Whether you’re “poor but sexy” in Berlin, or “rich but sexy” in Hamburg, creativity brings people together, attracts tourists, and keeps investor money flowing into the real estate market. How do artists, cultural producers and activists deal with their complicity in the production and marketing of the city?
In the Berlin project space am Flutgraben 3, concerned members of Berlin's independent art scene recently met with their Hamburg counterparts to sit down and compare stories. The meeting was hosted by Haben und Brauchen, a Berlin artists’ initiative formed two years ago in order to address the exploitation of artists' labor in a city where art is the tourist attraction par excellence. The ensuing debate, including impassioned contributions from audience members, was moderated by ethnologist and urbanist Kathrin Wildner. Tensions ran high, indicative of the urgency with which Berlin- and Hamburg-based artists combat escalating levels of gentrification in both cities. As I followed the heated discussion I realized that, as a foreign artist living in Berlin, I need to come to terms with this situation.
Members of the “creative class,” that “ultimate economic resource” so glorified by Richard Florida, find themselves in a strange double bind these days. Political intervention of any form, from public exhibitions and community events to occupying a building, seems to be embraced by city politicians as a form of subcultural ambience. From Hamburg's Park Fiction to Berlin's Oranienplatz refugee protest camp, when projects possessing high levels of public visibility and implied or overt critique are actively endorsed by local authorities, are the real issues at stake being addressed? Or does dialogue simply become a replacement for action?
Haben und Brauchen meeting, Image credit Jochen Becker.
Hamburg's Gängeviertel has been occupied by artists creating new formats to negotiate this tricky territory. Spokesperson Chistina Ebeling explains that the decision to take over the block of former workers’ houses was made consciously in order to prevent proposed developments from going ahead. The Hamburg City Council astoundingly responded by buying back the block from the investor involved, and forming a lease arrangement with the artists, who are building a community center onsite. A calculated decision: Hamburg's mayor at the time, who anecdotally turned up to Council meetings brandishing Florida's text as if it were the Bible, is well aware of the value artists bring to the city. But for artists, the situation remains precarious, dependent on short-term contracts and riddled with uncertainty.
As we well know, there is a pattern at work here repeating itself in varying constellations as cities shift from a blue, to a white, to a no-collar labor base, from proletariat to precariat. In the late 70s and early 80s in New York, unemployed factory workers were driven out of the Lower East Side by the economic rationalism of New York urban planning, no longer required by a city increasingly driven by service-based industry. It was the art scene that filled the freshly emptied apartments, cleaned up the area, and began its transformation into the hip (and expensive) Lower East Side of today.
The difference between New York of yore and the Hamburgs and Berlins of today is that artists now, everywhere, are not quite innocent pawns in these processes. The intensity and speed of gentrification has accelerated, and as a result, we have more than an inkling of knowledge about what is going on.
Artists are well-positioned to benefit from gentrification in the short term, as local councils recognize the benefits of creative activity and become more open to subsidized studio programs, community-driven art initiatives, and the like. However, such agreements can only be provisional and are naturally highly contingent on the real estate market. Moreover, once they become instrumentalized in this manner artists must to submit to an altogether different level of demands on their time and the autonomy of their practice. Public funding structures like Germany's “neighborhood management” (Quartiersmanagement) program demand results-oriented projects, not art-for-art's-sake, but art that fulfills a specific and predefined social agenda: the integration of migrants, community-building, or education-based projects targeting young people. In and of itself all very well and good, but this is precisely what Claire Bishop is talking about when she writes that artists' labor presents a cheap alternative to sustained public social services, a way to become “individually responsible for what, in the past, was the collective concern of the state.”
Sound dystopic? Berlin today lacks a minimum wage to protect both local and migrant workers, and continues a post-Cold War tradition of privatizing public space (the proposed development of Tempelhofer Feld echoes the construction of the Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz in the early 90s). In Berlin, tourists are taxed to visit a city famous for its art scene and subculture—but currently, none of this money flows directly back into Berlin's independent scene. According to the Haben und Brauchen Manifesto (2012), this situation is simply unsustainable: “the concept of culture is employed to promote the promise of a new creative economy, while the structures that would sustainably enable producers of this culture to work and survive are being dismantled in silence, or are collapsing.”
Image credit Erik Göngrich.
In Hamburg, where the gap between rich and poor is noticeably wider than in Berlin, the screw is tightening faster. “Hamburg is two years ahead of us,” says the spokesperson from Berlin's Haben und Brauchen. Last December, the planned demolition of a block of social housing (the Esso-häuser), coupled with the precarious situation of a group of 4,500 refugees stranded in Hamburg, escalated into a series of violent onsite clashes with police. Artists and activists grouped around Rote Flora, a twenty-five-year-old occupied theatre now also under threat of demolition, under the potent slogan “Die Stadt gehört allen!” (“The city belongs to everyone!”). Hamburg's recent history has seen a high level of concrete confrontation with these issues from tightly networked groups of artists and activists, although their approach is in no way unified. Rote Flora spokesperson Andreas Blechschmidt is politely disparaging of the above-mentioned attempts of Gängeviertel occupants to negotiate with the city council. “It is not enough to go begging appellatively to the politicians. You need other methods.” Blechschmidt's suggestions range from illegal interventions in public space to attacking police cars, but above all, he emphasizes the need to “stay unbearable.”
The Haben und Brauchen meeting that inspired this article sits at the other end of the spectrum. That its funding comes from the Berlin Senate demonstrates how much, indeed, the City of Berlin-Brandenberg appreciates its artists. Or, to formulate it differently, how important it is to Berlin that an artist lobby group remains cooperative. It's difficult, after all, to bite off the hand that is feeding you. As one highly frustrated audience member put it, this compromise means that “negotiations against” become “negotiations with,” action dissolves into discourse, and the optimism propelling political action collapses into the pessimism currently permeating intellectual debate in cultural theory. With the potential, I must add, that things might flip back in the other direction at any point in time.
Perhaps, on that point, “gentrification” is a misnomer that makes inevitable rent inflation, deflecting focus from the fundamentally optimistic struggle to secure access to our shared space in the decades to come. The clear impulse is to grasp for a city that provides space for everyone, regardless of nationality, regardless of earning capacity. As critical theorist David Harvey writes, there is no foregone conclusion to this struggle precisely because the “right to the city” no longer exists—if it ever did. Today, “the right to the city is an empty signifier. Everything depends on who gets to fill it with meaning. The financers and developers can claim it...but then so can the homeless and the sans papiers.” Artists can view themselves as being inescapably complicit with processes of privatization. Or we can act to reclaim the autonomy we never knew we had.
Relatedly, a controversy is currently brewing in my faraway birthplace, as artists participating in the Sydney Biennale have found themselves facing precisely this dilemma. Just last week, the arts scene became aware that the Biennale's private sponsor, Transfield, is thickly embroiled in the country's controversial and cruel offshore processing of refugees. A number of rightfully concerned Biennale artists drafted a carefully worded letter hoping to open negotiations with the Biennale management. The Biennale's response was standard: it will stand by its funding source. Meanwhile, clashes between refugees, police, and security officers in a detention center on Manus Island have led to the death of one and the injury of no less than seventy-seven refugees, upping the pressure on local and international Biennale artists to move in accordance with their ethics. Watch this space.
And please: “stay unbearable.”
(Update: Just today in Australia, five artists withdrew from the Biennale: Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt. Their statement here.)
 “Poor but sexy”: Berlin's catchphrase, formulated by Berlin Mayor Klaus Woworeit in 2004; “Rich but sexy”: the Hamburg would-be equivalent.
 Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, 2011, p. 14
 Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, 2011, p. xv
(Image on top: Sydney Biennale Protests, #Transfield #boycotttransfield #19BOS #refugees; Source- Twitter)