Anything Goes in Berlin’s Clubs. But Are Bouncers Killing the Vibe?

BERLIN — Every weekend (and many weeknights), Berlin’s clubs open up as spaces where anything goes. Fetish wear, nudity and sex? No big deal. Closing times, sometimes days after the party started, are determined by how many records the D.J. has in their bag.

Many of the biggest and best-known clubs have no-photo policies, and some even place stickers over cellphone cameras on the way in. The idea: Partygoers unrecorded by social media can feel liberated of society’s expectations.

It’s a surprising starting point for a photo exhibition, yet “No Photos on the Dance Floor!” at the C/O Berlin photography museum through Nov. 30, aims to tap into some of this utopian dance floor mythology. Spanning the storied years of night life in the German capital, from the early 1990s, with the rise of techno monoliths like Tresor and E-Werk, right up to the present, the show pays homage to a vibrant and permissive culture.

Like many Berlin exhibitions, the show was accompanied by several events, including film screenings, talks, and of course a party series.

And that was where the trouble started.

In September, the Berlin police were called to one of the parties at the museum to deal with a violent incident between security staff and guests, and the event was closed early.

Video footage, which circulated on Facebook and Instagram, showed a partygoer, Shaun Bass, being dragged along the floor and out of the venue by two security staff, and kicked by another female bouncer. In an exchange of Facebook messages with The New York Times, Bass said he was sober at the time and had not been aggressive. “To be treated in this way is insane,” he said.

Another guest, Simon Kaiser, a Berlin club promoter, said the same female staff member hit him in the head and threatened him.

The incident revealed an ugly mismatch between the relaxed and tolerant atmosphere portrayed in the exhibition, and the heavy-handed security around it. Berlin’s clubs thrive on a permissive, D.I.Y. vibe that lets guests feel safe — but some partygoers and activists say overzealous security staff are ruining the tolerant vibe.

C/O Berlin and the party producer DISK Agency, which chose and briefed the security company, both made public apologies to everyone at the party. A spokesman for KV Security, the agency that employed the bouncers, declined to comment for this article.

One of Berlin’s best known clubs, Berghain, recently fired a member of its security staff after a partygoer made a formal complaint. Nico Limo, who identifies as nonbinary and uses gender-neutral pronouns, said a bouncer slapped them and made racist remarks after a dispute at the club’s coat check.

“The security people are supposed to protect us,” Limo said in a phone interview. “But these things keep happening.” A spokesman for Berghain declined to discuss the incident, citing the club’s longstanding policy of not commenting to the news media.

In 2016, Berghain was officially designated a “cultural institution” by a regional court, meaning it pays a reduced tax rate, like the Berlin Philharmonic or the Schaubühne theater. The ruling highlighted the significance night life plays in the city, where the sector generates nearly 1.5 billion euros (about $1.65 billion dollars) a year, according to a 2019 study from the Club Commission, an association of Berlin’s night club owners.

No Shade, the collective of female and nonbinary D.J.s that organized the event at C/O, said in a statement that abuses of power by club security staff were common in Berlin. “The creation of these spaces for marginalized communities is the foundation of global club culture,” the statement on Facebook said, adding that it was disturbing that “such traumatic incidents could take place at an exhibition intended to not only recognize, but celebrate these roots.”

This legacy was “what Berlin prides itself on,” Kaiser said in an interview in Berlin, in October. He is taking legal action against the security staff, and is working with the Club Commission on a training program for bouncers to reduce aggressive incidents.

Lutz Leichsenring, a spokesman for the Club Commission, said most altercations arose at the door, because of “selection.” Part of many bouncers’ jobs, this murky science entails deciding whether someone has the right look and general demeanor to come in.

However, there are many who feel that bouncers use racist criteria and exclude people from ethnic minorities from joining the party. A spokesman from the Antidiscrimination Agency in Berlin said that it had provided legal advice on more than 500 cases of discrimination at club doors since 2006.

Kaiser said he thought that violent incidents like the one he was involved in were rare, but added that when they did happen, it was important to hold security staff to account. He said he had received many messages of support from other people who had witnessed or been victims of assault by bouncers. But, since many partygoers who live in or visit Berlin don’t speak German, many were put off from going to the police or taking legal action, for fear of not being taken seriously by the authorities, he said.

People who work in club security had also got in touch, Kaiser said, to say they wanted to contribute to a safer environment. “I don’t want to demonize anyone, but I think something has to be said,” he added. “If no one says anything, they’re going to keep doing it.”

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