DETROIT –BERLIN: Imaginary Siblings

Ellen Blumenstein

The idea of Detroit that I probably share with many Europeans is a kind of imaginary paralleling of “Detroit” and “Berlin,” thought about in fairly narrow art terms as art cities. In more thoughtful reflection, the city in which I have been living for the last fifteen years, Berlin, probably differs fundamentally from its American sibling. A comparison of their historic, social, and political backgrounds wouldn’t, I think, unearth too many direct parallels, – though this is not something about which I am dogmatic. Without doubt, however, the two cities share something important, namely, the way in which in each city there has been a transfiguration of the local living and production conditions by non-residents, and a strong identification with the cities by inhabitants. As I obviously know Berlin much better, I would like to give a few examples of life, work, and art here in regard to my phantasmatic image of Detroit, and in return hope to offer the portrait of my city as a projection screen for Detroiters and the understanding of their own city. My hypothesis is that, as the Detroit-Berlin axiom is being touted, Berlin has passed its peak as the ‘international art metropolis,’ even if not everyone – newcomers just as little as long-time residents – has noticed yet. This means that we can, for the first time, take a closer look at the historic evolution of this art capital and examine the conditions that made its rise possible as well as endanger its existence now. Detroit’s future as an art city is not entirely predictable, but as its older ‘sister,’ Berlin might function as an (anti) role model from which to learn. Just as Detroit does now, after the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 Berlin possessed a vast chunk of empty inner city (formerly East Berlin) space about which that nobody had any clue as to how it might function or what it might become. Economic interest was zero; real estate didn’t waste any attention to half-ruins, so predictably, it was the cultural producers who claimed the territory. As far as I hear from friends and colleagues, a similar process is taking place in Detroit. Mostly German artists, musicians, writers and actors occupied empty space in the new center throughout the 1990s, and they soon created informal and decentralized structures that brought the district and with it the whole city back to life. Money was always short, but the city was still very cheap still economic concerns played such a minor role that no one really cared. The myth of Berlin as an art city spread quickly, however, although it took till after the turn of the millennium before reality closed the gap to (what would prove to be) imaginary promises of fast international development. Foreign artists, gallerists, and collectors would pass by to have a drink in one of the temporary bars in some unexplored backyard on their travels through Europe, but very few of them settled down here until maybe seven years ago. That was the turning point when Berlin became the most inspiring and attractive hotspot for the global art context for real – though not for its market (something with which Detroit artists are undoubtedly familiar). Nevertheless, the ‘art city’ suddenly was a location factor for the local authorities, as far beyond the art world Berlin is now renowned for its ‘creative industries.’ I suspect that as the industrial sector has hit rock bottom in Detroit, this might be a future fantasy or goal for both local politics and the cultural entirely hide both a lack of inventiveness and imagination and an uninterest in the local ongoing of its organizers, however. The situation wasn’t always like that. Kunst-Werke, today internationally known as KW – Institute for Contemporary Art, first appeared on the scene in 1992, when a collective of artists and other art aficionados occupied a former factory building to use its floors as studio spaces and for exhibitions. Under its director Klaus Biesenbach1Klaus Biesenbach is now Director of MoMA P.S. 1., it soon became the meeting point and motor for the inventiveness in the city throughout that decade. Again, a comparison to Detroit comes to my mind. A few years ago, I had the privilege of being offered a brief insight into MOCAD. It reminded me a lot of KW in the 1990s: a similar, former industrial building in the empty city center; a similar orientation in production-based programming of current developments in the fi eld; a young, small, under-financed, and highly engaged team; and the urge to make a difference and help vitalize the city. Ten years after its inception, the existence of a professionalized KW is precarious today, as neither the city nor sponsors take the step to support an internationally highly renowned institution with different and higher needs than in its founding years. A difficulty that MOCAD surely faces as well. With the growing recognition of both the scene’s and the young institution’s efforts and its effects upon the city (Berlin), including the revenue it generates, we practitioners somehow hoped that both the government and interested people of means would feel responsible for preserving the emerging milieu in times of increasing professionalization and gentrification. Neither of these two developments is bad per se, of course, as they are an outgrowth of the recovery of an economically devastated city; but the room for maneuver for artists is shrinking. Money does play a role now, as the free spaces diminish and rents and prices increase; those who acknowledge their profit from the artists’ and cultural producers’ labor (in politics and in the economy), and therefore feel responsible to give something back to the context, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Two examples are the private collectors who pay the rent for the space where we ran Salon Populaire, and the company that sponsors all technical equipment we need to run a weekly program of conversations, performances, screenings, and political debate without any budget. The money we need to pay our own rent we all earn elsewhere. At the same time, Berlin is afflicted with a mayor who announced himself secretary of culture, and who very much likes to present himself as an art lover and friend of famous artists and curators – which is great as it shows his appreciation of the arts – but who in turn doesn’t feel any obligation even to ask for the needs of the artists whose off whose kudos he is. Shall the future be different in Detroit…? 

References   [ + ]

1. Klaus Biesenbach is now Director of MoMA P.S. 1.