Nanette Fleig. 
Photo: Benjamin Pritzkuleit

Berlin - The scratched parquet dancefloor, once home to mohawks, studded leather jackets and rebellion, is now home to 60 folding chairs, placed precisely 1.5m apart. Concerts have become a thing of the past, for now. Lectures and discussions have replaced three-chord punk. And anyone not seated must be wearing a mask.

A bizarre sight in the city’s iconic SO36 punk club. A club that complies with government regulations seems more out of place here than anywhere else – shows here have ended in street battles with the Polizei.

“SO”, as it’s called by anyone who’s been through its doors at least once, remains staunchly connected to the punk scene it grew out of. Bands that normally perform here usually whip the audience into a frenzy.

The club’s spokesperson, Nanette Fleig, refers to SO as a Hexenkessel (witches' cauldron) but also her living room. The corona rules "totally contradict the nature of punk rock and subculture," Fleig says. But halting concerts and transforming the cauldron into a pandemic lecture hall wasn’t as difficult or counter-intuitive as one would think – the club is a living room to many different Kreuzbergers and organisations.

How to dialogue with youth.
Photo: Benjamin Pritzkuleit

"We know our guests and know there are many who belong to risk groups," Fleig says. Rather than put those guests at risk through concerts, SO36 has instead chosen to show solidarity. Hosting a super-spreader event, like the Austrian town of Ischgl, is so unwelcome that Fleig raises her hands defensively.

SO36 opened in August 1978 with an ironic "wall-building festival" and quickly developed into an institution. It’s had a number of owners, not all of whom were welcomed by regulars. Some had to shoot back.

Painter and performance artist Martin Kippenberger bought into the club in its early days after he inherited some cash. Kippenberger raised beer prices and, according to legend, even had to shed some blood. When he tried throw SO regular Rat Jenny out and pushed her to the floor, she attacked him with a broken glass.

After Kippenberger had his face bandaged, he had it photographed and painted. He titled the resulting artwork “Dialogue with Youth”. It wasn’t their last altercation and Kippenberger ended his tenure at SO almost as quickly as he arrived. Rat Jenny remained.

Fleig, together with others from the Sub Opus 36 association that runs the club, researched SO36’s history, looked for rental contracts, tracked down previous managers, and interviewed artists and guests. Published in 2016, SO36 - 1978 Bis Heute is a 500-page history of the club with illustrations, interviews, articles and documents.

“SO only functions with its neighbourhood, that’s important,” Fleig says. The audience’s protests during the early years, for example. Like Rat Jenny’s protest against Kippenberger. Like an exhibition that was destroyed. Like the entrance fees that were seen as exorbitant and stolen by the Commando against Consumer Terror. For Fleig, those moments are the essence of SO. 

Hilal Kurutan was one of the managers accepted by the neighbourhood. Kurutan was a Turkish social worker in the early 1980s who wanted to create a space for migrant youths and families. They often had trouble renting spaces back then, even if only for family celebrations.

But Kurutan also willingly handed over the stage to punks on many evenings. Under his aegis, the SO continued to develop into a centre of the punk and new wave scenes. Bands such as Slime, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Dead Kennedys and Die Ärzte, who are still silent members of the SO association today, saw it as their favourite venue.

Photo: imago images/Christian Ditsch

When building authorities closed the club, former SO visitors founded Sub Opus 36 in 1988 and have been able to keep it open ever since. The 1990s were especially difficult.

"All the exciting places were suddenly in East Berlin, every other cellar had an illegal bar," Fleig says. "Kreuzberg was really out."

Although fatal for the bottom line, SO used the cultural shift to move in a new direction: The queer scene discovered the vacuum and filled it with party series like "Hungrige Herzen" or the "Gayhane", still one of the few queer parties in Berlin that explicitly addresses a migrant audience.

While researching her book, Fleig discovered that everyone has their own image of the club. "For some it’s a punk stage, for others a techno club, for others a queer club." The beauty: everyone's right, depending on when you’re there.

On the left is Farin Urlaub and Bela B, right, during a fund-raising reading at the club. Their band, Die Ärzte, is as iconic as SO.   
Photo: die ärzte/SO36/dpa

The Sub Opus association has about 100 active members, most of whom work either full- or part-time for the club. Most have many duties: Fleig does press, bookkeeping and plays in a ska band. The doorman also shoots videos and the stage builder also makes drawings – yet another PR person also organises parties.

They’re still unsure and keep meeting to consider the club’s future. When will music and subculture be possible again in SO? Socially distanced concerts remain out-of-bounds. For punk and rock, the concerts would be, at best, a "methadone programme", Fleig says.

But they’ve also been unable to come up with any other ideas that could be fun for artists, bands and themselves.

Until they come up with an economically viable corona concept, the club must pony up €23,000 in monthly costs, which they’re covering themselves. They asked for donations early on and collected a few thousand in a few days. But it also meant they then couldn’t get emergency aid from Berlin, making it dependent on donations.

"Our bad luck was that our friends are too good," Fleig says. But it’s this fanbase that keeps them going. “To see that people really want us, that it's important to them – that's an incredibly good feeling."

Adapted for the English Edition by Andrew Bulkeley