Crossing the threshold

Felix Ruckert runs Schwelle7, Berlin’s artiest BDSM venue. Nested on the second floor of a former warehouse in Wedding, the space is home to all shades of body exploration – from aerial yoga to orgiastic play parties.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Felix Ruckert runs Schwelle7, Berlin’s artiest BDSM venue. Nested on the second floor of a former warehouse in Wedding, the space is home to all shades of body exploration – from aerial yoga to orgiastic play parties. Ruckert, a trained dancer and choreographer, explains why he’s so keen on pushing the limits.

Greeting us at the door to Schwelle7, Felix Ruckert’s icyblue gaze and guru-like stature seem both imposing and enticing at the same time. After taking our shoes off at the entrance, we’re invited into his spacious and sparsely decorated studio. Along the sides of the room are cushioned high-beds and miscellaneous tools that prefigure the evening’s events.

For the uninitiated, how would you define Schwelle7?

It’s a playground, a place where you can experiment. Where you can practice in a controlled way and try yourself out in many different directions. Schwelle means ‘threshold’ and the concept actually comes from Victor Turner, who was an anthropologist. He had a theory of what he called the liminal stage. Limin is Latin for threshold, which is the place of transition. You don’t have to decide to go to one side or the other, you can stay there. I don’t have to decide if I’m a pervert or normal, if I’m gay or heterosexual, if I’m a woman or a man. Am I an artist or am I just a crazy pervert? It’s all about how you see it.

You are a dancer and choreographer. How did you end up running a BDSM space?

I still consider myself a choreographer and a dancer. For me it was a very logical development, starting as a dancer – working with the body, exploring the body – then expanding upon what performance could be. I did a lot of participatory projects where I choreographed amateurs as well, creating spaces where life transitioned into performance. I did the Xplore Festival in 2004, which is still alive and going on in its 10th year now. Doing that brought up the idea to make Schwelle7, to have a space to do workshops in areas like dance, sexual techniques and all the things I’m interested in. Those things condition people to create certain codes of behaviour and a certain way of being that only exists here at Schwelle7.

So it was a natural progression in terms of working with the body?

Exactly. The body and its possibilities are always at the centre. It’s quite interesting when you think of dance history. I started dancing in the 1970s, when it was very much about form; you really worked with the muscles a lot and it was very much about virtuosity. In the 1990s the focus shifted to the bones, and in the last 15-20 years people have started working more with the inner body. Body fluids are very much influencing dance and choreography today. So you have a kind of going from the outside in, from material to immaterial. That’s where sexuality comes in – it’s all about the inner world. It links the rational to the emotional.

So elements of BDSM were the next logical step?

That happened around 1999 where I did a piece called Ring. The idea was to give people a maximum of positive information: the audience got caressed, complimented and guided around. But the idea was to also show the manipulation going on there, because people were totally happy to get so much affection and attention to the point of actually falling in love with the dancers. Critics and the professionals said that it was very esoteric and therapeutic, which annoyed me. I decided that I wanted the next piece to be about discomfort: instead of being really nice to the audience, we were going to be really nasty. So with SECRET SERVICE I brought in these BDSM people who taught the dancers how to flog and so on.

Were you already in the BDSM scene at the time?

I had met people who were practicing it – I found it quite fascinating how they transformed the negative into something positive. Or maybe they like the contrast between pleasure and pain. Of all the masochists I know, very few of them actually get turned on by the pain itself. Most people you have to stimulate sexually and then you can hit them – it’s a balancing act. That’s what you do anyway if you have good sex. This is my other conviction; I don’t think BDSM is a special form of sex, I rather think that sex is a specific form of BDSM. There are so many practices that are not even sexual within BDSM, where it’s really more about a systemic excitement, where’s it’s about connection, about emotion.

Are there similarities between the discipline of dance and BDSM?

Ballet training is physically enormously painful. You sweat, you suffer, and you have this whole hierarchy between students going on and on top of that the humiliation from teachers. I know it from yoga school and from martial arts or sports; it’s the same. People are pushed to see what the body can do. Compared to that, BDSM is pure pleasure because it’s so controlled. There’s not a higher goal, the only goal is pleasure. It’s not by chance that you find a lot of people who come from these backgrounds in BDSM.

Who comes to Schwelle7?

Well, I try to make it really open, so everybody feels welcome. We have people from 20 years old to around 60 or 70. A lot are body workers – people who do massage, therapy or manual labour – and all sorts of artists. There are also a lot of people who work in medicine or mental therapy, like doctors or therapists. It’s very queer; a lot of people are bisexual or gay, but it’s also kind of hetero-flexible, so it’s a nice mix. It’s the more open-minded people from both sides who come. Those who only want to be with men or only want to be with women, they don’t really come here.

So it’s very quintessentially Berlin?

Berlin has a history which allows this kind of thing. It’s at this cross point of ideologies and very postmodern. Not only are people very free and equal, they are also very informed. I came to Berlin in 1980 when the Wall was still there. West Berlin was a total free zone, but it was also very artificial, because it only existed because of intervention. All the outsiders came together and created a lot of bars and places of inspiration in West Berlin. In the 1920s Berlin was the place to go for sexual liberation and the only place where gay couples could walk the streets openly. And of course, there’s the fascism and GDR socialism, which has left a lasting impression in many ways. That’s why I think Berlin is the perfect place. Also you have a very open BDSM scene here. In countries where you have had actual violence not long ago – like in the Balkans – it’s much more difficult to play with BDSM, because the trauma is so close. You need time to digest it before you can start to properly appropriate it. But here and in other peaceful countries there’s this playing with cultural trauma. Like in California, you could easily find someone playing Nazi and Jew, but you would never see them playing white master and black slave. For the same reason you don’t really find people playing Nazi and Jew here. It’s still taboo, so people react very strongly to it.

What is it you’re trying to bring to people – purely a recreational thing, or a quest for something deeper?

It’s interesting, because in ‘recreation’ you also have ‘creation’. So maybe I am on the threshold between creation and recreation. There’s definitely an artistic side to it. I don’t believe in ideology, I don’t believe in wrong or right. I don’t even believe in improvement. I don’t think you can get better, because as you learn something, you also lose something. But I definitely believe in creativity as a way of learning; homo ludicus, the concept of the guy who plays and therefore evolves. It’s random decisions, trying out things, failing. All the people I invite here are people who propose forms of creativity or play without any promise of becoming a better person or better artist out of it. I give the material for you to play with and that’s enough.

So there’s not a quest for something bigger in that way?

It’s a good question, because it’s not just about hedonism and pleasure. Like in yoga, discipline is the path. The whole concept of work is mostly an idea of pain for a lot of people: it’s suffering to get to a more positive end goal. I also have very good results working with pleasure. I just want to show all the options. So pleasure can be the way, pain can be the way. It depends on what you need and BDSM offers all options.

So it’s about beating your own path?

Yes. I think one important concept for Schwelle7 is the individuality of it. It’s centred around me. If you look at the programme from the last seven years there are always phases: for two years we had a lot of contact improvisation, because I was really interested in that; now there’s more music and body work. I think it’s an advantage that we don’t try to make a programme that caters to a lot of people, that it in itself is complete for one person – which is me. The whole thing is about curating. In the art world, you often see that a curator really makes something happen which is beyond what the artist does. That’s how I see myself.

What’s your attitude towards more traditional concepts like ‘love’ or ‘monogamy’?

In Berlin we’re in a very specific situation. It’s really obvious here most how traditional family structures aren’t the norm anymore. All of my friends have patchwork families, multiple relationships, their kids have two or three daddies and so on. It’s very polyamorous. It’s a total mishmash and people live very well within that.

Is that also something you try to foster?

It happens automatically when you start to play with BDSM. You get a totally different idea of intimacy. Very concretely: A couple comes here for the first time because the girl wants to experiment with bondage and the guy is clueless, so someone ties her up, while the guy is watching. There’s nothing strictly sexual, but the guy might still feel jealous or excluded. What happens a lot when people start playing with BDSM is that they suddenly have multiple, intimate relationships; it loosens and ‘fluidifies’ these fixed ideas of what a relationship or intimacy is, and it mixes up the gender roles as well. For instance, you usually associate dominance with masculinity. It’s the penetrating, aggressive part, while the other, femininity, is the part that gives in and gets controlled. In BDSM you play with these roles, you experiment with activities that are associated with the different genders: if you come here to a play party, you might see a small, very sexy woman with a big strap-on fucking a big, tattooed guy. It’s totally striking, because when you look at it your mind gets confused about what’s what. It has the sort of confusion similar to when you see really androgynous people. You can’t classify them right away, so they sort of destabilise you. When the gender gets more fluid, you can relate differently to other people. If I get fucked in the ass, I might feel so female that I can engage in sexual interaction with a male, because I’m a woman – I don’t have to define myself as gay or be afraid of the consequences it might have. If you look at society, that’s also what’s happening: identity is being deconstructed and is getting more and more fluid. The deconstruction makes you more multifaceted, so it’s an expansion of identity, really. Instead of being an artist, a slut or whatever, I’m just Felix – whatever that means in a given moment.

So would you say that monogamy is dead in that sense?

Yes, because it’s a total illusion. It means that you get together with someone and you only have sex with that person until you die. That doesn’t really exist. But many people I know follow a concept of serial monogamy: even if you’re changing partners every five minutes, it’s still monogamy, because you’re only sexually engaging with one person at a time.

How is what you do here different from an orgy?

When people think of an orgy, they think of a situation where everyone has sex with everyone at the same time, but that’s actually impossible. You only have one cock and one pussy. So yes, there are orgies here, but not only on a purely genital level. Orgies are very interesting, because they’re about making intimacy public. I think there’s something really radical about public sex. Not public in the sense of sex in a park, but more like sex with a witness. Sex is about losing control and giving up inhibition. To share that is to put yourself in a very vulnerable place.

You’re having a full moon party tonight and one of the conditions for first-timers is to bring a play partner. Do you think it might keep some people from coming?

Yeah, but that’s the point. We want people to have a certain amount of social graces and confidence. Not just coming here secretly – they have to share it with someone, be it their partner or someone else. We also want them to have a kind of anchor to relate to. Most people at the play parties kind of know each other or come regularly; there’s only about 20-30 percent new people at a time, because the regulars know how the party should be in terms of respect and playfulness, but also in the sense of bravery and courage and just going for it. At our play party the idea is that you come and create yourself a kind of character or persona. It becomes very theatrical and has a kind of magical, transgressive quality. Most of the people also come to workshops from time to time, so they are aware of the idea of consensual playing with dominance and submission. Basically, it means that I trust someone to guide me somewhere else. Instead of disciplining myself, I delegate someone else to bring me to some new place.

Originally published in issue #128, June 2014.