From the Vault of Berlin’s Tresor
Originally featured in WIP magazine issue 06, this visual archive traces the rise of techno in Berlin in the early 90s, and the part that Tresor played in solidifying its cultural impact. It marks Tresor’s 30th anniversary and corresponding audio-led exhibition, which guides viewers through film, photography, archival material, and sculpture, by artists including Arthur Jafa, Hito Steyerl, and Joe Namy.
This feature was accompanied by an interview with Tresor’s founder Dimitri Hegemann, recently published by The Face, detailing the importance of fostering creativity amongst young people. In addition, for issue 06, essayist Geoffrey Mak explored the enduring allure of techno on Berlin’s dance floors. Mak’s debut book MEAN BOYS is set to be released in 2023.
Words: Geoffrey Mak
Images courtesy of Tresor Foundation Berlin, design by Valentina Tassalini
Techno is a lot of things to a lot of people. Its four-four beat: An orthogonal lattice reflected back to itself, a set of boundaries in dialectic with the hedonism of the dance floor. Its deceptive minimalism makes it easy to dance to. It has a purpose (if techno is playing and nobody’s dancing, it’s an incomplete gesture). Techno, in its rigidity, is often associated with hallucination: waking dream states in incantatory ritual, the way long distance swimmers, after repeated strokes (right-left-right-left) for hours on end can cause the mind to see things that are not in fact there. I think of the swimmer Diana Nyad, who once swam the Atlantic and saw the Taj Mahal underwater. Techno is at once familiar, and it is also alien. Not technology that sounds like music, but music that sounds like technology. The kick. The hi-hat. All of it is simple enough, and accessible, which makes it easy to get into. Emphatically, techno is not made up of an exclusive elite, but extends to anyone who can get down to a kick and some occasional arpeggios. But to the people who are most dedicated to the subculture, there’s an ineffable core at the heart of the music, something that can’t be seen or understood, but only felt, at certain moments in the night or early morning, when you can’t describe what’s going on, but you know it’s something. Something is happening. And everyone in the room can feel it, and it feels like epiphany.
Which makes writing about techno almost an inherently failed project. It can’t be explained, only felt, and barely remembered. There are whole years in which I can remember feeling that my life was changing, every single weekend, and then I would forget about it almost entirely by the morning. Sometimes, I would go with friends, and after the train ride home, we’d eat bananas in the kitchen and talk about our nights as the sun came up. I remember what those kitchens looked like—apartments we rented from Germans out of town—even if I don’t remember the streets they were on, or even the month of the year. This is where my memory fails. Techno, a de-facto marathon sport, is theoretically limitless but also ephemeral. You feel able to hold it, and then it slips away through your fingers.
In 2015, I had moved to Berlin from New York, guided purely by desire. I knew nothing about techno. I didn’t even have a job. In fact, I had quit a successful career in luxury advertising, and brought my identity crisis to the dance floor in Berlin. I was confused. And Berlin is a place that appeals to the confused, and the very young. If I had been older, I would’ve been too skeptical to, what else, fall in love.
Before I discovered techno, I did not think it was possible to fall so in love with something that wasn’t a person. I was in love with a place, a moment, a city, a sound. Techno has a reputation for attracting intellectuals—theorists like McKenzie Wark, Kodwo Eshun, DeForrest Brown Jr. have all written extensively on the genre—except it can also be quite stupid, in a way that makes room for raw desire.
For me, I think techno had always been about desire. A desire for the unknown, a desire for the ineffable. I was always looking for something, even if I didn’t know what that something was, I believed I’d know the second I found it. And I always did—it could’ve been a track, or running into a friend, or a late-night revelation.
In psychoanalysis, desire is constitutive of the subject. Simply wanting something as much as you possibly can will reorder your life’s decisions, which will shape the self. In Berlin, I threw myself into the city’s dance floors—Tresor, Berghain—chasing after something I knew I needed, even if I didn’t exactly know why. It was a desire that I felt in my body, a movement contained, it seemed, in my very bones, which could only express itself on the dance floor.
When you first start raving, there are always certain personalities—regulars, you could say—who you see repeatedly on the dance floor. You know, simply by seeing them, that it’s going to be a good party. I called mine ‘the angels.’ They either had a fierce look, a charming smile, or cheekbones that could cut glass, and I obsessed over them even though they intimidated me. Often, one of the angels would catch my attention, and I’d fixate on them, observing how they’d dance, and then try it out with my body. It’s funny—it never occurred to me that others might notice what I was doing (which, of course, they did). These early moments always felt private to me, a place of secret discovery.
Eventually, at some point deeper into the night, my dancing would move into a carnal state. I would feel this tension inside me, ravenous and immediate, and I would start wrestling with it in my own arms and shoulders. This would be after 4am, by which point everyone at the club, sleep-deprived, knows each other by sight. Decorum is lost. A savagery takes over. The body loses its preoccupation with form, and turns ugly, profane. The body transforms into something unfamiliar and grotesque; limbs thrashing, saliva flung from bared teeth. Often, the morning after these nights, I would find white streaks on my shirt collars; sweat traces left like footprints in snow, which would be from the dehydrated salt from my sweat.
Some of these raves felt purifying, as if I were purging demons. I think this is why, for long stretches, I did feel that the rave was necessary to living. I approached it with a religious devotion, and even saw my weekend pilgrimages to the dance floor as a kind of ‘church.’ Maybe this is precious, maybe it’s sentimental, but I believe in the raver spirit, which is guarded in the hearts of the dance floor’s most dedicated regulars, and only descends at certain hours of the night. I think all ravers believe in this. And if you lose it, it’s almost impossible to get it back.
None of this is legible to outsiders. For those looking in, the scene appears to be a bunch of semi-employed low-lifes, taking drugs and thrashing around to mind-numbing music. And that is something important about the rave: that it brings in society’s rejects. I don’t know that there’s a point or a purpose to all of this, so much as a luster, a shimmering quality in dimly-lit rooms in which new ways of existing are born.
In my conception of the rave, it opens up an alternative space, like a portal, outside of capital time. In the totality of late capitalism, every moment and every action has been commodified, measured for productivity, put on an exchange rate, and traded for more and more production. In this context, there is something subversive about waste and ephemerality. It evaporates. Where labor-time is commodified outside of the rave, the dance floor opens up leisure-time. Even as raving can be a gathering place for community and fashion, clubs are simultaneously introverted spaces. There isn’t a lot of talking, outside of basic directions—"I’m going to the bathroom, I’ll be back”—or asking people if they’d like some water. Otherwise, dancers are locked into their own minds, moving instinctively, without any designated purpose, and letting thought simply hang in the space between them.
Sometimes, I get curious—I want to ask people, What are they thinking about on the dance floor? Often, it’s life’s trivia. You think about the day, mull over certain conversations you’ve had. But after a while, thought slows and you turn inward, into a deeper place. This is the place desire lives, and where dreams are born. You think of new futures. The rave becomes a place where the possible is allowed to be glimpsed, as a sort of prophetic moment. This experience is entirely spiritual, and potentially revolutionary. And the four-four beat in the background will always be there, a kind of home to return to.
This feature was taken from WIP magazine issue 06. “Tresor 31: Techno, Berlin und die groß Freiheit” runs from 8th July to 28th August.