TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 2004

ON THE GROUND

Berlin

WHEN OUT OF TOWN, THOSE OF US WHO LIVE IN BERLIN regularly find ourselves confronted with the question, “So what’s it like there?” As if we were personally responsible for the city’s reputation as a “happening” place. Sometimes the question resonates with excited expectation, and other times a skeptical tone betrays reservations about all the hype. Depending on my mood, I either add fuel to the fire or adopt a strategy of demystification. For the residents of other major cities, Berlin has undoubtedly become an ideal surface for the projection of all sorts of fantasies: a city with a functioning underground culture, an exciting nightlife, and a lively art scene with a bohemian flavor, where there’s still a lot of drinking and heated arguments, and where there’s still a symbolic struggle over aesthetic questions. All of this is true, but at the same time it’s a cliché, and one that we all contribute to. We shouldn’t forget that this seemingly protected subcultural preserve in fact serves as a test case for an economy in which individual responsibility and maverick communication skills are again writ large. As if in a laboratory, the lifestyles of Berlin’s young creative workers can be examined under a microscope, and—even if this sounds a bit like conspiracy theory—we can be sure that streetwise corporations have long since dispatched their trend scouts to neighborhoods like Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, and Friedrichshain.

There’s almost no other city where people move around so much and with such enthusiasm; on my street alone, the blue-and-white vans from the budget truck-rental agency stand outside my window every week. The oft-mentioned low rents are what provoke this constant moving and also give Berlin its status as a “space of possibility.” While in some areas, especially parts of Berlin-Mitte, rents now approximate those of more expensive German cities like Munich or Hamburg, there are still comparatively cheap studios and apartments to be found, especially since there are always new areas awaiting discovery—and gentrification. At the moment it’s Wedding, a working-class district bordering on fashionable Mitte and once considered extremely unattractive. The fact that Galerie Guido W. Baudach, formerly known as Maschenmode and located in Mitte, recently opened in a new Wedding space with museumlike dimensions portends the beginning of a shift.

Affordable living space has concrete consequences for cultural production. Whereas in other cities the issue for artists is sheer survival, and all energy is directed toward covering the cost of living, here it is feasible to produce without immediate concern for economic ends. Experiments or “projects” proliferate, regardless of what (if anything) will come out of them and whether they will actually be worth the effort in a literal sense. With their open-ended approach in terms of results, these so-called projects initially seem opposed to the professionalism and demands for “efficiency” that artists face elsewhere. But on closer examination, one has to admit that this apparent lack of purpose represents the very experimental ethos that today’s capitalist system increasingly values and seeks to absorb. In the end, openness to experimentation and the ability to roll with the punches are among the personal qualities that pay off. Seen from this perspective, the creative “free space” that Berlin provides is actually the ultimate commodity.

Nonetheless, many artists here still face enormous economic pressures, despite the low rents. The dismantling of Germany’s welfare state, which goes hand in hand with the neoliberal call for more “self-reliance” and “individual responsibility,” can make survival precarious. In light of high unemployment and a collapsed job market there are few means for artists to earn a living on the side. In place of “security” we have unpredictability: It’s good to be ready for anything. Still, it remains possible for artists to get state cultural funding, and at the moment the odds aren’t all that bad, particularly for projects with a social-critical bent.

From the perspective of the art market, Berlin has assumed the role of outsourced production: a site for cheap labor that continuously replenishes the booths of international art fairs. The label “Berlin” seems automatically to ennoble the products of artists who live here. Whatever the work, so long as it comes from Berlin it has the chance of being seen as something special. But while the production happens here, the selling takes place elsewhere, and more and more artists produce primarily with art-fair dates in mind. As much as this affects their work, the art market scarcely surfaces in this city. It is strangely invisible—no signs of money far and wide. For example, one waits in vain for the notorious towncars that in New York symbolize the presence of rich collectors on a gallery tour. Here, collectors are more discreet, visiting artists directly in their studios as if wanting to possess not just the art but the particular urban experience that, indeed, accounts for much of its value.

When I returned to Berlin at the beginning of October after a few weeks in New York, I found a transformed cultural-political climate. It was a different city than the one I left. It had become possible for a private collection bearing the surname of a notorious Nazi and war criminal, the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, to be prominently displayed in a state museum, the Hamburger Bahnhof, and even granted blessings from official cultural and political quarters. Protests from all directions, beginning with the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and followed by numerous newspaper critics, were powerless to do anything. Even the most convincing objections seemed to bounce off the official agenda once it was established as cultural policy. “Normalization” was on the menu. Even the chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, didn’t dare miss the opening, giving the collection his own personal seal of approval. And the connection of the Flick Collection directly to the Hamburger Bahnhof can be seen as a symbol of this normalization: From now on, these artworks, thrown together in just a few years with start-up capital amassed by the collector’s grandfather, a Nazi collaborator who employed 48,000 forced laborers and profited from the “Aryanization” of Jewish property, are to be legitimized as an integral part of a state-run museum, as if one emphatically wanted to erase the history tied to the collection.

The longing to finally settle the questions of the past is widespread in Germany today. But of course the past will continue to rear its head and cannot be shaken off, as one recognizes in Berlin at every turn. Hence, the production surrounding the opening of the Flick Collection can be seen as one aspect of a more representative development, the other side of which is a revisionist attitude toward history and a wish to finally break old taboos. The widely acclaimed film about Hitler’s last days Der Untergang (The Downfall), 2004, is one cultural product that points in this direction, simultaneously celebrating a Nazi aesthetic while also suggesting that the primary victims of the war were the Germans themselves. Also, a reemergence of a supposed Nazi “totalitarian chic” can be seen in the experiments of some Berlin-based painters and performers who seem to take up the mantle of German history without any critical distance. As disempowered as an enlightened and analytical perspective might seem in this climate, I would, nevertheless, like to insist that such an approach can still make a difference, demonstrating its power over the long run.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic.

Translated from German by Brian Currid.