The party prince and his kingdom of rave

Not everyone loves Thomas Fleurquin. Maybe it's because he brings the city to a standstill for a few days each summer. Maybe it's because he likes to wind people up in the media. He, at least, thinks his Distortion Festival is making the world a better place by opening up the streets to dance music and organised chaos

He speaks with a French inflection and sports a mop of silver hair. He admits to having been a bad husband, taking drugs and engaging in illegal accounting practices. When a journalist started investigating his organisation, he penned an open letter suggesting she give herself an orgasm.

Thomas Fleurquin is the chief architect behind Distortion, a festival that celebrates club culture and “orchestrated chaos” through street parties and raves in Copenhagen every June. Over 100,000 people are expected to visit the two street parties in the city, and thousands more will descend on Refshaleøen for the weekend festival.

“I listen to loud techno music and still live that rave dream,” the 41-year-old explains in his office on the island. “It may seem weird, but I’ll be there at 5am with my shirt off dancing in front of the loudspeaker. Of course it’s a bit ridiculous, but it’s honest.”

Honest it may be. But while Fleurquin is comfortable being a character in the performance he rolls out across the city, his job as its stage director comes less naturally.

“It feels so theoretical and bullshit to me,” he says, gesticulating dismissively at wall charts that outline all the tasks that need completing before this year’s festival.

“But of course it isn’t. In the last two years, I have finally grown up and accepted that this level of organisation is good. I’m still childish, but it’s only for entertainment. I know we are a serious organisation. I just still want us to live up to Distortion’s profile as a backyard party or a crazy Jewish wedding.”

Thomas in his car during the interview this May (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Thomas in his car during the interview this May (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Growing pains
Fleurquin started the festival in 1998 to promote the culture guide he wrote for the English-language newspaper The Copenhagen Post, where he worked until 2008. But what started as raves for die-hard club kids exploded into the mainstream in 2009, when tens of thousands of people descended on the city for the street party.

It was a watershed moment for the organisation. Until that point, his rag-tag inner circle was chaotic and frenetic, and operated in a state of constant damage control. They acted first and asked permission later. When fights broke out, they intervened, and when cleaning groups got drunk and failed to show up in the morning, they would stay and clean up the mess.

But they were overstretched. In 2011, they ordered too few toilets, and the streets stank of urine for days after. The same City Council that had started out funding Distortion in 2008 slapped them with a 350,000 kroner fine. They were forced to professionalise, leading to the establishment of the Distortion Foundation later that year.

Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt

Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt

The foundation owns Nus/Nus, – the Distortion Secretariat – which employs Thomas Fleurquin as its director. He remains the festival’s visionary, while a strong hands-on administrative team has professionalised budgets and finances. The board of the Distortion Foundation includes two of the nation’s most famous lawyers and two respected CEOs.

This Wednesday morning, I am sitting in on a meeting led by Mads Holm, who is responsible for Distortion’s daily operations. Around twenty people are gathered, and they discuss ticket sales and corporate partnerships until Holm turns to the lanky Frenchman.

“Fleurquin, do you have something to say?” and someone sniggers a little because Fleurquin always has something to say.

In front of the speaker at the Distortion final party, 2008. Photo: Peter Stanners

In front of the speaker at the Distortion final party, 2008. Photo: Peter Stanners

Creating a better world
Fleurquin’s vision is not universally admired. Pia Kjærsgaard, former leader of the Danish People’s Party, penned a letter to Politiken in 2013 criticising Distortion for interfering in ordinary people’s lives. When Fleurquin offered Kjærsgaard the chance to host her own party during the festival, she called him a smarty-pants and an ‘action man”.

He has also upset the city’s left-wing activists, who have accused him of monopolising the city’s street party potential and abandoning the underground in exchange for corporate partnerships. This relationship is still rocky, says Fleurquin, with Distortion fielding fresh accusations of selling out after striking a deal with convenience store 7-Eleven.

“I have this beef with the hard-core leftists who think we have betrayed the underground by making partnerships. I don’t have a good relationship with them, because I am somehow one of them, or at least I used to be. I don’t care about money. I was a ‘fuck capitalism’ kind of guy in my youth, and I built this project with an unspoilt desire to create a better world. I now know that 98 percent of businesses are OK. There is no group of evil corporate people that consciously try to keep the poor poor. It’s simply not true. I believe everybody is fighting for survival, or power, or glory, or ego. But neither Obama nor any corporate mastermind has any real control over the evolution of things – and I honestly believe the world is getting better, all the time.”

Fleurquin doesn’t mind taking on his critics, and has used his infamous Human Infomail email list to offer his thousands of subscribers a view inside both his head and the Distortion machine. In 2011, hours before the final party, he complained that while thousands of people had turned out for the free street parties, hardly anyone had bought the tickets to the club night. Distortion faced ruin unless they could turn it around.

“The street is supposed to be the warm-up, friends! I don’t know the solution, but four hours of depression was enough. I look forward to the challenge – hey, I’m ‘Mr Fleurquin’.”

Four years on, Distortion is a different beast. Only two street parties remain in the city before the festival moves to the island of Refshaløen over the weekend. They’ve diversified their profile, adding both a classical stage to the party in Vesterbro, and events aimed at children, called Børne Distortion. The party on Refshaleøn is all about the music, with a sharp international profile to rival any competing dance music festival.

A random moment at the 2013 Final Party. Photo: Peter Stanners

A random moment at the 2013 Final Party. Photo: Peter Stanners

Ask for forgiveness
Fleurquin’s need to put Copenhagen on the map is tied to his position as outsider. He has a Danish mother and was brought up in Paris, where he says he played Dungeons and Dragons with fellow members of the nerdy and sheltered upper-middle class.

He doesn’t paint himself as a popular teen, however, and says he only got into clubbing in his twenties.

“When I was 19, I thought sleeping was a waste of time. I didn’t have a healthy, natural approach to life. I shunned things that were obvious to lots of people, important things like eating. I thought it was materialist nonsense to have clean shoes. I wasn’t making my life easy by putting my theoretical ideas before my own good. I still do. I think I’m an OK father and husband now, but I wasn’t ten years ago. I have really pushed it to the edge.”

After a stint in the army and a few years cruising around Europe in a camper van, Fleurquin permanently relocated to Copenhagen in his mid-twenties, where he helped establish The Copenhagen Post. For the next ten years, he would write over a hundred cultural listings a week for the expat newspaper. His close connection to the city’s cultural grassroots was akin to an education, he explains. But his position as an outsider also motivated him. He could see the city for what it was, and for what it could be.

“It’s a luxury to be able to focus on something that isn’t an imperative, but a vision, on making the world a better place,” he explains. “Our goals are to use the city in new ways, to showcase new music and artistic progression. But our biggest strength is that we are doing it for the right reason. We are frontrunners, showing people who are doing something new and putting them forward.”

Fleurquin’s reputation as an enfant terrible, along with the rumours of chaos inside the Distortion machine room over the years, raises the question of how he ever managed to get the city to invest up to a million kroner a year in his project.

But for a man so at odds – politically and emotionally – with authority and conventional living, he has only praise for the city’s administration and policing. He thinks Denmark’s high level of trust and social cohesion, its public servants act in the interest of the people, and its police are both well-trained and driven by a civic sense.

Distortion would not have been possible if Fleurquin had followed all the rules, and yet the city and the police have forgiven him, because they understood his vision was a good one. They might not get everything right, but the city’s support of alternative cultures is unusual in a European capital city.

“It’s what makes Denmark an advanced country, its pedagogy. But there is also an unprofessionalism in its laissez-faire attitude, that when your intentions are good, they overlook the bureaucracy.”

But while Denmark’s social cohesion creates a bureaucracy driven by civic pride, Danes don’t fight for principles the way other Europeans do, says Fleurquin. There is no popular opposition to the system, because there is no historical trauma between the state and the people.

“Foreigners who come here don’t understand why people are passive against the power, why people just do what they’re told. They can’t understand why they trust the system to do what’s best for society. But in countries that have suffered, there are stronger bonds between people. Friendships just aren’t as strong in Denmark. Danes are better in groups than individually. It’s what’s good and bad about Denmark.”

Thomas at the 'one minute rave' on the bridge Knippelsbro in 2010. Photo: Christian Tanzweise

Thomas at the ‘one minute rave’ on the bridge Knippelsbro in 2010. Photo: Christian Tanzweise

Out of survival mode
We’ve spent the day talking on the sofa in his office, located in a former industrial facility. Next door, giant laser cutters fashion objects out of cardboard. Hip men, women, boys and girls float in and out. One person starts to cry, and Fleurquin wraps them in a warm embrace.

Later in the afternoon, we drive to a meeting with the Parliament’s press staff as they plan publicity for the party celebrating the 100th anniversary of universal suffrage. Fleurquin is in his element, negotiating with his polite yet focussed intensity. At one point during the meeting, his colleague takes over, and Fleurquin puts his head in his hands, overcome for a moment – with boredom, perhaps.

The meeting is over, and he’s off to another negotiation with the canal boat operators to reduce the compensation Distortion owes them for closing the canals during the party. He is buoyed by the challenge, because ultimately he thinks he’s the luckiest man on the planet.

“I’m driven by the spirit of innovation, of touching that vibe and that chord, that thing that elevates you from the imperatives of daily life. I don’t do this to pay the rent. After all, real entrepreneurs and businesspeople don’t care about money. Believing in your mission is the way to elevate yourself above the daily trivialities of shopping and going to the dentist. It gives you a magic aura. That’s what everyone is chasing after. It’s hard on my body and family. It’s hard-core. I don’t think you can survive if it you’re not made for it. It requires physical and psychological devotion.”

The hard days seem to be over for the Frenchman. Distortion is stable, floating on a steady income stream, and has transformed into the international event he always wanted it to be. And while he could be forgiven for wanting to romanticise Distortion’s early days, without sleep and fuelled by passion and provocation, it seems he could grow accustomed to the new setup.

“I don’t feel like I’m surviving any more, I feel like I’m living.” M

Features, Culture

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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