CLUBS AND AWARENESS TEAMS
Towards the end of last year, the BLVSH crew sat down for a chat with DJ, producer and drag artist Indigo Plateaux as part of their interview series on Refuge Worldwide. As well as discussing his own personal journey into music and clubbing, the interview centered around the topic of Awareness, a role which Indigo Plateaux, real name Jared, recently found himself stepping into.
Article and pictures by Róisín Bridget.
The initial interview with Jared prompted this article, to discover and discuss: what exactly is Awareness with a capital A? To look for answers to this question I also spoke to Fabio from Berlin’s famous Gegen parties, Mal, an Awareness team member at Gegen, and now co-founder of a new non-hierarchical Awareness collective in Berlin. During the initial stages of writing this article, great synchronicity would have it that a friend from the UK, Sofi, had recently thought about starting up her own Awareness collective. The writing of this article also coincided with the bombardment of articles reporting an increase in spiking in the UK. Although this article does include the words of one girl in particular (who remains anonymous) it is unfortunately not a unique story. All of these conversations gave insight into not only what Awareness is and should be, but also shed light on why it seems we are all of a sudden more aware of it, and why it is even more important now - in a post-pandemic clubbing environment - than ever before.
Jared, who moved from the US to Berlin 3 years ago, had his first experience working in Awareness at Porzellan bar, a venue he originally became connected to through DJing. To begin with, his main task was asking party-goers to put on their mask, a job he up-took with ease after being asked “do you want to tell people to put their mask on, rave, and get paid?” But he soon realised that the job of Awareness entailed a lot more than just asking people to wear a mask and keep their distance.
However, it is most likely in this instance where a lot of Berlin-dwellers became first exposed to the work of an Awareness team. As we were reunited on the dance floors in the Summer of 2020, we were still in the midst of a pandemic, and so a lot of venues needed on-hand staff to gently remind dancers to enjoy themselves safely. Although only one tiny aspect of an Awareness team, it does well to illustrate what they are there to do: looking out for everyone’s well being through a fog of intoxication, debauchery and escapism (none of which are bad things, by the way!) that sometimes clouds the crowd’s own awareness capacity
BLVSH first crossed paths with Jared, when he and Alissa (Acidfinky) were on the same bill at a daytime gig at Revier Südost, a club whose security staff would that very night go on to be accused of racism and homophobia towards a guest. The venue temporarily shut its doors after Nicholas, an activist and dancer, shared a viral post on Instagram detailing his story of treatment he had received from the club’s staff. Jared, who had only met Nicholas for the first time on the day of the incident, said that although he was disappointed to hear of what happened, he was not exactly surprised: ‘’a lot of clubs use the image of being a queer safe space, but when you actually get into it, it is not really the case. As they are not actually invested in making it.’’
‘’Really and truly facilitating a safe space’’, is how Mal, former researcher/neuroscientist and co-founding member of the Anarchist Awareness Alliance, sums up the role of the Awareness team. Mal sees conflict resolution and anti-discrimination work as the core and most important goals of Awareness, which they think are best achieved through ‘’mediation’’ and what they describe as ‘’restorative justice through conversations’’. Meaning that, when an incident occurs it can be handled right there and then, in a calm and peaceful manner. Jared described a realisation he had after starting to work in Awareness, finding himself “in a position, that when something unacceptable’ happened, I could actually really make it that: unacceptable.’’
Having the ability to deal with incidents in the instance in which they happen, is what drove the Gegen team to introduce Awareness at all their events since 2014: ‘’although we did not call it Awareness at the time, since we had no other model to compare it to’’ explained promoter Fabio. ‘’We would receive emails a few days after the event, from people expressing that they had not felt a hundred percent safe, or that they had been victims of harassment. However, days after the event has passed, it is a lot harder to find some kind of solution,” said Fabio.
"We therefore decided, that it would be far more effective, and necessary, to have a team on hand ready to act in the exact moment that something happens. When guests are high, their perspective of reality is altered. But normally after a conversation with an awareness team present, it can be resolved that a misunderstanding has perhaps occurred. This makes it far easier to understand and solve problems."
As well keeping a lookout for possible conflicts, Fabio also sees the Awareness team as taking on the role of ’the first point of contact between guests and the core team running the party.’’ Which can also just be sharing simple information, “like where is the toilet, or the bar, or which DJ is playing next. So essentially: it’s communication,’’ a role which Fabio sees as ‘’most especially important in a sex-positive party like Gegen, where misunderstandings have the potential to happen arguably even more than at a normal party.”
But not every promoter or venue is keen to employ Awareness staff, ‘’the bosses at Funkhaus fail to see the point of it, and want to employ security instead,’’ said Jared. The difference between the two, however, is vast. To describe security in Jared’s words it “intimidates people. Confiscating drugs, finding people who are intoxicated, and relying on physical violence to control the situation - which is not an effective solution.” Fabio therefore sees the Awareness seam as a kind of “pillow” between security and guests: ‘’of course, the security tem is an important feature, but the Awareness team is able to provide a far more empathetic approach that security cannot.’’
‘’Anyone can do a generic certificate in security via the job centre and get hired,’’ Jared said, “and are therefore being employed and having a low commitment going into these clubs, and with absolutely no idea of the scene. The security team come as part of the venue hired out by the promoter, and so we as the party organisers have little or no influence over the security,” said Fabio. And as we have seen, through stories such as Nicholas’, security can have a crucial influence over guest experience; the difference between a good night and an awful one. ‘’The awareness team, on the other hand” explained Fabio, “are built up from the scene, and have the language.”
And language is key, especially when dealing with gender and queer issues. Fabio shared that misgendering is one of the key conflict issues that arise at their parties. In his interview, Jared mentioned an example of such an incident which occurred at the first Herrensauna event, whereby a member of the security team banned a trans women from entering the ladies bathroom, which Jared added “ was not the only transphobic thing that happened.’’ After the Herrensauna crew were informed of these allegations they complained to the venue’s manager, which resulted in the entire security team who had worked the initial party to be fired.
It is understandable why security teams might at first be ‘’sceptical’’ as Mal described, towards Awareness teams. ‘’Due to the fact that there is no standard of Awareness in place throughout Berlin. However when we work with them over a longer term, and they can observe us handle small incidents before they turn into larger ones, they see that we allow for them to do their job more efficiently.’’ A point also made by Fabio, ‘’with the Awareness team doing their role, it allows for everyone else working at the party to focus on theirs, thus relieving stress for everyone involved.’’
‘’When there is no Awareness team on site, the job that they do by proxy falls onto others, like the bar staff” added Sofi, who has worked for several years behind busy bars and has since moved into a care-giving role. After several trips to Berlin, Sofi has been thinking about setting up her own Awareness crew in her home city, an idea that was also influenced by the reported drastic increase in spiking incidents in Edinburgh and elsewhere, “for the first time in my life, it made me question if I should go out or not.’’
I also spoke to another girl from the UK, who shared her story about fearing that she had been spiked during a visit to her favourite local club: “being spiked can provoke feelings of guilt, shame, helplessness. It is not easy to approach someone and say ‘I think I’ve been spiked.’ And perhaps even harder when you have been taking other things.” I asked her to imagine how her night may have panned out differently, had an Awareness team been present: “I think the biggest difference is that I would have had access to a safe space to get over what had happened, without fear of being judged (for also taking other substances). Instead, I ended up sitting with someone who I had only just recently met, in an alley outside. But if there had been some kind of Awareness situation available, it would have been safer all-round.” She also went on to share ‘’to be honest, the aftermath was worse than the incident itself. I felt so anxious going home, without the appropriate aftercare available and not having anybody to talk about it with.’’
Unfortunately, the UK’s tough zero-tolerance approach towards drugs makes the concept of harm reduction more difficult to introduce, as many side with the argument that providing educational material on drug use is therefore promoting it. But does Berlin’s perhaps slightly ‘softer’ approach towards drug use, make it any safer? Or the opposite? ‘’There were overdoses at the second Herrensauna. Without Awareness teams, people would die’’ shared Jared. He also pointed out how and why overdoses are increasingly likely in a post-pandemic club: as a two year backlog of new clubbers enter the scene, they are mingling with seasoned ravers who have been upping their doses and tolerance levels whilst at home for the past two years. ‘”When you mix these two groups together, it is a recipe for chaos,’’ he explained ‘’and it can end up with people passing out, alone.’’ In August last year, a 25 year old was found dead in Berlin’s Suicide club, reportedly due to a cardiac arrest as the result of a GHB overdose. A drug which has become increasingly popular in Berlin clubs and the queer scene, leading many venues and events to take a strong zero-tolerance stance against it, and saw ClubComission release the statement:
“There is no G in Club Culture” in October last year. “Only a small margin of error can kill a person,’’ Mal reminded us. Though in Jared’s opinion, increasing the stigma only causes people to hide their use away even more, making it even more dangerous.
You might assume that after cases like what happened at Suicide club, every club and promoter would always want Awareness teams on hand. Especially as the cost of hiring paramedics is as Fabio said ‘’excruciatingly high and basically unaffordable.’’ But as Jared explained ‘’ultimately, it comes down to those higher up, holding the money.’’ Of course, in the end Awareness teams make the party better off over all, so are therefore a smart investment, ‘’but if those at the top are unable to see the potential to monetise in the short term, then they are less likely to be in favour of it.” And in today’s uncertainty, clubs and promoters are financially struggling more than ever, further preventing Awareness to find itself into the mainstream and really being implemented.
But even when not hiring Awareness teams, it seems that promoters still throw around the words ‘safe space’ and ‘anti-racism’ but as ‘’no more than commercial branding,” as explained by Fabio, who sees some groups as ‘’just using these words because now in Berlin it is cool to write it. But really, there isn’t anybody physically there to really ensure it is a safe space. So it is basically just a promotional tool, in the same way as ‘underground’ or ‘queer’”. This half-hearted approach can also be seen in the UK. ‘’Posting on social media ‘if you feel uneasy or discriminated against, please speak to a member of staff’ is not enough,” said Sofi, “nine times out of ten, someone in an uncomfortable situation is not going to go and seek out a specific person who social-media has told them they should speak to.” Sofi added “that is not to say that the lack of effort is true for all promoters. I have been to events at home recently which have not only published Awareness statements beforehand, but did really feel like welcoming and safe spaces. It all depends on if those running behind the event really care or not, and of course, some really do.”
So why have we seen such an increase in these ‘safe space’ affiliated buzzwords flying around since the pandemic? Mal’s view is an optimistic one, ‘’there is really a genuine increase in desire for Awareness work. Now more of us, if not all of us, have gone through trauma, more than at any other point in our lifetimes.” Plus, we have all had the time and space to reflect upon it. Alissa (Acidfinky) from BLVSH, shared during the interview with Jared that she had only become aware of Awareness in the past six months or so, and it seems that this is the case for many. After two years spent in our homes, we have had a lot more time both to think and to converse with those around us. When asking Sofi about her motivations for starting up an Awareness collective she mentioned the pandemic as being a “period for self growth. So when I returned to clubs, I noticed that I had become far more aware of the heteronormative and cliquey-ness of the scene, plus also the drug and alcohol issues.” As well as having our own self-realisations, we have also had time to discuss as a community a variety of subjects, such as race and gender issues. Unable to go out and party we’ve had time to fill, time to deconstruct, to debate, and to imagine.
It is most likely for this reason that Awareness, previously a ‘’niche rave thing’’ has become far more popular, said Mal “A lot of parties that have never used Awareness crews before, are now using them.” But as for a more positive clubbing outlook in general? Jared added that, although we might have seen an uptake in arguably more progressive bookings, ‘’the weight of what still remains to be done, is intimidating. It is going to take a lot of work. And, if you can not monetise it immediately, then those ‘higher up’ unfortunately do not really care.”
So what to do now? We have to make these ‘higher ups’, as Jared calls them, care. ‘’We must support the community, first and foremost. If a club is treating people badly, stop going there.’’ Which also applies to DJs: ‘’don’t accept the booking, just because it will make you money. You can make these clubs change by not going there again,’’ is his take. Sofi also feels the same. ‘’If a club night say that they are queer, or anti-racism, they need to follow it through, truly follow it though. With effort.’’ In an age washed with virtue signalling, it all comes down to walking the walk, not just talking the talk. And that, also comes down to us as clubbers.
Perhaps a counterargument to hiring Awareness teams, is that in true rave ethos it should be down to us to look after each other: we should be a community, and therefore aware of each other, without the need to hire a team to do that for us. In a perfect world, this makes complete sense. And many of us will have attended raves and self-organised parties where this is very much the case. However, we must remember that a club is not that: although it is a space of freedom and joy, filled with rich and genuine moments; we need to not forget that clubs are commercial entities. We as clubbers, are also consumers. This is not to say that this is a bad thing, but by remembering this, we can change things by only stepping foot into spaces that reflect what we as a community want.