Q&A with Dimitri Hegemann

It’s difficult to understate the importance of Dimitri Hegemann in the evolution of electronic music.

After moving Berlin in 1978, Hegemann became involved in the brimming arts and music scene of West Berlin, via his now legendary festival Berlin Atonal and his dingy, post-wall acid house club UFO. But in 1991, Hegemann unearthed a forgotten bank vault under the decaying Wertheim department store, and opened it up for a revolutionary style of music coming out of Detroit. Named Tresor, it would create the archetype for the Berlin techno experience, and Hegemann would build an unrivaled reputation for finding and appropriating forgotten spaces for major art and cultural projects.

After losing its original location and relocating to the monolithic steam factory-turned-art-space Kraftwerk, Tresor remains one of the city’s premiere clubbing destinations and has maintained the unifying bond between Detroit and Berlin as techno has grown into global subculture.

For our forthcoming short documentary about the future of the Berlin music scene, we interviewed Dimitri in the control room of his Kraftwerk to discuss the foundations upon which this truly unique scene is built.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Dimitri Hegemann. Credit—Juliana Matos.
CFP: So, Dimitri, please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your role in Berlin.

DH: My name is Dimitri Hegemann and I’m a Space Pioneer. My job is to encourage young people, to inspire young people, and to transform industrial ruins and forgotten spaces into cultural spaces. 

I believe that young people need spaces and laboratories to play, and [the abundance of free space] makes Berlin special and very attractive around the world. After the wall came down, we found many [empty] spaces in the east of the city and there were no authorities to chase us for three or four years, and the result is that Berlin is one of the most beloved and tolerant cities in the world.

And you played a pretty major hand in introducing techno to Europe.  

Yes, I’m a bit guilty for techno! I brought it over from Detroit, and that music did change the city. It was not like anything else. It was this get together of people in dark rooms with a new, fresh sound from Michigan and people from all genres came to it; from the artists, the IT guys, students, musicians, laborers, craftsmen, during the night, to start discussing a new musical direction called techno.

I think techno has changed Berlin and I belong to a team that is responsible for it.

So you mentioned the crucial absence of the police presence after the wall fell; this is where, the squatting culture appeared, the claiming of spaces, this sort of renegade party culture — do you think that period of freedom that existed in Berlin has become the foundation of the city’s artistic attitude?

Definitely. West Berlin was like an island where open minded people got together, it was very special and West Berlin did collect people who looked for a different way of life. But I think the problem was that there was no space, and when the wall came down, many people who lived in West Berlin realized that they didn’t have to ask anymore, they just did it. They took their chance and jumped through the wall to the east and found some space. And the people on the east did the same. It was a very very big present that we got after the fall of the wall. 

All authorities had to do different jobs; organize traffic or the army, so the subcultural movement used this chance. These people are responsible for this direction Berlin took, and looking back today, I must say this has really created a very special situation for the city.

And that land grab has become a major economic industry for the city!

More than 50 percent of all visitors to Berlin come because of [the creative arts]! Our marketing company Visit Berlin delivers numbers, and they say we’ve had 32 million people last year, and half of them come because of nightclubbing, alternative restaurants, whatever. They come because of the open spirit of the city. Visit Berlin also says tourists spend €230 a day. This movement became an economic force and this information might be very interesting for some other cities. 

So I think there is on one side, this creativity, this creative class, but it also brings a great image and economic value to the city.

Control room of Kraftwerk. Credit—Juliana Matos.
Can you tell us about the journey towards making the government recognize the true value of the underground subculture and how you have come to a position today where it feels like they are acknowledging this very valuable industry to the city of Berlin?

We started in 1991 with Tresor, and we did not know what it would be in two months…it was like a trial, you know? Maybe techno comes to Berlin and then disappears. We did not know. We rented the space for two months at a time. We couldn’t think long term—nobody really cared, everybody was confused, but we did it and finally, this new music became so big that the government couldn’t ignore it anymore.

We stayed in that space from '91 to '05. [The government] sold the building in 2005, but still did not understand that the people were in charge of the culture in the city. They didn’t understand that this [force] is so important to Berlin. Now we have 2017, slowly, they understand that the city needs these free spaces, that they are of great value, and that the creative people are the jewels of the city. The people expect these free spaces. They expect to meet people who think like themselves. They expect that this city invests into culture and arts. The city should understand that we have something very special.

The city also didn’t manage to keep the Love Parade here. That was bad because the images of the early Love Parade and the images of the fall of the wall went around the world and they demonstrated a new, young Berlin. Young people dancing in the streets… And the sounds were also new, so Berlin was really on this track for many, many generations.

Do you think that the culture of finding free and open spaces in Berlin might be coming to an end?

Um, yes. We won’t have this kind of freshness. Spaces are limited, the city sells too much of it off to developers. They changed a little bit but I must say that the real hot spots should belong in the heart of the city. At the moment, a lot of clubs are disappearing or becoming, in a way, too normal. A lot of regulations stop young promoters from starting something, because it’s difficult. It’s really difficult. 

Everybody tries harder to offer a good culture program, to serve a good drink. In the clubs we have top bands and DJs. I don’t know any city that offers for this kind of price such a strong program in electronic music. But I must say that the spaces are limited and it’s time, maybe, to help young clubbers or young club promoters, to give them some know-how [from] what we have seen.

Ominous main room of Kraftwerk. Credit—Juliana Matos.
For anyone reading this, could you tell me about Kraftwerk, the fabulous building that we are sat in right now?

So we had to close the original Tresor in 2005, and when we were looking for a spot to put all this equipment in, somebody told me to look at this factory. I came in and was shocked again, like the moment when I discovered Tresor. I was a bit scared man—you must understand that there were holes you could fall down everywhere! Somebody explained to me that this was a steam power plant in East Germany. Everything was taken out, but it looked great for me. I loved it from the first moment, and I saw so many opportunities. But the architects and for the authorities, they took one look and said, “What is this? No way, not possible to get licenses or permission”. It was really a big job. But because I did not know what kind of job it would be, or what kind of challenge it was, so I just started.

One day the authorities said, “No way, we cannot go further.” I was very desperate and then a friend of mine came by, and I explained the situation to him. He said “Dimitri, I have this special phone number,” and he phoned the guy in Taiwan—a really funny story, man. And this guy was one of his colleagues when he studied medicine in Beijing, but he stopped his studies and he became a monk in Tibet.

So we called the monks! “We have a problem!” we said, and the monks came to Berlin, and checked the space and started a building clearance. I was like ‘What kind of reality is this?!’ They were singing sutras all day long, but somehow, it helped. The sun did rise… like two weeks later [laughs], and the authorities said “Yes, we can help, we can do this,” and I got permission. So sometimes you must go different ways to reach your goals. And there were many of these stories happened in the history of the last ten years for this building.

But today I think this building, this huge building, is perfect for big projects, and Berlin needs spaces like that. We have maybe 600 nice, small galleries, but for big projects, we don’t have much. And Tresor is in here in the corner of course.

Could you tell me as a final point—you’re quite a lyrical man so I’m looking forward to hearing your answer for this—What is it that you think makes Berlin, Berlin?

Berlin… I think… inspired me because it lured me into the night. The nighttime is so special here in Berlin. Another thing was that I always had really crazy ideas, and I knew that I would at least find one person in Berlin that I could share these ideas with. You can come to Berlin and I guarantee you will find someone you can share your craziest visions with. This has always encouraged me to continue working. 

This city encourages you to go with your ideas, to change the world, and make it better.