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Friday, December 6, 2002

++ Finding Meaning In 'Temporary Spaces'

++ "Berlin clubs can suck my dick." Not my sentiments — rather, the opening line in Martin Eberle's remarkable book "Temporary Spaces" (Die Gestalten Verlag, 2002), a photographic chronicle of Berlin's nightclubs. While the photographs date primarily from the mid-'90s until now, the quotes printed on facing pages — from Mario's above-quoted disparagement to Clemens' decidedly more upbeat assessment of E-Werk ("Cried, when I came here for the first time. Cried, when I was the last to leave. Got married here") — supply an oral history of the city's vibrant club scene throughout the '90s.

The most striking aspect of Eberle's work is the fact that he has photographed the clubs during the off-hours, leaving them utterly devoid of people — daylit shadows of their nighttime identity. Like Atget's photographs of Paris at the turn of the last century — and like the work of several photographers of the "Dïsseldorf School," notably Thomas Struth and occasionally Andreas Gursky — Eberle's images interpret urban spaces in the absence of people, reading social codes out of trace elements. In a space bereft of bodies, every detail stands out: the Vegas projections on the wall of 103/Friedrichstrasse; the litter of beer bottles on the floor of Galerie Berlintokyo's basement; the absolutely spare, white-walled nothingness of Dirt, a club launched according to the ethic that "a room with a fridge and a shelf is enough to run a bar."

++ The absence of people, it turns out, is doubly telling. True to the title of the book, most of the clubs represent temporary occupations of spaces initially designed for other purposes — bank vault, auto body shop, kitchen showroom, residential basement, even the GDR's central postal branch. Much of Berlin's club culture in the early-to-mid-'90s arose out of the flux of re-unification, converting disused spaces in the former East Berlin into illegal or semi-legal spaces. Eberle's strategy — photographing both the clubs' facades and their interiors, recording graffiti and incidental features as well as architectural design — heightens the clubs' essential impermanence. Indeed, although mainstays like Tresor have grown into institutions in their own right, a number of Eberle's chosen subjects have been shuttered or even bulldozed in the interim.

As in any renegade culture, ingenious strategies for secrecy and self-preservation manifest themselves. Kunst und Technik was open "every six days," records Eberle, to prevent its inclusion in tourist guides. 103/Friedrichstrasse operated without publicity of any kind — not even a sign over the door. Sniper's motto best captures the spirit of the most marginal spaces: "Open at random, close at will."

++ It's hard not to feel wistful, looking through "Temporary Spaces," even — or perhaps especially — if you never took part in Berlin's nascent techno culture. To paraphrase yet another European, a specter is haunting dance music: the specter of sophisticated clubbing. This is certainly true in San Francisco, where the down 'n' dirty spaces are ever fewer and farther between. Seemingly clueless that there's a recession (and something like a war) on, most established clubs are still partying like it's 1999 with VIP rooms, bottle/booth reservations, and the same rotating cast of "progressive" house, deep house, and mainstream hip-hop DJs.

Despite the slothlike economy, new venues are still opening, but almost without exception they cater to the "sophisticated" clubber, offering value-added entertainment that might be more appropriate to theme restaurants like the Hard Rock Café. The newly launched Whisper, opened in the old Potrero Hill Brewing company, has preserved its former tenant's yuppie vibe: one of its promoters calls it "the ultimate dance lounge experience," featuring multi-level dance areas, a rooftop terrace, an outdoor patio, fireplace, waterfall, a restaurant, liquid nitrogen, and valet parking. Another new club last week advertised a night of "upscale hip-hop... for a sophisticated crowd." I'm not sure what "upscale" hip-hop is, but it's ironic that the DJ for the evening was Pam the Funkstress of The Coup, a group known for its outspoken anti-capitalism. (Note to Pam: approve all marketing copy before the press release goes out next time.)

Perhaps the most telling sign of San Francisco clublife's bloated irrelevance is the rising trend of club photography. A number of venues, promoters, and club-listing publications have established online galleries in which sophisticated clubbers cavort with abandon, baring midriffs and flashing pearly whites. The contrast with Eberle's images couldn't be starker: where he captures the individuality of each club (which shouldn't be romanticized — some do, indeed, look dreadful), these clublife portraits all fall together into a blur of poses. There's no shortage of cleavage, cowboy hats, bad BeBe tube tops, unbuttoned dress shirts.

Couples, trios, quartets pose as if in pursuit of readymade nostalgia, recalling the scrapbook pages in the backs of high school yearbooks. But there's no sense of place, much less mystery. Stranger yet, there's no sense of immersion: the posing patrons, carved into units of two or three for ready photographic processing, remain utterly disconnected from their peers and surroundings (for contrast, see Andreas Gursky's 1995 photograph "Union Rave").

Perhaps these photographs are as they should be; they don't pretend to present anything other than snapshots of evenings spent among friends. Still, their patina of sophistication rankles — the implication that the nightclub is a luxury good, easily consumable, goes against the creative, often renegade, spirit that birthed rave culture across multiple continents.

++ At the heart of "Temporary Spaces" lies the delicate balance between authenticity and artifice — in one caption Eberle notes that the thick mass of spider webs hanging above the bar is, in fact, real — and part of Eberle's success is in capturing the tension between process and product. Walter Benjamin famously wrote of Atget's photographs, "It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence."

The evidence Eberle captures testifies to the fleeting existence of spontaneous culture. As to whether its passing is criminal, it remains to be seen who bears responsibility — and who might yet right matters.


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