Island of Spare Time – Wolfgang Müller’s Book about West Berlin in the 1980s

Unlike East Berlin, unlike West Germany – West Berlin’s subculture created social spaces for creativity and it was imperative that their stories be told. This has now been done by author, artist and musician Wolfgang Müller.

Das Buch liegt mittlerweile in dritter Auflage vor. Foto: © Philo Fine Arts A man falls over on the dance floor and remains lying there for minutes on end. The other dancers continue unperturbed, some perhaps taking the fall to be a “particularly extravagant dance style”. Another man is locked in a telephone box, and is pushing and hammering against the windowpane. Nobody helps him, because it might be “another of those odd, incomprehensible, completely superfluous art performances”. A woman disappears through a hole that suddenly opens up on another dance floor, only to creep out again shortly afterwards and carry on dancing as if nothing had happened.

Crossing frontiers

The person who fell over was film-maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the “Dschungel” (Jungle) discotheque. The one stuck in a telephone box in Berlin-Schöneberg was musician Iggy Pop, and the one who suddenly disappeared at the “SO36” discotheque in Berlin-Kreuzberg was West Berlin protopunk Jenny Schmidt, alias “Jenny the Rat”.

These scenes from West Berlin in the nineteen-eighties are just three out of hundreds described by Berlin writer, artist and musician Wolfgang Müller in his book Subkultur Westberlin 1979–1989. Freizeit as typical of a city in which border-crossing was possible in ways that would have been “totally unthinkable elsewhere”.

New realism

Müller made a name for himself for being part of the music and performance scene that organised the Festival Genialer Dilletanten and as the founder of the intermedia group of artists Die Tödliche Doris, an intermedia artistic group. Since then, he has worked on a multitude of art projects, exhibitions and book publications. He came to West Berlin from Wolfsburg in 1979 to study Visual Communication and Experimental Filmmaking at Berlin University of the Arts. Together with fellow student Nikolaus Utermöhlen, he soon found himself in a subcultural scene where the do-it-yourself ideas of punk and post-punk youngsters flee “behind this Wall into West Berlin”. These were people “who neither fitted into real existing socialism nor into what was then still a social market economy”.

A cultural microcosm emerged between improvised bars and off-beat galleries, punk clubs such as SO36 and Ex‘n’Pop, occupied houses, cheap apartments with coal heating and an outside toilet, small publishing houses and music festivals. In West Germany, all this gave West Berlin the image of being a place of exile for “wacky, off-the-wall people who do nothing from morning till night, freaks and refuseniks“. For Müller himself, West Berlin is above all an island of spare time where the aim is definitely not that of the leftists – “self-fulfilment” or “self-discovery” – but to create new concepts of realism and reality.

A decade of independence

Die Tödliche Doris for example, a project involving many people between 1980 and 1987, is presented in Müller’s book as a person with an “always absent body”. Doris performs as a band, makes short films, publishes conceptual vinyl records and is invited to come to the documenta. During the “decade of independence” says Müller, the question was how time could be transformed into space – these were places that could only be realised in that particular form during the short time slot during the nineteen-eighties.

Müller points out that these places included some where a gay-lesbian-transsexual subculture merged with West Berlin’s emerging punk culture – the leftist lesbian bar Blocksberg, for example, underwent seamless transition to become the punk bar Risiko. This observation is one of the many achievements of this book, which is as entertaining as it is comprehensive. With 600 pages, an impressive 460 footnotes, an index, pictures and a map drawn by the author showing the location of the places described, this indispensable book about Berlin also asks its readers how much remains of the spare time they had back then.


Wolfgang Müller:
Subkultur Westberlin 1979–1989. Freizeit. Hamburg, Philo Fine Arts, 2013