest of the country has become open-minded and it is easier to participate in what when I was young was called ‘subculture’.”

“The common DNA of Berlin is the internet that connects us with our audience, a parallel between the local and the international,” says Anastazja Moser. “Berlin is so transient, it’s never stale and there is always a movement, the same as the internet.”

TECH MADE EVERYONE A CREATOR, BUT THERE’S STILL NO SUBSTITUTE FOR A HUMAN

Along with the rise of the internet, the influence of tech on the creative scene cannot be understated.” An important effect of the development of technology is that it has made the idea of underground obsolete,” said Benjamin Huseby. “I use Instagram as a communications tool and a discovery tool, because you can communicate directly with the artists and designers.”

There are, however, pitfalls, to the fall of barriers between curators and creators. Technology cannot make decisions like a human can about value and that creates a space for curatorial platforms like the König Galerie, to decide what art to exhibit, or Berlin Community Radio, to decide which music to play. “We are almost drowning in content,” says Anastazja Moser. “That comes from technology. Everyone can create now. Now we need mediums to source through the content, a medium to navigate and that’s where radio plays a role.”

“How do we find things? How do we relate to things? That’s where the human element comes in. That’s why being in Berlin and relating to people in real life is important. It’s harder and harder now to get that audience.”

“Everyone can create now. Now we need mediums to source through the content, a medium to navigate” – Anastazja Moser

GENTRIFICATION IS HAPPENING BUT OLD BERLIN ISN’T DEAD YET

Berlin, almost more than any big city in Europe, is in a battle over its soul. No city has built its reputation on alternative and underground culture quite as much as Berlin, and thus it has the most to lose from gentrification. The low rents that drew artists from around the world to the city are rising rapidly. There is a perception that the creative scene is one of the drivers of gentrification in the city and an audience member questions what creative industries can do to halt this.

“I’m not sure how much responsibility we have to be political,” admits Johann König. “We offer free shows that anyone can go to. But it’s also gentrification - we move to other districts but we bring the shadow of gentrification with us.”

The involvement of the state in slowing and assisting cultural movements is vital, according to Anastazja Moser. “It’s a neoliberal concept that you can just create,” she says. “You need a platform. We were always funded by the state and the government. We never had to make choices that meant that we were working with corporation and brands. Things are happening and changing but we are still lucky that we are getting funding.”

The role of passion in creating is free and one that drives Alicja Kwade forwards. “You need to be a bit addicted. You don’t get paid. For me it was passion,” she says, and Benjamin Huseby agrees. “You have to be obsessed with something and then it evolves.” The role of a physical space and a cultural environment like Berlin is always important. “It has so much to do with people that you have met who nudge you in directions.”