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Curatorial team 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art
Curatorial team of the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, Thiago de Paula Souza, Gabi Ngcobo, Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, Yvette Mutumba, Moses SerubiriPhotography F. Anthea Schaap

Is Berlin still the artist utopia it once claimed to be?

A handful of local artists reflect on the concerns that the city’s art scene is increasingly facing

The history of Berlin is compelling. Karl Marx sowed the seeds of his philosophies while studying there, and Bertolt Brecht – himself a Marxist – wrote many of his famous plays and poems whilst living in the city. It’s where anti-war feminist and revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by right-wing forces a few years before the Nazi’s took hold. It made world leaders sweat when, during the Cold War, Western Allies had to deliver food, medicine, and other necessities to the blockaded West Berlin. It’s also been a home that’s united many people, from east and west, from Turkish, Syrian, and Muslim backgrounds, as well as budding artists fuelled by fragile promises of ‘making it’. With this as their case study, cities around the world have tried to cash in on this legacy of a multicultural, post-industrial cool, with more and more places being described as The New Berlin. But what is life like in the real Berlin? And is it the artists’ utopia that we have long been told it is?

“The real Berlin? There is no real Berlin. It’s a city that’s always becoming but never is,” Marcel Hager tells me, as he explains his history of running galleries in the city. When I talk to Hager about what former Berlin Mayor,  Klaus Wowereit, described as a “poor but sexy” persona, he responds, “If you have this feeling that Berlin is young, cheap, and that there is this empty space to do things, then this doesn’t compare to how things were in the early 90s. The complete city centre, Mitte, was derelict; empty shops, filled with garbage. You could come into the centre and run a shop, a workshop, whatever, for very little money.”

“There is no real Berlin. It’s a city that’s always becoming but never is” – Marcel Hager

There are many moments in Berlin’s history when artists and writers, musicians, and philosophers, have flocked here for the promise of what the city had to offer. But the present day artistic scene can be largely traced back to the 90s. Hager was heavily involved at this time, setting up a gallery in 1992, named Unwahr, which had to relocate due to the rents increasing, and later replaced by a bar, which today is a trendy hotspot named Strandbar Mitte. Other projects emerged from this peculiar time, and continue to do so today. For example, Galerie EIGEN + ART, which set up a space nearby on Auguststraße, is a successful mid-sized commercial gallery with three venues in total. Notably, the Berlin Biennale is celebrating its 20 year anniversary. So how have things changed since it began? Well, for a start, Hager says, “Now you can’t come to Berlin without money.”

Sam Samiee is an artist from Tehran who is taking part in the Biennale. Having studied in the Netherlands, he has now been based in Berlin for just under a year. So what does the city mean to this recent resident? “It’s the closest to my Tehran experience within European cities. It’s big enough. It’s pretty diverse. And of course, it’s Berlin – a lot of amazing conversations are happening here.” Samiee admits that he’s in a “privileged position”, having come to the city with a project, adding it would be a “challenging city if you were just starting out”. He adds that it’s the history of the city that separates it from most other capitals. “This city that was made by immigrant generations of communists from all around the world (and is) being informed by other values of social or political ideals – this makes it super exciting”.

The excitement around Berlin isn’t without its consequences. People are flocking to the city, with the population growing at double the pace city planners had expected in 2015. It’s estimated that in 2016, Berlin gained an additional 50,000 people. This influx is having a real impact on living costs, with rents increasing by nearly 70 per cent between 2004 and 2016.

Lydia Hamann & Kaj Osteroth are a feminist art collective which has been based in Berlin for 20 years, and who is showing artworks in different venues as part of the Biennale. Hamann comes from East Berlin and Osteroth from Beckum in West Germany, about four hours outside the city. “When I first came to Berlin, it was already getting renovated. But then, you had (derelict) buildings like this all over,” Osteroth explains. This transformation is having a direct impact on artists’ lives in Berlin. “It really is so precarious – so many artists we know don’t have studios to work in,” Hamann says. “If you don’t have a place (to work in), you can’t imagine yourself into the future. It’s really hard.” Osteroth adds, “It’s very difficult to have a proper career here. (The artists) are left to focus on beating each other and working for less.”

Despite rising rents and an increased awareness about the struggle to be an artist in Berlin, both Hamann and Osteroth feel strongly about the community here. They talk about the different organisations in the city – about how whether they’re big or small, grassroots or institutional – they are all facing rising rents and insecure tenancy. Yet it’s not all bleak. “The only thing that is maybe nice (about this situation) is the growing solidarity between actors within the art field. There’s more networking, there’s more helping each other. There’s more resistance growing, more demonstrations.” Osteroth adds, “But we’ve always been working in collectives. There’s a queer community that is very strong where people connect.” Hamann and Osteroth speak passionately about Berlin, its vibrant community, and rich artistic legacy. This is what draws them here, but it’s something that needs adequate funding and infrastructure to support it, they explain. They are also critical of the gap between how Berlin is and how it is marketed. “(The government) love how Berlin is (represented by) the artistic practices that are happening, but they don’t want to support it. They’re just providing lip service.”

“When I started the programme nine years ago, it was a different city then,” April Gertler reflects, referring to Picture Berlin, a not for profit artist initiated art residency. Gertler is heavily involved in what she describes as Berlin’s “project scene”, the kind of grassroots passion projects that make the city feel special. But it’s “getting harder”, she says, as they don’t have a gallery and instead work with other spaces that are “disappearing”. Tacheles is one such space. Shut in 2012 when its main creditor sold it off, this “derelict artists squat” was a symbol of the “chaotic, heady days of freedom Berlin enjoyed after the Wall fell”. This story of independent projects continue to this day, acting as the pulse of the city. No surprise then, that Google’s plans to establish a campus in the rapidly gentrifying Kreuzberg are “really anxiety provoking for a lot of people, because if Google does manage to move in, this will change everything”, she adds.

Yet, people are persistently positive about the present. Gertler described a number of funding streams available, referencing the recent research grant of €8,000 for a minimum of 52 professional artists, curators, and artist or curatorial groups, which is one of many grants that makes up the €400 million that the Senate Department for Culture and Europe distributes annually. She continued, saying, “artists have been given subsidised spaces by the city for a long time to run projects, because the city council would rather have spaces filled”. But despite a growing awareness about changes in Berlin, Gertler says, “People are still really charmed. They are still comparing the city to where they lived (before).” As an American, she’s aware that many American artists are bringing a “rigid idea that to be an artist means to be commercially successful”, but this doesn’t work in Berlin. While, “there is a thriving commercial scene, of course”, this isn’t a city with a large collector base. Most galleries, and even many artists and other creatives I spoke to, as Gertler described, “live here, have their family here, and maintain their practice”, but make money elsewhere.

“(The government) love how Berlin is (represented by) the artistic practices that are happening, but they don’t want to support it. They’re just providing lip service” – April Gertler

Every person coming to Berlin finds a different city, as people bring their own hopes and expectations to a place that is rapidly changing. Getting the train from Schönefeld Airport to Mitte, Berlin’s city centre, offers a brief history of city building from the last 100 years. An open, semi-rural greenbelt is quickly filled up with domineering cement structures, until the occasional factory warehouse becomes a dense industrial block. There is no bare surface here as everything is elaborately painted in graffiti, although this becomes less of a fact the closer you get towards the centre. The airy, modernist S-Bahn stations aren’t without images though; tall glowing LED advertising screens stand upright, carrying a citywide campaign, “Mach Mal, Google”, or “Do It, Google”, the slogan for the coming age of voice operated digital assistants who will live in our devices and smart homes – and a company which could be the final nail is this artistic utopia that Berlin might have once been. 

This story of change is one familiar to people in urban centres around the world; rising rents pushing out what made these areas attractive to begin with, as big business circles and commodifies what is left. Intensely gentrified areas of London such as Shoreditch experience this process over ten years, both Kreuzberg and Neukölln have seen this rapid change happen over just five years, if not less. There is a desire to a resist Berlin becoming another London, which brings a tangible sense that the worst excesses of gentrification are not inevitable here, with Google’s plans for a campus in Kreuzberg taking on a larger symbolic role as a battle for the heart of the city. The vision of Berlin as an artist utopia is up for debate, but the heyday of the 90s is long gone. While the freedom and flexibility of this heroic past is over, an entire system of government grants, commercial galleries, and internationally reaching exhibitions, such as the Berlin Biennale, Documenta, and so on, have emerged and support cultural life today. We regularly hear of more cities proclaimed as The New Berlin, Portugal the latest to jump on this bandwagon, but exactly which Berlin these cities or creatives flocking here are hoping to find is still unclear.