Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Berlin Avant-Garde Takes Another Hit

Once upon a time, the 18th Century Podewils'sches Palais, built for Count Podewil, whoever he was, was the headquarters of the FDJ, an arts-and-crafts center, and the place where East Berlin bands wanting permits to play passed their proficiency and ideology exams. Starting in 1990, however, the former "House of Young Talent" became just plain Podewil, an arts center specializing in media art, avant-garde music, and dance. The music program in particular, curated by a woman named Elke Moltrecht, who must know everything there is to know about the current "out" scene, brought some amazing shows to town, and it was there that the Transmediale Festival held its first few years. Podewil also had money from the city to provide grants to artists wishing to work in Berlin, and the city's cultural scene was enriched by this. (Or, in some cases, not. But that's how it is with the avant-garde).

Now, I don't follow this city's cultural politics too closely, but somewhere along the way, a split developed between the more visionary (Podewil) and more academic (Transmediale) factions, and the latter won. Moltrecht and her merry crew were exiled to Ballhaus Naunystr. in Kreuzberg and the other folk moved into the Palais as Tesla at Podewil. Not that they were exclusively dull, although I never really saw anything on their e-mail newsletter that would induce me to walk over there for a show, because one thing they managed was to produce Zeitkratzer's famous live concert of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, at which Reed famously showed up himself. But far more frequently, Tesla showed the tired old art-proceeds-from-theory symptoms which make so much artistic production in Germany so dull.

Last week, though, Tesla got some bad news: the city, after only two years of funding, had decided to pull the plug. As they put it in their latest newsletter (original orthography preserved): "kulturprojekte berlin gmbh, which commissions t e s l a with the cultural program in the podewils'sches palais, has decided, together with the senator for the arts, to reverse a previously confirmed extension of t e s l a' s contract until 2008. our yearly budget of 500.000 euros will be completely redirected towards use for a cultural education program, the details of which remain to be more clearly defined. we will lose our space and our financial support at the end of this year."

I'm not positive, but there might be a subtext lurking here. Besides the city's wanting to save money -- they've been slashing away at the cultural budget without really addressing the question of how many opera houses we really need here, and if there isn't something that can be done with the orchestras, both of which suck up a lot more money than Tesla ever did -- there were several incidents in the past when the Podewil group were threatened with eviction so that one or another branch of the federal bureaucracy could move into this nice building. (Nice facade, anyway: behind it stretches a lot of rather grim DDR addition).

As for Ms. Moltrecht, she's hanging on, and her Interface Festival, which started Friday, is more star-studded than anything Tesla's done recently, but if you check the posters hanging around town, she's also gathered together an impressive array of sponsors to help her produce it.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Berlin's reputation as a center for artistic innovation owes plenty to Podewil and Tesla. No amount of play-it-again-Wolfgang opera productions is going to change this. Without support from the city, this scene can easily pick up and go somewhere it's wanted, and Berlin will cease to be so hip! and edgy! and become the provincial backwater so many elements here want it to be. The avant-garde thrives on synergy, so having a city chock-full of art galleries but no venue for cutting-edge dance and music is an empty triumph.

One wonders if anyone in the Rathaus cares.

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