Brilliant Dilletantes
West Berlin – Island of Freedom

“Sitting in the Dschungel/On Nürnberger Strasse”, David Bowie sings in “Where are we now?” (2013).
Photo (detail): private/

Pogo, freestyle, boogie-woogie. The West Berlin scene of the 1980s danced as it liked. The spirit of the time was reflected above all in the furious partying of the inhabitants and places like Dschungel and SO36 became for many a second home.

“Those were the days when West Berlin was still an island”, says Daniela Meier of the then divided city. She has witnessed firsthand the 1980s in Berlin, as well as the nightlife in that time. “I remember evenings when we danced naked, breakfasted somewhere in the morning and then went to work without having slept wink.” The feeling of freedom on the Western part of Berlin was immense. West Berlin was the meeting place of everyone who wanted to lead an alternative, free and unconventional life in some form or another.

It was the paradise of dilettantes. Here there was no draft, rents were cheap and one thing above all was plentiful: lots of nightlife with no curfew. Legendary places like Dschungel, Sound, Risiko and SO36 ensured that Schöneberg and Kreuzberg nights pulsated.

The West Berlin Dschungle children

Not far from the KaDeWe, the Department Store of the West, was Dschungel. They all went here. David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Frank Zappa, but also Falco, Rio Reiser and the members of Ideal. The bar, founded in 1978, soon became the hub of the West Berlin scene. In the early 1970s Dschungel, then a popular corner bar in the Winterfeldtplatz, had already made a name for itself. Later the mixture of bar and disco in a prime location made Dschungel one the hippest bars that the nightlife district Schöneberg had to offer. “There was a phase when I definitely went to Dschungel three to four times a week. The place was unique. You met there really every kind of person and everyone could do whatever he wanted to. There was a feeling of freedom”, recalls Meier. Both the dancing and the music were unconventional, always progressive, futuristic, that is to say, New Wave. “Some people danced angular and edgy, others hopped away for themselves, some even danced the boogie-woogie. The main thing was to be crazy and individual. In Dschungel women also danced with women and men with men. That was still revolutionary then.”

The artist Martin Kippenberger was a welcome guest in Dschungel and known for his extravagant style of dancing. “I can’t really describe how he moved. Idiosyncratic, but elegant, mixed perhaps with a few classic dance steps”, says Gisela Capitain, who together with Kippenberger founded in 1978 the Kippenberger Büro (i.e., Kippenberger’s Office), an exhibition space for young artists. Dschungel, however, was famous not only for its stars and good music, but also for its strict door policy and rigorous ban on taking photographs. Those who got in here had made it.

Kippenberger and SO36

Kippenberger wanted to change the art world; he wanted to create spaces for artistic experiments. In the same year he was given the opportunity of becoming the managing director of SO36, an event location in the heart of Berlin-Kreuzberg for every kind of subculture. “SO36 was a big black hole with little light, a couple of refrigerators and a stage. There, everything was possible”, remembers Capitain.

SO36 opened in 1978 with one of the first German New Wave music festivals and tried to combine, with relatively little success, punk, New Wave and art. The Kreuzberg punk and anarcho scene boycotted it initially as being too commercial and, after an attack on the location, Kippenberger and SO36’s owner Achim Schächtele gave up the management. Under new management, SO36 finally became the centre of the punk and rock scene. Every notable punk band performed there and got the lungs of their audiences pumping. People didn’t dance in SO36; they pogoed. Pogo served as the contrast to the commercial disco music of the 1970s. In its way, however, it was very individual and experimental, because it had no rules.

The history of SO36 was as little stringent as was this dancing style: after 1983 it was closed due to disrepair and in 1984 it was occupied by squatters, who have been tolerated by the city to this day. It is still the scene of wild parties.
Starting 23 April 2015 in Minsk (Belarus) and following with a global tour, the exhibition Geniale Dilettanten (Brilliant Dilletantes) will present the most comprehensive survey of German subculture of the 1980’s to date. It can be seen in Munich’s Haus der Kunst from June–October 2015. Geniale Dilletanten is a touring exhibition by the Goethe-Institut.