FINAL - 18 September 2009 - for on-line publication at


Building Berlin

by Germaine Koh, exhibition curator


The history of Berlin is one of successive reinventions. In parallel with its changing role on the world stage, it has had several incarnations as a pre-eminent destination for artists and thinkers, whether as an epicentre of science and culture in the cabaret era of the early 20th century, as a counter-cultural refuge during and after the Wall, or most recently as the latest destination for the international art elite. In the decade and a half after the Wall came down, the increasing number of art galleries opening in Mitte contributed significantly to the gentrification of that district, and in the past few years that process has spread exponentially through the rest of the city, with dozens of commercial galleries relocating from other cities, young commercial galleries opening, and dozens of artist initiatives launched. Throughout, the residency programs of the Kźnstlerhaus Bethanien and DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, the German Academic Exchange Service) have continued to bring prominent international artists into the city, many of whom have stayed on for the affordable living situations available in the economically depressed city.


Of course, in some eras Berlin's role in the global imagination was as a point of political exodus or expulsion rather than as a destination. It is therefore interesting to reflect that its patterns of migration have been inverse to those of New World settlements such as the other Berlin under consideration here: the town in Ontario renamed Kitchener during the First World War. Rural North America received many European migrations, and the local cultures reflect these global processes of movement and production, in the traces of various cultures of origin that remain or are sustained. Whether tied by traditions as specific as the specialized trade of die-making that exists in the Kitchener-Waterloo area via its German immigrant population, or more general cultural practices, a region such as southern Ontario has in common with the global city of Berlin this condition of having been shaped by patterns of migration, displacement and opportunity-seeking.


Historically a trading city without a dominant industry, Berlin's current rebuilding has been largely fuelled by a political will to see it succeed as the capital of the reunified Germany. These rebuilding processes have been artificially sustained in a city that is otherwise almost bankrupt. Yet Berlin's present financial hardship is one of the factors that now make it a desirable destination for artists; many are there for economic reasons as much as for the cultural attractions. This is normal for artists, the prototypical advance troops for urban redevelopment and gentrification processes. In fact, there are thinkers who believe that the city's governors could make better use of its cultural capital by recognizing the economic and social potential of the creative industry.[1]


The expectation is that artists will prove to be the harbingers of gentrification and economic development in Berlin, as has happened in other cities around the world. Indeed, some cities – including Kitchener-Waterloo – are now adopting planning recipes that specify development of "artist lofts," as a hoped shortcut to the vibrant urban atmosphere that comes with the presence of a critical mass of artists. Yet the process of turning a wasteland into a vibrant scene is neither passive nor automatic; it unfolds gradually, as certain people in those cities gather together, claim and rehabilitate space, create a demand for services and supplies, and build audiences for the things they do — all of which help shape the emergent cultural space.


This exhibition brings together a diverse group of artists active in Berlin who have all helped build what is now an attractive scene, whether by organizing or founding institutions, teaching or curating, or otherwise contributing to the public discourse around art in the city. They are producers rather than consumers of community, in other words, and in keeping with their concern for developing cultural infrastructure, these artists have all also produced work that intersects with social themes of urban space, migration, economics, and trade.

Some of these artists have delved deeply into questions of urbanism and cultural policy in Berlin specifically. Architects by training and co­-founders of the vital art-design-architecture bookstore Pro Qm, Jesko Fezer and Axel Wieder are experts on questions of Berlin's urban development. Included in this exhibition, their video interviews with other urbanists about changes in reunited Berlin formed one strand of their Urban Conditions project, organized for the Berlin Biennale 3 in 2004. The overall project also included a collection of magazine special issues devoted to this instance of Berlin's development, and presentations of an unconventional variety of statistics that showed perhaps-unexpected links between diverse tendencies.[2]
            Lars Ramberg, a Norwegian artist living in Berlin since 1998, has made something of a specialty of negotiating bureaucratic mazes – and in the process of gaining approvals for large-scale projects has succeeded in enlarging the place for art within city space and the official and public imagination. Contrarily, the new neon sign in this exhibition features a phrase that is poignant for its inability to negotiate: "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof" (I only understand train station) was the response of weary World War I German soldiers when they received commands that did not relate to returning home. It is still a phrase used to express a lack of understanding.

Other works evoke productive gaps between official administrative systems and reality. The Pan-National Flag (2009) by Pia Fuchs – the German identity of Canadian artist-producer Patricia Reed, living in Germany since 2003 – is suggestive of the irrelevance or futility of national distinction. It is a flag printed with outlines of all recognized national flags. Laid on top of each other, the large amount of information renders individual designs illegible. Instead, what becomes evident is the relative commonality of repeated design motifs such as central icons and crosses. This focus on patterns of use appears elsewhere in her artwork, and could perhaps also be said to relate to the adaptive character of other activities in her practice, such as organizing a response to the cancellation of the Manifesta 6 biennale in 2006.

            Concerned equally with utopian architectural forms and temporary structures, Daniela Brahm's art practice seems to carry an understanding of the provisional character of built space. The painted elements of her works present an essential function of posters and placards: that is, turning official space towards vernacular, unplanned use. Her painted posters and fragments of painting on other structures feature slogan-like text fragments and always the same cast of characters (from a found group of ID photos of international TV professionals). Within the lexicon of her work, these elements seem to represent the actors and private concerns that inhabit city space. Brahm herself is an active citizen: a principal in the art/architecture/design group Soup, she was also an organizer of the ExRotaprint group that, in a highly publicized effort, successfully took over control of a factory building and had it rezoned for mixed use including artists' studios, social work and local businesses.

            Ingo Gerken's work is suggestive of the deus ex machina that sometimes seems to operate in urban planning. The photographs of his City Works present the city as a model that is repeatedly reconfigured at the whim of a larger authority – represented in his work by the artist's hand reaching into the picture frame to meddle with or highlight interesting details in city space. For this exhibition Gerken – co-founder of the art and music space WestGermany – will show new interventions made in the construction sites that have become a fixture of Berlin's cityscape.


Some of the works in the exhibition demonstrate the complexities around migration, presenting cases in which colonial relationships of power and cultural influence no longer hold. Thom Kubli's new Sri Lankan Monument is a sort of altar paying tribute to the supposed Sri Lankan national handball team – in fact a group of 23 intrepid men who in 2004 conned the German authorities and a non-governmental organization into supporting their tour of Germany, during which they disappeared, absorbed into the immigrant population in a superbly orchestrated overturning of the expected power relationships between migrants and host state. Kubli, a Swiss artist in Germany since 1999 who also works as a radio producer and musician, first conceived the sound track as a radio play.

            Nevin Aladag's video Voice Over (2006) also evokes the richness of cultural hybridization. The video intercuts night-vision shots of a young man singing traditional Turkish songs, with shots of a drum kit being beaten by a heavy rain. The title's reference to co-extant types of meaning is in keeping with a concern for co-existing in different cultures that we can see in much of Aladag's work. Born in Turkey and raised in Germany, Aladag has often worked with collaborators – even co-authors, it could be said – from different communities. Dance and music are often the languages that her films and videos use to communicate.


There is also an emotional content to movements in, out and through the city. Rui CalŤada Bastos' work also looks poetically at the rhythms and patterns of urban space. His video Events – Life in a Bush of Ghosts (2008) is a poetic series of vignettes of visual details and urban moments, while the print Love Map (2003) a meticulous amalgam of the street maps of Budapest, Paris, Berlin, and his native Lisbon, with invented street names bridging the different quarters suggests how cities' shapes persist in the memory and affection. Like other artists in the exhibition, CalŤada Bastos' care for the city manifests itself by making things happen; he has also co-founded a gallery, Invaliden 1, one of the first co-operative "producers' galleries" (Produzentengalerien).

            Daniel Seiple's artwork has focused on the mutual effects of mapping, migration, travel, and the imagination, and his work as an organizer also shows a concern with questions of place. In the few years since relocating from the United States, he has co-founded the Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum, which uses a wasteland on the site of the former Berlin Wall as a sculpture park, and Homie, an intimate gallery in his apartment. For Building Berlin, he has made a new work around the obscure Kitchener-Waterloo border. In this 20th anniversary year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he encouraged residents living on the K-W border to tear down their own fences, whether for symbolic or whimsical reasons, eventually producing a moving study of neighbourliness. 


Finally, there is work in the show that acts, snapshot-like, to record a situation in time. Artist and teacher Karin Sander has a multi-disciplinary practice that often intersects with public space, and has regularly used techniques of mapping and measurement to convey the human dimensions of the lived environment. In both of her works in this exhibition, the use of accurate and relatively inexpressive techniques shifts interest – not without emotional effect – to the great cultural and visual interest of the subjects depicted: the city of Berlin scrolling panoramically by the windows of the TV tower in one, and the 2005 German women's football team scanned in three dimensions and presented as rapid-prototyped scale models in the other. Despite the 'documentary' character of the technology, the viewer is aware of the passage of time inevitable in capturing these depictions; in other words, they also record the process of building themselves.


This exhibition, too, aims only to present a few of the ever-growing number of artists working in Berlin. Rather than arriving to partake of a ready-made art scene, however, these artists have helped to develop it. They evidently share an interest in the shape of the city and a personal will to contribute to an evolving milieu, and it is through the example of committed individuals such as these that we can observe the culture of the city actually being built.


Vancouver, September 2009[3]





1.         See for example Adrienne Goehler, Verflźssigungen. Wege und Umwege vom Sozialstaat zur Kulturgesellschaft (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag, 2006). Goehler, Berlin's former Senator for Science, Research and Culture and former curator for the Hauptstadt Kulturfonds (cultural capital fund), discusses the economic relevance of the arts and sciences and their ability to effect change, with reference to Richard Florida's ideas about the utility of the creative class.

2.         This statistical view "ranges from micro-observations, like price trends for centrally located properties, to social theories on subjects such as the zeitgeist of routes for protest demonstrations through the city, or on the gentrification of neighbourhoods by nomadic troupes of artists ('Sohoization'). [...] Fezer and Wieder are always concerned with interlinking developments since 1990. What role, for example, did the planning of media centres, consumer centres and tourist attractions play at what point in the 'post-ideological' politics of the capital? According to what criteria were architectural highlights distributed throughout the city? How have approaches to non-conformist lifestyles changed (unpaid occupation of space, mobile housing, camping and so on), and how are the homeless and their relevant structures of solidarity and aid treated today?" -- Holger Kube Ventura, "hub: Urban Conditions",

3.         For their assistance with my curatorial research, I am indebted to the artists in the show, as well as to colleagues Sabrina van der Ley, Patricia Kohl, Christoph Tannert, and Rodney Latourelle. I am also grateful to the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery for administrative support and to Markus Miessen and Magnus Nilsson for their insightful text.







Germaine Koh
Now based in Vancouver, Germaine Koh is a Canadian visual artist and curator who lived in Berlin in 2004-05 as a resident at the Kźnstlerhaus Bethanien. Her work has been presented in the biennials of Liverpool, Sydney and MontrŽal, and at other prominent international venues such as BALTIC (Newcastle), the Frankfurter Kunstverein, Bloomberg SPACE (London), The British Museum (London), le MusŽe d'art contemporain de MontrŽal, The Power Plant (Toronto), the Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver), Ex Teresa Arte Actual (Mexico City), and the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto). Formerly Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Canada, she is also an independent curator and co-founder of the independent record label weewerk.