Sunday, September 21, 2008

New Old Blog

In September, 2001, I took a three-week vacation in Japan and kept a journal. I also took a bunch of photos, and when I got back, I sent the results to my friend, the late Bob Watts, who was art director of Salon, and he fashioned the whole thing into a website with an astonishing border made up of odd Japanese art.

It occurred to me not long ago that this was, in its primitive way, a blog, and so I decided, at some point, to turn it into one. As of this moment, the text is up, and a very few photos, but I'll be building it up a bit more in the days to come.

It is, for reasons I'll explain when I get around to writing a 2008 introduction, a bit of an odd document, but if you're interested, it's over here, at least in the early stages.

I'll post again when it's finished. There may also be another announcement this week. Or not. It's too early to tell.

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.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Another Restaurant We (Probably) Won't Be Eating At

Jay Rayner, a food critic at the Guardian, had an unusual experience at a Chinese restaurant which he felt worthy of a blog-post the other day. To summarize, he ate at a place, liked it very much, decided to review it, and was shocked when the paper's photographer was denied permission to photograph it. Poor Jay can't imagine why this happened, why this Szechuanese restaurant (or maybe not: see the comments) didn't want his publicity.

I sure can. And I say this as a former professional restaurant reviewer myself.

Ethnic restaurants are often there primarily to provide a service for an ethnic clientele, a taste of home far from home, a place where people not living in the extended families they came from can enjoy Mom's (or Grandma's) cooking, as best it can be replicated elsewhere. I don't know London well, so I can't say if Bethnal Green is a part of town with a large recently-arrived Chinese immigrant population, but it's entirely possible that it is. Rayner makes the point that he and his companion were the only two non-Chinese in the place. Well, yes. And while I'm willing to assume that Rayner knows his Chinese food, I'm far from willing to make that assumption when it comes to his foodie readership. If a lot of them show up, they're likely to stick to a few dishes, or even complain if what they get isn't to their taste. Like the guy who owns the joint should care.

This, Rayner should realize, is what reviews do. I remember when a friend's restaurant got a four-star review in the San Francisco Chronicle: he said it was the worst day of his life there. They were mobbed for about a month with people who never came back but made insane demands on them anyway. The regulars were driven away because they couldn't get in. And, of course, after the sheep headed to the next hot place, they were empty. He and the crew solved this by going to places in town where they were known and ordering a beer or a sandwich or something and loudly going "Wow, I'm sure glad the rush from the Chronicle review is over" so that word got out that they'd like to see some familiar old faces in the place.

There's also a more sinister possibiltiy to why Gourmet San's proprietor doesn't want attention. On the corner near my old place, where White Trash started, there was, for many years, a restaurant called Kaiser des Chinas, which was so bad even Germans wouldn't eat there -- or, not twice. But it was huge, and it stayed open for years, even though hardly anyone went there. One morning I went to take out the trash, and in the trash bin were a bunch of waiters' wallets -- empty. I wondered where they'd come from, then, later that day, noticed that Kaiser des Chinas wasn't open. There was no note on the door or anything. And it stayed closed. Then, when Wally was moving White Trash in there, I stopped to say hi, and asked him if he had a clue what had happened. "Not really, but they got out in a hurry. Here, come in the kitchen." And there, in a long line of bowls, were things like mushrooms and onions and so on, all withered up, but all measured out as they would be if an order came in.

I mentioned this later to someone who knew a bit about the Berlin underbelly, and he said "Of course, don't you know how places like that work? They open up, they've got, say, eight staff, all of whom have legal ID they've acquired legally. But they count on the inability of the Berlin cops to recognize other races: they all look alike to them, so that although there's a guy with a card that says Li Weng, Li's cleared out long ago to another city, and an illegal immigrant has taken his place. As soon as the organization's found a place for New Li Weng, another one takes his place. It's not only the Chinese and Vietnamese places, the Indian ones do this, too." Legal Li probably has a way to replace his "lost" papers once he gets to Cologne or whatever the next stop is, and he's now a step up in the organization. That also explains why the food in these places is no good: they're not predominantly interested in the restaurant business, so they all work off the same template of recipes.

I prefer to think that Gourmet San is like many another ethnic restaurant: they welcome knowledgeable non-ethnic patrons, because they're there for the food, not because it's a hot new place someone's discovered. They treat the proprietors and other patrons with respect, and don't impose cultural stereotypes on their experience there. This goes equally for the Indian guy who goes to a good French restaurant and the British patron who walks in Gourmet San's doors. (And, although I don't want to get into German-bashing just now, it's part of the reason why there are so very few good ethnic restaurants in Berlin). And, the title of this post notwithstanding, I'd go there, especially if I could go with, say, Fuchsia Dunlop, whose amazing Szechuan cookbook has provided me with a disproportionate number of good meals since I bought it. (And I suggest you click the link and get it yourself). Or with anyone else who spoke either Szechuan or Mandarin.

Finally, a word of advice for Mr. Rayner: any restaurant reviewer who doesn't want to get "rumbled," as he says, shouldn't allow his or her photo to appear anywhere, ever. This is such a basic thing that I'm amazed I was staring at his face right there on the top of the page. But that's part and parcel of why he was shocked Gourmet San didn't want his review: he's under the impression it's about him. And it's not.

(Thanks to bowleserised for the tip!)