Monday, September 15, 2008

Tacheles Closing: Who Cares?

Back in 1998, I was the head of a group of people trying to put an English-language magazine together in the wake of Zitty having killed the one I'd been editing, Metropolis. At one point, we decided to dummy up a cover, and our genius art-director, Tanja, whipped out a nice image, a nice logo, and...all we needed was some headlines. So, looking at the current events around town, I came up with the one above. Unlike some of the other headlines on that cover dummy, there was no article to go with it.

Life imitates imagination, or something: a couple of people have e-mailed me a Guardian article on the latest crisis in the life of this unhappy space, and, after reading it, my response was familiar: who cares?

A little history: Tacheles was an idea ahead of its time, a shopping mall. Europeans were familar with market halls, in which food-vendors gathered in a covered space to protect themselves and their wares from inclement weather, and arcades, covered single-story collections of merchants, were also not unknown: see Leipzig, for instance. But a multi-story collection of varied businesses, including fashion merchants, was a new idea, and it didn't work. Before the bombs damaged the building, it was already derelict, since its promoters had gone bankrupt. And, like most of Oranienburger Str., it stood empty during the post-war DDR era. The communists didn't quite know what to do with Oranienburger Str., due to its Jewish history, other than to use the Neue Synagogue for peace-oriented rhetorical statements.

They also didn't know what to do about various derelict buildings all around East Berlin in the days when it was becoming evident that the government was about to fall. Communists are great when it comes to drawing up plans, less so about executing them. A list of old buildings scheduled for demolition was prepared, but there was a serious shortage of workers to actually perform the demolition. Immediately after the Wall opened, a photocopy of the list was circulated among people looking to squat East Berlin, and a number of prominent squats -- Eimer on Rosenthaler Str., the Italian art-junkies on Auguststr., the complex on Castanienallee -- were the result. But Tacheles was the first, inhabited by people who styled themselves artists. Who knows, they may actually have been artists at first. But by the time I caught up with Tacheles, it was just another squat, albeit one which loudly proclaimed itself for artists.

The thing is, I actually knew a lot of artists, and they didn't take Tacheles seriously -- not past its bar, anyway. The people who lived there seemed more provocateurs with dimly-defined politics than creators of anything serious. At one point, the city tried to normalize its status, offering, according to a long Berlin tradition of dealing with squatters which went back to the Charlottenburg squatters in 1968, for a token rent in exchange for the squatters bringing it up to fire and sanitation code. A split developed in the Tacheles crowd, with some wanting to take the city's offer, and others screaming "Art should be free! Down with the pig capitalists!" Word on the street was that the latter group involved a heroin-dealing ring tied to a larger organized-crime operation, and there were, in fact, several overdoses on the premises during this time.

The provocateurs wound up in Poland, I heard, trying to build a spaceship on a beach somewhere in the north. I also heard that those who stayed had reached an accommodation with a Swedish investment group which had bought the larger parcel of land, and were paying a token rent and improving the place. But, as the Guardian article points out, that deal is due to expire.

A little perspective here: an art-historian friend in Philadelphia e-mailed me some years ago that an artist from that city, armed with some grant money, was coming to Berlin to make some art, and game me his e-mail address so he'd know someone when he got here. He was looking for studio space at the same time some businessmen I knew were looking for office space. When the artist, who'd read so much about Tacheles, insisted on going there to inquire about a studio, he reported that they were incredibly hostile to him because he was American and because he had a grant. They also quoted him a price per square meter that was just under half what the businessmen had been quoted for space in one of the less expensive skyscrapers in Potsdamer Platz. Given that the Tacheles crew was paying a euro a year to Berlin for the property, someone was doing very well.

Thus, I had to laugh at the so-called artist who told the Guardian "This is the last place where you are free to be an artist." Puh-leeze. It might be the last place in Mitte -- except it isn't. When I first came to Mitte twelve years ago, it was heaving with alternative art spaces: Die Aktionsgalerie, Berlin-Tokyo, Haus Schwarzenberg, Eimer, and others which never had a name. Of these, only Haus Schwarzenberg remains, and in very different form due to the real-estate war which they won by going legal and buying their property with funds from an angel. But, much as I hate to break the news to the guy at Tacheles, behind the locked metal gate in Haus Schwarzenberg are a couple of wings in which actual real artists who have a place in the local and international art worlds work on art. No, there's no gift-shop there. They have galleries. And much as one hates to agree with the Berlin city cultural bureaucrat who said "Tacheles used to be a very exciting place with major cultural importance, but it isn't any more," he's telling the truth. About the only real cultural value the decaying hulk has any more is that occasionally Cafe Zapata will book a good band, but, as the article points out, Cafe Zapata and Tacheles only share space; they don't talk.

One other salient detail. The Guardian's headline calls Tacheles the "last stand of Berlin's bohemians," which is not only hyperbolic, but inadvertantly points out Tacheles' failure. Not to be too pedantic about it, but bohemianism is not a permanent state. It's a stage of development some people go through which may lead to a way of life, usually in the arts. But there's usually a point when each bohemian realizes that it's time to either get serious about their life-project or put on a suit and start looking for work. Tacheles' residents are bohemians, nothing more. They're not artists, no matter how many "galleries" of welded distorted shapes and weird photographs the place has. Bohemians, as residents of Montmartre and Greenwich Village know, are easy to sell to tourists. That keeps the tourists from disturbing the artists.

So Tacheles is soon to close. Who cares? I don't. Well, I do, but only in that what will replace it will be another episode in Berlin's vain chase for the upscale tourist dollar, which is almost certainly bound to fail. Oranienburger Str. has long since lost its hip! edgy! cachet to the pub crawling EasyJetters and mass-market clothing stores. And I care because I have memories of when the area was actually culturally vital, before real-estate speculators moved in and turned Berlin-Tokyo into the Beverly-Hills-on-bad-acid of the Rosenhof. But I've packed away those memories, just like I've packed away the memories of the magazine which was going to bear that headline. As long as Berlin stays poor and cheap, there will be bohemians and artists taking advantage of that fact. And once they've made a neighborhood interesting, the real-estate sharks will move in and the artists will move on and the bohemians will have their tough choices to make again.


Anonymous said...

Well written. I remember I discovered an authentic Tacheles when they had a mig-29 and vertical bus parked out the back. Every time I go back to Berlin I drop by the Tacheles thinking it is the same thing as it used to be. Recently I went to Kopei (KoepinickerStr. 137 ) to be reminded what an authentic squat is like (smelly dogs and lots of punks). While I agree that the Tacheles is now a tourist venue I still have fond memories and want to believe it's still authentic (which it isn't).

The times they are a changing as Bob said...

Anonymous said...

Well written indeed. Nothing has come from there unfortunately, but for a while it was a fun place to take tourists looking for that unique Berlin experience. It will not be missed - on the contrary, I'm kind of excited to see that end of Oranienburger Strasse become something... I'm not sure the current plans of the developer are the best way to do take advatage of that corner. But then again, the Tacheles is also an example of Berlin's other history - building stuff that no one really needs.

Let's hope for the best!

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

This is the last place where you are free to be an artist.

Perhaps the "artist" (there's something missing there, can you guess what?) who said that to the Graun meant it as in "anywhere else in Berlin/Europe/the world allows artists to be freer than this tourist magnet scamhole"?

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

1. Jason Burke is the Observer senior foreign correspondent.
2. The article could have been a lot worse. The mentions of Kopi and the internal problems betweem the Tacheles people, albeit (necessarily) briefly, show he does have some of the background, though I suspect he was given the "line" to produce by his Art editor. "Major Berlin tourist attraction is nothing but crap and full of English tourists on pub crawls, when will it finally be demolished" isn't the headline they were going for, I suspect.
3. 'It's like the New York scene in the Sixties,' said Amy Freed, 19, an American tourist. Does she have a time-travelling machine, or are the dealers back out in force at Tacheles? Presumably that's what she meant by the "Sixties" reference?

I note that the Guardian found the Biennale "captivating".

Ed Ward said...

Yeah, I loved that last one. If I'd been there when she said that, I'd have intoned "No, young lady. It's like Prague in the 1830s." Which I'd bet I know as much about as she does New York in the Sixties, ie, not a whole lot.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Ed, you made my day with that remark!

Anonymous said...

So wrong to say nothing ever came out of Tacheles! Joachen Sandig was one of the first legitimate leaders in 1990, and he went on to become instrumental in managing the nearby Sophien Sälle performance spaces in the mid nineties with his wife and collaborator, choreograher Sasha Waltz. They went on to open the RAdialsystem space on the river in Friedrichshain a couple years ago. Both are venues for world-class performance. Through Sandig, both the Sophien Sälle and Radialsystem are linked to Tacheles, in spite of how shabby it might have become. Anymore, I only go when my son Findan has a gig with a local rock band at Café Zapata, but when I'm there, I'm grateful Tacheles is a stage for young performers, and that like Sandig, Fin will go on to better things.