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Letter from Berlin

The world's artists have moved to Berlin. It has cheap studios, cheap flats and cheap beer. It's poor but sexy. And you can pick up a free trampoline on your way to work

By Julian Gough   August 2007

I’m walking along Linienstrasse, a quiet residential street in former East Berlin, on my way to work. I slow to check out the new graffiti. A Banksy! And 16 new tags by Calyba, or Kalyba, a local graffiti artist so inept he can’t spell his own name.

Ah, a nice chair on the pavement. I turn round, take it home, continue my walk… Ah, a small trampoline. We don’t have a trampoline. I carry it home… No rush. Lovely sunny day. No insects. Berlin doesn’t really do insects. No idea why.

I don’t really know Berlin; nobody does, because there’s no such place. There’s just a bunch of tightly packed urban villages with nothing in common, not even their history. Some of them were communist until fairly recently. Some were capitalist. But now they’re pretty much neither. Communism didn’t work out, and capitalism’s looking pretty shaky here too, with 16 per cent unemployment and a vast €60bn city debt. And they’re certainly in no hurry to try nationalism and socialism again. Berlin has the stunned look of a city that wishes big ideas would just leave it alone for a while.

  Here in Mitte, the balconies are falling off the DDR-era flats. The DDR didn’t have enough cement, so it used extra sand. Berlin has a lot of sand. Berlin built a whole city on sand, in defiance of biblical advice. Maybe that explains a lot.

Berlin! City of confident women and frightened men! Berlin! City of depressed architects and happy anarchists!

After 1989 they built for the future, and it didn’t arrive. What did arrive were artists. Hundreds of thousands of artists. A plague of artists. From everywhere. The world has outsourced its art production to Berlin. Berlin is to bad modern art what China is to plastic cats which wave one arm up and down in a lucky manner.

Artists need three things: cheap flats, cheap studios, and cheap beer. Plenty of small towns and gruesomely distant suburbs offer that. But artists, notoriously unrealistic, also want to live in the heart of a big city with a thriving gay scene, terrific public transport, great nightclubs and a slightly edgy sense of danger, without it actually being dangerous.

Berlin is currently the only city in the world which ticks every single box. It’s a city built for 4.5m people that only contains 3.5m. It has 100,000 empty flats, and more empty industrial buildings than full ones. Minutes from Berlin’s contemporary art museum, the Hamburger Bahnhof, artist Thomas Demand and Icelandic art-star Olafur Eliasson share a factory the size of the moon. For the same price in Manhattan, near Moma, they would get somewhere to store their shoes. Some of their shoes.

Yes, as Berlin’s gay, club-going mayor, Klaus Wowereit, said: “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy.” “Poor but sexy” is Berlin’s “I heart NY”: it’s on the T-shirts, it irritates the locals, and it captures a big truth in a small space.

My true love and I were evicted from our house in Galway, for non-payment of rent. (A writer and an artist, trying to pay a Celtic tiger city-centre rent! See what I mean? Loose hold on reality.) The flow of history, expressed economically, pushed us toward Berlin, like a gentle hand in the small of the back. Budget airlines have lowered the friction that holds artists in place. We emigrated by Ryanair, for €1. All our possessions, reduced to a Ryanair luggage allowance. And Berlin flats don’t even have lightbulbs when you move in.

On the upside, Berlin has a gift economy. Everybody just leaves their old stuff on the street. If you want to start your life again, for free, from scratch, do it in Berlin. It’s a magical, constantly recirculating river of ever-older crap.

There are shops in east Berlin. Kind of. But they sell only the shoulderbags of one designer, or only bicycles and phone chargers, or only second-hand vinyl records from a certain Caribbean island.

The old communist joke was, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” It has turned into the new capitalist joke: “We pretend to run a shop and you pretend you’ll buy something.” Now, half the shops are art galleries. It’s like a small child’s idea of a balanced economy.

As I walk down Gormannstrasse, a window opens and Rasmus Hansen leans out, says hi. He runs an art gallery in his bedroom. I walk on, turn on to Torstrasse, past a former butcher’s shop, Fleischerei, with its unplugged freezer cabinets full of art. Art flickerbooks, art T-shirts, art art. The guys sit out front on the steps, looking glum. The building has a new owner. Above us, scaffolding, wrapped in plastic with a Nike ad on it.

Round the corner, the sex shop just closed down. Brunnenstrasse is gentrifying so fast you can see it happening in real time, art galleries spreading up Brunnenstrasse like fungus in a wet shoe in the tropics. The New York galleries are opening outposts. Berlin is briefly the centre of the western art world. It won’t last long, the rise, the fall. Everything’s sped up.

I pass two skips. They’re gutting the old hardware shop, to make a gallery. The young Scottish artist Kevin Harman is standing in one skip, building a sculpture out of the rubble of gentrification. No permission, no gallery, just the joy of doing something that isn’t for money. Tomorrow the builders will take it away. “Looking good, Kev,” I say. I climb into the other skip and start to do the same.

Another day at the office, in new Berlin.

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