Interim Use at a Former Death Strip? Art, Politics and Urbanism at Skulpturenpark Berlin Karen E. Till
Twenty years after unification Berlin continues to promote the (re)building of the city through marketing practices, including tours, white models, viewing platforms, and buildings wrapped with plastic façades to depict future urban scenes for residents and visitors to imagine.1 Although these strategies of making the city under construction, renovation, deconstruction, and reconstruction into a spectacle were most clearly evident during the first fifteen years of Berlin’s post-unification construction boom, urban landscapes continue to be used as temporal frames to situate the city in a future to come. In 2006 and 2007, for example, viewing platforms invited visitors to look at the scene of the “environmental deconstruction” of the Palast der Republik as planners, to view a site from an elevated platform and imagine how the future Humboldt Center might replace this former parliamentary building of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)
Elsewhere in the city, artists Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser excavated three plots in a series of adjacent empty lots in central Berlin in 2007 and erected viewing platforms that led down into those sites . Their artistic excavation-installation, Turn it one more time (2006-08), unearthed building foundations, coal furnaces, cellars, even toilets—remnants of earlier urban inhabitants. In describing their work, the artists noted that viewing platforms erected on the western side of the Berlin Wall after 1961 “allowed citizens to see beyond the division. Now, rather than leading upwards, the excavations led downwards and offered a new view into the history of a place.”2 Köbberling and Kaltwasser also observed how the “view” of the city from their platforms encouraged visitors to encounter urban natures. The artists listed the diverse array of plants in the overgrown fields they excavated according to their biological species on a large billboard at the site. For the artists “the stairway [down into the excavation] … provided an experiential path,” bringing viewers into the opened ground “to be surrounded by the site’s intrinsic, biological processes.”3 When standing on the platform, visitors were surrounded by layers of earth and the plants just above ground and at eye level. Here they could witness “the territorial appropriation [of the city] by wild plants:” “This overwhelming presence of flora presented the natural potentials of the place typically beyond the interests of its potential developers.”4
As these artists remind, the urban practice of viewing the city from atop wooden platforms has a deeply personal as well as political and economic performance history in divided and post-unified Berlin. Viewing platforms in recent memory were first erected in haphazard fashion by locals to retain some kind of contact between family members and neighborhoods separated in 1961. These flimsy structures became associated with memories of loss, displacement, and division for many Berliners. Sturdier viewing edifices were later erected in West Berlin, changing the emotional politics of viewing to a geopolitical gaze of authority. As Cold War icons of defending Western spaces of “democracy,” the platforms soon also became tourist attractions that promoted the voyeuristic consumption of the (Eastern Bloc) Other and an understanding of urban space as transparent. Moreover, at the time that Köbberling and Kaltwasser installed Turn it one more time, their inverted use of a platform in Berlin questioned post-unification viewing practices at construction sites by developers and city authorities.5 The artists exploited the trope of the platform to challenge the assumption that city planners and politicians are the city’s strategic experts, or the all-seeing, masculine surveyors who look at and define the world according to national imaginaries, property values, and potential economic development. Rather than look up at the spectacle of skyscrapers and renovated structures being built and rebuilt, they asked the viewer to look down into the spaces of land speculation and then to move down into the earth, like a city archaeologist. The platform created an urban encounter of inverted perspectives, reminding us that the act of looking is never neutral but always tied to specific histories of social practices, institutions, and power relations. The artists questioned the authoritative gaze as a form of knowing, playing with perceptions of distances and closeness, to confront the scopic regimes of the state and the city’s institutions for economic and scientific management.6
Köbberling and Kaltwasser’s installation points to the inherent problems of city marketing strategies. To package landscapes, streetscapes, and even neighborhoods as consumable scenes treats space and time as bounded entities that can be commodified. Even though cities continuously undergo processes of transformation, planning land-use maps, public policies, and even theories of the city represent urban space and life as well as the places residents inhabit in static terms. In contrast, the artists invited residents and passersby to explore, envision, remember, and create new ways of encountering their city, past and present. As architectural historian Dolores Hayden argues, little scholarly work documents the changes, losses, and new designs of particular places in cities that may resonate in the collective memory of local residents.7 And yet the experiences, memories, and desires of residents and visitors offer a complex repository of understanding “urbanism as a way of life,” to borrow urban sociologist Louis Wirth’s oft-cited 1938 essay.8 If urban designers, the building professionals, and urban theorists are serious about producing socially sustainable cities and communities in the future, they must acknowledge that residents are the caretakers of urban places. As I suggest in this chapter, planners as well as scholars have much to learn from locally based artists who have experimented with a range of participatory and transformative approaches to engage residents in representing and defining their city and the places and neighborhoods they inhabit. At the same time artistic interventions offer residents creative practices that encourage an appreciation of the fragility of the social ecologies of place. As I have argued elsewhere, such nuanced interactions and attitudes may also result in the development of a place-based ethics of care in the context of a city that has experienced a violent national past and dramatic urban change.9
In this chapter I focus on projects such as Turn it one more time curated by the artistic collaborative Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum that have emerged as a direct consequence of the divided city and are located in the shadow of the former Berlin Wall in one of the city’s former “death strips” in Berlin Mitte. In what appeared to be an empty, overgrown lot in an isolated yet centrally located part of the city, artists worked in and through this post-Wall space, appropriating the materials and spatial practices of city-building professionals including media images, buildings, streets, and parcels of land, while questioning how land development and urban use in the “new” Berlin ignored the legacies of a once divided city. Rather than treating space as an empty container to be filled in or emptied out, they began with an understanding of the city as constituted by inhabited places that intersect with other complex places.10 Their artistic matter mobilized the stray stuff, remnants, leftovers, unwanted forms, and seemingly empty lots of the city (including the “death strips”), to create what I call “interim spaces” through which non-normative, critical spatial and historical imaginaries of the city could be explored. Their work invited encounters with the city as an enacted environment, and asked visitors and locals to take notice of the complex ways places are made and remade.11 To understand how these artists, visitors, and residents engaged with the projects, I first consider the more general post-unification marketing and planning contexts of their work. From Zwischennutzung to Interim Spaces.
In 2008 Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit launched a new image campaign for the city under the slogan “Be Berlin” (Sei Berlin). As urban sociologists Claire Columb and Ares Kalandides asked, “Why does it still matter for Berlin’s political leaders to search for a new image, a new slogan, a new ‘brand’ twenty years after the fall of the Wall and the reunification of the city?”12 They noted not only that the “New Berlin” marketing strategy was not so new by this point in time, but also that the city did not appear to be functioning well economically. Although the “creative industries” sector appears to be strong, such as in music, design, and art, the city-state (Land) of Berlin has nearly faced bankruptcy, so that the public sector has had to rely heavily on private funding and public-private partnerships. Columb further argues that the “Be Berlin” marketing campaign and the recent “Urban Pioneers” project of the Berlin Senate’s Office of Urban Development appear to be capitalizing on local, spontaneous projects at seemingly vacant plots, that is, in spaces planners and large-scale developers normally consider economically irrelevant.13 She also mentions that in addition to publishing a “how to” book about managing underutilized urban spaces for developers, cultural event planners, and local neighborhood authorities, the Berlin Senate Office provides the following services: webpage inventories of available properties for temporary use; management assistance for building and construction gaps owned by public agencies; the coordination of a Berlin-wide database of vacant plots awaiting redevelopment; and funding for small consultancies that mediate between owners and so-called “temporary users.”14
City authorities refer to this “new” planning concept as Zwischennutzung or temporary use. The formal recognition and management of so-called urban wastelands—including brownfield and former industrial sites (unused sites that may have high levels of environmental pollution from former uses), unused buildings, and vacant plots and buildings resulting from division, war damage, erasures by successive political regimes, poor planning, and the disuse of infrastructure—are actually radical for any city or state planning agency. Yet in the international urban management context defined by Richard Florida’s persuasive rhetoric about the significance of the “creative class” to urban economic growth, the notion of “temporary use” by “urban pioneers” in the “creative city” appears to be a new planning fad in Berlin, similar to other cities searching for a way to become competitive and establish an economically based identity.15 Although many local residents are cynical about the ways in which seemingly redundant spaces in the city are being claimed by city authorities under the label of Zwischennutzung, Berlin does make a contribution to how urban space might be theorized and even “mapped.”
1 K. E. Till, The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005). 2 “Turn it one more time – Folke Köbberling & Martin Kaltwasser – Parcella # 03,” in Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum, SkulpturenPark Projects: realisierte Projekte/realized projects 2006-2010, booklet at http://www.skulpturenpark.org/download/09-01projects_sm.pdf, p. 10 (accessed 5 March 2010). 3 Ibid. Till 23 4 Ibid. 5 For a discussion of behind-the-construction-site-scenes of the city-marketing program Schaustelle Berlin, see C. Columb Staging the New Berlin: Place Marketing and the Politics of Urban Reinvention in Berlin Post-1989 (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2011); Till, The New Berlin. Other artists also used inverted perspectives, scale, and viewing platforms to question the city’s marketing strategies, such as artist and scenographer Stefanie Bürkle: http://www.stefaniebuerkle. de/buerkle/index.php. For a discussion of Bürkle and Köbberling and Kaltwasser see K. E. Till, “Re/Staging the City: Artistic Urban Encounters,” in Space and Truth/Raum und Wahrheit: Monitoring Scenography 2, eds. T. Brejzik, W. Greisenegger, and L. Wallen (Zurich: Zurich University of the Arts/Züricher Hochschule der Künste, 2009), pp. 114-25. 6 On looking see J. Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972); J. Berger, About Looking (New York: Vintage, 1980); M. Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1971).