Whenever I have the additional time and the linguistic know-how, I prefer to read cultural histories written in their original languages, rather than settling for versions that are somehow modified for easier exportation. This is a practice that still proves rewarding, even for subjects that you might think had a firm grip on the Anglo-American cultural imagination: the case in point being the fertile subcultural scene of West Berlin in the 1980s. Though I've already written on that culture, and on popular misconceptions of its breadth and scope, I am aware that this past remains highly contested by parties that were once involved in it. As the mythos of West Berlin increasingly makes it a model for future urban experiments, the original actors in that scene understand that they have a stake in shaping the future by properly documenting the past. It is a very emotionally involving game, and so every "satisfying" conclusive statement on the subject seems to be contradicted elsewhere. Discerning exact and immutable truths can be especially difficult when the original participants in this subculture were working too intently to document their activities, or heavily intoxicated, or otherwise uninterested in leaving things for posterity. Sometimes it is just best to temporarily put aside the quest for such historical exactness, and to embrace works that simply capture the emotional tenor of of a time rather than being encyclopedic. Wolfgang Müller's Subkultur Westberlin, 1979-1989 - released in the German publisher Fundus's 'Philo Fine Arts' series - fits this bill nicely.
Wolfgang Müller is an author of numerous German-language books on everything from elves to the avant-garde dancer Valeska Gert, and features in several anthologies of new German writing alongside kindred spirits like Francoise Cactus (better known on these shores for a kitsch-friendly musical project, Stereo Total.) Müller himself is probably best known for his starring role in the Geniale Dilletanten, the eclectic circle of interdisciplinary Berliner artists whose local reputation was solidified by a sort of scrapbook published in 1982 by Merve Verlag. Müller's own sub-group within the Dilettanten - Die Tödliche Doris - represented, moreso than any other group absorbed into that informal collective, its spirit of knowing naivete, its cultivation of mystery, and its disregard for any socio-cultural convention. Many of that group's own tendencies towards dissonance, illuminating weirdness, and improvisation (in all senses of the word), were also embodied by the Dilettanten. Those who have a stereotypical view of West Berlin as aloof and angular are well advised to read up on them, although this book does provide some reinforcements of that stereotype, e.g. its description of the disaffected / stand-offish patrons of the dance club Dschungel [Jungle] (dancer Bridge Markland recalls the disciplined dancers as being completely indifferent to the spectacle director Rainer Werner Fassbinder "bewegungslos auf dem Boden [passed out on the floor].")
Throughout the book, the Geniale Dilettanten and Die Tödliche Doris are repeatedly shown to be phenomena that could only occur within the Berlin atmosphere of the 1970s and 1980s: they are portrayed by the author as arising from a city still unreconstructed from past devastation, which was still full of abandoned houses and empty ruins, and as such became an affordable city of refuge for individuals who had no role to play in German utilitarian society - even if that "affordability" would be called "squalor" by the standards of most convenience cultures, there is little sense of complaint when, say, Müller describes the outdoor toilet and coal heating of the space that he rents while earning a waiter's wages at the Anderes Ufer ["the other shore"] cafe. The attitude towards inhabited spaces is, correctly I think, given as much consideration as the artworks that exist independently of those spaces: it was the general sense of "multi-purpose" spatial reconfiguration that gave this scene much of its enduring appeal, and which led to unique cultural sites like Eisengrau (at once a living space for its proprietors, a screening venue during the 'Super 8' film boom, and a boutique for post-industrial fashions that were meant to be exhibited as much as sold.) It is not much of a stretch to call these sites the precursors of ideas such as "up-cycling" and related practices, although with the caveat that Eisengrau existed more as a critical distillation of West Berlin's isolated and burnt-out qualities than as a marketplace for "up-cycled" goods (by Müller's reckoning, the space was more likely to have police summoned to deal with the offense caused by a dada-istic window display than it was to sell any of the items exhibited within.)
It does still seem like a stretch to believe that the subculture Müller describes was universally recognized by Germans and foreign observers as being something that would have lasting value. However, he is convincing in explaining that it was, at the very least, seen as something completely different:
Wer in den Achtzigern mit Kunst Erfolg haben und Geld verdiened will, verlagert seinen Wirkungskreis nach Stuttgart, Köln, Düsseldorf oder München […] Überall ist es betriebsamer und zukunftsorienter, kurz: normaler also beim Westberliner Trödelmarkt. Eine klassische Künstlerkarriere macht hier kaum jemand. ["Anyone in the '80s who wished to make money and be successful in the arts made Cologne, Düsseldorf or Munich his sphere of influence…everywhere else was more active and future-oriented or, in short, more normal than the West-Berlin 'flea market.' Almost no one made a classical arts career here."]
The text itself is broken down into theme-specific clusters comprised of small "blog"-sized reflections and theoretical illuminations (interspersed here and there with interviews conducted by the author.) This makes for relatively breezy reading even if you are learning German as an additional language, and allows one to read all the book's contents either sequentially, or just by picking a favorite subject from the generous index and digesting all the related "blog" entries. Müller's book is not always organized in chronological order, and therefore does not have the kind of dramatic "rise and fall" narrative arc that you encounter so often in these types of cultural exhumations - in fact, the present-day echoes of past Berlin subculture innovations are often noted soon after the latter are introduced, rather than being saved for an epilogue or benediction at the book's end. This makes the more random method of reading preferable and honestly more rewarding.
Because of the staggering amount of information that Müller has to synthesize from just a decade's worth of city life, he can be forgiven for taking the approach that he does - i.e., opting to make cursory mentions of as many cultural phenomena as possible rather than speaking in depth on a smaller number of such phenomena. The text will appeal to both those who seek confirmation of certain beliefs about the makeup of Berlin subculture, or total novices to the subject (although the latter are strongly advised to seek out some film and audio documentation of the scene before sinking into this book, which does not always remember to provide sufficient background info on what might be unfamiliar names.) Müller's habit of quickly hopping from one topical island to another is also appropriate to the subject matter: it demonstrates his simple thesis that the West Berlin of the time was culturally chaotic and in continual flux, and could lay a better claim to these qualities than any other (post-)modern city. His arguments about Berlin's unique appeal to non-professional artists also seem to be borne out elsewhere, and are not just an effect of selective memory.
The richest portions of the book owe themselves to Müller's acumen for exposing both the absurd and paradoxical features of the West Berlin scene, in the process offering some biting commentary on ideology that is applicable far beyond the surveyed time and place. For example, he recalls a 1987 incident in which the Kreuzberg fine dining restaurant Maxwell had shit smeared on its front doors by the leftist militants inhabiting that neighborhood, and in doing so recuperated an intimidation tactic that (as per journalist Harald Jähner) had its roots in fascism. Elsewhere, he points out the unintentional humor that arose from sensationalist accounts of the city's vices, namely the drug exploitation film Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo, in which a young Natja Brunckhorst played the famous junkie Christianne F. He recalls that, while audiences went to see this stark cautionary fable in Berlin cinemas, the "real" Christianne F. was clean and performing at the Festival der Geniale Dilettanten in the Tempodrom venue.
Müller also declines to ignore internecine conflicts, and as such is not self-deceptive about a 'underground unity' that was never perfectly seamless. In fact, he does unearth incidents in which would-be allies got violently upset with one another, as when the conceptual artist Martin Kippenberger allegedly injured the local punk fixture Jenny Schmidt a.k.a. "Ratten Jenny" when attempting to throw her out of the celebrated alternative club SO36 (which Kippenberger was the "business director" of prior to his relocation from Berlin.) Yet in spite of his revelations - in the Kippenberger / Ratten Jenny episode and elsewhere - that West Berlin subculture was not completely unified in its aethetics and intentions, one does get the impression that this subculture still presented a best of all possible worlds for its author. The evangelistic impulse is certainly strong in Müller, resulting occasionally in the sense that one is being 'talked down' to, or perhaps that the reader has not already reached the same conclusions about the ethical and spiritual goodness of his mission.
The story of Müller's signature project Die Tödliche Doris is, admittedly, interesting and as worthy of knowing as any other biography of a conceptual art group. Yet the need for Müller to occasionally use Die Tödliche Doris as a yardstick for others' efforts is grating, as are certain thumbnail sketches of contmeporaries that seem like backhanded compliments. An example of the latter can be found in this book's copious mentions of Einstürzende Neubauten, who are described as not just talented musicians but also talented "businessmen," and deft manipulators who go on U.S. tours thanks to recommendation letters written by Berlin's Kultursenator. In a book that largely praises creativity operating completely apart from institutional or commercial intervention, the negative implications of such realizations are obvious (and, naturally, to be contrasted with "Doris'" better behavior.) Those who enjoy a bit of scene gossip, though, will be well-served by recollections that paint vivid caricatures of their favorite artists: Blixa Bargeld, Neubauten's iconic post-industrial dandy, is shown in one scene as protesting that local journalist Diedrich Diedrichsen, formerly persona non grata at the Risiko club because of his slights towards Sid Vicious, should be re-admitted because "Den Diederichsen brauche ich noch für meine Karriere [I need Diedrichsen to advance my career.]" Former Neubauten associate Gudrun Gut - of the Eisengrau boutique, and key player in a significant number of local bands - also joins in the humbling of Blixa by calling him a "diva."
Granted, this is Müller's book, and I'm sure he'd happily refer me to some other accounts of the same urban subculture that focus less specifically on the school of 'genial dilettantism' and the merits of Die Tödliche Doris. However, the self-congratulatory interludes in the book eventually become an impediment to fully absorbing and enjoying its total contents, particularly when Müller is refering to himself and his related projects in the third person - a ploy that, recalling Dali's use of the same form of address, simply comes across as too imperious even though the author may be employing it in a tongue-in-cheek or sefl-deflating fashion. This un-subtle style unfortunately detracts from otherwise interesting documentation - for example, Müller's apparent pride at being in the audience for a Joseph Beuys appearance contrinutes no new insights about either Beuys or Berlin subculture.
Müller is also, sadly, to be counted in the still-growing number of culture critics that view punk subculture as the culmination of decades' worth of radical artistic experimentation, a view which I feel devalues the accomplishments of these "progenitors" by making them important only insofar as they were stepping stones on the road to events experienced in these critics' lifetimes. To this end, references are made in the Subkultur Westberlin book to such things as "proto-punkerinnen" and "prä-genialer Dilettantismus" - Müller's conviction in this continuity between pre-punk avant-gardes and punk proper leads him to ponder things like the secret connection between Valeska Gert's notorious "anti-dance," Pause, and the name of the punk band Mittagspause ["mid-day break"]. Whether it is the intent or not, the fascination with "pre-punk" places more heroic value on the punks who came to the rescue of some allegedly forgotten cultural history than it does upon these spiritual forebears themselves.
In spite of all these flaws, I still recommend this book for any student of this era, if only as a book to be studied concurrently with other documentation on the subject (Müller graciously suggests other points of entry within the book, should you have no idea where to go next.) The frequent lapses of Subkultur Westberlin into less-than-ideal journalistic practices do not discount its fervent energy, and the overall effect of reading is not unlike listening to a boisterous and chatty drinker in a noisy bar: though he zooms in and out of coherence, and you can't always trust the accuracy of his recall, his delivery and insistence keep you listening. In short, his delivery is very much like what I imagined the underground West Berlin of the time to be - always in a precarious but exciting state between inchoateness and order, between naivete and sophistication, between exuberance and dread.
And now a final note on design issues. The book comes in a practically scanner-proof format: an under-sized hardback of some 550 pages, which immediately makes the reading experience more frustrating than it needs to be, particularly for those, like myself, who might want to leave the book cracked open while refering to some nearby translator's tools. The construction of the book makes that needlessly difficult, and will probably prevent me from buying any similarly constructed books in Fundus' Philo Fine Arts series.