The Firebugs of Kreuzberg

Kreuzberg Graffiti 1

Retain your memories
but détourn them
so that they correspond with your era.

Asger Jorn

We are in Berlin travelling on the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg. It is a gloriously warm April morning with fists of sunlight starting to punch through the clouds. From the elevated train tracks we can survey the sweeping spread of the city below. In the foreground, a graffiti inscribed, cubist assemblage written on to the earth. “How do they manage to get up there to paint it? asks R, pointing to a 3-D effect trompe l’oeil covering the entire gable end of a tall building. A and I marvel at the scale and ambition. An exploding riot of colour and illusion.  We both shrug our shoulders…

I had been in Kreuzberg the previous evening at a gig in the HAU 2 theatre complex. (As an aside, I was delighted to discover later that this building was the original site of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab formed by Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Boris Schaak in 1968. More on this below if interested. (1)).  I didn’t have much time to stroll around the streets beforehand but picked up a little of the night ambiance. Clearly the zest to inscribe almost any available surface with graffiti and street art was alive and well.  I realised that my previous visit to Berlin had been when the Wall was still standing and  Kreuzberg was the beating heart of a chaotic, edgy, alternative radicalism.  An enclave of squatters, artists and musicians, living cheek by jowl with the, largely Turkish, immigrant population.  At the time it felt like some bunkered interzone within the island of Berlin. A city trapped and adrift in topography, history and cold war paranoia. Inter-railing around Europe, I remember having to scrape up the Deutschmarks to buy a ticket and visa to allow travel through the DDR from Hamburg.  Walking out of Zoo Station with a head full of Berlin tropes: Bowie, Iggy, Lou Reed and Christiane F.  I could imagine witnessing scenes of Blixa Bargeld and Nick Cave holding court in the bars of SO36 underneath the watch towers.  On reflection, a romanticised, pop-culture depiction of the city shaped more by the NME than by any history or guide-book.

Around twenty-five years later I’m walking out of Kottbusser Tor station with the family still carrying these ghosts of memory.  It feels a bit surreal to experience the bright sunshine and languid air of the street as we set off in search of the Turkish market down on the banks of the Landwehrkanal. We pass the grocery stores and a few cafes where groups of men  (and it is all men) are sitting outside sipping Turkish coffee and gossiping.  It’s only a short walk to the canal and it evidently becomes apparent that we have either got the day or our directions wrong. There is no sign of any Turkish market.  Perhaps Bowie, Iggy and Blixa can help guide us? Feed us a few signs? However, R is already off. A nine-year old is not going to hang around whilst our putative tour guides attempt to get their shit together.

Unburdened by worldly cares, unfettered by learning, free of ingrained habit, negligent of time, the child is open to the world.

Yi-Fu Tuan

Children are natural and consummate psychogeographers. They can  happily drift through any environment, urban or rural, seeking out and following the signs of place that speak to them. With the city as potential playground R, starts to saunter on ahead of us, leading the drift, although, of course, not aware or caring that this is what is happening.  We wander along the tree-lined canal path for a good stretch and apart from the dog shit, and occasional jogger, the city takes on an almost rural feel.  Bowie, Iggy and Blixa are struggling to keep up. I think they may have stopped for a fag. The sunlight is clearly not agreeing with them.

I could feel the interest of our spectral trio dissolve even further as we sat down on a bench to marvel at two magnificent white swans and a group of mallards bobbing on the canal.  “How do the swans keep so white in the city?” A pleasure boat chugs past and the gentle wake lip-lips against the canal sides. Our quiet reverie is broken when the larger swan rises out of the water, and extends its full wingspan. For a moment it looks as if the wingtips will almost touch either side of the canal.  A few strong beats and the swan takes to the air. We wonder where it can be heading and whether the birds flew freely between East and West when the Wall was up.

Against a riot of cubist, Kreuzberg colour
-   “Fuck Yuppies – Reclaim the Streets”
a white swan rises from the water
outstretched wings unfurling,
almost pushing
the canal walls apart.

We can feel ourselves being pulled into another city world as a ladybird lands on A’s arm. I love how ladybirds always look hand painted. After watching it run over her skin, it pauses to open its tiny wings as if basking in the sun. R lets it run on to her fingers and kneels down to reunite the hand daubed, smudge of colour with the greenery beneath the lime trees.  She discovers the bustling activities of an ant colony and we observe the  industry of the leaf carrying comrades, marching in their regimented lines – lugging, organising, creating.  Sucked in closer to the unfolding drama of this animistic, micro world, we start to notice other flecks of red and black moving amongst the earthy shades of leaf mould. They are not ladybirds.  We are looking at hordes of small insects that are completely unknown to us. Some scurry around alone, whilst others pile on top of each other to accumulate into little shuffling balls of red and black. Too absorbed in the moment, we ‘forget’ to take a picture of them.  It is only once we are home that we eventually manage to find an image and identify these mysterious little creatures as firebugs.  From now on they will be known as The Firebugs of Kreuzberg.

Firebug

Time has dissolved as we eventually head away from the canal and start to re-enter Kreuzberg street life. We start to notice the hum of cars again. A Mad Max biker type walks past with a tiny dog on a pink lead. The dog is sporting a bandanna. Our drift takes us up the entire length of Oranienstrasse, the main street of the district.  It is still pretty quiet in daylight and we pass the door of SO36, the club where Bowie and Iggy used to hang out and, by now, have probably once again, taken refuge. R has commandeered the camera and is now taking photographs, still drifting through a city more akin to Hayao Miyazaki’s animistic universe than my one populated with spectral ghosts. The signs are speaking:

The Détourned Red Bulls of Oranienstrasse

The Red Bulls of Kreuzberg

The Goddess and Protector of Oranienstrasse

Goddess of Kreuzberg

The Visitor (detail from the side of a parked van)

Lounging on Oranienstrasse

We eventually return full circle and ascend the steps back up to Kottbusser Tor station. Our quest to find Turkish markets, and gain enlightenment from Bowie, Iggy and Blixa has failed.  They have all remained spectral and elusive.  Our drift has pulled us into another dimension of Kreuzberg. One of canal paths, white swans, mallards, ants, and détourned red bulls.  Above all, we have discovered and witnessed something mysterious and new. The red and black insects that we now know as The Firebugs of Kreuzberg.

That’s all from the Berlin holiday. It’ll be back to Fife next. Possibly Cowdenbeath!

Now playing: Kluster – Klopfzeichen

♦ ♦

(1) HAU 2 and The Zodiak Free Arts Lab

I was excited to learn that, after a hiatus of twelve years, Keith Rowe, Oren Ambarchi, Christian Fennesz, Peter Rehberg (Pita) and Pimmon were reconvening their curiously named Afternoon Tea project for one night only in Kreuzberg. It was delightful happenstance to discover that this was happening on one of the nights of our holiday.  I headed down to the HAU 2 venue and certainly wasn’t disappointed. One long piece saw this stellar ensemble layer up a set of dark, fractured shards of glitch improv, punctuated with blankets of shimmering serenity. A deep, meditative, all embracing sound. An unfolding. Ambarchi sat almost motionless unleashing his trademark sonic  ‘depth charges’. The aural equivalent of watching and feeling a lava lamp. The bass resonance of the note entering through the feet and traveling up and out of the body.  It was also good to see Keith Rowe having to play in a much louder and busier sound environment than the last couple of times I’ve encountered him. Fennesz couldn’t help but attempt to excavate and instil some melodic fragments into the proceedings whilst Rehberg and Pimmon intervened with pincer movements of laptop noise assault. All in all a fabulous event to witness and experience in the dark, minimal space of HAU 2.

The happenstance of this event was further enhanced when I later discovered that HAU 2 was actually the original site of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab or Zodiac Club, formed by Conrad Schnitzler, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Boris Schaak in 1968. Whilst only open for a few months, the Zodiak was a melting pot where “freaks and avant-gardists of all stripes could enjoy live psychedelia, free jazz, free performance and freakout”. (A1). It was a space also directly responsible for the emergence of Kluster (Schnitzler/Roedelius/Moebius) and Tangerine Dream, at that time with Schnitzler and Klaus Schulz in the ranks.  This early  incarnation of the Tangs is light years away from the vapid new-age pap that they later embraced in the 1980s.

The first few Kluster albums were engineered by a young Conny Plank who brought his experience of working with Edgar Varese to give some shape and coherence to the brutalist improvised chaos of this embryonic kosmische music. With the subsequent exit of Schnitzler and a later name change to Cluster, the sound took on a softer edge and the recording of classic kosmische albums such as Cluster II, Zuckerzeit, Sowiesoso and Cluster & Eno. The Zodiak also hosted performances by, amongst others, Agitation Free, Ash Ra Tempel, Human Being, Peter Brotzmann and Alexander Von Schlippenbach.

I love it when buildings can reveal their embedded memories like this. From a few months activity, the ripples from the epicentre are still being felt.

(A1) Nikolaos Kotsopoulos (Ed), (2009), Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and It’s Legacy, (London: black dog publishing).

About fifepsychogeography

Wandering from hill to sea.
This entry was posted in Field Trip, Happenstance, I Remember, Observation, Psychogeography, Sounds of Spaces and Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Firebugs of Kreuzberg

  1. I loved this – so well observed on the then/now, adult/child, day/night, urban/nature binaries and the sheer difficulty of burrowing into personal pasts in the presence of restless young offspring.

  2. elimelike says:

    Nice to be reminded of firebugs. In Serbian they are called palikuce or directly translated into English arsonists. I definitely prefer the name firebugs. Enjoyed reading the Berlin entry.

  3. liminal city says:

    Marvellous, what a great line at the end too! “I love it when buildings can reveal their embedded memories like this. From a few months activity, the ripples from the epicentre are still being felt”. The city exhales and we all inhale her thoughts. Did you find that in spite of getting waylaid the reality of the Berliner-creative-anarcho-liberation-squat-locale lived up the wonderful swirling legends?

    • Thanks for the comments Matt. It would perhaps be a bit foolish to make any sort of judgement based on a very short visit. However, the night time visit to the gig certainly had much more of that feel. I suppose one key element about the area is that when the Wall was up, Kreuzberg was geographically out on the margins of West Berlin. Now it is much closer (and open) to the redrawn centre so some form of change is probably inevitable. I also received some interesting comments from a Berlin resident about the piece which I’m going to incorporate into a short postscript in the next few days. Watch this space!

      • liminal city says:

        Good point about change, as an outsider I guess it’s hard to detect, will look out for the postscript, I’m intrigued about how a place can shift in a person’s memories.

  4. I love the subtle layering in this post. While you’re retracing a city in memory, seeking associations from your earlier visit and all that it culturally entailed, your daughter is crafting her first sense of the place, so that if she returns in later years it won’t be Bowie, Iggy and Blixa that follow like ghosts but the firebugs called up from her own nascent memories. Children can show us a way of engaging that is more intuitive and open than we often experience as adults – and you’ve wonderfully portrayed that equality of interest in this fascinating tour of Kreuzberg.

    • Thanks Julian. Wonderful comments to receive. Glad these perceptions came over. It was also quite a delight to find (and become aware) of so much non-human activity in Berlin. Doubt I would have noticed it on the previous visit.

  5. Sonya Chasey says:

    In France firebugs are called “gendarmes” – in other words they’re the police!

  6. Thanks Sonya. Obviously shape-shifting little insects :-)

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