Karneval der Subkulturen

Caitlin Hardee on Friedrichshain’s annual celebration of local subcultures…

In Berlin, longtime Mecca of rebels and bohemians, there is nothing so cool and artsy that somebody can’t organize an edgier, more underground alternative.

And so it is with Karneval der Kulturen. This colourful celebration of multiculturalism has been an annual tradition in Kreuzberg since 1996, and dominates an entire weekend. This year, the “Morgenpost” reported 750,000 visitors and 3,900 active participants in the main parade.

There’s money to be earned too, since the festival’s role as a tourist magnet benefits not only the temporary stands lining the streets of Kreuzberg, but the entire urban economy.

kdsk12But paradoxically, the vibrant groups of dancers and artists who create the main attraction have ended up on the losing side of this financial equation. Forced to bear the costs of participation without a dedicated source of revenue or direct rebates from the city’s cultural authorities, some disgruntled Karneval-goers have taken to protesting the event’s organisation. And for some locals, the festival is simply too capitalistic – which is where the Karneval der Subkulturen comes in.

No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but I was more or less ambushed by it upon exiting my Friedrichshain apartment building on the morning of Saturday, May 23. I saw the police vans first; around ten Streifenwägen lined the edge of Frankfurter Allee, doors thrown open to reveal folding tables and laptops, officers fetching coffee and loitering. Their practiced ease stood in sharp contrast to holstered hips, radios at the ready, all part of a well-maintained machine coiled and ready to spring into action. Clearly something was going on.

I looked left and spotted a still-modest street gathering nestled into Silvio-Meier-Straße. Ageing punks in studded jackets, young Rastafarians, women in bear suits and space-age get-up. Eager to find out more, I approached a smiling, carrot-topped dreadhead who shied away as soon as I drew out my recording device. “It’s too early, I have to drink myself awake,” he laughed bashfully.

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Image by Caitlin Hardee

Another participant was more willing to speak on the record, but only under condition of anonymity. He broke down the structure of the festivities as encompassing two separate events: the “carnival of subcultures” and a competition known as the Häuserrennen (house race).

“The race used to happen under the name ‘Demonstration for the Preservation of Alternative Living and Cultural Projects'”, he explained. “It’s about highlighting the classic themes of gentrification, rising rent prices and that there are fewer and fewer open spaces in the inner city.”

The Häuserrennen, a short-distance competition featuring a motley collection of ramshackle art vehicles, was conceived as a playful way to call attention to these remaining free spaces. “I think it’s good when a bit of life comes out onto the streets now and again,” he mused.

Of course, over in Kreuzberg, an entire district was buzzing with life – but without the particular philosophies and focus on alternative living pervading the squat movement at the heart of Karneval der Subkulturen. Other than the name and timing, the two Karnevals share no organizational overlap. AGH Köpi, a collective under the auspices of the legendary and now-legal squat, officially masterminds the subculture parade.

Later research revealed that this year’s was only the fourth Karneval der Subkulturen in its current form. While the event’s website refers to a 25-year history of the parade, this includes diverse Karneval predecessors tied to the squat and the fight to keep its community alive – for instance, the Häuserrennen, which has been around for many years.

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As I chatted my way through the growing crowd, an inclination towards anonymity proved to be the norm – unsurprising, considering the historically fraught relations of the squatter movement with the authorities. I found myself playing up the element of spontaneity – just a curious freelancer, walked out of my digs, right here in the Kiez – in order to assuage any latent suspicions that powers in the established Fourth Estate had expressly dispatched me as some sort of infiltrator.

Chris, a dark-haired Hamburg native sporting a black shirt and facial studs, elaborated on the political aims of the demonstration. “Karneval der Subkulturen, in effect, stands for the fact that living spaces are getting scarcer, the rents too high, and that there are simply no more free areas. So you have this Häuserrennen, where people just come with handmade vehicles, to protest that there is no space. There has to be more affordable housing in the inner city.”

Once it grinds into gear, the street procession follows a route from the Samariterkiez, which boasts a long history of occupied houses and alternative spaces, all the way to the Köpi squat near the boundary between Mitte and Kreuzberg. On the far side of the river, the festivities culminate with a concert and extended party. “That’s actually the reason I’m here,” chuckled Chris, blinking in the bright sun. “I travelled here on a bus with 12 or 13 people from Hamburg, and we’re going to party from now until early next morning, and then take the bus straight back home.”

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I wandered along next to a group of friends perched atop one of the alternative vehicles; they were cheerfully lobbing water balloons with slingshots and sipping beer. One, sporting brunette dreadlocks and bedecked in steampunk goggles, waved off the recorder, but was willing to speak informally on the relationship to the Karneval der Kulturen, which he said had become too much of a magnet for tourists and capitalist interests.

When questioned whether the positioning of this (overwhelmingly white) alternative Karneval had anything to do with the Kreuzberg parade’s celebration of multi-culturalism, he hastened to emphasize that his particular concerns had nothing to do with the human aspect of globalism.

And indeed, the event’s website includes a crystal-clear denunciation of racism, sexism, right-wing politics and nationalism. The subculturists might be angry about rising rents and displacement as a consequence of economic growth, but they want nothing to do with xenophobes and populists. On a wall of the Köpi building stands the statement: “Die Grenze verläuft nicht zwischen den Völkern, sondern zwischen oben und unten.” (The border doesn’t run between peoples, but between above and below.)

In any case, this Karneval seemed to be at least as much about party as protest. The blonde and dreadheaded Mareike, whimsically entangled in an extraterrestial concoction of plastic tubing, foil and gauzy scrubs, smiled beatifically as she summed up the event’s attraction: “The freedom to be however you want, and to show how you want to be.” Like the others, she expressed concerns about rising rents and vanishing space, but expressed a positive view of the relationship between the two Karnevals. “I don’t see it as a protest [against Karneval der Kulturen]; I see it as a supplement.”

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Mareike and her concoction of plastic tubing. Image by Caitlin Hardee.

As the day wore into afternoon, Karneval der Subkulturen rumbled into motion, flowing ponderously through Friedrichshain. At the crossing of Grünberger Straße and Warschauer Straße, the demonstration remained in place for a few minutes, clogging the street and trapping a bumblebee-coloured tram car, while a few marchers chanted slogans. But soon enough, the festivities moved south, the traffic jam dissolved, and the neighborhood resumed its lazy rhythm of life.

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Image by Caitlin Hardee.

Whether the ongoing fight against gentrification will leave any more enduring marks on the city is still an open question. Only last year, the Berliners inflicted a remarkable democratic defeat upon their own senate, kicking the door shut against encroaching development on the massive, coveted field of the abandoned Tempelhof Airport.

The Köpi squat has a rental agreement for the foreseeable future. But the days when former mayor Klaus Wowereit dubbed the city “arm, aber sexy” (poor but sexy) are vanishing into legend. The investors have arrived with international capital, and they’re here to stay. If the city’s subcultures are to survive, they will need new strategies, and a recognition from local politicians that culture is worth preserving – even the kind that doesn’t generate millions in revenue.

All quotes from participants have been translated from the original German.

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