Thursday, 10 September 2015

Art Doesn't Help People - People Help People.

"Art Doesn't Help People - People Help People" by Herakut.

In Berlin, the art scene's fate always hangs in the balance.  Since the fall of the Wall, artistic outcasts have come here seeking a cheap place to work and live while they find their feet; yet the scene still retains a precarious feeling to this day.  The best art here is to be found on the streets, exposed to the elements, having been left out in the cold by the conventional art gallery scene.  Yet the precarious balance that enables a DIY scene to flourish here is bound to change. 

Berlin is a prime destination on the bargain flight trail for now, and so its art scene is booming... for now.  But that boom obviously can't last forever.  The  forces that attract the world to Berlin - cheap oil, low wages, and the low prices they create - are unsustainable.  But so is the alternative: turning Berlin into a relentlessly gentrified enclave for the world's wealthy, where the prices are too high for artists and other people on low incomes to survive.  The city needs a new model if it's going to hang onto what it has here, and with so many creative minds present, there is a brief window of opportunity for the art scene to help create that.  Is the scene making the most of it?  Or is it merely standing on the sidelines, painting pretty pictures to distract itself from the harsh realities that it faces?

Works by artists like Blu and Roa (above right) seem to reflect the uneasy balance that exists in cities like Berlin.  Each artist employs stark imagery to expose the cruelty and absurdity underlying the Western economic machine.  They seem to speak from inside and outside of the system simultaneously... like a cog that's suddenly become self-aware.

Vermibus (right) has taken that self-awareness a step further by actively sabotaging the messages sent by the advertising industry.  He specifically targets beauty ads, sabotaging models who've been airbrushed to the point of artifice. You've probably seen his work and wondered if it was just another cynical ad campaign (or if those mushrooms were finally working).  It's not (but they might be).

Another Berlin-based artist who speaks to that tendency to treat people as soulless commodities is Berlin-based Hito Steyerl.  In her video, "How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational" she makes a funny yet scarily-apt statement about the sense of invisibility underlying urban life.  ("Be a woman over 50" she suggests in her video, as a way of achieving invisibility).  


Many of Berlin's artists use art as a way of having a say in a social discourse that would otherwise limit their options to various forms of consumption.  Their choice 'speak' in a different way leaves them out in the cold; in Berlin, many are surviving by the skin of their teeth, getting by on a mixture of self-employment contracts, Minijobs and the dole.  This puts them at the mercy of city's employers, investors and bureaucrats.  The only power that they really have is people power, and the power of expression, yet many seem content to merely sit back and wait for a patron to come along and offer them a chance to be heard and seen in a commercial gallery patronized by the elite.  At events like the upcoming Berlin Art Week, "Attracting investment is one of [the] key aims" as if money is the only possible solution for an artist's woes. But maybe what they really need is for the system to 'spare them some social change', instead. 


As Noam Chomsky says in Manufacturing Consent, "A decent society should maximize the possibilities for the fundamental human characteristic [of creativity] to be realized."  We seem to be headed for a mostly-automated future, in which the majority jobs will necessarily be in creative and theoretical fields.  There simply won't be much in the way of work that is productive, in the industrial sense of the word.  Isn't it better to find a way to sustain people in those fields now, instead of crushing them in poverty to preserve an outdated paradigm for another day?

Berlin seems to offer a preview of how that future could look: superficially it functions, despite having a small productive sectors.  It's intellectually rich, despite being physically poor.  It is saturated with artists and idealists: street artists, installation artists, tattoo artists, interior designers and video artists.  Many of the students here are studying in theoretical fields, and research and development is one of the city's key sectors.  Together, these groups have renovated the city, rebuilding it from the ashes to fit the mould of their progressive imaginations.  But that vision has yet to trickle up.


Over the past few years, Berlin's visionary residents have led popular movements against development projects (Mediaspree, Tempelhof) that would have fenced off vast areas of public land for the use of private investors.  They have also agitated against rising rents and forced a rent cap to be put in place.  The locals tend to vote the same way that they think too: the universal basic income, sustainable development, equality and privacy rights have all been championed by two of Berlin's most influential left-wing parties: the Greens (who are dominant in Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg) and the Pirate Party (which took 8.9% of the vote in Berlin, compared to 1.4% nationally).


'Drone Shadow' by James Bridle at 'Fire & Forget', KW Gallery
Meanwhile, the Senate that actually runs this gaff seems stuck in a 1980s  Thatcherian mode: it takes a repressive stance on refugees, is engaging in its own miniature version of the War on Drugs, and has been so thoroughly bankrupted by official corruption that it licks the boots of every investor who comes to town, however contemptuous their vision for the city is (e.g. luxury condos in the former Death Strip).  The Senate may be good with investors because it guarantees them obscene profits, but those same profits ensure that the cash always disappears before it trickles down to ordinary residents, denying them the means to take charge of the city. 

But what if, instead of waiting for one of those investment windfalls to bypass the Senate and land in their studios, Berlin's art scene got together and tried to solve their collective problem through action?  One group of people who have done this in Berlin is Mein Grundeinkommen.  In addition to petitioning for the implementation of a universal basic income in Germany, Mein Grundeinkommen has crowd-funded the money to give one person a basic income for a year in order to show what life could be like, if the government spread its profits around more evenly. 
Center For Political Beauty's Wall-Sabotage Diagram

Of course, the creative reality that Chomsky speaks of is out of reach for millions of other well-educated people in countries that have been torn apart by petty rivalries.  Many of the refugees arriving in this city have been displaced from good jobs and homes by an over-zealous, Western arms trade that promotes war by making lethal weapons easily accessible.  That arms trade was the subject of a recent exhibition at KW Gallery, called 'Fire and Forget'.  It was named after the newer brand of war technologies that allow the user to kill without witnessing the deaths of the people he is lashing out at.

What future can the refugees/victims of these technologies hope for when they have no home base to go back to, much less ply their trades from?  Artsy Berlin dissidents at the Center for Political Beauty regularly stage actions aimed at answering that question.  Their stunts have included tearing down sections of the European anti-immigration barrier and exhuming bodies of drowned refugees for re-burial in Berlin, during meticulously staged (one could almost say "curated") actions that are engineered for maximum shock impact.  Is it life imitating art or the other way around?  They don't want you to know - just to act.  More info about the group can be found on the group's website. 
Center for Political Beauty' attempts to auction off Chancellor Merkel

In times like these, can any artist really afford to view reality with a sidelong glance, when they could be facing it head-on? It seems that merely hinting at the existence of larger pressures and struggles is no longer enough.  Instead of staging another tasteful exhibition, maybe it's time that Berlin's arts community stages an assault on the outdated system that keeps them begging for change... be it financial, political, or social.

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