Life in the Middle of Loophole

Jan Gryczan on steering one of Berlin's most beloved artistic communities and underground venues

Damien Cummings Mario Heller

In the eight or so years since Jan Gryczan took the helm at Loophole, he has steered the beloved community venue through a decidedly choppy decade for Berlin’s music and arts venues. In that time, start-ups have steadily eclipsed the up-starts, and the grit of the new wave’s new wave gave way to third-wave coffee and cake. But, to hear Jan tell it, the scene is still in safe hands. Sure, the rent is more expensive and Neukölln is more or less saturated with bars, but then again Loophole was never actually a bar in the first place.

When he returned to Berlin in 2010 after a few years well-spent in Canada, he arrived as many do in this city; not really knowing what to do, but with an iron-willed intention of doing something, whatever that may be. Back then, Neukölln was home to just a few spots that people of untapped artistic potential might frequent if they were looking for like-minded company. “There was Sameheads, The Zone, and Loophole and a couple of other places.”

Despite its stature in the Neukölln underground, it was in Friedrichshain that he first crossed paths with what would become Loophole as we know it now. “I found this ad on craigslist for a guy looking for some people to share a studio.” That studio, based in the old George Patzenhofer brewery on Landsberger Allee, basically reads like an aspiring artist’s secret Pinterest board. A vast industry-cum-art space that comfortably housed three venues, around seventy studios, and a few exhibition spaces to boot. It was a semi-legal space, not dissimilar to the better known Tacheles, “but less touristy and actually productive.”

Founder Julian Ronnefeldt had been running the nascent DIY venue since its opening in 2009. In those days, Berlin was a city with a lot more open real estate, and like all good artists, Julian was always on the hunt for more spaces to do more stuff. That space was Raum 18. A larger project, Raum 18, started everything at what became the Ziegrastrasse 11 complex, another semi-legal space that until recently was still home to some of the city’s best and most forward-thinking clubs and live music venues, including KAKE, Internet Explorer, and Schrippe Hawaii. As the Raum 18 project grew and started taking up more and more time, Ronnefeldt began looking for someone else to take the reins at Loophole. Somewhat serendipitously, Jan and co. were about to get the boot from their own little slice of heaven at Landsberger Allee, courtesy of the city of Berlin’s insatiable desire for luxury apartments.

Alongside three other friends, Jan Gryczan relieved Ronnefeldt of the intimate Boddinstrasse venue, which at that point was still better known as the site of a former brothel than as a venue. Yet, for those who knew, it was an essential meeting space for local artists. “Loophole was always the place that everyone would go to after they finished. It was how we knew everyone from Ziegrastrasse; it was basically how we met.We took over the Loophole idea from Julian, who was doing a little bit of DIY stuff back in the day.” After a few years of searching for a purpose, Loophole had fallen into his lap. It was to be their own space, bricks, and mortar. Free from the legally dubious precarities of the spaces that came before, they began to experiment. “We had this idea of mindfucking people,” he says, and so Loophole as we know it today came to be.

Jan is an optimist. He believes in the good in people. It is perhaps that spirit more than anything else that has kept Loophole afloat all these years. Of the four founding members only he remains. As each moved on, he took up the mantle, and with it the responsibility for the inevitable hiccups. “Over the years I’ve seen so many places shut down, and mostly that was because of the neighbours.” His solution, while novel in many big cities, is hardly groundbreaking—communicate. The main problem for Loophole, like so many kiez venues, is that it occupies the ground floor and basement of a typical residential building, and thus invites all kinds of noise complaints.

Still, he tries to keep a good relationship with his neighbours. Even if, he admits, “they are mostly pissed at us, at least there is still a little bit of communication left.” Rather than call the cops, the immediate community seems to understand the hands-on approach necessary for the harmonious life of a DIY venue where ad-hoc interventions are often the only solution. “We have one special neighbour, for whom it has occasionally been too much. He came running downstairs two or three times, got up on the stage and unplugged everything in the middle of the live show. Then he runs out again, and you know…” Luckily, most seem to appreciate the nature of the game, and for Jan the whole thing has become second nature. “It is just like a play that has been going on and on for a decade.”

It’s a place to try things out and experiment, and I always try to keep that vibe open.

As much as it might seem that the indefatigable Jan is in it for the long haul, there have been wobbles along the way, first, when each of the other founders left to do their own thing and then again in 2018 when the rents increased. “I was seriously thinking of finally giving up here.” What kept him going was the outpouring of support from the community in the face of the rent hike. As he tells it, he felt vindicated in the decisions he had made and, far from feeling alone, taking on sole responsibility gave Jan a whole new energy that made him feel free again.

Under normal circumstances Loophole is open six nights a week. The exhausting schedule is predicated not by its popularity as a watering hole, but as a live venue. “Loophole exists as a bar but we never open just as a bar. If we do not have a specific program, we do not open.” The schedule is so varied that the only thing you can consistently expect to find at Loophole is the infamous head—Loophole’s de facto insignia—which looms over the entrance to the performance space, beckoning guests into the belly below. The rich and diverse programming that has grown to become Loophole’s other trademark is indicative of Jan’s long-standing objective to build a venue around the artists, whatever form that may take. From pop to film screenings, theatre to impromptu performances, “the general idea was to keep the place open for young artists to express themselves in any way possible that the place can accommodate.” One of the extraordinary things about Loophole is the commitment of that artistic ethos into the business model.

For many aspiring artists, pay-to-play is an all too common reality. Consider the costs of covering the venue, the door staff, and the myriad of other expenses involved in renting a space. It is a common problem which renders access to places that accommodatea diverse performative spectrum, such as Berghain Kantine, fundamentally untenable. “Here the artist gets 100% of the door and we just do the bar. It’s this nice little space where people can feel at home. It doesn’t really matter if you’re still working it out or shy on the stage. It’s a place to try things out and experiment, and I always try to keep that vibe open.”

Optimist or not, there is no amount of sunny disposition that could prepare for what would come next. No space—DIY or otherwise—could have predicted the unconditional onslaught that the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, COVID 19 would wreak on the regular routines of everyday life. Recalling the weekend of the announcement that all venues would have to close for the indefinite future, Jan found out that his place would be empty that Friday night indirectly. “We had one good friend who has been with Loophole for a long time scheduled for that evening. Without telling us beforehand, they made a public announcement that they would cancel the event. Honestly, I was pretty pissed, but back then I don’t think we understood what was happening.” If there was ever any room for interpretation, there certainly isn’t any more. That was March 11, and a mere month later the gravity of the situation had swung rapidly from unbelievable to undeniable. With the sober clarity of hindsight, Jan is clear that the decision to cancel the weekend, while taken without his knowledge, was absolutely the right thing to do. Loophole, like many other bars and venues, is just starting to emerge from a long hiatus now.

It is telling of Jan, and of Loophole broadly, that in the middle of lockdown when asked about the reality of the current situation for the survival of his venue, his first thought was for the artists and the staff. “Essentially, we had every day booked until the end of June. One sad part that is not being talked about is that all these artists lost a place to play, a place to present themselves, and a little bit of income. Even if it’s not much, at least it would have been something for them because now there is nothing.”During the height of the crisis, Jan estimated that Loophole could probably survive for, “a little under three months,” taking into account the relief measures granted by the state which, this time at least, Jan acknowledged, “was actually pretty quick to pay out the money.” The weight of the situation was hardly being alleviated by Loophole’s landlord who is by Jan’s own admission, “not the nicest.” That might be underselling it somewhat, given the near 250% rent hike that Loophole has been paying for the last two years and that, despite the pandemic currently ravaging the global economy, they have declared that there is, “no room for negotiation.”

Venue owners were uniquely affected by the virus. As the first to close, it is natural that they have also been some of the last to re-open. However, just as Loophole has taken care of its community, so too has the community repaid the favour. After just over two weeks, a successful crowdfunding campaign brought in over 5000€ and the artists who were left without a gig when the venue closed stepped up and started live streaming their work from the venue’s social media channels. “It’s nice that after all these years you see that the community really cares for you. It’s gratifying.”

It's nice that after all these years you see that the community really cares for you. It’s gratifying.

One of the critical points of the whole Loophole enterprise is that it always sought to support artists and engender a sense of community spirit in the kiez. When asked about how the pandemic might affect people more generally, Jan hopes that people will come out of this situation having had a little bit of space to think. “I’m pretty sure that people will come out with a little bit of a different mindset. Hopefully, there can be more solidarity.” While it is clear that for the vast majority of people, Coronavirus has made things worse rather than better, it is the way that we learn from crises that prepares us for the next. Loophole has its tendrils deep into the community that it calls home and, not for the first time, it has relied on them to weather the storm. When asked if this is the biggest problem that Loophole has ever faced, he laughs with a typically good-natured sense of irony. “I was always hoping for a tiny revolution in some way, and now I got it.”

One of the things that make spaces like Loophole so valuable is that it provides us with a chance to connect with our own nature. It allows us to interact with those things that bring us together. This spirit is one that Gryczan helped build over time, and one that he hopes will continue. “I’m already taking up a little bit less space here because I’m leaving it for the younger ones. I am getting a little bit old and I’m enjoying my time in nature outside of Berlin.” That time is not coming any time soon however, says Jan. “I will definitely try to keep it running as long as possible and even if I lose my feeling I will definitely make sure that it goes into hands that will keep it in the same spirit.” Yet, as he gears up to ramping down, it is worth remembering that of all the challenges that Loophole has faced over the last ten years, it has been the strength of the community response that has kept it alive. Now, with everyone slowly emerging after being locked in, being confronted with an uncertain future, and Jan with half an eye on the pastures of Brandenburg, it is high time that we remind him again just how important it is that Loophole should stay.

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