This November marks a pivotal date in history. Specifically, on 9 November 30 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell and a city that had suffered decades of division was reunified. Following this, clubs, bars and galleries began to sprout like flowering buds throughout the city, filling the once-demolished and empty buildings with a new lease of life. Most noticeable was the rise in club life that brought the old factories and warehouses to life with techno – including famous institutions like Ufo, Tresor and Planet.
No Photos on the Dance Floor! Berlin 1989 – Today is a new exhibition, held at C/O Berlin, that documents the history of Berlin’s club scene. Running until 30 November, the show, guest curated by Felix Hoffmann, includes works from the likes of Camille Blake, Ben de Biel, Salvator Di Gregorio, Wolfgang Tillmans and Lisa Wassermann. It also includes the photography of Tilman Brembs, a Berlin-based photographer whose archive of 20,000 analogue pictures captures the development of the early techno scene from 1991-97.
Tilman tells us that he was always interested in photography as a medium and, at the age of 13, created his own darkroom in his parents’ garage where he began developing his own prints and films. Then, in 1982, he moved to Berlin and “diligently began to photograph”, he says. This includes the fall of the Wall as well as the city’s burgeoning techno scene. As he puts it: “As a chronicler, I documented the beginnings of this movement.”
It started in 1991, when Tilman got a job working in Tresor – one of the city’s legendary techno nightclubs, housed in a former department store in Wertheim, Leipzig Strasse. That was his “ticket” into the Berlin club scene. “I was not only a customer and guest, but also a part of the nightlife machine,” he says. This, combined with his role as a photographer at 90s techno magazine FrontPage, meant that he could capture as many pictures as he liked and had full access to the exploding subculture found within the walls of these underground spaces.
An enthralling record of techno history, Tilman’s 20-year archive, titled Zeitmaschine (or “Time Machine”), is an absolute wonder to navigate. One clubber, with their back facing the camera, wears a feisty-looking spiked headband, while another sees a Bandulu raver throwing some boxy shapes, and another sees Carl Cox sweating into another man’s watch. These are the careless scenes of a club culture that, quite frankly, is no more. “The images represent an era, just like Woodstock stands for a certain period of time,” explains Tilman. “Although we were not hippies, we definitely felt like we owned the world; we would do things differently like there was no tomorrow.” What he captured was a capsule of energy and celebration – a time without digital cameras and mobile phones, simply a roll of film capturing a maximum of 36 shots, with a development turnaround of around a week.
Reminiscing on these former days, Tilman describes how he “danced and lived techno”. He and his friends lacked any sense of fashion, which was fine because you could barely see anything inside these clubs anyway, and his lens captured a crowd of people simply enjoying themselves. These locations were only accessible “through mountains of rubble”, he says, and of course many of them were illegal – but Tilman admits that it made it “twice as much fun”.
Of all the pictures he took, one of his ultimate favourites is of a girl, garishly grinning into the lens with some chalky makeup and a spiked metal tooth to match. “The photo with the dancing girl of the GTO performance in E-werk,” Tilman explains. “That must have been around 1994. Shortly before the image was taken, the girl broke off two tooth crowns – but that didn’t seem to matter. For me, this picture symbolises a state of complete detachment; no matter what others think, the main thing is, we have fun.”
Tilman’s archive serves as a fundamental reminder of a bygone era. “I had to distance myself from that time. Only now do I really realise what an important era we experienced,” he says. “It’s like good wine; the longer it ripens, the better it gets.”