Saturday, August 4, 2007

Berlin Calling

Originally published in I-94 magazine, Issue #3

In 2003 mayor Klaus Wowereit dubbed Berlin "poor, but sexy" in an attempt to sell British businessmen on the leaps and bounds the city has taken in cultural production. Artists, designers, and hangers-on are drawn to the city by cheap rent, an abundance of artist run spaces and, of course, dance parties that last until happy hour the next day. Berlin began to establish itself as major player in the European art-scene during its 1990s art boom. Around this time, Klaus Biesenbach, now a curator at PS1/MoMa, founded Kunst-Werke, an exhibition space and studio program in an old mayonnaise factory in East Berlin with a group of young art enthusiasts. Through the tenacity of Biesenbach and a handful of gallerists, Mitte soon replaced Charlottenberg as Berlin’s gallery district. The number of exhibition spaces throughout the city has exploded with a consistent influx of artists, and designers and galleries are now moving further afield from more established areas like Auguststraße to Brunnenstraße and various warehouse and project spaces strewn around the city. Brunnenstraße, a well-worn section of Mitte once deemed ungentrifiable, is now home to boutiques, bars, New York escapees, and a rash of young galleries.

Despite all of the international attention Berlin has been getting, it hasn’t let its status as Europe’s burgeoning new art capital go to its head. A multi-cultural art/design/architecture crowd coupled with a hot club scene may bring people here, but the support of their colleagues and prime location in the center of Europe is why many young artists, curators, and gallerists stay. Sarah Belden, founder of Curators Without Borders, an exhibition space and residency program on Brunnenstraße, speaks to the enthusiasm and camaraderie of native and non-native Berliners.

"There is an amazing sense of optimism here - a sense that anything is possible for the young generation." She cites Berlin's rich cultural/political history as well as its "openness to the avant-garde, street culture, and the experimental" as the reason why Berlin has become a nexus of contemporary art. Alicia Reuter of Kapinos Galerie and ArtNews Projects, a non-profit magazine and exhibition space, shares Belden's excitement. When asked what sets the art scene here apart from other cities it took exactly two seconds for her face to light up and say, "The lack of competition!" This cooperative spirit makes living and working in Berlin an obvious choice for young people looking to expand models of art production, exhibition, and reception.

Brunnenstraße was pioneered by gallerists/curators, Jan Winkelmann (Jann Winkelmann/Berlin) and Klara Wallner (Galerie Klara Wallner) who set up shop on the street in 2004. It is the heart of young Berlin and the numbers that came out for openings this weekend shows that the optimism Belden talks about is infectious. Beers clutched tightly in hand, young attractive gallery-goers poured out of tiny exhibition spaces like clowns out of a clown car and thronged up and down the street. True to their co-operative spirit, most of the galleries coordinate their exhibition openings, so new shows receive a surge of attention. A wide range of work and exhibition styles are seen on Brunnenstraße, but Belden’s approach to CWB sums up the zeitgeist of young Berlin. She says, “I represent artists and sell their work commercially, but I also aim to create a platform for more experimental art projects, which may not always be commodifiable.”

As any arts professional who has worked in New York can tell you, this is a dream that is virtually un-obtainable in most of the taxi garages cum white cube exhibition spaces in Chelsea, so its not surprising that Brunnenstraße has its share of ex-New Yorkers. Belden was a gallery director at the Mike Weiss Gallery before her Berlin incarnation, Goff + Rosenthal recently opened a sister space here, and Helena Papadopolous was a New York curator before opening Nice and Fit and its sister magazine Stripped Bare. Both Goff & Rosenthal and Nice and Fit show work by international artists in a range of medium, many of who are living and working in Berlin. The street is not dominated by New Yorkers, however. Diskus and Amerika, started as “producer galleries,” collectives of recent German art school graduates, and are now re-establishing themselves as commercial spaces. Artnews Projects offers a platform for international galleries, curators, and artists to exhibit their work in Berlin.

The impulse to exhibit work experimentally is not exclusive to Brunnenstraße and seems to be a leitmotif of Berlin’s art scene as a whole. The ingenuity of venues like Super Bien!, a greenhouse exhibition space in Mitte and United Nations Plaza, an awkward Lego block of a building in East Berlin that houses seminars, screenings, and lectures in the Open University format, keep the Berlin scene fresh and intellectually engaged. Many of Berlin’s alternative venues offer the time and space to explore ideas that are not afforded any room in the contemporary art market place. Jet, a curatorial center in Alexanderplatz- the heart of old Berlin’s decadent nightlife and bars, as portrayed in Alfred D鐽lin’s seminal novel by the same name, and now a relic of Soviet Era design, has devoted an entire year to exhibitions exploring the idea of failure. Not too far away on Platz der Vereinten Nationen, is the United Nations Plaza, a space which bills itself as an “exhibition as school.”

For one year, a team of ten artists and critics including Martha Rosler, Liam Gillick, Anton Vidokle, and Walid Raad among others, gather together with a motley crew of artists, arts professionals, and students to discuss themes like the reoccupation of the factory, utopia, and the future of symposia. All seminars at UNP are free and, if you’re lucky and attend regularly enough, you may be treated to free beer, borscht, or a round of speed dating in the kitchen adjacent to the lecture room. Program, which occupies the ground floor of a former Russian hotel on Invalidenstraße, is an initiative for art and architectural collaborations and offers its ample space as a platform for emerging artists and designers in different fields to use as a platform to test the boundaries of architecture in an international and collaborative context. Platform offers 3 month long residency programs to artists, architects, curators, and theoreticians.

Reuter, an American critic and curator, believes spaces like this flourish because artists and arts professionals are actively attempting to build bridges between the US and European art scenes in ways that are not purely commercial. The freedom and flexibility that cheap and easy living offers artists in Berlin has allowed a scene to grow that is based more on understanding than on commerce, though the two seem to work just fine together here in Berlin.