In her bi-weekly column for Document Journal, McKenzie Wark writes about dancing at Berlin’s Berghain, the world-famous temple of techno
I had list for Berghain, so at least I would not have to face the Judgement of the Door. Many regard the Berlin club as the temple of techno. Since it opened in 2004, it has acquired a fierce reputation as a playground for contemporary hedonism as much as for its sound system—but above all, for its highly selective door. I prefer raves to clubs, and hate submitting myself to anyone’s judgment, but New York’s own Dee Diggs is playing on a Sunday afternoon, plus I have list. So I throw a coat over my dancing outfit and head out into the winter cold.
A long, long line greets me on arrival, past which I sail, gayly. Only I pass it on the wrong side. I can see the Keeper of the List over on the other. Rather than walk all the way around the queue, I cut the line. While congratulating myself on this bit of club craft, I forget that, from this side, I will still have to face the Judgement of the Door. Nervous—I hate this. When the Moment of Truth arrives, the doorman asks me to take my glasses off. He looks into my eyes; I look into his. I smile at him; he smiles back. I’m in.
It’s disorienting at first. A dark space full of black-clad bodies. I’m used to that, but not on this scale. Berghain is housed in a former railway repair depot. The main hall is a huge, high space. Given its volume, the sound is amazingly good. The throb of the beat pulls me onto the dance floor against my will. Strange that, in this postindustrial space, we like to dance to a simulation of that industrial thrum.
“When the Moment of Truth arrives, the doorman asks me to take my glasses off. He looks into my eyes; I look into his. I smile at him; he smiles back. I’m in.”
I have to peel myself away as my friends are upstairs, in the Panorama Bar, where Dee is already playing. Up there I find Q and N, and a whole posse of New York ravers. They’ve taken over a spot in front of the DJ. Hugs and kisses. My timing is good, as everyone thinks it’s time for a bathroom break. Eight of us wind our way down to the lower level and get in line. After a long wait, we discover just how many people can comfortably fit into a Berghain stall—eight.
By the time we are back upstairs, the ketamine hits. Time unfolds; flesh unfolds. Then time and flesh fold in together. Inside the folds, some sounds are no longer audible, while others leap out with crystal clarity. Crunchy bass textures I can taste and touch with every surface of my body, pressed inside the folding, into movement, into the corners of sound itself.
While deep in this kinetic reverie, Q comes over to tell me that there is a problem getting my plus-one in at the door. Since I had not actually used my list spot, the plus-one isn’t working. Our mission is to wend our way back down to the door and persuade the Keeper of the List that I am indeed here, and to let our friend in. More precisely, Q’s friend. Q is with N but also fucks other people. They both do. Today, the three of them are supposed to spend some time together. Never one to get in the way of love or pleasure, I take off after Q on the winding quest back to the door.
Q and I have a quality we share. On any amount of drugs, if a mission arises, we can both focus on it with a clarity bordering on mania. Q knows this club well, so I follow her lead, operating my body like I’m playing it in a video game. Q gets us to the door and explains our situation, in German. I present myself to the Keeper of the List, get ticked off, and then our friend is in. Soon, we’re back up in Pano Bar, all together, back in the fold.
Dee’s set delights. She has me with a sample from Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” and slays me some indeterminate splash of time later with a house remix of Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” The crowd clicks in, throwing down a lot of energy for a Sunday afternoon set. Dee is a hit with this discerning crowd.
“For some brief, unmeasurable passage of time, this body, this situation, this yellow light, this crispy beat, all strand together and spool out sideways, as if time held folds in which there was more time.”
Winter sun streamed in through Venetian blinds. I turn away from the DJ booth to look at the sunlight on the Wolfgang Tillmans prints on the back wall, all wispy black on gray abstracts. They conjure the elegance of a dance-floor gesture. For some brief, unmeasurable passage of time, this body, this situation, this yellow light, this crispy beat, all strand together and spool out sideways, as if time held folds in which there was more time, off sometime else, outside of death and the end of the world. I don’t know how long I was in that other crease of time. Always, we come back to this banal one, where all things end.
I look at the Berghain armband on my wrist, yellow against my aging skin. I’m tired. I’m thirsty. Dancing next to me is a friend of a friend of a friend. I gesture at his bottle of Mineralwasser. He smiles and offers it to me. I look around, check the mood. The New York crew is unfolding. I wonder when the mood will shift towards another bathroom break. I could go one more round, but no more. It’s seductive, the pull towards that sideways time, that time out of time. I could do it over and over. I’m old enough to know better.
It’s good business. Berghain sells a few things, but this is the one I crave. I’ll happily pay the €25 to escape from history: my own history, and from the history of the world. It’s no accident that this is happening in Berlin, a scene of too much history already. One of the things the Judgment of the Door is about is whether you understand any of this, or even just intuit it—or not.
Q comes in close behind me and we dance together for a moment. I feel her body move with mine. There’s an intimacy between us, but it’s not sexual. Among other things, it’s our shared need for this other time. She suggests it’s time for a break. Not a bathroom break. Instead: “Let’s get ice cream!”