Issue #17, 2004

The Promise of Berlin
Marius Babias in Conversation with Ute Meta Bauer

Ute Meta Bauer is a freelance curator and professor at the Institute for Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. She was Artis­tic Director of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart from 1990-94, and recently worked as co-curator of Documenta 11 (Kassel, 2002). Her projects include Architec­tures of Discourse (Barcelona, 2001) and First Story – Women Building / New Narratives for the 21st Century (Porto, 2001). Since 2002 she is the founding director of the Norwegian Office for Contemporary Art, Oslo and also Artistic Director of the third Berlin Biennale (2004).

3rd Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art,

14 February – 18 April



Marius Babias ¬ That the 3rd Berlin Biennial for contemporary art, which has really mutated into a triennial, concentrates entirely on Berlin is very surprising, for two main reasons. Firstly, you have always emphasized that you were a representative of federalism and an opponent of Berlin centralism, and yet now you have even moved to Berlin. Secondly, although since the fall of the Wall, the relocation of the government here, and the “Red–Green” coalition government, Berlin has managed to create an image of itself as the German capital and a paradise for hipsters, it has also been subject to sweeping criticism of its new identity as a centre of political power. Reducing the theme to Berlin might then seem like a reminiscence of the early 1990s, when new hybrids of the urban, the cultural and the political were evolving. This transitional period is, however, over today. What led you to move to Berlin anyway?

Ute Meta Bauer √ The concrete occasion for the move was the 3rd Ber­lin Biennial. You can, of course, ask why I chose to curate the Berlin Bien­nial. After Documenta 11, with its global focus, it was a challenge for me to focus on Berlin, and look closely at a local context. This involves a certain amount of everyday experience, in order to perceive the current situation in this place. It would, of course, be presumptuous to assume that in just a few months one could clearly analyse the complex changes that have taken place in Berlin over the last 15 years. I simply lack a continu­ous period of observation. My perception of Berlin is thus more of a kind of time bracket. I experienced Berlin intensely in the early 1980s – and now again, 20 years later. This time span can also be seen in the selection of works for the 3rd Berlin Biennial. The exhibition does not relate very directly to the time of German reunification; rather, it goes back a bit further and asks questions about the present that take their starting point from that earlier period.

¬ In the Berlin of the early 1990s a new material for production was discovered: one’s own subjectivity, as an asset that can be exploited. The “prom­ise of Berlin” that has attracted so many cultural workers consists primarily in having provided a model of reality that is suited to the cultural market for the cooptation of critical models of production. The collective, critical art practice that developed on the margins of the art industry in opposition to the institutions, and which briefly became a force within the discourse, was gradually forced back or integrated, so that the tried-and-true individual model could triumph again. Surely the mostly commonly encountered Berlin phenotype is the self-manufacturing artist-subject who has sold him- or herself over to achieving the advan­tage of distinction. This development is reflected in the massive return to painting, photography and drawing, whereas the repoliticized situation of the mid-1990s has largely been absorbed. As a reaction to this, in turn, a number of theoretical circles inclined to dissent arose in the late 1990s. Which of these threads do you draw on? Where do you position the biennial? Or are you interested in presenting all these developments as objectively as possible?

√ No, that wouldn’t be possible for one person, and it would not interest me either. “Taking a position on it“ would describe it better than being supposedly “objective“. To come back to collective practice and its dissolution, it is a completely normal mechanism in the art industry to select individual artists from among groups and collectives – after all, at a certain point the matter of making a living becomes crucial, and that is legitimate. But social conditions are certainly reflected by individuals as well as by groups. Amelie von Wulffen and Dierk Schmidt, for example, address current Berlin debates in their painting. On the other hand there are groups which have led to new projects, like the Minimal Club, which founded the book shop b_books and the associated publisher, with a now established set-up in Kreuzberg. Other collective ventures are still around today. Dogfilm continues to exist as a production firm, while other, temporary structures like Frisör or Botschaft, which arose in direct connection with the open grey zone in Berlin immediately following the fall of the Wall, have long since disappeared. But the people behind them are still active. New temporary collectives come about, in new constellations, wor­king under project names like baustop.randstadt, Ersatzstadt or Ex-Argentina, where meanwhile the individuals can now be identified and associated with their particular responsibilities.

As far as the use of different media goes, artists are also aware that they can, on the one hand, reach out to and create a geographically wide­spread public by way of the internet and allow that public to actively participate in discourses; yet on the other hand, artists still use the medium of drawing now as much as ever. The medium alone is not the message. A fanzine reaches a certain public; a newspaper like Le Monde diplomatique speaks to a different readership. If I broadcast on the television channel Arte, I will reach a different, geographically broad public inter­ested in culture, than if I use a free radio station to reach a local audience that will feel it is being spoken to directly. Many artists and cultural producers switch between a wide variety of media in order to exploit as many distribution channels as possible.

The 3rd Berlin Biennial is quite deliberately showing not just projects that operate as collectives but also individual artistic positions and, alongside a whole spectrum of media and formats, the traditional genres from paint­ing to drawing. I would like to disprove the cliché that theory and discourses are more likely to get a chance in collectives or through Word formats that are “hostile to art”. That is no longer the case today. One “his­torical” position in the exhibition, for example, is Stephen Willats, who thematizes social relations on panels of photography and text and then extends this to video. Although Willats exhibits in renowned gal­leries, he is nonetheless an artist who has not changed his committed attitude and even today he is not one of the big earners. On the whole, the division into artist – gallery – collector – institution – collective – alternative economy is more a system of complex intersections, involvements, and transitions than it is a connecting of simple oppositions. In particular, the juxtaposition of institutions versus collectives or alternative economies does not really apply in many respects.

¬ The EU is currently in the process of establishing a European constitution and legal form to begin in 2009 that is very close to the concept of a “European core region”. We are about to see the realization of the idea of a major European power independent of the United States, an idea which goes back to Charles de Gaulle, and in which the Berlin–Paris axis sets the tone in coordination with London. That is the political backdrop against which Berlin is being rebuilt. The new political self-confidence goes hand in hand with a new visual and linguistic politics. “Wrapped Reichstag”, “Schaustelle Berlin” (Showplace Berlin), the “Lange Nacht der Museen” (Long Night of Museums), gallery tours, the Friedrich Flick collection, Love Parade and, most recently, the Popkomm music fair, formerly of Cologne, are entwined with symbolic chains of concepts like “cross­over”, “leftist lifestyle”, “self-marketing” and “Ich-AG” – the new concept of the one-person self-employed “public limited company” propagated by the German government. Even in counter-cultural milieus the consump­tion of criticism has become the norm. How do you hope to avoid the berlin biennial becoming just a cultural event for the new Mitte?

√ That cannot be avoided – and, quite the contrary, we are working on becoming a cultural event. Ultimately we are dependent on financing from both public and private grants as well as entry fees from visitors, and we want to reach people. The berlin biennial is currently funded by the Hauptstadtkulturfonds, but it was originally brought to life by private initiative, in order to make contemporary art and cultural producers, who are no small presence in Berlin, more visible. Certainly this was also done with the motive of wanting to be perceived internationally as a new centre in the art industry of Germany as a whole, which at the time was clearly led by Cologne. It is typical that this idea did not come from the city government of Berlin, but instead private investors stepped in to make contemporary art a stronger presence in the context of a capital city for a country of now more than 80 million people. What surprises me is the city’s lack of interest in such a cultural event. Rather than including its cultural capital on the credit side, Berlin treats it as a liability that it has to minimize, for example, by eliminating social supports for artists whose income borders on the subsistence level. Like other cultural projects, the berlin biennial is struggling for existence. It is not even acknowl­edged by Partner für Berlin (Partners for Berlin), Berlin’s new but still very sluggish agency for marketing the city. We tried to do advertising with Partner für Berlin, but the berlin biennial is not especially interesting either to the tourism trade or to sponsors. An artistic event is evidently far too specialized for that, and it is not directed toward the “masses” like the IFA consumer electronics fair, nor does it have what is seen as the “glamour” of the Berlinale film festival.

To create an event on this scale, you have to position it accordingly. That is why we are using the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum building this time as well. To continue to pretend that Mitte was still enjoying a new dawn would be calculated optimism. For that reason, I consider the unrenovated post-office building on Oranienburger Strasse in Mitte, the site of the first two berlin biennials, anachronistic. Thematizing, from today’s per­spective, the Martin-Gropius-Bau as an once important site for exhibitions of contemporary art in West Berlin during the 1980s, and taking advan­tage of its quality as a museum space, are things I find impor­tant, because in my view there are far too few “prestige” spaces being made available for contemporary art to make its mark in Berlin. In selecting the contributions, though, I was much less concerned with questions of presenting local art than with drawing some attention to Berlin as a location of production. Berlin is more a place of artistic production than a place where art is sold. There are, of course, many well-known galleries here, and naturally there are institutions like the Hamburger Bahnhof museum for contemporary art, the KW, Künstler­haus Bethanien and the DAAD Artists’ Programme. But, in comparison to New York, London or Vienna, in Berlin the presentation of art clearly lags behind its production. German cities like Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt and so on have a lot more to offer than the alleged new “capital of Europe”. On the other hand, many international artists live here, because lower rents in comparison to all the other cities I have just named makes it easier for them to keep their heads above water. The scene itself is very dynamic, and the private galleries often achieve more than some of the bigger institutions. Well, lots of people before me have complained about Berlin’s lack of commitment to contempo­-­rary art.

¬ The various areas of the exhibition are linked by hubs: Migration, Urban Conditions, Sonic Landscapes, Fashions and Scenes and Other Cinemas. The word hub refers either to a distributor of data on a com­puter network or a large airport that serves as a centre for air traffic. Is the hub metaphor oriented around the circumstances in Berlin in terms of the spatial presentation of the themes?

√ Yes, it is important to experience these themes spatially, to “unfold” them. For the 3rd Berlin Biennial there are three physical sites, each with it own topography and history. First the KW, which as a former margarine factory was a site of production. Then the Martin-Gropius-Bau, which as the former arts and crafts museum should be counted a prestige build­ing. It is immediately adjacent to the former site of the central offices of various institutions of the National Socialist machine of repression during the Third Reich; today the site of the memorial Topography of Terror. Moreover, until the fall of the Wall, the actual main entrance of the Martin-Gropius-Bau was blocked because it was too close to the Wall. The third site available to us, the Arsenal cinema, is a cinematic space, a space of the imagination. For 30 years this cinema of the Friends of the German Cinema Archive has stood for committed programming; today it is on Potsdamer Platz, in a newly implanted complex of buildings at what was once the border between the East and the West of the city. In that sense already, then, these hubs distributed among these three institutions represent a localizing of questions that are not just themes that pertain to Berlin but certainly obtain a particular significance here due to the historical specific gravity that they encounter.

¬ What role does visuality in general play in your conception? One can already observe in your earlier exhibition projects a devaluation of the vi­sual in favour of the discursive.

√ For me, discourse and visuality are not opposites; art is just as discursive as a text. Quite the contrary, I have always worked on the production of discursive spaces, and this has included the development of audiovisual spaces. An exhibition interests me as a space of communication. In the end, that’s what makes the quality of an exhibition. What discourses can it interconnect and network? And that means making it possible to experience them visually as well. In the hub Fashions and Scenes, for example, Regina Möller examines the interface – the seam – between East and West in terms of economic and political restrictions and openings, questions of access and exclusion that are literally “patched together” into a communicative space. The hub Sonic Landscapes attempts to incorporate the interconnection of the visual and the sonic in our perception. The sonic influences us just as much as the visual does, even when we don’t perceive it consciously, as we do the impressions made by images. Nevertheless, the sonic is constantly making its mark on us.

Berlinis, now as ever, a location for the independent music scene; and music can also be used to create counter-images, to achieve a kind of empowerment. From Marlene Dietrich to Hildegard Knef, from Kurt Weill to Wolf Biermann, from political musicals like The Threepenny Opera to the cabaret scene, Berlin has made history here. Macht kaputt, was euch kaputt macht (Break the Things that Break You) by the group Ton Steine Scherben is an example. It is, moreover, unmistakable that in Berlin women play a particularly important role not only in production but also in distribution: Monika Enterprises, Gudrun Gut’s label, Hanin Elias’ Fatal-Recordings or Chicks on Speed Records are all examples of this. Women are reclaiming space for themselves in the sonic realm and are making their mark, as Christiane Erharter and Sonja Eismann thematize in the hub Sonic Landscapes. In many respects, musicians’ practice spaces and recording spaces have replaced the artists’ studios as sites of myth production.

¬ Our everyday life and our subjective sphere are visually colonized. Recent experiments in neurobiology claim to have discovered that the brain now more and more “thinks in images”. What does this successive physiological change mean for our political autonomy? And can an art exhibition, which is, after all, based on visuality, turn this development around?

√ An exhibition has an opportunity to take what is “outside” and con­dense it from a distance, but, on the other hand, also to employ the moment of expansion, of extension. Through repetition it can bring things to the point where slowing them down achieves a fragmentation of our gaze. The visuality of an exhibition is, therefore, totally different from being “bombarded” every day by images that we absorb very quickly and then believe we have understood. But for me texts also have this potential to slow things down.

¬ How would you describe your exhibition method? You already sug­gested that it isn’t linear or hierarchical but rather demands autonomous participants. How would you sum up this method?

√ In fact, the exhibition has the character of a three-dimensional magazine that is also extended by sonic perception. We are all confronted with so much information today; for me it’s important to spatialize it. I want to produce a communicative space, a kind of publicly accessible dispositive in which various discourses and artistic positions initiate a dialogue in flux. By designing an open structure and not prescribing a reading, the visitors are stimulated to participate. Here the transitory aspect is very important. A project that is only temporary, like the Berlin Biennial, can at best take discourses, initiatives, debates that exist continuously in other contexts and assemble them for this time frame and thus produce a special aspect in a given audience’s interconnection with these projects and positions. I see the exhibition as a place that should not be static but rather one which people move through. It is only through this movement that the connections between the different positions are produced. And the artists participate in this movement as well. When distributing the artistic works among the individual sites it was interesting to see that artists expressed the wish to be put in the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Friction with the location of a prestige museum is a challenge for politically committed positions in particular – and this “making one’s mark” on a historically loaded place is an intentional aspect of artistic practice.