Dr Julien Drouart
Alec Empire: The musical riot of German Reunification
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
Founder of the Atari Teenage Riot collective, Alec Empire is a key figure in Berlin in the 1990s. A political actor in a context of renewal of German identities.
1990s: Berlin reinvents itself
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the East German state opened up a troubled period in Berlin, where the fields of possibility multiplied. Some, such as the American intellectual Francis Fukuyama, acknowledged the 'end of history' and the complete victory of liberal democracy. For others, the lack of an ideological counterweight to the capitalist model meant that there was an unacceptable risk of a political status quo and cultural immobility.
Until then, West Berlin as a territorial enclave cultivated difference and rebellion. The culture was mainly political: it took over the public space and, if it did not seek to politically educate individuals, especially young people, it at least sought to create identity bastions. This counterculture was combined with the rhythm of punk and industrial music, squats, demonstrations and autonomous parties.
Already the oppositions between alternatives and radicals were making themselves felt, with the latter accusing the former of having renounced political commitment and accepted a lifestyle that was ultimately 'conformist'. The 'end of history' accelerated the ongoing split and many people migrated to the former East Berlin. New centres of protest emerged as a break with the past and offered new places of collective experimentation. The counterculture retained its punk attributes and merged them with the electronic music that had been democratising since the end of the 1980s.
However, the violence of historical events, their haste and their supposed inexorability weighed on the movement, which became radicalised in its most avant-garde cultural forms. Thus, in 1992, the group Atari Teenage Riot (ATR) was founded.
Alec Empire and political anchoring
One of the founding members of the group is Alexander Wilke-Steinhof, whose stage name is Alec Empire. Born in 1972 in West Berlin, he grew up in a highly politicised family environment, anchored in the left and in the anti-fascist struggle. In the 1980s, he discovered a musical vocation that became the vehicle for his political commitment. Disappointed by rap music, which he considered commercially corrupt, and punk music, which he found outdated, he took over the rave party scene and adopted the policies of urban reappropriation advocated by the autonomous movement.
Thus, ATR should be seen as a political tool, and its foundation was primarily a reaction to the emergence of an extreme right-wing scene in the former East Germany, particularly in Berlin. In a sense, the art group became a political organisation.
A violent and radical soundsystem
Alec Empire advocates autonomy and antifascism. He is culturally opposed to the Love Parade phenomenon, accusing it of spreading the illusion of a consensus and of a living together that is unattainable as long as the capitalist system exists. Instead of the clear and colourful sounds of the Love Parade, he prefers spat sounds and a brutal, violent language, where the punk roots are sublimated by the industrial contribution.
The musical act is not intended to reach trance but to arouse revolt and political commitment. On the fringes of the autonomous parties, the group produced several albums until its disappearance in 2000. Extremely vindictive songs calling for the destruction of Germany, responding to injustice with violence, and reviving the symbols of the armed urban guerrilla groups of the 1970s propelled them to the forefront of the autonomous scene and brought them international fame.
The German authorities reacted on several occasions, notably censoring their 1996 album, The Future of War, which denounced the racism of the reunified state. On May 1st 1999, the group participated in the urban riots through its music, which saw serious clashes between the police and the autonomous demonstrators. In fact, it was a real last stand for a band that embodied the radical Berlin of the early 1990s.
The future no longer exists
Alec Empire is the head of Digital Hardcore, a style that combines punk and electro, for which he lays the musical and militant foundations. He proposes a political programme that statues the riot in music.
But it would be wrong to think that the collective he founded with others was a social phenomenon. Its political influence was quite minor and limited to very small circles. It would be equally wrong to think that ATR sought to substitute itself for traditional political action, at least that of the anarchist, autonomous or anti-fascist traditions.
Alec Empire called for resistance, anger and violence against the state, against fascism and bourgeois conformism, but at the same time had a very lucid approach to the feasibility and success of a more general upheaval of society. More than a rejection of the future, it was the absence of a future that he denounced. The current he had initiated could only exist within a certain framework, necessarily limited in time.
Artists in the face of historical upheaval
Periods of great upheaval always provoke the release of creative forces in their early stages. Certain artists and thinkers who had previously been constrained by conventional and 'normal' systems of representation take advantage of an event, a period of effervescence, to advance their works and writings. They thus become fellow travellers of a movement from which they draw inspiration and which they influence in return. The relationship is dialectical.
This phenomenon appears regularly in history. In 1917, many of the Surrealists and Constructivists had joined the ranks of the Russian Revolution. In the 1960s, the decolonial and democratic rights struggles created a favourable context for the cultural liberation movement. One can even draw a parallel between the great explorations and the third period of the Renaissance.
These historical interludes are intense but also very short. As the window closes, the cultural emulation fades, fades away and disappears.
Against a certain idea of German Reunification
The collective founded by Alec Empire is also part of a particular historical dynamic, that of German reunification. But the relationship is now antagonistic because Alec Empire is opposed to the movement. His approach is extremely pessimistic, as he considers this newfound national unity to be one of the worst things possible and an ideological defeat in every aspect.
As such, Alec Empire is the product of a dying world, an old world to which the 'end of history' was announced. The art form could only be exacerbated. Beyond the message he carried and the intrinsic quality of his music, he is an excellent indicator of a troubled historical period and, in spite of himself, stands as one of the faces of the refusal of a certain vision of German reunification. Afterwards, he started a solo DJ career with some success and tried a second version of ATR, without meeting the fervour of the 1990s.