It is often said that Berlin will become the new London, the chosen home of a multitude of immigrant communities who shape and define the city’s charm, along with a vast mix of young students and professionals, plus the presence of an enormous amount of artists and musicians. Previously, Berlin was known mostly for its alternative communities, the communes, squats and workshops, that took advantage of Berlin’s post war decay, and inserted themselves into abandoned spaces, to build their alternative life styles there. The London effect has more to do with the fact that the market is dictating policies now, and destroying laws that used to regulate excesses. This opens possibilities and just as quickly changes an equilibrium.
The two cities do not really compare though. To start with, one is in England, and one is in Germany….
One is dying of its own doing, one is emerging. One had its heyday in the 1990s, the other is fast becoming crowded now, in 2016. It is said that Berlin has grown exponentially in the last two years alone, and that most of the new arrivals are foreigners.
Berlin is experiencing a new era, after the burden of the re-unification with the so called “new federal states”, those of the ex-GDR, gave it the lion share of the problems, it took the best part of 20 years to deal with them. These challenges are far from over, but Berlin has come out the other end, with a new and inviting attraction – being open to the world. This is not new, but it is different in a new globalised world of free movement. As a former island in the middle of the GDR, Berlin has always been the least insular city in Germany, despite or because of its geographic isolation since the war. Traditionally less parochial and less inward looking than practically all of its brothers and sisters from across the country, Berlin is a place where leisure is important. One takes time here, there is no rush. Living standards are relatively secure still. And one can find all manners of pleasure seeking, to the point of decadence.
Whereas London, since the financial crisis of 2008, placed a bet on taking money out of every government institution there is, and to bring money in, through its banking sector – not known for its caring/sharing attitude – through tourism, and through foreign investors. The latter translate into house-buyers and luxury goods buyers from the Middle-East and Russia, an assortment of individuals also not known for their care and concern for the community. This has drained London of the entirety of civic life, and created a shell of a city that is crowded, but devoid of a crowd.
London’s contemporary art scene has been shedding artists and curators as a consequence of this development – to the benefit of Berlin. Since Brexit, but starting before it, there is an exodus of Europeans whose Europeanness was sought after and well paid. A case in point, amongst quite a few, is the Belgian Chris Dercon, director of the Tate Modern, who has left to take over the Berliner Theatre of the old East-Berlin, the Volksbühne at Rosa Luxemburg Square. Dercon’s departure was scheduled, not an act, but it comes amid a spreading emigration out of London to Berlin.
Martin Roth, the German director of the London Victoria and Albert Museum, left directly after the Brexit vote – his was an act. Citing disgust with the consequent xenophobia that gripped the British nation emboldened by the power of a simple vote, he was subjectively, at the level of the body, wounded by what he saw as accumulative incidences that are evidence of an epidemic. In an interview – and he gave a few of them at the time of his decision to leave – Roth speaks about the way in which he is deeply concerned with the right-extremist developments in Europe, of which groupings in the new federal states of Germany are violent proponents. And he should know, as Martin Roth’s previous engagement was as director of the art gallery of Dresden, a town that is often cited as a hub of Neo-Nazi gangs and activities.
But Roth’s protest was directly connected to the Brexit vote in England. The idea of breaking off from the EU community that was, however flawed, put in place to guard against the circumstances that led to the second world war, was deeply troubling. The rise in hate of foreigners, following the political decisions of a country, Britain, that has the greatest of difficulties in establishing a longer term vision, was too much for him. Martin Roth uses a formulation that regards a jouissance he calls “keeping quiet” (schweigen). “It’s killing me”, he says, meaning the silence in the face of the hateful speech, the rise in rhetoric that wants to re-install the certainty of yesteryear by identifying the new and old scapegoat that would be responsible for all the ills of society.
Roth says something else, astonished at the fact that education stands for nothing anymore: “Coming from very little, why was I educated in this way, if today they go after the experts and the elite?”. And he sums it up in simple terms, referring to “populism”, and implicitly evoking the death drive: “those who fight against something, are always stronger than the ones who want to preserve something.” A European voice in a British context always sounds naïve, but these statements are not nostalgic. Roth is speaking against cynicism, not against modern symptoms. His idea was to make a statement, to react, to show his division in the face of the certainty of those who mistook Brexit for a moment in which to strike out at the other. Roth suggested that Galleries and Museums close down and think about political action before re-opening. He wanted to mark this wounding event, an attack on the Enlightenment, with an act, and spoke about it. Then he left Britain.
In Berlin there is much talk about preserving the city and its atmosphere, against the forces of capitalism that want to turn it into a free market place. Already having fallen victim to the ubiquitous “property market”, in which decades long renters are priced out of their apartments to make way for foreign buyers who are new to the city, Berlin is still trying to hold on to its once socialist past. New money has never played a big role here. But will that change? Yes, probably, but Berlin has a long way to go before it ends up like other capitals of the world.
(To be continued)