A Performance Series

NEW LIFE, NEW MAP, IMPRESSIONS FROM A NEW NATIVE

As the New Life Berlin Festival is now at a close, one of the lasting impressions is the way that my city (yes, being a 4-year resident, I now lay claim!) has been used by participant artists, some of whom have never seen Berlin before, as a platform for their work. New Life Berlin is most certainly situated here and in no other city; almost every project is grounded in a social, physical, political or historical aspect of Berlin. For this reason, this city was subject to the projections placed on it by visitors and residents. In creating and using maps of Berlin as the basis of many of the projects, we did indeed create a new Berlin map built of impressions, memories, fantasies, dreams, and fragments.

Some artists in New Life Berlin chose to physically engage with the Berlin streets. Gordon Sasaki’s ‘Movement,’ shown as part of Urban Space screenings, focused his camera only on the Berlin topography under his feet. And Marie Christine Katz (‘Road Kills and Other Casualties’ also of Urban Space) lay down in the street, waiting to see how Berliners’ reaction to her would reflect their experience of Berlin, how her unlikely act would be situated in this city. How would Berliners react differently to passersby’s in New York, or elsewhere? How would their reaction be situated in Berlin?

‘30 days of New Life Berlin’ looked at Berlin as a set of points of artistic attractions, hyper-linking points on an online map to descriptive writing based on a physical visit. The 30 days project called to mind that “art” might be in every cobblestone of a city, or, depending on your perspective, only housed in galleries. But the map was made by cartographers who came to Berlin from elsewhere—in other words, mapped by explorers and not natives—and so what we see is a map not fully integrated into the experience of living here in Berlin. In some sense, the foreignness of the 30 days cartographers gave a more objective view of what Berlin has to offer: a native’s sense of art in his/her own city may change vastly from year to year. A visitor, on the other hand, might not venture much further than the Auguststrasse or Brunnenstrasse gallery district, and never find the dilapidated building sites, the graffiti murals and other pieces of Berlin art that are off the beaten track—and likely to soon be destroyed.

Per Traasdahl’s ‘Flash Job Campaign’ was also tied directly to the Berlin map. On the first day, participant “Catalysts” were given a physical section of the map of the Neukölln district of Berlin. Like the 30 Days cartographers, Flash Job Campaign catalysts pounded the streets of the very piece of map they held in their hand, but with the mission of finding one time or ‘flash’ jobs for teenagers. Going into the project rather blindly, many participants and onlookers wondered what would be the real life result of physically walking those green and blue street lines of the map? Who would the catalysts encounter and how would they communicate with – in some cases- no German language skills? Despite the difficulties of “dropping” catalysts into the mix of Berlin, several ‘flash job’ matches were made between teenagers and employers. Two of these jobs, however, were outside the borders of Neukölln. But the magical aspect of the project was that the borders of Flash Job Campaign were more fluid than the “rules of the game,” rules that were initially delineated not only in terms of the map, but in terms of how catalysts had to improvise to make the jobs happen. And by letting these rules soften, and improvisation move in, the catalysts learned that the process was the art. The final product, of making a match and fulfilling a flash job, was the icing on the cake. As one of the participants said, “it wasn’t until I stopped concentrating on the word “job” that I actually found one.” It wasn’t until they let the map fly away that they saw what lay within it.

Ali&Cia’s “Eat the Wall” likewise wrestled with the physical borders of Berlin—though in this case, the choice of a wall reminds us of a relic that nevertheless still makes its mark. Using food as physical bricks, participants were invited to build a wall in between two rooms in the SCALA space on Friedrichstrasse. When visitors later arrived, we were forced to one side or the other based on our date of birth. Only by eating or dismantling the wall could we cross. Each room had a decidedly different energy—one was painted black and the lights were dimmed; in the other the walls were white and the light was almost oppressively bright. But we didn’t know the difference until some of us defected and came back to bring the news: “The other side … it’s much more communal, much more comfortable. Come over with me.” While the wall was an impressive architectural feat, and the process of eating it or taking the art away or ‘to-go’ was quite entertaining, I was struck with how Eat the Wall seemed to be the product of an outsider’s impression of Berlin. While the Berlin wall will be an idea permanently etched in collective memory, it lacks real meaning for those of us that live in Berlin today; those who cross freely from east to west on the U-bahn, and who see, in fact, that big development intends to take Berlin as a whole within the next ten years. The new digital O2 Loop billboard, for which a section of the “East Side Gallery” was dismantled, looms much higher than the wall ever did. Capitalism has indeed broken down borders.

What may have brought an experimental project like the New Life Berlin festival to Berlin is the fact that the Berlin Wall was here, and when it was dismantled it left a chaos and a lack of organized capitalism that made way for a multitude of experimental arts and performances spaces. This history is what explains the dilapidated “East Berlin” texture of the New Life shop itself, the fading signature Berlin posters of Nathan Peter’s ‘Eminent Domain’; the worn “beautiful ugly” that so many of us appreciate about this city. And just two blocks down from the New Life shop we see an empty lot which will apparently be turned into exclusive loft apartments. Its new developer advertises itself as “The Fine Art of Living—Moved by Diamona & Harwisch.”

I imagine that as artists we want somehow to hold on to the chaos of a freshly unified Berlin, because it gives us so much freedom. Yet, as the Art and Economics Group so clearly reminds us—we need someone to buy our art, we need festivals to raise our profile; we need people with money to recognize us. This is an endless struggle. We need the spaces- that are “not art” to be called art—something the 30 Days Cartographers make manifest- and for these spaces to stay bohemian, not simply turned into brand names and chain stores. Hopefully this “New Life Berlin” map that we have all created together will continue to hold in tender balance the imagined Berlin that brought us here in the first place.

Kathryn Fischer (aka Mad Kate) is a writer and performance artist currently making mischief in Berlin, Germany. www.alfabus.us

Please only reproduce this writing with permission from the author and Open Dialogues. opendialogues@gmail.com

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