The Berlin Project has been outstanding for me for a long time, inspired by an old second hand guidebook published few years before the wall fell, which I had found by chance in a street market. A dedication on the inside cover addresses an unknown woman: ‘Paula, September 1989′ spurring her into taking a trip to East Berlin, “with care”. No underlining or other marks suggest whether she did, or which way she would eventually choose.
When I first wrote to British poet David Nettleingham about this, I intended to make for Berlin, travelling through time stirred up by those old roadmaps – crammed with and dominated by physical barriers, social prohibitions and subterfuges, and by the mysterious fascination of documents and excerpts which I had collected during my stays in Germany over the years. I wished to finally compare the original guidebook with a contemporary copy, though somehow aware of the ultimate uncertainty of them both. Where did the frame end and real picture within begin in such an historical entanglement? What faces lay behind the mask? What voices behind the language? Ich und Ick, was und wat, Appel und Apfel: the Berlinisch replies to both an official language and a newer slang are born and restlessly absorbed in the perpetual flow of passing strangers. In the most secretive way, misspelled words retain the naïve inspiration of speech, like the colourful splinters of a shattered object. No neat boundaries survive: words demolish cultural barriers and animate the vivid spirit of Babel anew, within an underlying process of creative change.
The more information we recovered the more a spell was cast on Berlin, re-attaching it to the vague idea of some seat of the soul. What has remained of the wall other than its colourful memorials, in front of which a crowd of sightseers queues up everyday to save another smiling shot? Are Mehringhof, Ufa Fabrik, Kerngehäuse, Schwarze Risse (the anarchic bookshop) still there? And what about the famous Café Kranzler, Das Sowjetische buch? Have all of these names survived only on these maps? What path would we tread while moving eastwards, according to the fussy expatriation procedure suggested in the guidebook, following the Grenzübergangstelle; maybe standing again in a queue where the Andere Staaten gate was, waiting for our turn?
Despite the widely shared and accepted image of Berlin as a hip, germ-cell of new trends, the irrefutable contradictions emerging from its bedrock draw a veil over the scar tissue covering the wounds, without really healing them. Clearing away the rubble from the Second World War has not soothed the grief and the Cold War that followed was an even harder, since invisible, fight.
While Berlin treasures its hidden places and looks after each more or less irregular inhabitant who has made it his wish to be there, something still unforgiven nourishes the Stadtgeist. The new topography is driven by the mandatory force of a vanguard building plan. As it allegedly absorbs old relics within a thick concrete shrine, it seems much more concerned about its propaganda impact, in favour of a peaceful coexistence of ancient Eastern/Western rivalries in the name of wider interests, than about facing the actual expectations of people.
The policy of disregarding the widespread request of radical freedom, with the hope of appeasing it, is indeed creating the opposite effect, spontaneously drawing the alternative movements behind the scenes together to concerted common action. The failure of the recent attempt of eviction of the Tacheles arthouse, a former department store due to be demolished, squatted in since 1990, and the subsequent revolt of the artistic community marching across the quarter, is just another hint of the simmering discontent. Walls let whispers and draughts pass easily throughout Berlin.
It is facing this variegated background that Nettleingham and I have decided to start our personal research into the literature, politics, films and art of the old city interleaved with the new, picking up ideas, stories, photographs, quick spontaneous street interviews and other audio/video samples; working out contrasts and personal experiences. In this process, Nettleingham is much more involved in the social implications of the new city growing within/without the old one, and I tend to give prominence to the “walled in” feeling under the shadow of an invisible barrier.
Our aim is ultimately to produce a series of joint socio-artistic works, multi-layered, rich in different languages, bringing together all the collected materials, and unveiling the skeleton or the soul of Berlin.
The developing state and progress of the project is currently updated on the pages of a blog, reworked and revived with each new stay in the city.
We are very grateful to Canterbury City Council’s Creative Canterbury initiative for their support in the research and development of this project and hope new partners will soon show interest and get involved as well.
Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss:
Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben,
Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss:
Der täglich sie erobern muss.
Faust, Atto V
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.