Willkommen in Berlin!
Well. I’ve never had such an incredible week in my life. Berlin is an incredible place, full of history, memories, art, but a lot of pain. Firstly, the nature of the place I was in felt very heavy on my shoulders. The sheer amount of history that Berlin has seen was something that I, a self-confessed history nerd, was keen to explore.
I’ve always wanted to travel to Berlin, and I’m glad that I’ve finally had the opportunity to visit such an incredible place. There was a bit of malarkey to start with upon arrival, as we were taken to the wrong Generator Hostel. We found out later that there was more than one – we had landed at the wrong one. Shortly, some taxis arrived which all bore an interesting slogan – ‘Plan B Taxis’. Sweet, sweet irony. The hostel was clean and modern inside, and had only been open in the last year. There was a bar, a small cafe which sold paninis, sandwiches, bagels, pizzas, burgers, and of course, currywurst!
It. Was. Freezing.
I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere so cold in all my life. It was between -7 and -10 all week, with an awful wind that made it feel ten more below. I was not prepared in the slightest. I knew it would be cold, but not that cold. The kind of wind that cuts through whatever you’re wearing. The kind of cold that freezes you as soon as you go outside, and you won’t be warm again for the rest of the day. As unprepared as I was for the cold, I couldn’t help but think about the history of where I was, which kept my attention for seven days straight. The camps, the marches, the treatment of those Jewish citizens who were forced to leave their homes and families behind. There is something I think about seeing a place in Winter that gives it an eerie, haunting feeling, particularly in Berlin with Germany’s chequered past. Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Summer would no doubt be a totally different experience to seeing it in the Winter, covered with snow.
I had a long to-do list, and by my own admission didn’t visit a single indoor art gallery or art museum. To be frank, there are better things to be seeing and doing. I can see art in Cardiff and London – I did not want to miss out on seeing the iconic city of Berlin for what it was: a city with a terrible past, with some awful history, but a city that is trying its best to move forwards.
TO DO LIST
- DDR Museum
- Reichstag Building
- The Berlin Wall and East Side Gallery
- Topography of Terror
- Checkpoint Charlie
- Jewish Museum
- Brandenburg Gate
- Holocaust Memorial
- Berlin Wall Memorial
The Natural History Museum of Berlin – It houses the world’s largest dinosaur skeleton and one of the most impressive taxidermy collections in the world.
OranienburgerStraBe, the street that our hostel was on, was formerly a centre of Jewish life in Berlin. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries this was the main Jewish area of Berlin. I’m not sure why but being in Berlin in Winter, particularly as it was snowing, made it feel extremely eerie and sad. There were a number of memorials to the former residents of the area, including the sites of former Jewish schools, orphanages, old people’s homes and cemeteries – all of which were closed or destroyed during the Nazi regime. The great majority of the area’s Jewish residents were deported to their deaths in extermination camps in Poland. Also, there was a half-derelict graffiti covered building next to our hostel. It had been covers in layers upon layers of paint and posters, and one would presume that it had some history behind it. Turns out it was a base for the NSDAP in the 1930s and later became the central offices for the SS.
The German Workers’ Front established offices here, and at the same time it beame the central office for the SS. In 1943 the skylights were removed (and the corresponding turrets) so that French prisoners of war could be held in the attic. During the Battle of Berlin, the second cellar was flooded by the Nazis and remains under water to this day. The building was heavily damaged during World War II, though a large portion of the building survived intact. After The Wall came down it was taken over by artists who called it Tacheles – Yiddish for ‘Straight Talking’. The building contained studios and workshops, a nightclub and a cinema. Outside the garden featured an open-air exhibition area of metal sculptures as well as galleries and studios for sculptors and painters.
Themes to Address:
- Migration – Jewish, Homosexual, Roma, disabled people and other minority groups fleeing Nazi Germany and almost certain imprisonment or death. The impact on other cities due to their emigration? Obviously ‘migration’ could include an absolute ban on migration. Those wishing to leave the GDR for the FDR were faced with death for attempting to cross the Death Strip between the Berlin Wall and the containment wall.
- Power and Technology – Political power is the catalyst to most, if not all of Berlin’s major events certainly from the 20th Century onwards. From Nazi rule from 1933-1945, to a country divided by Soviet ideals for a model Socialist state. The impact of ‘The Wall’ on Berliners was huge, and still felt to this day. One side battled poverty, the other basked in prosperity. Nazi rule obviously upended an entire area of Europe, with Berlin at the centre.
- Hidden City – I feel like the ‘hidden city’ element is the one that I connect with the least. I do feel that the hidden city element could be addressed by highlighting a sense of Berlin’s ‘hidden’ past, in a sense that most native Berliners would have an interesting story to tell, either about their family’s position in Nazi Germany, or the effect that the Berlin Wall had on the dynamic of their lives and their relationships.
I feel that through Berlin’s traumatic history, it could easily fit into any of the themes.
Something that struck me whilst being in Berlin was the prevalence of street art and graffiti. Not only that which lives on the Berlin Wall, which is of course a dedicated open-air gallery, but just generally in all of Berlin. Every street corner has a new story to tell, with someone new sharing something interesting. Post-Communism, cheap rents and ramshackle buildings gave rise to street at in ares such as Mitte, PrenzlauerBerg, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain.
The East Side Gallery, the name given to the remaining stretch of still-standing wall, is a fascinating and haunting place. With an average grasp of the German language I could figure out many of the messages, but many were written in Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, and several other languages. It serves as an international memorial for freedom. It documents a time of change and expresses the euphoria and great hopes for a better, more unified future for all people of the world.
There are huge contrasts between old and new, modern and classic, all over the city. There are old ornate street lamps outside derelict buildings and amazingly decorative street signs next to crisp, clean, modern architecture. In what would have been East Berlin I noticed that large areas containing derelict buildings were largely being ignored save for the graffiti. Buildings which no doubt have served some sinister purpose are now providing artists from all over the world with the canvasses they crave.
Coming back from Berlin there were several ideas I wanted to pursue, particularly after doing some very in-depth research. Something I was keen to look at was street art and graffiti artists and the statements they make. Not the SHAUN WOZ ERE 2k4 emblazoned on a bus stop, but the stuff with more meaning, something with a sentiment, a statement. I found several artists to research: Shepard Fairey, Banksy, JR, De Le Vega, Richard Hambleton, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Thierry Noir, Above, Knitta, Please, Seen, Inkie.
Something else I might look at is the power of symbols? It’s hard to be in Berlin and not think about symbols – the swastika being the obvious one. Something else to look at would be the power of the people themselves. The people of any city are its strongest and most powerful resource – they eventually tore down the wall that had governed them for so long. During the 1960s in the United States, young people began speaking out and writing “POWER TO THE PEOPLE” as a form of rebellion against what they perceived as the oppression by the older generation. The Black Panthers used the slogan “All Power to the People” to protest the rich/ruling class’ domination of society.
Power within a city? With the people? Those who speak out using art, graffiti and murals as a way of communicating a powerful and poignant message. If the current upheavals in the world tell us anything, it is that the individual, whether acting alone or as a collective, can be a force for change. In fact nearly all change that has benefitted ordinary people has resulted from the actions of ordinary people themselves. Possibly look at the power of images, specifically those in public places in any given city, particularly those linked to social change/political change, or the power of images to represent a social/political agenda. I’d like to explore further the influence that political power has on changing a society, the people within it, and changing the ideas that circulate. Context/Effect/Affect.
Political Power → Changing Ideas → Social Change → Real Change
- Nazi regime – Anti-Semitic propaganda, Anti-Jewish laws, pogroms (Kristallnacht etc.)
- Political influence on society of Nazi regime and your position within that society
- ‘Superiority’ of German/Aryan race, intensifying hatred for Jewish persons
- Influence on society at large
- Changes in social/political structure
- Cultural change
- Mass killings, indiscriminate
- Boycotts, abandonment of Jewish areas
- Political messages/agendas
- The power of politicised street art and its influences
- The most powerful thing in any city is its people and their ability to effect change – look at Kiev, Venezuela, ‘Occupy’ protests, Pussy Riot. Use of protest?
- The power in any city lies with the people of that city
- Power of ordinary citizens in a city on affecting/effecting social/political change, and their power to protest, to question, to challenge authority
- Power of politically motivated street art? Far reaching?
- Power of propaganda – particularly pre-War Nazi Germany
- Individuals acting alone or as one of many
There is a strong current of activism and subversion in urban art. Street art can be a powerful platform for reaching the public and a potent form of political expression for the oppressed, or people with little resources to create change. Some street artists use “Smart Vandalism” as a way to raise awareness of a social or political issue. It allows artists who may feel otherwise disenfranchised to reach a much broader audience than traditional art galleries may allow.
I am particularly interested in street art that expresses political/anti-political agendas, or art which seeks to raise awareness. I’d also like to look at how technology has helped to promote awareness – as a new platform for people to be expressive. Something to do with the power of people in a city? How social media can help a cause?
One person now has the power to reach millions, instantly – What would YOU say?
During protest, street art becomes a barometer of social consciousness. Scrawled words and images on city walls reflect changing attitudes and a sidain for the ruling authority. In Kiev, the stencils of president Yanokovych’s body punctured with bullet holes are a more extreme example. What impact is technology having on politics and regime change? The likes of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit are offering a more collective view of World news, with artists’ efforts escaping the borders of the walls upon which they live, communicating their messages to a global community. They are achieving impact through imagery and reaching a far more diverse audience than more traditional news outlets. On Reddit there has been a photo doing the rounds of a police barricade in Kiev. It was painted with a cartoon depicting a Ukrainian flag holding hands with an EU flag as Russia looks on scowling. The message is simple but memorable.
Impact of social networking alongside street art, working together to effect political change?
We are programmed to link iconic moments with art. As creativity litters any given area, demonstrators are spurred on. Artists use symbolism to monumentalise protesters’ efforts. Protest posters also play an important role in boosting morale. Pairing graphic design with emotionally engaging statements. In Ukraine recently, the art has highlighted the government’s inconsistencies and the power of the Ukrainian people. The country’s flag of blue and yellow is the overriding colour theme. Although they have since been annulled, anti-protest laws and restrictions on social media revealed the extent of how close they came to losing the right to express themselves. On the streets however, ideas would have continued to appear on walls and barricades. Street artists cannot be stopped by algorithms. During times of crisis, they will always be on hand to support the people and spread their message.