A pleasant ending: present in/visible borders @ the organ of critical arts

As part of the exhibition ‘Actions Against Borders #1 Breaking Point’ by visual artist and performer Marta Lodola, with whom I collaborated with during this research project (in cooperation with GAP Gathering Around Performance and CASA Contemporary Art Showcase Athens) a selection of my photographs, texts and quotes where generously displayed at the organ of critical arts in Berlin-Wedding in October 2018: A very pleasant result and ending (for the time being at least) of this project about the present in/visible bordering dynamics on Berlin’s stage.

To quote from its conclusion:

“On the stage of urban space Berlin, multiple interwoven visible and invisible dynamics are present that border and order the large variety of actors involved in the spectacle that is currently performed on this stage. These dynamics, between east and west, centre and periphery, old and new, poor and rich, are created, facilitated and sustained by a complex assemblage of working mechanisms hidden behind the stage that flow into each other and assist each other. Together, these dynamics and their working mechanisms are a danger to Berlin’s still existing charm and to those people residing in the city that do not have the money to buy their ‘right to the city’. Through both, increasingly outsourcing of tasks that were formerly executed by the city itself and through increasingly selling city-owned space to investors for new development projects, third party actors, often with economic interests, get more say in the city. This further complicates the amount of- and the relation between the actors on the city’s stage. Rather than living with each other, they increasingly live side by side and the contact between them decreases.

Often, this spectacle remains unnoticed; most attention on Berlin’s stage goes to its memory culture or to the ‘cool Kieze’ of the beloved centre, that both have become increasingly commodified and prioritised. Therefore, a way has to be found to shed light on this stage as a whole, to make the spectacle visible and to deconstruct what is happening both on and behind it. Creative practices have proven to be such a way that can shed light and deconstruct. They can figure, in a sense, as the lighting technicians of the spectacle. With the special light that they shed on the stage they will let some of the actors stand still ‘for at least one little moment’ to look at the stage, the city, in its totality, to see or even encounter those actors that are not the middle of the prioritised and commodified attention.

Should Berlin be named ‘the capital of freedom’ because it is the place where we have learned that ‘walls are never a good idea’? Does the absence of the physical division by walls naturally mean the freedom ‘in every conceivable dimension’? Those were the questions I asked myself when I encountered the beBerlin billboard on the first day and I was just about to delve into this research project. ‘Done with walls’, yes indeed, and that is certainly something to be proud of. However, opposing the ‘walled’ past and the ‘free’ present hides not only the fact that the past wall has its clear effects up until today and furthermore, that there are other dividing lines present in contemporary urban space Berlin which take on many different forms. For the complex spectacle on the stage named ‘Berlin’ consists of more than what is visible or what can be told in words. It is something that can be felt through being there, through flâneuring on the stage with open senses and through telling stories, opinions and experiences deriving from different places of the city. As Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz formulates it beautifully:

‘…cities are as poems, you cannot reduce the poem to its meaning or to its material properties – for instance, sound – the poem is more than a text, more than a texture…'”

Below are some more photographs from the exhibition

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Advertenties

Project completed

After a summer of analysing the incredible amount of rich and interesting data that I gathered in Berlin, a summer of writing, erasing, rewriting, writing erasing rewriting (…) the project has now been completed, handed in and received a positive review of my supervisor and Dr. Olivier Thomas Kramsch:

“Katinka Schlette has written an impressively researched MA thesis, examining the myriad b/ordering practices underpinning current urban developmental dynamics in contemporary Berlin. It excavates the ways in which Berlin’s investment-driven real-estate market recreates borders haunted by earlier border formations deriving from the city’s divided status along the East/West divide. Drawing on the suggestive notion of a border’s ‘imaginative apparatus’, she further delves into the ways in which the contemporary arts scene strives to uncover the power geometries inherent in current bordering practices, the better to reveal the spatial inequalities they produce, between newly configured centres and peripheries, the haves and have-nots of a city that is defining Germany’s urban future. An innovative piece of scholarship that builds creatively on state-of-the art ‘geographies of walking’, placing them suggestively in dialogue with critical border studies, thereby offering up promising new directions for border studies in an urban milieu”.

For anyone who would is interested to read more, here is the Academia link for the entire thesis.

For those people that are based in Berlin: The project will be displayed in the OKK in Wedding as part of the exhibition of visual artist and performer Marta Lodola, whom I collaborated with. The opening will be at the end of this month.

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Flâneuring Past and Present Divides in Berlin’s Cityscape

One crucial way to identify and understand borders that run through an urban space is to actually be there and move around in it. The practice of attentively walking in a space while using all senses to experience and observe it, offers yet another important perspective than solely reading and talking about it. In the field of geography, this method is sometimes called ‘modern flânerie’. It refers to the figure of the flâneur, which has been subject of a large number of appropriations and interpretations since Walter Benjamin, drawing on poetry of Charles Baudelaire, made it and object of scholarly interest in the 20th century, describing the flâneur as the essential modern urban spectator and amateur detective and investigator of the city (Walter Benjamin).

Parallel to the articles, book chapters and city documents I read, the projects I participate in, the workshops and conferences I attend, the people I speak to or work together with and the helpful and willing coordinators of various City Locality Centres that I interviewed up until now, I started flâneuring through the city, its boroughs, its localities and its Kieze, right from the first day.

When you are on a hunt for borders that presently run through an urban space, it makes sense to first delve yourself into this space’s history. In Berlin, this history is a very particular one, especially when it comes to the topic of borders.  A history that clearly occupies a key position in any analysis of borders and urban spaces in in Berlin. A history of a complete division between two parts of the city for more than twenty years of the past century.  A history of a material, evidently visible Berliner Mauer that characterised the cityscape.  A history full of stories about goodbyes, succeeded and failed escape attempts and ruthless killings in the border area.  A history of a period whose end was tremendously celebrated twenty-eight years ago.

Today, this history continues to have a clear physical presence in the city’s urban space. After the period of clear reticence in terms preserving the past that marked the years after the fall of the Wall started to decrease, the experience of the long-term division has become central to the practices of an emerging memory culture in Berlin (Simon Ward). A large variety of memorials, positioned in the former borderland, serves to celebrate the fall of the wall, to convey respect to the victims of its consequences, to tell stories of the past, to figure as a kind of anti-example that warns us to never act this way again and to continually value the fact the material border wall does no longer runs through the city.

At these memorials, the borderland of the former wall is daily visited by many people. Some of them come to commemorate events that took place in history. Some of them come out of curiosity, eager to learn about history. Some of them come to take a photo, either with possibly few other visitors featuring in it or with themselves posing in front or on top of it, looking at their best. It is in fact at these memorials too, where history tends to be turned into a commodity product that can be consumed.

History commodified

So, it is possible, for example, to pay to get your passport stamped in a little tourist shop painted to look like an old border checkpoint, positioned half way down the East Side Gallery (one amongst the three most visited places of the former border and simultaneously the longest stretch of the original Wall that still stands). Also popular is the posing with actors dressed as American and Soviet soldiers outside a replica of the control hut that stood at the famous Checkpoint Charlie and visit the privately initiatied Museum of the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie for no less than 12,50 euro’s.  And do not get me started about the numerous Imbiss stands named after well-known places or persons of the bordered history and the hawkers selling ‘historical’ souvenirs that are most likely produced in some post-communist factory in Asia.

‘HALT, Staatsgrenze!’ ‘WE STAMP YOUR PASSPORT’, East Side Gallery

Historic ghosts haunting present divides

The inherited physical presence from the past is not limited to these concretely visible, popular memorial-sites along the border. To make sense of Berlin’s (border)history, I decided to start walking a slightly different memorial of the Berlin Wall that silently crosses the cityscape: The Berliner Mauerweg – or, Berlin Wall Trail –  which..

..traces the course of the former GDR border fortification encircling former West Berlin along a total of 160 kilometers. In most sections, it runs along the former patrol road used by customs officers in West Berlin or along the border control road used by GDR border troops for their own patrols (Chronik der Mauer).

While flâneuring along the Mauerweg, sections with traces or remains of the old Wall, those that are often crowded and surrounded by the aforementioned hawkers, Imbiss stands and souvenir shops where most visitors gather, alternate with sections where the former divide remains barely visible and the crowds of visitors seem to have suddenly disappeared. Following the trail through the centre of the city made me discover many stories of past. Stopping now and then to realise how certain placed had looked during the period of the Wall and how they have changed, brought a tiny part of history back to life. Furthermore, it helped to increased my understanding of the contemporary city as it revealed how some of the social structures, city architectures and urban dynamics of today’s cityscape connect to the conflicted Berlin’s past.

Along the trail, the no man’s land of border fortifications has become a palimpsest for multiple meanings and uses (Elizabeth Golden). Apart from serving as the space for multiple memorials, is became also the space that can function as a synecdoche for some of the debates and frictions taking place in the rest of the contemporary cityscape.

For some parts, for example, the former death strip has been turned into an investment site for large (and often foreign) firms (e.g.: Media Spree). These came to form the centre of both, debates over whether or not to allow development at iconic public monuments and the battles over ownership of public city spaces (e.g. Media Spree Versenken) that sprung up on and around the Mauerweg as well as in the rest of the city, as gentrification has continued district for district and street for street. In some other parts the past border area became occupied by small groups of caravan- or tent dwellers who fashion an alternative way of living in the city (e.g. Wagenburg Lohmühle). Walking past these places however, clearly showed that these people are often threatened to be displaced – yet another situation whose occurrance is not limited to the route of the Mauerweg.

Sometimes, the former death strip became hidden by relatively new buildings that cover its location completely. And in other parts it remained a rather empty plot of land, ready to serve as a playground for yet another investor. Also there are, still, abandoned houses remaining standing in it at some places, almost figuring as skeletons of the past.

What deserves to me mentione too, is that in many parts, the former borderland has been turned into long-streched green sites for leisure and coming together, where (apart from the continuous struggle around tourism and the commodification of history) frictions are far to be found.  The most famous one being the Mauerpark, located between the localities Prenzlauerberg and Gesundbrunnen. Here, hundreds of locals and visitors mingle every Sunday to look at the continually redecorated former inner Wall, to stroll around the stalls of the flea market, to relax, picnic and play in the park or to listen and dance to live musicians or the outdoor karaoke sessions.

Within and outside the circle new and old collide

In addition to conversating with various residents and interviewing coordinators of various City Locality Centres who are the experts in their social space, being a ‘modern flâneur’ in cityscape Berlin allows me to actually sense and encounter Berlin’s urban dynamics and present divides. What moving attentively through the city by foot, both along the Berlin Wall Trail ánd into the diverse boroughs, localities and Kieze of the urban space, made me realize, is that there are also more recent dividing lines have developed throughout the city since the fall of the Wall.

My walks, during which I experience and observe my surroundings step by step, allow the urban space itself to figure as a storyteller, telling that apart from being arranged along the enduring dynamics of the former east-west border, some present divides, on different levels, take place along an interplay between the city’s centre and its pheriphery – a divide that is also marked physically by the Ringbahn encircling the city centre. While many analysises around the border-theme in Berlin rightly give the ongoing heritage of the old division a key position, this attention has the downside of possibly veiling these new divides which should be included too, when speaking of borders in the urban space Berlin.

Up until now there are several levels on which these centre-pheriphery dynamics  repeadedly caught my attention. Most of them can, in a way, be described as divides between an ‘old’ and a ‘new’. What centre and periphery have incommon is that no matter where you are walking in the city, at least somewhere on the horizon you will notice a construction crane through which the urban space-as-storyteller tells the on-going story of the border between constructing something new and reconstruction something old, for which Berlin has been fated already in 1910 by Karl Scheffler as “always to become and never to be” and which today reveals its struggle to come into terms with its persistent economic difficulties and struggles over ‘the right to the city’.

In the central boroughs, through the numerous cranes and construction sites, the urban space tells the story of the border between new and old actors on the urban stage. The old actors being the long-established residents of the city and the new actors being the more recently arrived private house owners or renters from all over the world, tourists, housing companies and any kind of investors. This story can also be sensed through the numerous posters, tags and banners that warn and fight against Verdrängung and Mietsteigerung (as part of the so frequently mentioned process of gentrification) this story becomes told.

While this border story plays in the central boroughs of the city, also in the city’s peripheral boroughs a story of a border between new and old residents can be sensed. It is often here, where the less affluent people that cannot (longer) afford housing in the centre have to move to. Many of these boroughs’ (also literally) old residents are not as used to the diversification of the neighbourhood that the arrival of these new residents brings.

To briefly illustrate; walking through very diverse and dense localities, often in the centre of the city, where the streets are crowded and you pass by the most diverging shops and people from nearly every end of the world (e.g. Kreuzberg or North-Neukölln), differs enormously from when you move through some localities located further outside, where less life seems to take place on the streets and many people you pass by speak German (e.g. Lichtenberg).

It is also in these peripheral boroughs where there is space to find and build accommodations for refugees, who now slowly but certainly have to move out from the centre where they resided in numerous sport halls or empty buildings and were surrounded by the centre’s diversities and a strong network of people willing to help – a completely different urban environment than the often badly connected suburbs they are displaced to. Also this story of new and old residents colliding in the periphery is not without difficulties and should be increasingly taken into account by city planners.

Flâneuring through Berlin by foot shows how the old border still echo’s in the present urban landscape and, in a sense, haunts it like a ghost (Brian Ladd) – turning it to a Border-Memoryland. But also, the attentive walks help to discover and understand the new divides caused by complex urban dynamics, and playing a varying role in the central and peripheral boroughs, localities and Kieze of the contemporary.

Sources

Benjamin, W. (2006). The writer of modern life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Harvard University Press.

Golden, E. (2013). Following the Berlin Wall. InTerrain Vague: Interstices at the Edge of the Pale. Pp. 217-229

Ladd, B. (2008). The ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German history in the urban landscape. University of Chicago Press.

Scheffler, K. (1910). Berlin – Ein Stadtschicksal.

Ward, S. (2016). Urban memory and visual culture in Berlin: framing the asynchronous city, 1957-2012. Amsterdam University Press.

#FreiheitBerlin? done with walls Berlin?

It was directly on my first day in Berlin, in the subway station Samaritenstraßein the district Friedrichshain where I reside, when this poster first caught my attention. Interestingly enough, and different from the other posters in the subway and the streets, this poster was not meant to sell a certain product, nor was it meant to sell some kind of activity. It seemed to be meant to spread an idea. The idea of Berlin as a city where previous divides belong to history and the presence is full of freedom – supported by the ‘FreiheitBerlin’ hashtag and the well-known photograph of hundreds of people gathering around and on top of the fallen Berlin Wall next to the Brandenburger Tor on the ninth of November 1989.

Curious about the story behind this idea-spreading poster, I did some research when I arrived back home that day. The second Google-hit brought me directly to the website of beBerlin. This is, as explained on the website itself “the state’s official signet and the communicative brand to promote the German capital”. beBerlin is used to “shine a spotlight on Berlin’s diversity and to make Berlin’s way of life a tangible and authentic experience”.  The the beBerlin campaigns addresses issues that give Berlin “its unique qualities, transforming the entire city into an international brand”.

Specifically for the year 2017 beBerlin chose the #FreiheitBerlin because “more than anything else, Berlin in 2017 is an international magnet” where a large variety of people from throughout the world associate a sense of longing with – fair enough. The explanation then takes its praising a few steps further by describing the city in a nutshell as following: “Berlin is vibrant. Berlin is love. Berlin is the Berliners. What sets Berlin apart is the freedom that is present in all areas of the city and that is reflected in the unique Berlin way of life. Berlin is indeed the capital of freedom”. Apparently this freedom is, as beBerlin states, present ‘at all levels’ in the city and is evident primarily in ‘the personal freedom of each individual’ and ‘the liberty to seek personal fulfilment and to live unencumbered by the expectations of others’ – here is where it does become a little extravagant, or is it me?

Is Berlin really the capital of freedom because it is the place where we have learned that ‘walls are never a good idea’? Is Berlin really the capital of freedom because of its ‘unique appreciation of liberty’? Does the absence of the physical division by walls in a place naturally mean the freedom ‘in every conceivable dimension’? It is with these convictions as a fundament that the beBerlin campaign invites all Berliners and visitors to share what freedom means to them through using the subsequent #FreiheitBerlin. A very nice idea, yes – but in my opinion the beBerlin’ers buried their heads a little too far in the sand here.

The poster caught my eye right on my first day in this complex urban space and can be seen as a starting point of my research project. It shows the presence of a need to emphasize the city’s borderlessness, its freedom and the transience of its previous physical divide.  While I do fully agree with the importance of continuing to remember and understand Berlin’s divided past – which not even thirty years after its existence dangerously tends to turn into some sort of movie-like fantasy in some cases – at the same time a sense of uneasiness and incomprehensibility catches me when looking at the poster and reading about the beBerlin campaign.

‘Done with walls’, yes – and that is certainly something to be proud of. But opposing the ‘walled’ past and the ‘free’ present like this does hide the fact that the past wall has its clear effects in the city up until today. Furthermore the poster gives the impression that walls are the only possible divisions in the city and hence, there are no divisions in contemporary Berlin anymore. However, there are many divisions that run through the city today, which have developed both during and after the period of the physical divide by the wall and which take on many forms.

The photograph I took of the poster from the Kreuzberg/Mitte Spree riverside when I noticed it for the second time (to be viewed at the Homepage of this website), shows a tip of the iceberg of these present divisions that run through Berlin. Looking at the Friedrichshain riverside behind the poster, a spectacle of various elements comes together on a stage full of contrasts: An empty building with graffiti protesting against ‘Mediaspree’ (one of the largest property investment projects in Berlin which aims to establish media companies along a section of the Spree) on its façade, right next to a brand new building and a construction crane. A huge portrait graffiti which is actually a Levi’s advertisement, next to a responding graffiti depicting men on horses that target at the portrait. And looking closer, the statements ‘Refugees Welcome!!’ and ‘We are all people’ right next to the Spree bank. This spectacle, in a sense, serves as a concentrate of what plays itself out on the Berliner stage. A stage of interplay between different actors with contrasting views, goals and needs embedded in the past and the present. A stage which is, hence, not solely filled with freedom ‘at all levels’ but also with divisions, borders and immaterial walls.

A central part of this research project consists of putting into question the poster: #FreiheitBerlin? done with walls Berlin?