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Society

Festsaal Kreuzberg: Berlin's wildest arts venue is better than fiction

It was a venue where odd things happened. Berlin's legendary Festsaal Kreuzberg was an art space that DW's 'Insider' Jan Kage helped define - by emceeing women's arm wrestling contests and befriending the security guard.

Afashan died last week.

I got to know him nine years ago, when some friends of mine took over this old banquet hall right by Kottbusser Gate in Berlin's Kreuzberg district to establish what would become one of the city's best-known concert halls for alternative music: the Festsaal Kreuzberg.

Kottbusser Gate wasn't what it is today - a roundabout with a lot of cool bars and some poor junkies. Back then, it was only the junkies. So it was quite daring to open a new location there.

They started with nothing but the place. Each one of the three entrepreneurs kept his day job in the beginning. What they earned, they invested in a sound system, lights and other stuff to improve the place.

What they had was taste in music.

Jan Kage

Berlin insider Jan Kage is penning a four-part special edition of Scene in Berlin

The Festsaal (literally, "ballroom" in German) lived up to its name. The Turkish community celebrated their wedding parties there. Also with the name came Mesut, a guy in his late 40s who worked as a janitor for the old Festsaal. The new Festsaal continued to employ him. My friends kept him on, just as they kept Afashan on for security.

If this were a novel…

The Festsaal was brilliant. It had this balcony that went all around the hall so you could watch concerts not only from the ground floor but from the elevated first floor as well (although it was very hot up there).

I remember slam dancing to the punk band Kommando Sonnenmilch there in my full winter outfit, a duffel coat and a scarf. Two hours straight without anything to drink. I was steaming. It was in the Festsaal that I'd witnessed English artist Billy Childish's dry sarcasm.

A punk rock girl had ripped the Union Jack that was hanging behind the drummer off the wall, probably acting out of general anti-national sentiments. Billy - dressed in a 19th-century colonial outfit including a topee - watched her, then turned to the mic to say, "Oh, there's obviously little respect for the flag in here. Well, the next song is called..."

I saw legendary electro-punk band DAF play, played there myself a couple of times, heard readings, staged the berlinerWald reading circuit with friends, and celebrated my friend Gauner's wedding. The last concert I wanted to see at Festsaal Kreuzberg was KRS One in mid-July. For whatever reason, I did not make it.

The next day, the joint burned down.

It's kind of strange that the place burns down and not even half a year later Afashan, whose whole life is indissolubly connected to the Festsaal, leaves as well. In a novel, this would seem like someone made it up, wouldn't it?

When I first met Afashan, he was completely neurotic and very aggressive. He was all about security. But he changed over the years working together with my friends. He got to be really friendly and sociable without losing his professional attentiveness.

When I organized a temporary gallery - the Party Arty Gallery - in the basement of the Festsaal over seven years ago, Afashan was always on me as soon as I entered the place.

"Hey Afashan, calm down, dude. It's me!" It took him a while.

Women's wrestling: 'Is that PC?'

Each opening of the Party Arty Gallery also included a DJ and a concert so people that normally don't go to galleries because they think the atmosphere is rather stiff would attend, too. We also had the world's only contest in women's arm wrestling on the opening nights. At first it was hard to get six ladies to sign up without talking them into it.

Party Arty Gallery poster from 2006, Copyright: Jan Kage

The Party Arty Gallery was a crazy mix of art, music and - um - sports

We had this high table which the two opponents stood on, with about a hundred people all around them. I held the microphone and emceed the event like a boxing fight: "On the left we have Julia in the red sweater with a wrestling weight of about 60 kilograms. Please, make some cheerful noise!"

An audience that normally doesn't visit too many sport events cheered like mad. At the second world's only women's arm wrestling contest a month later, I had to close the list after a dozen women signed up because too many wanted to join in.

People discussed the event the next morning in the breakfast cafés. My brother overheard this conversation: "I was at this Party Arty Gallery yesterday and they had women's arm wrestling. Is that PC?" Oh, yes it was.

Battle of the artists

There were always two artists showing in the Gallery, which I organized as a battle, too. When we set up an exhibition of painting musician Chérie from Warren Suicide versus the comic painter and songwriter Ziska, Nackt (Chéries partner in crime and love) asked, "Hey, how about organizing a festival down here? We'll invite befriended bands, DJs and poets. No admission and nobody gets paid. And no flyers, only word of mouth."

Warren Suicide's Nackt performing at the Festsaal Kreuzberg in Berlin, Copyright: Jan Kage

Nackt, half of Warren Suicide, came up with the idea for the Signal Fest

I started making some calls. "No fee, no admission, no advertising - but free drinks?" The artists were shocked. "That sounds like fun! Count me in." Both the well-known and the not-so-well-known friends signed up.

We called the event Signal Fest and it became one-of-a-kind. Even though we scheduled it from a Sunday evening to a Wednesday night and had absolutely no advertising, the place was jammed packed each night. On the last few nights, we had to close the doors - it was that full.

The Signal Fest drew free jazzers from California that were passing through town, punk rock and indie bands, hiphop groups and turntablists - everything with an edge. Bigger projects spiraled out of it later on, like the Berlin String Theory, for instance - a string quartet that plays songs by befriended bands.

Memorial to a good pal

When we locked the basement in the mornings, the sun already up, Ben Lauber of the production team Transporterraum would put on this self-generating loop of sound that he'd programmed just for this reason. So there was continuous sound for four straight days and nights.

Still, Afashan was after me when I returned each afternoon (that now was our morning) - barking at me and hanging on my trousers.

Afashan, Copyright: Björn von Swieykowski

R.I.P Afashan

"Would you get off me, bastard," I shouted, shaking my leg to get him off of me. But he would just keep on growling until Björn, one of the Festsaal managers, shouted at him, "Afashan, out!"

Like I said, Afashan was mad back then. The old owners of the Festsaal Kreuzberg had basically kept him locked in the basement as a watchdog for his first three years, like those mad dogs in remote villages that get leftovers and kicks, but no petting or steaks. No wonder Afashan was neurotic.

The miraculous thing was how he turned out later on after Björn "adopted" him and treated him with some kindness and love, but also with strictness. Afashan became a good pal. And Björn was no dog teacher. I believe Afashan was his first dog.

The guys are going to rebuild the Festsaal Kreuzberg next year. The insurance will pay some of the costs, plus they recently got some 30,000 euros through a crowdfunding platform. The rest will be financed with a loan.

Maybe they can install a dog house as a permanent memorial for Afashan there. He lived as long as the first Festsaal did. Funny how these stories go sometimes. In a novel, this would seem like someone made it up, wouldn't it?

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