Once a year, Hamburg residents become bright birds of paradise. A whole flock of feathered friends leaves the city centre, heading for a different world. Bicycles carry them through the old Elbe Tunnel, past the stacked ocean cargo containers of Wilhelmsburg island – and into the birds' nest.
Photos: Kevin McElvaney
A little energetic pedalling soon leaves urban Hamburg behind. On the far side of the tunnel under the River Elbe, the landscape is dominated by stacks of cargo containers and port noises – here, between giant cranes and waterways, the island of Wilhelmsburg is transformed every summer into a different Hamburg.
It's totally different from the city with its narrow streets, so enclosed at times – this is a place filled with open space and sky and water and woodland. A summer place filled with dancing and exhilaration, with ecstasy and music and long nights. The Vogelball – the “Bird Ball” – whets the appetite for that Festival summer.
The Hamburg-dwellers' metamorphosis starts before the Bird Ball itself: people meet and put on their make-up, deck themselves in feathers and beads and bright colours. These otherwise so-reserved northerners are transformed into wild birds and crazy creatures. But that's only the start of the transformation, the birds still have to learn to fly and flap their wings.
They get on their bikes and ride away through the city to the port, because that's where they belong. The Port of Hamburg is still a gateway to the world today. And so the birds ride towards the great river, the Elbe, then dive underneath it, passing through the old Elbe Tunnel, which is now dedicated to cyclists and pedestrians and a go-to place for sight-seeing tourists.
Through the tunnel and into a new world
The old Elbe Tunnel connects the city centre to Wilhelmsburg, a port and a place of dreams: there are great warehouses and endless dikes with grazing sheep, an infinity of wide streets, bridges large and small, and most of all a whole lot of sky. With their brief migration accomplished, the birds are rewarded with the nest for which they have come so far: the MS Dockville festival grounds appear expectedly, a forest in Nowhere, in and around it meadowland and sand, encircled by old granaries and refineries.
The metamorphosis reaches its height in the bird forest: thousands of fowls and feathers, an ecstatic party that's an end in itself. It glitters and shakes, it booms and even levitates just a bit, the Bird Ball and its little birdies. Sparrows, ravens, flamingos and every other species fan out through the woodland and find themselves in little clearings where flying and taking off becomes the easiest thing in the world, with the help of electro DJs and techno acrobats.
Wilhelmsburg, festival island
Artworks and confetti, lanterns and lights are also in the mix. Darkness falls, night comes on, but the lights guide the feathered creatures from place to place, from a circus tent to their mobile homes, from a small clearing to the sweeping meadow. And all of them share one certainty: by the end of the night they will witness the complete metamorphosis of the Hanseatic tribes who dance, adorned and feathered, until day dawns over Wilhelmsburg.
The Vogelball can only exist because it remains a sharp contrast to the otherwise so-coolness of Hamburg folk: their casual, demonstrative indifference is reversed here. For a day and a night, the Bird Ball celebrates life and lunacy, the absurd, the beautiful, the amusing and the insane, in a tribute to the brief summer in a big, sprawling city that's capable of so much more than ports and shipping.
Summer on the waterfront
Slamville: 22 July
Slamville, the first Poetry Slam Festival in Germany.
Lüttville: 24 to 29 July
This year's Lüttville summer camp gives more than 150 five- to fourteen-year-olds from the Hamburg districts of Wilhelmsburg and Veddel the opportunity to produce small and large artworks, performances and pieces of music in 13 different creative workshops, and to present them at the end to a very big audience at the Dockville Festival.
Richtfest: 29 July
The Opening Ceremony for MS Artville
MS Artville: 29 July to 12 August
MS Artville is an open-air gallery that combines the contrasts of port industry, cultural diversity and artistic underground. A changing cast of international artists and art collectives of all disciplines live and work here on an interdisciplinary, artistic playing field.
Vogelball: 05 August
Every year, the Vogelball – the “Bird Ball” attracts bright-coloured, dance-loving birds to set the mood for the forthcoming MS Dockville Festival
Spektrum: 05 August
The one-day snapshot of the beat culture performs among the conflicts of tradition and boundary crossings, electronic grey areas and classic rap, focusing on quality and variety.
MS Dockville 18 to 20 August
Every year, music and art are celebrated at the MS Dockville Festival on the second-last weekend in August. In the last rays of the summer sun, more than 120 acts celebrate on 12 stages with more than 25,000 guests.