A Letter from Berlin
(This is something I wrote for the splendid Prospect magazine in 2007. Think of this as the Director's Cut... ie, a bit longer and more self-indulgent. I'll illustrate it when I've time, meanwhile here's the words...)
I'm walking along Linienstrasse, a quiet residential street in the former East Berlin, on my way to work. It's a short walk, but it's taking a while, as I slow to check out the new graffiti. A Banksy! And sixteen new tags by Calyba, or Kalyba, a local graffiti artist so inept he can't spell his own name.
Ah, a nice chair, on the pavement. Nicer than my current chair. So I turn round, take it home, leave out my old one, continue my walk… Ah, a small trampoline. Hmm. We don't have a trampoline. I turn, and carry it home… No rush. Berlin's an easy city, everybody says so. Lovely sunny day. No insects. Berlin doesn't really do insects. No idea why.
I don't really know Berlin , I just live in the middle of it. Nobody knows Berlin, because there's no such place. There's just a bunch of tightly packed urban villages with nothing in common, not even their history. Some of them were Communist until fairly recently. Some were Capitalist. But now they're pretty much neither. Communism didn't work out, and Capitalism's looking pretty shaky here too, with 17% unemployment and an unpayably vast 60 billion euro city debt. And they're certainly in no hurry to try Nationalism and Socialism again. Berlin has the stunned look of a city that wishes Big Ideas would just leave it alone for a while.
Here in Mitte, the balconies are falling off the DDR-era flats. The DDR didn't have enough cement, so it used extra sand. Berlin has a lot of sand. Berlin built a whole city on sand, in defiance of Biblical advice. Maybe that explains a lot.
Berlin! City of confident women and frightened men! Berlin! City of depressed architects and happy anarchists!
After 1989, they built for the future, and it didn't arrive. Grass grows up the centre of the tram tracks.
What did arrive were artists. Hundreds of thousands of artists. A biblical plague of artists. From everywhere on earth. It is one of the more peculiar side effects of globalisation: The world has outsourced its art production to Berlin. Berlin is to bad modern art what China is to plastic cats which wave one arm up and down in a lucky manner.
Artists need three things: cheap flats, cheap studios, and cheap beer. Plenty small towns and gruesomely distant suburbs offer that. But artists, notoriously unrealistic, would also like to live in the heart of a big capital city with a thriving gay scene, terrific public transport, great nightclubs, and a slightly edgy sense of danger, without it actually being dangerous.
Berlin is currently the only city in the world which ticks every single box. It's a city built for 4.5 million that only contains 3.5 million. (The population looks stable from a distance: it's boiling close-up. Over a million Berliners left in the past decade: over a million arrived. The population shifts since the fall of the wall in 1989 have been the kind usually only experienced during a war.) It has 100,000 empty flats, and more empty industrial buildings than full ones. Minutes from Berlin's contemporary art museum, the Hamburger Bahnhof, the artist Thomas Demand and the Icelandic art-star Olafur Eliasson share a factory the size of the moon. For the same price in Manhattan, that near MOMA, they would get somewhere to store their shoes. Some of their shoes.
Yes, as Berlin 's gay, club-going mayor, Klaus Wowereit said in 2004:"Berlin ist arm, aber sexy." "Poor but sexy" is Berlin's "I heart NY", it's on the T-shirts, it irritates the locals, and it captures a big truth in a small space.
My true love and I were evicted from our house in Galway 18 months ago, for non-payment of rent (a writer and an artist, trying to pay a Celtic Tiger city-centre rent! See what I mean? Loose hold on reality.) The flow of history, expressed economically, pushed us toward Berlin, like a gentle hand in the small of the back. Easyjet and Ryanair have lowered the friction that holds artists in place in their countries. We emigrated by Ryanair, for one euro. All our possessions, reduced to a Ryanair luggage allowance. And Berlin flats don't even have lightbulbs when you move in.
On the upside, it has a gift economy. Everybody just leaves their old stuff on the street. Thus the chairs. Thus the trampoline. If you want to start your life again, for free, from scratch, do it in Berlin. It's a magical, constantly recirculating river of ever-older crap. (The fleamarkets in the squares and parks on Sundays provide you with the really classy stuff. Chairs with several legs. Machines that almost work.)
Of course, there are shops in East Berlin. Kind of. But they sell only the shoulderbags of one designer, or only bicycles and phone chargers, or only secondhand vinyl records from a certain Caribbean island… The top of my wardrobe has more stock than some of these shops.
The old communist joke was, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." It has been back engineered into the new capitalist joke, "We pretend to run a shop and you pretend you'll buy something."
And now half the shops are art galleries. It's like a small child's idea of a balanced economy. A shop that sells ice cream! "Anything else?" No, just ice cream! And lots and lots of shops that sell… pictures!
As I walk down Gormannstrasse, a ground-floor window opens, and Rasmus leans out, say hi. Rasmus Hansen runs an art gallery in his bedroom. "What's that?" I say, pointing at a huge inverted pyramid full of guitars and broken glass where his bed should be. He sleeps in the kitchen, or possibly inside his own wardrobe during shows. Rasmus shrugs, lifts an empty beer bottle off the windowsill, and throws it over his shoulder. It falls into the pyramid and smashes, setting the guitars ringing and roaring through four Marshall amps on the floor. "Sculpture" he says. "Norwegian curator." He sighs. At least it's not laser beams, filling his flat, like the last exhibition, where he risked going blind on trips to the toilet.
I walk on, turn onto Torstrasse, walk past Fleischerai, the butcher's shop with its unplugged freezer cabinets full of art. Art flickerbooks, art T-shirts, art art. The guys sit out front on the steps, looking glum. The building has a new owner. Above us, fresh scaffolding, wrapped in plastic with a massive Nike ad on it. They're holding a conference tomorrow, I'm invited.
Round the corner, the sex shop just closed down. Brunnenstrasse is gentrifying so fast you can see it happening in realtime, art galleries spreading up Brunnen like fungus in a wet shoe in the tropics. The New York galleries are opening outposts. Ah, there's Goff & Rosenthal... Berlin is briefly the centre of the Western art world. It won't last long, the rise, the fall. Everything's sped up.
I pass two skips. They're gutting our old hardware shop, to make a gallery. The young Scottish artist Kevin Harman is standing in one skip, building a sculpture out of the rubble of gentrification. No permission, no gallery, just the joy of doing something that isn't for money. Tomorrow the builders will take it away. "Looking good, Kev," I say, and I climb into the other skip and start to do the same.
Another day at the office, in the new Berlin .
-Julian Gough, 2007, Prospect Magazine.