artpress 2 - berlin

After four years living and working in Berlin as an art and architecture critic, I asked the editors of the french magazine artpress, Catherine Millet and Richard Leydier, to give me the direction of a special issue about Berlin. I selected the authors for their knowledge of both french and berlin cultural scenes, the whole artistic fields were covered (visual arts, cinema, litterature...) but, most of it, my question to all the authors and myself was: «Is there a Berlin model, a different way of producing and relating to art in the new german capital?».
A few years later, the thesis developped here are still valid or discussed and they take us away from journalistic clichés.

Berlin, Transit City
(originally published in artpress 2, 2006)

More than fifteen years after Germany's historic reunification, and as a result of the radical changes that have ensued throughout the country, Berlin has acquired a new image, as the world's most hospitable capital for artists. But what are the causes and the everyday realities behind this new status, which is accepted and experienced by so many actors throughout the world of the arts, and in almost every field? With a series of historical and thematic panoramas of the different artistic disciplines, plus eight portraits of figures who have made the new German capital their home, this issue sets out to offer a detailed and critical portrait of contemporary Berlin.

For someone born in France in the early 1970s, there were two ways of being a teenager in the 1980s. The first, chosen by many of my schoolmates, was to believe in Bernard Tapie, listen to Vanessa Paradis and fantasize over Miami Vice. The other, those who failed to identify with this mix of teen dreams, dubious morals and easy money, could always dress in black, cultivate spleen and listen avidly to German bands with unpronounceable names like Einstürzende Neubauten, Sprung aus den Wolken and Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft while waiting for the Armageddon promised by the cold war's logic of mutually assured destruction. For this second category —for us (yes, I was one of them)— there was a city that represented both the gray of our mental landscape and the existential unease we schlepped around high school, a city that was divided and schizophrenic, a mutilated daughter of the Second World War, embodying all the moroseness and urban romanticism of the 20th century: Berlin. The city whose melancholy rock scene (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) was revealed by Wim Wenders, whose angels flew over the "Wall of Shame" (Wings of Desire, 1987). The city where a group of immigrant Australians teamed up with pure Berliners to start a band under the name Crime + The City Solution. Because in 1980s Berlin, crime was maybe the only way out of a claustrophobic, walled-in predicament. Proper crime, that is, and not delinquency, or the mixture of drugs and prostitution that dragged down Christiane F, heroine of the shock international bestseller (1) A solution was urgently needed.

Well, the Wall fell and took our adolescence with it and we had to face reality. Wenders's urban poetry turned leaden without Peter Handke (2) and the wings of their angels were trampled into the streets of Kreuzberg. Berlin, though, remained extremely attractive. For it was now "the biggest building site in Europe," a forest of cranes dragging up a new Potsdamer Platz whose stunning architectural and urban mediocrity, a mix of wannabe internationalism and spectacular parochialism still hasn't registered fully (3). This moment of rebirth put Berlin back in the European spotlight as an effervescent city that was once again the capital of that rich and powerful "greater Germany" whose re-emergence stirred ancestral fears across the continent (4). At the same time, the reoccupation of the buildings in the former East Berlin, (the Tacheles or the Kunst-Werke), the installation of techno clubs in an old treasury and the organization of a Loveparade around the Siegessäule became the symbols of a spontaneous artistic euphoria whose afterglow has now been canned by the tourist industry.

This new Berlin was an Eldorado for building projects —which is not so surprising if you think of the four decades when it was a laboratory for new architectural forms and theories. In the mid-1990s Jean Nouvel delivered an elegant Galeries Lafayette on a Friedrichstrasse with no Checkpoint Charlie; Aldo Rossi, Philip Johnson and Josef Paul Kleihues contributed to the (post-) postmodern normalization of the city, and Dominique Perrault constructed a swimming pool and cycle track so radical that they evoked memories of the Thousand Year Reich (5). In the space of a few years, Berlin, once an island of experimental social housing (the famous IBA 57 and 87), turned into a sadly ordinary city.

For many, Berlin stands for a pleasant lifestyle founded on a strange economy. But don't be fooled: if you come here looking to make money, you'll be disappointed. The euphoria of the 1990s disappeared in the smoke of financial scandal and if the city is cheap, you soon find yourself scraping around for those few hundred euros to cover your basic needs. However, this economic abnormality is turning into a genuine lifestyle, terribly uncertain but incredibly sexy, too. As for the superstars, they use Berlin as a kind of air base, a playground for rest, refreshment and throwing out sheds of money. Berlin, city of transit where you can spend a few months concentrating, a place where you can at last think and produce. But there comes a time when you must leave in order to get some returns on this time out.

Of course, the city was already a haven before 1989, in the days when West Berlin was a small island of capitalism in the sea of the German Democratic Republic and, therefore, the Soviet Bloc. Those who chose to live there for its low rents (or non-rents, in the countless squats) and because of a law exempting young Berliners from military service, were the worthy representatives of Germany's politically engaged, anti-establishment youth. In those days, however, Berlin was not synonymous with the visual arts. The only people attracting attention were the Neue Wilde (Middendorf, Salome, Fetting, etc.) and a few true Berliners, such as the essential Wolf Vostell. Artists from Germany and beyond started arriving after the fall of the Wall. Gallerists and critics soon followed. This happy chaos was capped by the creation of Art Forum Berlin, a contemporary art fair. Today, the big private collections are coming to town —Christian Boros from Germany, and the French Jean Mairet, who is showing the artists from his collection this September as part of Art France Berlin. Well-known curators (Christine Macel or Hans Ulrich Obrist) and gallerists (Suzanne Tarasieve, Jocelyn Wolff) can regularly be seen doing the Berlin rounds, taking the creative temperature and scouting for fresh talent. All it needs to complete the picture is a serious institution on the scale and with a program worthy of the Pompidou Center. But the days of ambitious projects are past and Berlin has to manage a present poised on the edge of future that is no longer rosy. As Blixa Bargeld said of Potsdamer Platz, "The new temples already have cracks" and the situation is hardly improved by the fiasco of the Akademie der Künste (architect: Günther Behnisch) on Pariser Platz or the dreary design for the enlargement of the Bauhaus-Archiv (SANAA). That leaves the DaimlerChrysler Collection, the Berlinische Galerie, the Helmut Newton Foundation and the Deutsche Guggenheim which, while they put on shows of real quality, are not as ambitious as the Pompidou. The real problem is that Berlin lacks an institution that combines a major historical and contemporary collection with established curators and world-class exhibition spaces.

One final cliché: Berlin is not Germany, and Germany does not like Berlin. The city costs more than it earns and oscillates between an inferiority complex towards its richer neighbors and the old Prussian superiority complex. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest town of all?" That is the question that Berlin neurotically keeps asking. But try the Spinnerei in Leipzig and you will find, not only galleries and artists' studios, but a Boesner store (6) the size of an airport terminal. The textile factory has been transformed into a mill churning out paintings by the meter. Berlin is rather different. Here, artists can afford a certain "immateriality- and can allow themselves work that is not totally geared to the market and its expectations. Indeed, this could well be the common denominator for many of the artists described in the fourth chapter of this issue.

Berlin is thus a city of possibles and possibilities, a chance and an opportunity. It is a place whose magic dust you can scatter on your artistic clothes so as to look more attractive to the international market (7). As for those who don't live in several countries at once, they just keep hopping from one job to the next (8). Sooner rather than later, they end up as superior bums, or, to borrow the term coined by Mercedez Bunz, Urbane Penner: creative dilettantes [Diffus Kreativ] (9): not really artists, not really webmasters, not really architects, not really graphic designers, but a bit of each, with lots of hope and creativity thrown in. They hang out in wi-fi cafés and spend Mom-Pop's money on the latest Adidas sneakers. The Geniale Dilletanten punks and alternative types of the 1980s belong to the past: genius, no, just a burst of creativity now and again. And because the economic pressure exerted by Berlin on its inhabitants is so slight, it's easy to get caught up in a shortsighted, fuddled euphoria.

In this issue we have attempted to describe the way Berlin works, through its history to its artistic and cultural practices: the systems, the abiding parameters and logics that shape the city and the life of the artists who live there. Who, after all, could claim to present an entire capital in a hundred pages and several score images? There have, then, been conscious omissions, such as fashion and design, or, regrettably, the Berliner Philharmoniker, which, since Simon Rattle took up the baton there, has been giving stunning performances of Olivier Messiaen. In the end, you will find few echte Berliners in these pages, except for Wolf Vostell and Heiner Muller, who seem to float like ghosts over some of the essays. This certainly has to do with modern Berlin's status as place of transit. But it also the only way to take a detached, critical look at a capital whose workings are very different from those of other contemporary metropolises.

Last spring, nearly twenty years after I head my first Einstürzende Neubauten record, I was on Potsdamer Strasse one Saturday morning to interview the group's leader, Blixa Bargeld. He spoke to me then of a city that no longer exists, of the old West Berlin buried under the rubble of the Cold War. And perhaps what you have before you is precisely that, a structural portrait of a city that has undergone so many radical changes that it will soon cease to exist.

Thibaut de Ruyter

(1) Originally published in 1978 under the title Christiane F. - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the book still sells today.
(2) Witness the sadly hollow feel of Faraway, So Close!, the « sequel » to Wings of Desire.
(3) Even direr, perhaps, was the neighboring Leipziger Platz.
(4) It is important to bear in mind that East Berlin was the capital of the German Democratic Republic.
(5) It was Rem Koolhaas who came up with the slogan « fuck context », but Dominique Perrault seems to have taken those ironic words literally and built with complete indifference to the surroundings.
(6) The german equivalent of Graphigro
(7) See Particules no. 13, « Faut-il habiter Berlin pour être un bon plasticien? » or the almost de rigueur « lives and works in Berlin » in artists’ biographies.
(8) The coordinator of this issue, yours truely, is a perfect example of this.
(9) Her article in last February’s issue of Zitty, « Meine Armut kotzt mich an » [My Poverty Makes Me Sick] is still a big talking point with the city’s trendy youth.

artpress 2, issue number 2: Berlin Ville Transit
August-September-October 2006
Bilingual FR/EN, 114 pages

Directed by Thibaut de Ruyter

With texts and visual  participations by: Thibaut de Ruyter, Ellen Blumenstein, Mickaël Faure, Anne Pascale Frohn, Claudia Wahjudi, Thomas Bruns, Axel Sowa, David Sanson, Stéphane Malfettes, Jörg Sundermeier, Pierre-Emmanuel Finzi, Nicolas Moulin, Ceal Floyer, Monica Bonvicini, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Wawrzyniec Tokarski, Tino Sehgal...