Wandering the streets of berlin late at night, a man with a bicycle says hello. He’s sturdy, in leather and piercings. We speak about nothing and he invites me to follow.
Enter kopi, a 26 year old legal squat on the border between west and east berlin. If anarchy and classic horror had a love child, this space would be it. Political, powerful, punk, we enter a courtyard through a gate covered in bicycles. The courtyard is massive, the building before me at least 24 stories, tatooed with grafitti. We head to the left through some doors down the stairs past a hanging skeleton into a dungeon of heavy metal.
The room is cement, small but packed and pulsing. After a few songs I go up to explore. Across the courtyard down some steps with spiraling red lights I find a little bar playing a black and white film. I get a beer and a man speaks German at me. I speak no German, primed by a stay in spain my first impulse is to respond, “disculpe, no comprende” ive been speaking a mix between spanish and catalayn in Germany for the past 12 hours that i’ve been here. I don’t even speak those languages – what the fuck.
The German laughs, attracting an audience of a few more men in leather. Somehow we begin discussing my quest to find autonomous communal spaces. They all smile and one says, you’ve come to the right place. they begin telling me the story of the space and pouring me red shot after redshot.
Kopi was founded when the wall came down. At the time buildings near the wall were undesirable so frequently became squats. I mentioned earlier that it is a legal squat. Like spain, squatters in berlin used to have expansive rights. However, in the past 10 years the government has cracked down and begun regulating the spaces. Kopi was forced to become legally recognized and now pays a mostly symbolic rent to the city that is a fraction of what the property actually costs. About 100 people live in the space in the large building and over behind the venues in a makeshift trailer park. They host parties, workshops, bands, a fight club – both with fists and swords, film groups, and I’m sure more. It appears that there are different groups that form naturally focusing on different topics. For example, the bartender first came to kopi because there was a film screening and now hosts his own screenings in the theater through the doors behind me and volunteers as bartender.
He hands me a pamphlet that has events for the month of may for all the sqats in berlin! It was amazing to see how they are so connected and organized in seeming chaos of existing as open spaces. Organizing pamphlets like this and connecting spaces is energy, labor by people not in it for money, but in it for community. I am beaming.
These men are drunk. One keeps telling everyone they are wrong and smelling me. The man to my right had been coming for 22 years, the bartender 6 and the drunk trying to smell my hair 3. The bartender is a sweet, genuine man wearing dark green, a departure from the black leather uniform surrounding us. He is from east Germany. The other two men are from West. In Texas public schools I was taught that east Germany was a ghetto – terrible because of communism, and the West was free. I ask if this was the case and all three men’s eyes widen. It appears that they are incapable of articulating the difference between the two sides. Instead they say things like, “there is no such thing as better,” and, “yes the west had more freedom but that didn’t necessarily mean it was better.” After mumblings I ask the bartender if it was nice growing up in the east and the drunk shouts, “no it was shit.” The bartender looks put off by this. He explains he had two working parents who were divorced. The government provided a home and food for every person, and you could apply for things like cars etc and the government would provide them after a few years. To me this sounds like heaven. If I didn’t have to worry about rent and food I would have zero costs and could finally build a laboratory to conduct littley experiements. The drunk seems to be displeased with this positive portrayal of East Germany, intersecting to explain that when he visited on exchange program after the wall came down that they had no heating, only stoves. I somewhat abruptly ask if the bartender was afraid he seems to understand my question, says that he’s always been afraid and shows me the film reels of horror he’s collected. Ahhh, this is beginning to make sense. The war exposed him to horrors. Now he hosts nights of horror film screenings in a space decorated like a junkie aadams family. It is so poetically beautiful. This space either effectively accommodates or more likely effectively attracts resonant aesthetics of persons. The bartender is beaming. We then discuss how sports are just a way for nations with h bombs to fight. He tells me about the Bobby Fischer match with someone from russia.
I head back to the concert which has ended by this time, they are playing rap and wrapping up the night. I dance in an empty room off to the side, people begin to dance with me one grabs my skateboard and starts doing tricks.
I’m given drink after drink. I meet a young girl who sort of clings to me. She’s 18, the daughter of two band members in the Uruguayan death metal band that just performed. Shes drunk. Really drunk. And so are her parents. The band and crew poses on stage for a photo. I take my camera out and take pictures.
They ask me to send the pictures to them and so i start taking more. Then a man comes up, the man who first came up to dance with me, and tells me no photos. Many of the people who frequent the space are apparently militant anarchists and so do not want pictures taken. Also they don’t want the space turned into a tourist location. They want it relatively unknown.
I begin to question if maybe what I am doing is to some degree just tourism. I don’t settle down anywhere very long. I enter a space, try to learn as much I can about it. Write about it here and move on. This thought makes me sad. To explore is my nature and it is what I enjoy doing. Most people I meet welcome me with open arms. I really hope I am not harming them. I own my privilege and try to use it to lift others’ voices. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe I will stop writing these.
He, the man who asked me to stop taking pictures, doesn’t seem that mad as he offers me mdma and invites me to an afters. We head out. On our way I talk with a man from mexico getting his phd in history of uruguay. He and his friend organized the concert. We end up at a bar filled with colored Mohawks and more leather. There I meet a group of women who are straight up badass, one has half black half bleach blond hair parted straight down the middle and adopts me. She lives in Kopi and is from Indonesia – she introduces me to a tall white man in a dirty Santa jacket who refuses to be called Santa despite my pleadings. He’s gorgeous and appears to be attached to her. She’s wonderful. Grabs my journal and writes names of bands and songs I need to listen to. She draws an angel in my book and somehow we begin discussing spaces. At this Santa but not Santa perks up. He aso lives in kopi and seems to be in some position of authority but continues to insist that it is a nonhierarchical space and explains more about the space. He invites me to come back tomorrow around 6. She also invites me to a disco party on Saturday. That should be interesting. Leather and glitter.
Throughout this time, the young girl keeps coming over and talking to me. They are on tour traveling throughout Europe. Tomorrow they have a 6 hour ride on the tour bus to the next venue. Her father tells me about a time when there was a hurricane and he thought they were going to die. He said he grabbed his daughter and his wife and together with the Band they survived. His face when telling this story takes on a resilience and a strength and crippling fear that I have never seen. The tension of the moment is there and I can feel how strong he had to be despite his fears. This is art. This is everything that space and tonight has been about. There was a deep wound in the city and squats are the scab that restore it. I am so thankful for a human so capable of expressing emotion. His daughter tries to kiss me several times and keeps telling me how beautiful I am. I laugh and tell her I’m OK. A large man with a lime green Mohawk stands on a table and takes his pants off to reveal intricate tattoos of garters and stockings. Not what I was expecting. But none of this has been. A man to my right falls asleep. Hoards of leather undulate in and out. Turns out we are only a few blocks from where I am staying so i skateboard home and go to sleep.
1. Legal squats
2. The history and social context of a space matters – spaces can be used to extricate communal demons
3. Spaces fill where people don’t want to be and then create desirable neighborhoods. Kopi is in the popular artist town.