The Pfefferberg in the 1990s

During Berlin‘s cultural-historical interim following the fall of the wall, a changing conglomerate of culture producers, service providers and craftsmen used the Pfefferberg buildings. During that period the music clubs and the morbid-romantic beer garden with its adjacent hall towards Schönhauser Allee were popular and formative as it concerned the city’s youth culture. Especially the open-air performances during summer notably contributed to the collective vibe of the city’s „New East“, which was inspired by atmosphere of departure and apocalyptical associations alike.

The leading institution on the plot was the non-profit association Pfefferwerk Verein zur Förderung von Stadtkultur e.V. It managed about 200 cultural events per year attracting thousands of visitors. While the concerts’ initial focus was on world music, the curators increasingly supported Francophone sound projects and presented among others artists from Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Another trend were performances of bands from Eastern Europe and Latin America. The annual Flamenco Festival became iconic. In addition to the solely musical performances, the Tanztage (Days of Dance) were established as another successful major project.

Electronic music saw its creative heyday in Berlin’s early 1990s. The Pfefferberg music clubs turned into laboratories of the new movement. DJs started cooperating with visual artists by combining sounds with projections and light design and setting up space installations. During the warm months, these projects sometimes flooded the whole basement and turned the beer garden into a futuristic environment.

Initially, the terrain on Christinenstrasse behind the event spaces remained almost unknown to the broad public. But the few curious visitors were always impressed by the post-industrial magnificence of its ruins. History could be read straight off the walls of bombed buildings that were repaired with debris. There was yet more free space there, and it was used progressively by a heterogeneous group of tenants. Among them was, since 1996, the office of the Pfefferwerk Stadtkultur GmbH, being active in street working with children and teens, supporting the dialogue of the generations as well as developing concepts for immigrants, operating workshops and realising employment projects. Furthermore, non-profit agencies used the buildings, such as mob e.V., WeTeK e.V., Förderband e.V., and the Interkulturelles Netzwerk, all of which broadened the socio-cultural facilities on site with a diversity of offers.

Apart from the companies united in the Pfefferwerk-Verbund, a multitude of establishments sprung up: artists’ and architects‘ studios, small handicraft shops, a Dutch beer wholesale as well as several transient party organisers of forever arguable legal status. Synergetic effects among them developed fast, very much alike among the new Pfefferberg projects today. Many start-ups of yore are renowned companies today, for instance Alexander Mende‘s Pinguin Druck GmbH, the orange architekten who also developed a post-industrial building on Marienburger Strasse, the sculptors Hamann and Lucker whose company Oberbaum GmbH restored major parts of Berlin’s Museum Island. However, maintaining and using the individual spaces of the Pfefferberg was an affair of a clear time limit as no permanent rental agreements could be negotiated due to the characteristics of the location. Anyway, the weathered condition of the buildings called for manual efforts. Improvisation was the motto of the day. Doors had to be fitted, water and electricity supplies to be installed. Winter brought the cracking sound of fossil ovens.

Thus, insecurity coupled with freedom and bore flexibility and creative action. In 1998, as part of their performance project “thomas bernhard. eine einschärfung“, the Peter-Weiss-Stiftung für Kunst und Politik staged „Die lange Nacht des Thomas Bernhard“ at Pfefferberg, together with artists from the resident MEINBLAU e.V. In the middle of the south yard, a „Thomas-Bernhard-Coffin“ of 20 metres length was constructed from square timber and encased with rusty sheets. Barely cognizable flaps were built into the installation’s surface, under which the actors hid before the start of the first performance. Only after the intro monologue by actor and director Martin Engler the „underworld creatures“ would leap up ensuring a spectacular kick-off for Thomas Bernhard’s early period drama “A feast for Boris”. Readings and dramatising text-collages were performed in the adjacent buildings. Virtually all users of the area were integrated into the performance one way or the other, and if it was by providing space or logistic support.

The non-profit association MEINBLAU e.V., founded in 1997, remains present on Pfefferberg to this day with a house of arts and the studios. During the 1990s, its focus, besides discourse-oriented exhibitions, was chiefly on interdisciplinary projects to merge fine arts, theatre, literature and music into dissenting performances. In 1999, MEINBLAU e.V. started its international activities by organising the Berlin section of the Biennial Festival „Arti Visive 3“ in Genoa.

Today, the spirit of the early days are coherently and professionally embedded into the equivalent aesthetics of the new Pfefferberg. The result is a location that merges social projects with young and established culture.

Bernhard Draz, November 2009