Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Crumbs From The Burden Of History

Not long after my last visit to Haus Bethanien, I went over there again to see a couple of so-so pieces done by people with Bethanien grants, and dragged along my painter friend, who I thought might welcome the opportunity to get out of his studio and into the real world. Not that Kreuzberg, and Bethanien in particular, is the real world, but it's realer than abstract painting, I guess.

Anyway, it didn't take any time at all to get from his house over to where the opening was, and we were early, so we took a walk around the surrounding neighborhood and stumbled on something that really spoke volumes about Berlin and its relationship to its own history.

Over in what must have been a corner of the city smack up against the wall is a collection of red-brick buildings which once apparently housed a school for young men. In a dark corner, shaded by large trees, there's a monument with an Iron Cross on it, a real rarity in this country. The monument has four brass plaques, one on each face, with the names of students from this academy who died "in defense of the Fatherland" during World War I. So far, so relatively unspectacular.

But at the base of the monument, there's another plaque, much more recent. On it is an inscription saying that after protests about the monument's existence were registered with the Kreuzberg borough authorities, a dialog was entered into, and it was decided to add this inscription making it clear that the citizens of Kreuzberg found this monument shameful and pledged never again to fight another war.

In other words, they couldn't stand the fact that this monument existed way over in the dark shade of the trees, but they couldn't take it down because it was Historic.


The Sauerkrautmeister, taking time off from the delightful little bundle of cabbage he and Ms. Arpa brought into the world recently, noted my mention of the 30-foot (I checked yesterday) aspirin in back of the Reichstag, erected there as part of the Germany: Land of Ideas campaign that's got a truly hideous pile of books at Bebelplatz and a rather generic car somewhere else. "I love that," he writes. "Guess where they got lots of human pain data to refine the formula?" Why, volunteers from the S&M clubs which flourished here during the Weimar Republic, right? No?

I guess what George Clinton said is true: "When you have a big headache, you need a big pill."


Last week the PEN International crew were in town for their annual convention, and a couple of them were waylaid by some of the folks who are now going to enthusiastically rebuild the Hohenzollern Schloss -- well, as soon as the Palast der Republik is finally demolished. Apparently the neo-royalists have given up on the idea of turning it into a shopping mall (we really don't need another shopping mall so much as we need the money that could be spent in one), and now it's going to be a giant museum! They're planning on putting the bust of Nefertiti, the Blue Gate of Babylon and who knows what else in there so tourists won't have to schlep from one of Berlin's museums to another! What a great idea: tourists here have little enough context with which to evaluate what they're seeing, so why not confuse them further?

The good news, of course, is that these bufoons still don't have one Euro to rub against another.


And, nothing to do with the Burden at all, but worth noting: among the flood of World Cup crap being dumped into the stores is one item that expresses my feelings completely: Butlers, a chain of stores selling cheesy "lifestyle accessories," is selling soccer-ball-print toilet paper. At €3 a roll.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Fussball Fieber!

Okay, pay attention, because I hope this is the last time I'm going to even mention this issue.

The World Cup.

The hype had already become unbearable three weeks ago, but now it's beyond insane. You literally cannot step outside your door here without being assaulted with it from all sides. As an example, let's go to the supermarket. Here, you can see an 850g jug of Nutella in the shape of a soccer ball, loaves of bread cut so that they get the markings of a soccer ball, FIFA cereal by Nestle, and Fussball Flips, which are the same as peanut flips (you Americans can think Cheetos only with peanut flavor instead of cheese flavor, and yes, they're quite good), only in the shape of -- you guessed it -- a soccer ball. Not to mention the dozens of other products which are running promotions geared towards giving away tickets, temporarily offering "limited edition" versions of candies in soccer-ball form, and the ads blaring over the loudspeakers with World Cup themes.

Billboards everywhere urge Germans to be friendly to the visitors (they've got an uphill battle here in Berlin) and on others, various stars of the local soccer team have donned garbageman's outfits to urge Berliners to sock it into the goal -- "it" being garbage and the goal being the widely-ignored orange trash cans on every block. Other ads urge the ticketless or travel-impaired to buy the add-on cable channel Premiere so they can watch everything, while yet others promote their business' teamwork by showing players. If the concept "goal" or "teamwork" or "good sportsmanship" can be wedged into an ad campaign, it wears shorts and jerseys.

All this for four games. Really: that's all that are going to be played here in Berlin, but one of them is the finale, the world championship game, at the Olympiastadion, and that's the one I really wanted to miss. Unfortunately, the latest in a series of professional catastrophies has all but guaranteed that I'll be here for the entire month of June and the first week of July, which is when the event happens. Besides the fact that this means that my move to France may be delayed by as much as another year, it depresses me that I'm going to have to stick around here for this silliness.

I've never been a sports fan, of any sport whatever. Maybe this is because of the fact that I'm one of those people of whom it can be said that the only thing me and my friends have in common is that we were the ones picked last in gym class in school when it came to choosing teams to play anything, be it baseball, football, basketball, volleyball... But even sitting in front of a television screen watching people who make in three months more than I'll ever make in my lifetime run around to the cheers of thousands is brain-numbingly boring to me. Going to an event is different. There, I'm much more likely to watch the crowd. In fact, I vividly remember the last baseball game I went to because of the three-generation black family which sat in front of me, all engaged in a lively discussion/debate about arcane baseball happenings that made no sense to me but certainly engaged all of them -- including the women -- to the max. Who was playing (well, it was at Yankee Stadium) I can't recall, nor can I remember who won. Or even if we stayed to the end of the game.

There's another element to this, too, which is more than a little puzzling, and that's the national team aspect. Germany is a place where expressing pride in the country is Not Done, or, rather, it's done, but gingerly. There was the "Du Bist Deutschland" campaign which I commented on a few months back, and there's the current "Germany: Land of Ideas" campaign that's resulted in, among other things, a giant aspirin being erected behind the Reichstag (aspirin having been invented in Germany, after all). But these campaigns have been viewed as rather radical and audacious moves.

It's no great revelation that soccer and nationalism can go hand in hand. After all, in 1969, El Salvador and Honduras fought a war for about a week which grew out of a melée at a soccer match. I can still remember the spontaneous parade of cars flying Brazilian flags which came out of nowhere as I was walking down Kantstr. the night that Brazil clinched the last world championship. Who knew Berlin had that many Brazilians? And I also remember German intellectual friends of mine a couple of World Cups back talking about how they hoped Germany lost because a German win would promote all the wrong things about the country, including the inflexible coaching the team had received. There's no doubt whatever that the kind of soccer fan who waves the German flag and paints the red, gold, and black on his face is viewed with suspicion by many. And given how poverty and nationalism can interact, there are reasonable fears being expressed at the moment about the potential for problems with darker-skinned visitors to the playoffs.

So beneath the commercial blitz, there's a feeling of unease. People want to support the German team, but maybe not too much. Every German win is a double-edged sword. It's part of the national neurosis, that good old Burden of History.

With these thoughts, I went back to the Bethanien with a painter friend the other night, and saw a couple of so-so installations. Afterwards, we went to a very good pizza joint on the banks of the Landwehrkanal and talked about -- what else -- the World Cup. He filled me in on some stuff I hadn't been aware of, most notably that Germany's coach lives and works in America, where he's been under the sway of some New Age-y kinds of influences which he's imparted to the team, much to the deep suspicion of German traditionalists. "What I'm hoping is that Germany has to drop out early, but the American team gets into the next round of playoffs," he said. "It'd serve them right." Not that he's rooting for anyone himself; he sees another Brazilian victory as a foregone conclusion.

After dinner, I was wending my way back to the subway when he said "Hey, you gotta see this bar. I hope it's still here. It's the smallest bar I've ever seen." We went down a street and, naturally, walked right past it, but it was there. Called, appropriately enough, the Mini-Bar, it has room for about ten people in it. (It may be the smallest bar he's ever seen, but he's obviously never been to Tokyo). We decided to go in and have a beer, just because the place had a couple of empty seats, and a few minutes later, two guys came in with a stack of flyers for the bar to put up. They, too, decided to stay for a beer, and one of them pulled a box out of a shopping bag he had with him. It was a cheap plastic toy called Euro-Kicker, and was...a miniature soccer game! The two struggled to assemble it, and it became a small playing field with regular circular depressions, in which you mounted a little player on a spring. The goalie went back and forth on a slider, and the idea was that the ball could be "kicked" by flipping one of the players, which would hit the ball in the depression and move it to another player. Hard as it was to believe, these two adult men got seriously into this game as we watched. I was certain it was ironic, but the painter said that he doesn't believe irony exists in Germany, and, whether or not he's right in general, he might have been right in the specific with this one.

Anyway, it's going to be hard to miss, much as I might want to miss it. The only billboards that are really speaking to my needs right at the moment are the ones from EasyJet, who are offering "Escape the World Cup" bargains to their various destinations.

Tempting, but I have to figure out a way to raise €3-4000 to get out of here. I've endured Berlin this long, I can endure a mere World Cup.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fresh Air In Berlin

No, this isn't a Berliner Luft joke. It's a commercial.

For over 18 years, I've contributed to what rapidly became one of America's top radio shows, Fresh Air. Its success is due to Terry Gross, the woman who invented the show, and her amazing interviews. She gets great stuff out of just about everyone she talks to (although Monica Lewinsky memorably walked out in mid-interview), and that's why millions of people tune in each day.

Now, National Public Radio, the American network which carries the show, has taken over the old RIAS frequency here in Berlin, 104.1 FM, and is broadcasting Fresh Air several times a day:

Tues-Sat. 0400, 1000, 1800. The 1800 show is the current day's show, picking up the feed from Philadelphia as the show goes out at noon over there. Monday's first two shows is the weekend "best of" edition.

You can get the show over the internet, a day late, and if you'd like to hear some of my pieces on your computer, you can just click here.

Since I've never lived anywhere I could pick up my own pieces on the radio, I consider this a sign that, finances and professional catastrophes notwithstanding, I'm about to move.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Bethanien Lied

It started like this: a friend in Arizona told me that the son of some friends of his was here in Berlin, working for a composer I'd never heard of, and suggested I get in touch. I did, and he turned out to be a smart guy, and he told me he was working on some concerts. I asked him to keep me in the loop.

Well, the first one was last night, so the dancer and I went. It was a nice evening, so we walked there. Always nice to get some exercise.

I knew in advance it wasn't going to be any normal thing. For one thing, it was being held in a squat, New Yorck Reloaded. For another, it was a concert of music by Cornelius Cardew, one of those composers who sounds a lot more interesting on paper than I had any reason to believe he'd sound in person.

Some background is in order here. First, Cardew. Cardew (1936-1981) was one of the leading British avant-gardists of his generation, and was an assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen for several years. At some point, he became seriously politically radicalized, espousing Maoist principles. In the mid-70s, he was awarded a DAAD grant and came to West Berlin. One of the causes he became involved with here was that of the Bethanien Hospital, a children's hospital in the Kreuzberg district which the city had decided to close and turn into an arts center. The surrounding community was alarmed because they figured they needed a hospital nearby, and Cardew, not unexpectedly, took their side. It was, after all, the side of The People. DAAD, being a government-funded organization, was not amused.

The Bethanien Hospital, and the part of Kreuzberg it inhabited, was in a sort of pocket in the East-West line, a bulge surrounded on many sides by the Berlin Wall. Thus, the real estate wasn't particularly valuable, and there may well have been good reasons for moving the hospital facility to a more central location. At any rate, an arts center it became, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, and it was a prime venue for avant-garde artists in all media.

Now, the other half of this story is Yorck 59. This was a squat at Yorckstr. 59, also in Kreuzberg, albeit a different part of it. (Back in the old days, Kreuzberg was a large Bezirk -- borough -- and was divided into two postal zones, Kreuzberg 36, the part nearest the Wall and where Bethanien stands, largely Turkish and radical young Germans, and Kreuzberg 61, closer to Tempelhof Airport and a good deal more gentrified. I used to say that people paired off in K36 and when the first kid came, moved to K61. Yorck 59 was in K61).

Now, as I understand it, there is a thing known as the Berlin Plan, which was successfully used in K 36, among other places in the city, and imitated and reproduced elsewhere, most notably Amsterdam. This was a situation where the city attempted to locate the owners of abandoned buildings which had been squatted, and, once they'd accomplished this, ordered them to make improvements by a certain deadline or lose the buildings. Many of K 36's buildings had been abandoned for years, and the owners were either unable or unwilling to maintain them. Once the buildings came into the city's possession, they worked with the squatters. The squatters had to make improvements themselves, which they were often highly motivated to do because they were living in the buildings. The city, which was rolling in money in those days, gave them grants for these improvements, and then helped them buy the buildings on ridiculously easy credit terms. Some of these former squats are model residences today, pioneering green building technologies like passive solar electricity and the like.

But for some reason, the Yorck 59ers didn't buy into this. Maybe they were ideologically opposed, or maybe their landlord decided to play ball with the city. At any rate, last summer they were forceably evicted by the police, and so they relocated to the empty buildings of the Bethanien. The walls of Berlin bloomed with posters about this, screaming about the fascist lackeys of the state and the like, and some enterprising anarchists printed up signs in an identical typeface to that used on the street signs of Berlin and overnight loads of streets became Yorckstr. (Of course, if you were lost, this was annoying, but these people seldom think about details like that).

And now, ironically enough, the cash-strapped city has decided to sell the Bethanien complex to a private developer, who wants to turn it into a multi-use, for-profit development with offices and small companies renting renovated space in the old brick buildings. Thus, the arts center -- and the Yorckers -- have to go.

So what we had last night was a "solidarity concert" in which the members of the Zwischentöne Ensemble, joined by pianist John Tilbury, one of Cardew's old pals, and Aleks Kolkowski, a violinist who also acts and plays around the improv scene, performed a number of Cardew's pieces on the premises of the Yorck squat in the Bethanien. Me, I was there because I was in solidarity with Bill the composer, and that's about it.

Once we finally found the place (no longer in its Wall-bubble, this part of town has become incredibly central, and is being developed like crazy, so all the landmarks I'd had from visits a few years ago had been either removed or changed beyond recognition) it was just as I feared it would be. Political slogans were scrawled on every flat surface, and although some were the expected support-for-Yorck variety, there were also loads of anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, anti-globalization ones. You weren't even safe in the bathroom from being reminded of the struggle in Chiapas and the imminent fascist threat, although I saw no one in black ski masks or brown shirts during my brief stay there.

The concert venue was very much a hospital corridor, narrow, with windows lining one side, and numerous small rooms. A couple had been blocked off for use by the bar, which was by donation only (I gave them five Euros for a beer, figuring to make a little contribution to the cause; I got three back), and in the one on the left of it, a cello, a marimba, and some music stands were set up. A guy with an accordion and a woman with a harmonica strolled around, making random bursts of dissonant sound. Kolkowski set up a music stand in the corridor and played a Cardew composition for solo violin. Then, some musicians filed into the left-hand room, and for a few minutes, improvised blasts of sound came out. (I was sitting down, tired from the long walk and not wanting to cram into the room with the majority of the crowd). After about ten minutes, a guy gave a hand signal to someone standing outside the door of the room to the right of the bar, and a piano-violin duet started up. This was followed by some more consonant music, which I would have recognized, had I been Chinese, as "The East Is Red." A couple of similar pieces followed, and another piano-violin duet, then the focus switched back to the other room for some more improv. Finally, all the musicians filed into the corridor and sang a revised version of Cardew's "Bethanien Lied," one of the kind of compositions that got him into trouble with the classical establishment of his time.

It was a catchy melody, ingeniously structured, and this, more than its content, was what pissed his contemporaries off: he was writing what amounted to popular music, protest folk music, instead of using his acknowledged virtuosity and the knowledge the Great God Stockhausen must have imparted to him. But I heard something else. Not only did I hear the word "gegen" (against) far more than I wanted to without ever hearing a balancing "für" (for), but, both in the words Cardew had written and the new words which, half-way through, turned from supporting a hospital over an arts center to supporting an arts center over an office building, I heard a naked attempt to link what is clearly (to me) a local issue to the international anti-this-and-that movement. As I listened, my eyes scanned the photos of Chiapas, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and other trouble spots on the wall and then I looked at the Yorckers, children of one of Europe's fattest economies who could choose to live in the squalor they were living in because there was a social support system in place that really reduced the risk of doing so, looking righteous and self-satisfied, and I decided that when they stopped singing, I'd get out of there as fast as I decently could. The young composer was going to lead a discussion with Tilbury and Kolkowski, and another guy I knew was going to translate (Berlin really is a village sometimes), but I hope neither was insulted. I'd just had enough of radical politics, K 36 style, for one evening.

For the record, from what I know, I think it's both cynical and short-sighted for the city to abandon the Bethanien arts complex. Cynical because it's being done for the cash, short-sighted because it's yet another blow to the dying Berlin arts scene, where the opera companies get the money and the rest of the more innovative artists can fend for themselves. I'm less inclined to be supportive of the Yorck 59 movement, (again, from what I know) because there seems to be an element of "we're righteous so you owe us" to their situation, in common with a couple of other similar institutions around town which, unsurprisingly, are united in solidarity with them. I think it would be a great idea if these people could focus on the strictly local issues involved in the Bethanien problem because then, and only then, can a decent solution come out of it. Save Bethanien, and then worry about Chiapas, because -- and this time it's only a surmise -- I don't think the Chiapas Indians are much concerned about Bethanien?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

And Here's The Answer!

Clearly great minds think alike. As I was downloading the pictures I took on Monday's Mayday stroll through Prenzlauer Berg, a journalist at Welt am Sonntag was writing the story of the building whose picture I'd taken and about which I wrote yesterday. It was the party headquarters, as I'd thought, and later became the Institute for Marxist-Leninism.

But what I didn't realize, and the article mentions, is that it was built in 1928-9 by a Jewish businessman, Hermann Golluber, to house a department store where one could buy on credit -- surely, in those days of rampaging German inflation, a welcome thing. The Nazis made trouble for him, and he and his wife emigrated to America.

And this is why it's still empty. After use as a central headquarters for Nazi youth organizations, it was taken over by the East Germans after the war, but according to the post-unification laws, it's the property of Golluber's heirs, some of whom are in America, others of whom are in Israel. They want a cool €7 million for it, in case you want to open a nightclub or bowling alley of your own and aren't scared by the ghosts which must walk the corridors. And I haven't been inside, but my guess would be that it's a fixer-upper.

(Thanks to Karen for the info!)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Speaking of the Palast...

...what do you suppose this venerable building is? It stands, forlorn, at the corner of Torstr. and Prenzlauer Allee, and has been empty the entire time I've been in Berlin. I have never seen any sign of human life around it, and graffiti and handbills which are attached to it vanish very quickly. The area around the front doors is strewn with garbage, which seems never to be taken away, and all of the windows are sealed tightly.

The only clue is two metal plaques, vaguely visible here, attached to two of the pillars. They commemorate Otto Grotewohl and Wilhelm Pieck, both of whom, it says on the inscriptions, worked here until 1964 and 1960, respectively.

Grotewohl was the chairman of the SED, the ruling party of East Germany, and was its prime minister from 1949 to 1964, when he died. Pieck was the former chairman of the Communist Party of Germany, a great friend of Stalin's, and president of East Germany until his death in 1960. He was, in many ways, a hero, but his sucking up to Stalin tarnished him in the eyes of many leftists, and his son, who was also an East German politician, was an out-and-out toady, and is detested by many today.

Not so coincdentally, Torstr. was known up to about ten years ago as Wilhelm-Pieck-Str., and changed a couple of weeks after I moved into the apartment I currently live in. At this building, the street changes its name to Mollstr.

So it's pretty clear what this building was. Or, rather, sort of clear. The Palast der Republik, currently being dismantled about a mile from my house, wasn't built until 1973-6, but I assume this building served the same function. Still, neither the vintage 1965 map I rescued from the garbage at my first apartment, nor the aged Falkplan map I still use indicates that this building is even there, although each identifies other notable structures.

Berlin club-goers of some few years back may know this building because behind it, in a building that's now been renovated and is standing empty in hopes of chic businesses renting capacious units there, was a club called Cookie's. I'm told this is because the host was someone named Cookie, but it's appropriate because there were at the time still signs which identified the hulk as the Stadtbäckerei, or city baker. Yup: in a communist society, things like the baking of bread were centralized, and this was the factory which ground out the fabled Ostschrippen, the small white bread rolls which were the staple of a half-million Berlin breakfasts, and which, after the city was reunified, were in great demand by residents of this side of town, who felt the Schrippen they were now buying were dry and tasteless. (I have had Ostschrippen, and found them mushy and almost raw in the middle, not a pleasant sensation).

The symbolism of the provider of government and the provider of bread standing back-to-back is almost overwhelming, I have to say, and I think about it every time I start up the hill to visit the folks I know up there. (It's fruitless to attempt this with public transportation, because it takes longer than it does to walk). For some reason, unlike the Palast, it's still standing, mute and anonymous. But to this day, not a word is whispered, not a clue is offered, as to the identity of this hulk, dirty and empty, on the corner of Torstr. (formerly Wilhelm-Pieck-Str.) and Prenzlauer Allee.

Why, you'd think Berlin was afraid of its history, wouldn't you..?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Matters Technical

Sorry, folks, but I'm having to turn on word verification for comments. As you can see, some creep has started leaving comment spam here. These people make me begin to reconsider my opposition to the death penalty.