COVID-19 has put Berlin’s nightlife into an open-ended shutdown. Can an art exhibition become a life raft for struggling cultural enterprises?
Text by Pablo Hernández Lodigiani
The coronavirus has shown itself to be airborne, to aerosolize through small droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. It is also transmitted by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after touching contaminated surfaces. What’s also clear about the virus is that it’s likely to have a higher likelihood of transmission indoors and less likelihood with distancing — none of which bodes well for nightclubs and music clubs, whose very business model depends on squeezing as many bodies as possible into a room. During May, in Spain and South Korea, authorities traced its new cluster of cases right back to their Seoul and Madrid nightclub district, where thousands continued to party. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious expert in the United States, warned they are the worst place you can congregate during the pandemic; “Congregation at a bar inside is bad news,” he stated, “we really got to stop that. Right now.”
So what’s going to happen to them? The truth is there is no foreseeable “phase” of reopening that is safe for nightclubs and music clubs. It’s not that a scene of people packed into a room dancing is ever going to be possible again, it’s just that it unnecessarily endangers everyone there. Across the world, owners and DJs have opted for livestream of performances to reach their millions of music fans while other properties have turned their high-volume nightlife to table service. In France, nightlife workers and owners have held demonstrations to demand they be allowed to reopen. Across the UK fore the more than 1,640 nightclubs, the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) estimates that up to 70% of clubs could close by the end of September, with many not having the option of outdoor, socially distanced events, risking more than 754,000 jobs due to ongoing uncertainty.
And while some have been squeezed out of the marketplace by their local governments that have denied support packages, others have turned to the arts to keep club culture alive. In Berlin, the legendary temple of techno, Berghain, which received over one thousand people each night of partying, has been repurposed into an art gallery, lending space for visual artists of the likes of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tacita Dean, Thea Djordjadze, Wolfgang Tillmans, Olafur Eliasson, and other Berlin-based artists that were eager to send a message to the city amidst the lockdown: “Berlin’s cultural life is still very much alive,” said collector Christian Boros to The Guardian, who devised the whole gallery when it inaugurated Wednesday, September 9th. Now dubbed the Studio Berlin group show, this new art gallery that resurrects what was once the nightlife symbol of a European capital, containing works by 115 international artists that were produced in the city during lockdown, which is precisely what lends many works on display in an intriguing edge. Studio Berlin, writes Philip Oltermann for The Guardian, is less of a manifesto for a post-Covid future than a lovingly nostalgic affair, that harks back to the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when artists and DJs filled the vacant lots of a city that had yet to be targeted by property investors. Before the club closed down amid the novel coronavirus, some of Berghain’s special status had to do with the fact that Berghain doesn’t allow pictures to be taken inside, “that’s where the myths come from,” says Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj, “you can only tell, but not document what goes on inside.” That same no-pictures policy remains in place while the club is an art gallery. “You’ll be leaving this gallery with a head full of memories and ideas, not with pictures to adorn your social media feeds,” concluded Boros.
This new place, one that urges people to listen and feel, rather than be seen, is breaking Berlin’s past tradition that art and club scenes had drifted apart, and now, amidst uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, it seems that they could both use of each other like never before because the clubs aren’t yet ready to turn the lights off for good just yet.