Straddling the border between Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain neighbourhoods, Berghain is hardly off the beaten path. Indeed, the notorious techno institution is a mere minutes away from the East Side Gallery by foot. Inhabiting a former power plant, the Berlin club scene’s mainstay is synonymous with decadent party marathons, darkroom mischief spilling onto the dancefloor, and, above all else, exclusivity.
As such, it was a curious choice to hold the first annual Pop-Kultur Festival in techno’s critical darling. Google “How To Get Into Berghain” and you’ll find a list of mobile apps, news articles, and even a handful of cop-outs on Craigslist earnestly trying to turn convert their venture capital paychecks into street cred with the help of a local club kid. This, in turn, made for an even stranger juxtaposition: pairing a self-proclaimed pop culture festival with an oasis for underground culture and deep techno fans worked out as well – “interestingly” – as you would imagine.
Structurally, the three-day-long festival divided Berghain and the surrounding areas into a total of six different venues, meaning that shows, talks and readings were spread across the adjacent Kantine am Berghain, Halle am Berghain, and a lofty room that usually functions as a wardrobe. Furthermore, the events were divided into a complex network of modules with different tickets and wristbands permitting different permutations of access. The result was a confused flow of partiers drunk off excitement and alcohol from the kiosk next door wandering in an admittedly locationally appropriate haze.
The line-up, too, rested uncomfortably in terms of its precocious position. In terms of genres and topics, the schedule was chock full of an admirably interesting and international assembly of cultural figures; in terms of flow, there was something a bit strange walking trying to move from a panel discussion with The Slits’ Viv Albertine to a live performance by pop musician and writer Owen Pallett, only later to end the night with Elijah Wood’s pet project, Wooden Wisdom with DJ Fitz.
That said, Pop-Kultur’s decision to take over the electronic music mecca paid off, in that Berghain’s unshakeable popularity has translated to an unmatchable sound system being built over the past few years. Maybe it wasn’t the most suitable situation for an amped-up set with heavy guitars backing live alt-rock vocals – expectedly so, even. But when the basslines and percussion found the sweet spot banging against the thick concrete walls, there was an enigmatic energy coursing through the club. PC Music’s Kane West was a stand-out for that very reason. Backed by bongo samples, his grooving high-hats and soporific synths wouldn’t have been out of place on Berghain’s usual roster and, during his set, even the poppiest patrons were bobbing to his leftfield hyper-glycerine house tracks as they erupted from the surrounding speakers.
The festival’s clear highlight was Neneh Cherry. With a pearly-white hair wrap, Cherry took the stage with a drummer, a synth and decades of noted experience. Her vocals were jazzily slinked in time with the 80s and 90s throwback beats in an arresting combination. Furthermore, Cherry’s more recent work took full advantage of Pop-Kultur’s homebase as well: while Everything from 2014’s Blank Project is a fast-paced but low-key banger when played off the album, the live performance’s driving snares were infectious as they rang out across Halle am Berghain. The effect was arresting.
It will be exciting to see how Pop-Kultur further develops, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a streamlined sophomore iteration next summer. With a smoother flow backing the running order, Pop-Kultur’s potential is incredibly exciting.