Their Way: Dimitri Hegemann

Their Way: In Conversation With Dimitri Hegemann

With ‘Their Way' Keytrade Bank and Horst inspire their shared philosophy of entrepreneurship and innovation through an interview series.

Published on
2.3.23

Interview by Blurbs
Photo by Jonas Reubens

Keytrade and Horst share DIY entrepreneurship as a common denominator. With ‘Their Way’ they inspire their shared philosophy through a content series. ‘Their Way’ offers the stories of DIY entrepreneurs at the forefront of art, architecture and music. We delve into the messy, yet inspiring and insightful process of entrepreneurship. We celebrate and feature compelling stories, challenging initiatives and examples of integrity from around the world.

In November 2019, the Berlin institution that is Tresor opened a satellite club in the North Rhine-Westphalia city of Dortmund. Situated in an old steel mill and thoughtfully renovated to conserve the original industrial features of brick walls and metal grates, the club spans a labyrinthine basement, complete with 2 dancefloors, long corridors designed for sitting between energetic rave sessions, and an outdoor area called Tresor Garden.
Inaugurating Tresor West might seem like a surprising move to some, opening a techno venue in a mid-sized provincial town, but after speaking with founder and cultural activist Dimitri Hegemann, we got to understand the project’s groundings: while holding firm a belief in music as a device for togetherness, Hegemann’s mission also involves revitalising places that hold great potential, providing spaces for youth to gather, talk, generate ideas, and create what he has coined as “micro-economies”. TLDR: the best ideas are born at night.

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Horst:  Hey Dimitri, thanks for squeezing us in just before leaving for ADE today! So we are sitting here in the office of Tresor West, in Dortmund. Could you tell us a little more about your relationship and history with this area?

Dimitri Hegemann: I was born in the area here, in a village called Werl. It was a fairly quiet place. I remember in the seventies when I was a teenager the Hippie movement imported from the States reached my cosmos. We watched the film about Woodstock and I was really inspired. I tried to build up a Woodstock-type community here. I found an old empty building and attempted to live there with my friends, play guitar, sit around campfires, and just dream basically. But the local authorities had another idea,”do not disturb our circles” they said and kicked us out pretty fast. After a few attempts at this rural community-building, I decided to leave. I had a great youth, but looking back I can see I got “programmed” in that village. Going to church, singing in the choir, going to soccer, and school. I was trying to find my own identity and my mission. So I decided to move to West Berlin, where I met a lot of people who had similar ideas, and who had come from other villages. In Berlin you could feel anonymous, living in old buildings with interesting, open-minded people. I started my studies in musicology, and instantly my attention centred around the night. In Berlin there has been no curfew since 1949, so bars were open 24 hours. I am a curious person and wanted to see and meet all kinds of night creatures who, just like me, couldn’t sleep because they were so excited about everything.

"In Berlin there has been no curfew since 1949, so bars were open 24 hours. I am a curious person and wanted to see and meet all kinds of night creatures who, just like me, couldn’t sleep because they were so excited about everything."

Horst: Were there any specific encounters or events in your past that guided you and that still influence the way you work today?

Dimitri Hegemann: Yes. To put it simply: I changed my position. I was in a band once, so I was on stage. At one point I decided to go behind the curtain, offstage. I had been in one of the most active early-eighties bands, playing a lot of shows. We were called Leningrad Sandwich. It was a half British band, playing New Wave, like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the early Cure stuff. We lived in Berlin and gigged in squats. We toured in Holland, in Austria, and even in Turkey. We were sleeping on the stage after gigs. No hotels, living on a bus. There was a change when I decided I didn't want to do that any more. We always had problems with organisation and tour management. So, I took that over, organising gigs, travel, and places to stay.
And like I said before, I was still really curious about what was going on at night. What is the effect of the night, of darkness on people? I believe everything looks better. Everybody looks better. People can free themselves, dancing in the dark. I think the essential thing that distinguishes night from day is the playfulness in the relaxed, liberated, fun atmosphere in the club situation, the partying, the sociable get-together. Playfulness puts people in the right mood and position to think about things other than during the day.
The playfulness is neglected during the day. But at night it can fulfil people and then unfold its positive potential for intelligence and creativity.
The results are then the ideas for new projects or content.

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Horst: Flash-forward to 2019: How did you come to choose this area and building to house Tresor West?

Dimitri Hegemann: This is an industrial area, far away from the city centre. There was a big coal mine here until about 20 years ago. And I think this precise building was a steel or glass manufacture, and it was sitting empty for a while. It was sometimes used as a pop-up gallery for art exhibitions, and the woman running those informed me that perhaps it was for sale. I told some friends about it who bought it and tried to open a music venue here. Their original idea was to start a concert venue for around 3,500 people, because in Dortmund because there are no venues of this capacity.
A group of people kicked off that project, and asked me if I was interested in doing something in the basement. I was intrigued because I know the area, I was born nearby. I thought “why not?” I had tried about 15 years before to open a Tresor West in the city near here where I went to school, in an old army barracks. But the city was against the project. This time the mayor of Dortmund was enthusiastic. My interest was to give something back to my hometown. So they opened the concert hall and Tresor West opened in the basement. But with Covid, the concert venue didn’t survive. Because we were smaller, we somehow managed to continue. Currently we have about 400 people attending the events, we want to grow up to 600 in order to be financially viable.

"I believe well curated clubs should be treated on the same level as a museum and a booker should be on the same level as a theatre director."

Horst: What were the main obstacles in setting up Tresor West?

Dimitri Hegemann: We were offered to occupy the building and start Tresor West by chance. I liked the venue and we went for it, but in a second step I realised the problems. Here in Dortmund they had a five o'clock curfew, they had extremely high taxes on nightclubs, (Vergnügungssteuern) and the urban mobility was bad. But still, we opened the club, and then, Corona hit after just four weeks. In a way that was a blessing because I was given time to talk to the local administration. It started with wording: they asked me “ah you want to open a disco?”. And I explained, no, it’s a club. It was really nice actually. Then I spoke to the mayor, who was very open. I shared my thoughts on the creative industry, which I think needs cultural and social entrepreneurs, not just high-tech people and businesses. I told him the cultural offer in Dortmund was not sufficient, so we need to start something together. But, the restrictions are killing us. The result was that the city decided to create a job for a Night Ambassador. Then they cancelled the curfew and changed the tax legislation. Before I arrived, they had a Vergnügungssteuer which means a very high “entertainment” or “enjoyment” tax that applies to sex shops or casinos. I believe well curated clubs should be treated on the same level as a museum and a booker should be on the same level as a theatre director.

Horst: How has the city collaborated on making the venue accessible?

Dimitri Hegemann: We work on it. The night ambassador is a big supporter. The city will create a night bus that comes and goes at least once an hour, and takes you to the main train station in Dortmund. On the other hand, I'm quite happy not to be in a city, because sometimes you have strange people around. In this case, the people who come here really want to. They want to see the program and meet others. We also have nice neighbours, who run a small independent brewery, which attracts clients and potential future clubbers. That’s just the beginning; we have  some cool restaurants opening, and there’s a hotel. Perhaps we need a few more businesses, that’s what I’m hoping for in terms of infrastructure. There’s still a lot of empty spaces in the area for creative industries to move into. I hope we can survive one year, and then perhaps we will eventually be guilty for the rise of Dortmund! <laugh>.
Cultural spaces, like Tresor West, influence the social, political and economic landscape of Dortmund. We are like a source, generating ideas. And if the administration, the city, the councils are open to it then this well-curated space can bring new perspectives to them. It can also function for other cities that will look to Dortmund and see how well it's worked.

Horst: Horst festival is also in an old industrial area on the outskirts of Brussels. There's a parallel here regarding areas where youth has been drained away into the big cities. Do you think that young people today still have the feeling that they've grown too big for their village?

Dimitri Hegemann: Yes, I think the key word here is potential. I remember, in my youth, all the kids hanging around the bus station who didn't know where to go or what to do. It’s the same today in many rural places. I said to myself “all they need is a space”. This eventually led to Happy Locals, where I act as an intermediary between local youth crews and collectives and the parliaments of small cities or even in the countryside. I speak the language of the kids and of the administration, which is great because otherwise these two parties just never talk. I help the youth find spaces and organise their occupancy with the local authorities. In time, despite a couple of rejections, the decision makers realise that we need to keep the youth in the communities by providing them with spaces. If they move away, a vacuum is created, leaving much space for right-wing parties and politics which is dangerous.

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Horst: What is your role within Happy Locals?

Dimitri Hegemann: My job at Happy Locals is to listen to young people. They know the area and where to look for vacant spaces: an old pool or an abandoned building near the train station, or an empty supermarket. Then I make a “cluster” between the authorities and the youth and hope for the best. Another side of this work is called “Bildungs Manufaktuur” which translates to “education manufacturing”. I talk to kids between 16 and 20 years old who are highly depressed and angry who’ve been kicked out from work or school, and we set up a team with designers, craftspeople, creatives, and young people. These two sides of the project then get combined by creating a club in a small city. Everyone works together and builds some material together for the venue, and in the evenings they have a beer together.

Horst: Why do you think creating spaces for clubbing or nightlife is so important for youth?

Dimitri Hegemann: I can answer this with a key belief of mine: the best ideas are born after 03:30 am! At that time, you are more open, you dance and you meet your friends and talk. You say “Let’s do something. Come on, Jack! Let’s start a small  gallery or a small vegan restaurant, or a hostel, or an agency.” I call these developments “microeconomies” that start after talking with people in the club, when you are more open to taking risks. The club is the incubator and a source for new adventures. At night, favoured by the atmosphere and reality in a club, people can be put into a state that brings out the playful element in them (which is not there during the day). This enables them to generate ideas that would or could not arise during the day. Creativity at night is playful, while creativity during the day is more functional and purposeful. This is the potential and advantage of night over day. You have ideas at night that are then worked out during the day. That's the principle.

It’s worth saying that I think that this movement of electronic music has such a power for peace. I think the people in Pyongyang (North Korea) would like to dance with the people from Seoul. Dancing is better than marching! The young Russians would love to go to a party with the Ukrainian kids. They don't want to kill anyone or get killed through  violence. This is the secret power of techno. The peace potential. Techno can change the world.

"Detroit gave us the music. And I tried to give something back."

Horst: Does a lot of public money go to funding big museums and “official” culture rather than to nightlife because people in power still can’t see the value of club culture?

Dimitri Hegemann: Yes, I suppose that’s what traditionally happens. Nightlife is still quite young as a cultural phenomenon. It’s not yet fully accepted by society and often people think “strange” things happen in clubs. That kind of mindset can be very dangerous. But gradually, the authorities are understanding that people want to go out. My dad went out bowling. I go out dancing, and the only difference is I stay a bit longer. I also see the club as a kind of therapy. And it's quite cheap! For 20 bucks, you can stay 10 hours. You open the door, you enter into another, parallel world and come out and say, “Wow, that was great!!! Somehow, I cannot remember any track, but it was great!” It gives you some power and energy back.
Cities that don’t care about culture and nightlife are at a great disadvantage. Caring for culture helps cities keep the creative people in their community. Yes creative heads want a flat, a job, yes they want a kindergarten for their kids, but they also expect to meet other creative people. And this only happens when there's a lot of cultural programs around. My advice for cities and communities is to invest into culture and make space available for creatives. If they are told “no” too many times, they will leave for a city where they can hear a “yes”.

Horst: Your work with the Berlin-Detroit connection feeds into this project quite nicely. Would you make a parallel between Detroit as a post-industrial city and Dortmund?

Dimitri Hegemann: Detroit gave us the music. And I tried to give something back. We created “Detroit-Berlin Connection”as a company for subcultural exchange in urban development. Having learned many things about structure and how to start a venue, I went to Detroit and spoke to the city administration about the “success” of Berlin. I then invited these council members to Berlin, and they couldn’t believe it! In Detroit, at 2am, the clubs close. They had never seen a “night time economy”. So they took this impression back to Detroit, and we discussed how we could start to make a change there. One thing that seems misunderstood is that of course Detroit, or “motor city” as it’s called, has the car industry, but it also has another great asset: music. They had jazz, hiphop, techno, Motown. Rock bands like Patti Smith and Iggy Pop all came from Detroit. The issue is that the city hasn’t managed to market this. I advised the city that they need a new marketing campaign with a target audience between the ages of 25 and 60 who would visit Detroit, or move to Detroit because of its great music legacy and because of the space, and potential. But, because of all the current restrictions, no one's really into the idea. But I won't give up on finding a way to convince the decision makers in Detroit's council.
Every year we co-host a conference called The Potential. We compare the two cities, Berlin-Detroit, look at the problems and the advantages. For Detroit the main issue was this curfew. My mantra is “unlock the night” or “open the night”. Unfortunately the 2am law is a state law in Michigan so it isn’t possible to change. We did introduce the concept of a night ambassador though. And after 2am there are now special areas where people can stay longer, until 10am, but without alcohol. It’s a small step towards changing Detroit completely. Anyone who’s interested can access the research through our website.

Horst: Could you tell us a little bit about Tresor Foundation?

Dimitri Hegemann: This is a project created from the realisation that cultural real estate is often speculated upon. The Foundation aims to secure property for cultural purposes, stopping speculation. For example, many club owners get a club but the lease is bad or short, like four years long. In the beginning if the club is popular, they can pay their staff, but after a while when the lease runs out the landlord can change the contract, charging triple or simply kicking you out. So, Tresor Foundation was made to take care of people and structures in culture, so that they can keep their spaces. We buy the property and make a contract that lasts 99 years for example. That’s the plan anyway! We also want to start an academy for subcultural understanding. We will offer talks and a sort of dual traineeship where people can follow me in my work for a three month term; in the beginning collecting empty bottles in the club, and later working on booking or planning an event with me. They come to learn the economics of the industry because many people are too nice in this game, you can’t just give beers away at the party, you have to be economically-headed too!

"I'm a bit tired of clubbing. I can remember the hundreds of parties I went to, and they were all great. Now I’m happy to be a mentor and help others."

Horst: On a lighter note, what gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you enjoying these days?

Dimitri Hegemann: Sometimes the weather if it’s good. I like to plan my day, but what I hate the most is getting up early, having to get on a flight at 6am. Never call me to start my day that early please! Actually, I live alone and I really enjoy that. My flat is an empty space. I was inspired by Steve Jobs’ book, and he was a friend of the Zen movement. When I’m in Detroit, I stay at the Zen Center where I have a small spot reserved. I enjoy quietness.
I also like to go walking with my friends. I’m now in the age where I really care about friendships again. I'm a bit tired of clubbing. I can remember the hundreds of parties I went to, and they were all great. It’s tempting to keep on going with the party thing and just get stuck there, so now I’m happy to be a mentor and help others.

Horst: Do you have a piece of advice to give to young people who are starting out or who have a project?

Dimitri Hegemann: If you have a project and have your eyes on a space then please call me! I’d love to help. Otherwise, when you are interested in an area to start a project, you should really go check out who else is there already. Maybe somebody's doing something similar nearby. Find out who the crews are. Make contact.
Secondly, try to get a long contract on the space. Like 40 years. If everything works out and business is good, you can maybe sell it later. But if there’s only one year left on the contract, no one will be interested. Something else to take into consideration is energy: think beyond the music because climate change is a big issue today. Make a greenhouse out of your venue!
Use the space for different things. At Tresor West, we run what we call an alliance. On the weekends it’s a techno club but during the week it will be used as a gallery for exhibitions of media art, and talks, called arc gallery. A house should live 24 by day and night, and people will always need a space to do things.
Last but not least, go for quality and constantly check what you are doing.

This interview is in partnership with urbanana - a banana-shaped urban jungle that extends from the Ruhr Area and Düsseldorf to Cologne and celebrates undiscovered space for expeditions away from the hype.

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