Community Building From the Bottoms Up: Participatory / Co-Creative Research with Berlin’s Queer Nightlife Collectives

Detail from the cover of From the Bottoms Up zine. See notes for a link to download the zine.
Luis Manuel Garcia-Mispireta reports on his experiences organising a “community consultation” with queer nightlife collectives in Berlin and reflects on his first attempts to integrate participatory and co-creative research methods into the narrow timeframes of focused ethnography.
[Ed. note: This article is part of a dossier on New Directions in Queer Nightlife.]

It’s a sweaty August afternoon in Berlin, and I am only getting sweatier as I cross the city in the overpacked U8 subway. On impulse, I buy a bouquet of gladioli at a florist in the U-Bahn station. As I arrive, our project manager is putting the finishing touches on a mix of vegan and gluten-free snacks, salads, and beverages for the handful of queer nightlife organizers we would soon be hosting. Sarj, co-researcher and community organizer, graciously takes my offering of fresh gladioli and goes looking through their back office for a suitable receptacle. Our two facilitators arrive in time for a final team huddle before the guests arrive: we skim through the presentation slides, review our roles for each activity, discuss the timing for each, check the art supplies for the more “hands-on” activities, and review the participant compensation paperwork (always a frustratingly complex and alienating process). Over the next four hours, we run the first edition of our “Community Consultation Event”: a sort of focus group / collaborative interview, with structured activities ranging from art-focused visualization exercises to worksheet-guided reflections to facilitated group discussions. There are color-coded sticky notes aplenty, sheets of large-format drawing paper, brightly colored markers, slides full of cat memes (for a very cute icebreaker activity), and a copious supply of snacks. All the while, Sarj and I are frantically taking fieldnotes by hand, since we agreed to record neither audio nor video. Five months later, we will collaboratively edit and publish a ‘zine about these gatherings, with contributions from participants.1The ‘zine, From the Bottoms Up: Berlin Queer Nightlife & Community Organizing (2024), is available for free as a machine-readable PDF. This can be downloaded by visiting the following page and scrolling down to “BOTTOMS UP ZINE” in yellow text: https://theluisgarcia.carrd.co

In the venerable genre of “what I did last summer” writing, I offer here a report on these Community Consultation Events (CCEs), including an overview of the logistics involved as well as some preliminary insights. Moreover, I reflect on my efforts to integrate participatory and collaborative research methods into a new research project. The constraints of my training in ethnomusicology and popular music studies required that my first research project be an entirely solo endeavor, so I was new to collaborative research. Nonetheless, I have been a queer raver for three decades and a nightlife organizer for eight years, so this shift towards community involvement and collaborative research made very deep, intuitive sense to me.

These CCEs constitute the initial phase of a broader research project, entitled “From the Bottoms Up: Grassroots Organizing and Nightlife Activism among Queer Nightlife Collectives.” It aims to develop a community-informed, collaborative account of how the queer electronic music communities of Berlin have responded to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It does so by examining the intersection of queerness and “grassroots” activism in these music scenes and then following these threads into nightlife collectives that employ decentralised, bottom-up organising principles to address issues that impact the communities they serve. Although these collectives share a grounding in queer sexualities, they serve divergent-but-overlapping communities through intersections with other marginalised identities shaped by race/ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sex work, social class, and migration.

Photo by the author

The Summer CCEs of 2023 came together shockingly quickly, considering the usual timescales of academic research. I submitted a grant proposal in April 2023 and received notification in May; this very short turnaround was possible because I applied to a small grant scheme (£10,000 maximum budget), which was managed by local administrators rather than a centralized national body. By June, I was booking travel to Berlin and trying (with much difficulty and frustration) to have my institution accept Sarj’s organization, aequa.cc, as an approved “project partner” and payee. After arriving in Berlin at the end of that month, I spent July meeting with Sarj, developing content and activities for the CCE sessions, booking facilitators and getting their feedback on the planned activities, and sending invitations to a selection of Berliner queer nightlife collectives. It turned out that I had much to learn from my project partner about “invitation management,” that is, the art and science of convincing people to show up for things. I really should have anticipated three to four months to send out invitations, to send reminders in the following weeks, to send new invitations as some invitees declined and more spaces opened up, to send even more reminders, and to finally communicate a registration deadline that was at least one week earlier than when we really needed to confirm attendance.

The CCE’s activities were grouped around three main goals: a “check in” discussion on the status of queer nightlife organizing in Berlin; a moment to reflect on how nightlife communities are impacted by “research” (broadly defined to include journalism as well as both private and public sector study); and some collective envisioning of queer futures. For the first goal, we set up a whiteboard with three columns corresponding to three interrelated questions: What is challenging you in your nightlife organizing work? What is exciting you? What are you dreaming about? Participants took turns writing answers on color-coded sticky notes and adding them to the whiteboard while explaining their contributions to the rest of the group. After several rounds, we collectively organized the sticky notes into thematic groups and discussed emergent themes and patterns. For our second goal, we discussed some recent examples of harmful research impacting marginalized communities; participants then filled out worksheets with a fourfold matrix of questions asking how writing on/about their communities has impacted them. After filling out worksheets individually, participants were invited to compare their answers in pairs before sharing some highlights to the whole group. To address our third goal, the facilitators returned to some of the responses to the “dreaming” activity and then led participants through a visualization exercise in which they were asked to imagine what it would look like to fulfill one of these dreams in five years (with milestones in three years, one year, and six months). Participants were given large sheets of paper and encouraged to sketch out their imaginings visually, after which we gathered to share and discuss our drawings. At the end of the CCE, the facilitators guided the group through some collective reflection and feedback, followed by brief comments from the co-researchers (myself and Sarj) that reported our impressions and observations back to the group.

Photo by the author

After the CCEs took place in early August, we spent the rest of the month collating documentation (field notes, scans of worksheets, photos of the whiteboard) and identifying the thematic keywords that would guide the coding phase of qualitative data analysis. Project funding ended in September, so I completed the qualitative data analysis alone, although I shared emerging insights with Sarj. It was also Sarj who had the brilliant idea to redirect the remaining project funding towards publishing a ‘zine, reporting back to the queer nightlife community in an accessible and familiar format. We found experienced ‘zine editors from among our CCE participants, allocated the remaining budget to them, and tasked them with contracting other contributors as well as assembling and publishing the final ‘zine. I prepared summaries of the three main CCE activities as well as an overview of the seven key themes we had identified during data analysis: accessibility; sustainability; healing and feeling; space; ambivalent visibility; archiving ourselves; conviviality & intersectionality. In addition to this, the ‘zine editors solicited contributions from CCE participants, including short essays and interviews. At the end of the ‘zine, we included feedback from participants, facilitators, and some reflections from the research team. In our reflections we noted how generative these sessions were—facilitators struggled to rein in conversation and keep to time—and yet there were challenges, too. Most of these challenges were logistical (arranging for payments from the grant funds; struggling to connect with invitees during the busiest season for nightlife organizers), but my most important lesson for the future was: always, always budget for a project manager and professional facilitators; I could never have done this without them.

Notes

Notes
1 The ‘zine, From the Bottoms Up: Berlin Queer Nightlife & Community Organizing (2024), is available for free as a machine-readable PDF. This can be downloaded by visiting the following page and scrolling down to “BOTTOMS UP ZINE” in yellow text: https://theluisgarcia.carrd.co
Garcia-Mispireta, Luis Manuel. "Community Building From the Bottoms Up: Participatory / Co-Creative Research with Berlin’s Queer Nightlife Collectives." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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