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My Journey Into the Heart of the Gabber Nation

'Mad Max,' tracksuits, and exploding pavilions: what does it all mean?

This post was originally published on THUMP Germany.

The German artist Henrike Naumann used a residency in Friesland, Holland to explore her longtime fascination with the infamously punishing genre of high-speed electronic music called gabber. Below is an account of her time leading up to the group show Gabber Nation and a reflection on the history and culture that surrounds it. Naumann will also be bringing the Gabber Nation to exhibit to Rotterdam in February. More info here.


Gabber is legendarily one of the heaviest genres of music to ever exist and it's also one of the best, in my opinion at least. The frenetic, driving sound has long been inextricably linked to Holland—which is where I stand currently, in the city of Friesland, to search for the roots of one of the world's longest-standing gabber scenes.

For several years, I've been interested in studying extreme sub-cultures and youth scenes, which I'm investigating in terms of their potential to offer political forms of radicalization. I want to find out what unifies gabber scenes at their core, and to penetrate the core of something means I must become a part of it.

Kunsthuis SYB, an artist residency program based in Friesland, invite me to do a residency in the tranquil town of Beetsterzwaag; it's an unassuming town that has a bit of a historical connection to Gabber scene. In 1992, the infamous hardcore techno and gabber music festival, Thunderdome, took place a mere 20 kilometers away, in Heerenveen. I'll traverse across the countryside for the next 40 days, equipped with reading from the Berlin Archive of Youth Culture and the masters thesis of anthropologist, Biana Ludewig, as well as a handful of friends and, of course, a good pair of headphones.

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In search of the origins of the true Thunderdome, my colleague and I spend some rainy nights in Friesland watching all of the Mad Max movies in succession. In the third edition of this series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, you won't only see Tina Turner in her most grandiose role, but also what we assume is the primordial mother of all Thunderdomes. We only later learn from a book that Irfan van Ewijk, Duncan Stutterheim and Theo Lelie—the people who organized the first Thunderdome rave in 1992 with their company, ID&T—weren't actually referring to the film, but had just looked for a "cool name" using a dictionary.

Somewhat disenchanted, I nevertheless continue to look for hidden traces of gabber in Friesland. The music genre originally was birthed out of Rotterdam, but it's still had a big, devoted following in Friesland since the first Thunderdome event. And almost every car that passes by here has tinted windows, behind which pump hard, fast beats. Also, the gigantic hardstyle event, Defqon.1, takes place in the neighboring province of Flevoland. Through a contact, I'm able to get a ticket for the sold-out mega-festival. I soon hop on a rave bus in the nearby village of Drachten.

The rain was coming down in buckets for basically the entire first day, and instead of all the nice Australia track suits and Thunderdome shirts, I can only make out yellow ponchos. However, Marc Acardipane, the father of hardcore techno, lets me forget the cool "summer" with his pounding set.

Video: Boris Postma

My research trip then takes me to Thialf Arena in Heerenveen, a skating rink and the venue for the original Thunderdome event. However, there's no dome of thunder to be seen, it's just a big construction site. But the press office is still open, so I'm able to have a look at archive material and learn something about the history of speed skating in Friesland. Speed is a tradition here!

On the tenth day of my trip, I'm joined by my colleague, the photographer Boris Postma. I make my way past a few of the forays through the "Friesian Disneyland" of Beetsterzwaag with him. Boris grew up in Bloomendaal, outside of Amsterdam, and he's been a gabber enthusiast since he was 11 years old. In the beginning, we look for abandoned ruins and dystopian places with any traces of any kind of subculture, but we soon have to adjust to the realities here. In this aggressively peaceful environment, the apocalypse doesn't come in the form of destruction, but rather in the form of lifeless, oppressive perfection. We feel like the last two people on earth, wandering for days through manicured, empty streets.

Photo by Boris Postma

I use our walks to ask Boris about his socialization in the gabber scene. His answers shatter many of my preconceptions. For example, while there are still active right-wing gabber movements in East Germany and in the Ruhr region, I don't discover anything like that here on my trip. What I do come across are stories about an open, positive scene, and people who really want to tell me about their experiences.

Conversations with locals are increasingly becoming the centerpiece of my research. It's not only gabbers of the first, second, and third generation who have tales about raves and pills, the older generation of parents are gradually coming out with memories of sleepless nights worrying about their children. It seems as though every single neighbor has a story to tell about gabber, whether they like it or not.

For example, we meet two gabber natives, Daria and Arjan. They met at the Dominator festival, after getting into a discussion about Thunderdome wizard tattoos. Thinking back on their youth, Arjan takes us to a pavilion nearby. "We blew up one of these once," he recalls.

Photo by Boris Postma

You can still watch a video of the aforementioned 2007 pavilion explosion on YouTube. The artist Johannes Büttner—also a bomb maker—who just arrived from Amsterdam, has created a video-sound installation of these images. You can hear it through the whole residency building later during ones of our exhibitions. Our reinterpretation of their subculture is triggering bafflement among the local gabbers. The people here realized long ago that explosions in places like these are what make life possible.

Or as one of the boys who was present for the pavilion explosion added: "Peace has to be disturbed to find peace again."

The biggest challenge awaits me after leaving Merle, Johannes and Boris: a week alone in the silence of the house. My appropriate remedy is made up of hard-hitting tracks by Marc Acardipane and Liza 'N' Eliaz.

Luckily, happiness sets back in as a group show for the residency program approaches. All of the sudden, the house is full. Bastian Hagedorn—a musician and social worker from Berlin—with whom I've wanted to do a gabber project for years, barely arrives before gutting the basement and reconstructing a legendary Berlin bunker reduced to only the essentials: Fog, strobe, bass.

Photo by Boris Postma

Despite the seclusion, each day presents a new adventure. We realize that Rutger Hauer, who played Replicant Roy in Blade Runner, also lives in Beetsterzwaag, just a few houses away. We slip an invitation into his mailbox, obviously. From then on, we hope during each daily downpour, that Roy will appear at our door. The collection of materials for Gabber Nation has grown considerably at this point.

Boris returns shortly before the exhibition. With his help, and objects from his old room, we construct the installation, Nexus '96, the teenage bedroom of a gabber fan at the turn of the millennium. The now-grownup townies feel like they're being transported into their past; for outsiders, it's like a trip into an unknown world. In this moment, I realize that after weeks of planning and research, that we're nowhere near the point of a big group exhibition booming through the walls. And visitors are streaming in, from neighboring towns, Amsterdam, and Berlin.

But I can tell that the climax has yet to come. The gabber street parade, organized by Ekaterina Burlyga kicks off the night. We make our way along the main street of the town with several cars, gabber beats, and our homemade flag.

Local gabbers, bleary-eyed artists, and the international art crowd come together on the dance floor in the garden, together in unison at 180BPM. Gabber Syndrome and friends disassemble the silence of the warm summer night into its individual components. The neighbors stick it out.

The party continues in Bastian's bunker instillation. I dance with Daria, totally depleted, on a strobe-inundated corner of the dance floor. She smiles at me and sticks her forked tongue out at me. I scream in her ear, "I came here to this bizarre place looking for gabber, for the core of it all... and you know what—we're in it right now."