Sunday, 25 September 2016

Social Distortion on Unscene Berlin

http://unsceneberlin.blogspot.de/2016/09/social-distortion-what-berlins-election.html
Right wingers across the world are claiming that the CDU's fall in popularity in Berlin is due to their pro-immigration, pro-asylum stance, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Read what the Berlin election results really meant here

Give Up Activism on Unscene Berlin

http://unsceneberlin.blogspot.de/2016/09/give-up-activism.html

I just posted a new entry on Unscene Berlin. Check it out here or by clicking on the image above!

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Right Way To Be "Left"




One Cause, One Tribe

At Easter weekend, I went to the talk by Spiral Tribe members at Mensch Meier.  Taking place in a wood paneled bar area that was full of yellow-lit smoke and boozy air, the talk had the ambiance of being at a 1920's meeting of banned radicals in some working man’s club (albeit one that was plastered in absurdist posters and satirical signs from modern Berlin).

Instead of working men, the place was bustling with a restless, flushed cluster of Generation Y techno hippies.  The strikingly youthful Tribe members didn’t look much older than their audience, despite being part of a much earlier rave generation.

They were energetic and chatty and seemed up for a debate, but it wasn't forthcoming from the crowd which was awed and sitting back in typical German reverence, allowing the speakers to say their piece, and the wisdom to seep in.

One comment sticks in my mind, which was made by Debbie of Spiral Tribe. She said,  “We’ve been together for 25 years and it hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole time. There are some big personalities in the collective. We haven’t always gotten along.  It takes a lot of hard work to stick together.”

It resonated with an off-the-cuff comment made by Laurie Penny, two weeks later, when she was speaking at HAU.  It was something to the effect of, “We should avoid perfectionism in left wing.” About a third of the people in the audience sat up and started nodding their heads in affirmation. 

Maybe it's because Penny's talk was also taking place in a wood-paneled theatre with a 1920's ambience - a place where you could imagine Rosa Luxemburg giving a speech to a disgruntled crowd, back in the day - but I connected her words with what the Tribe members had said two weeks earlier. A new consensus seemed to be suffusing Berlin's linke scene about the right way to be left. 


There is good reason for people on the left to have divisiveness on their minds, lately.  On the news, and on social media, the leftists that we see most often are those who take a critical stance: ranting and raging at each other, calling each other out over this badly-phrased thought or that impulsive tweet, exposing one another as less liberal or tolerant than their comrades are.  We're also regularly force fed images of 'activists' who are dressed identically in black and who are attacking cops that seem to be dressed for a round on Robot Wars.

There is a common theme underlying both kinds of coverage: in it, we only ever see the left wing in a state of attack and rejection, rather than a state of defense and inclusion. At a subconscious level, this preconditions us to view activism as a war on order, a retaliation, a negation: removing and destroying what it says is 'bad' rather than creating and implementing what it says is 'good'. This isn't a balanced view, but perhaps it's the only view that the media is capable of giving us. Media is a mirror that only reflects what it knows how to see, and conformist execs who sacrifice their lives to the 'cause' of higher ratings will tend to identify more closely with activists who seem to behave the same way.

The modern anarchist scene, especially, has been reduced in the media's lens to a one trick pony that uses purely aggressive means to achieve 'the revolution'. Unfortunately there are anarchists who definitely embrace that view, and the media welcomes them all with open arms; each act of vandalism they take part in is recorded and replayed gleefully.  The media pounces on such incidents - not, as some activists like to think, because they are scary or even newsworthy, but because they reinforce the popular view that anarchism is a fringe movement, depriving it of the mass appeal that could make it a real threat.

By limiting themselves to forms of attack that the authorities are perfectly equipped to repel, these kinds of anarchists are an absolute godsend to the system. To watch them in action is to believe that everything that exists beyond the confines of capitalism is bleak and angry, humourless, painted black and, usually, on fire with its windows smashed in.  Who would ever really want to live there, let alone stand in solidarity with the people who already do?

Many anarchists would tell you that capitalism's underlying mentality is the one that truly is bleak and deadly. Indeed the likes of McDonalds, Primark, Ikea et al, shield themselves with a carnivalesque array of products in a rainbow of colours, tastes and sounds that mask their destructive business ethos; they paint their brands in shades as vibrant as the planet used to be before capitalism came along.  While not every activist out there feels the need eschew everything that's beautiful and enjoyable - fine arts, music or even happiness and hope - in their efforts to distance themselves from the system, those that do tend to get a lot more representation in the media. The more repellent the better, seems to be the mantra.

Instead of fighting back against this marginalization though, I increasingly see activists mirroring the mass media's approach: cherry-picking the traits that they like best from within their own scenes, and discarding those that don't reflect a rather purist ideal of perfection.  For example, I recently heard about a certain queer collective in Berlin that is refusing to admit anyone who wears dreadlocks or ear plugs, on the grounds that such styles amount to 'cultural appropriation'.

Leaving aside the question of which culture can claim to the be the true originator of dreads or plugs, is that even a practical model of how the left can achieve meaningful social change - through exclusion based on looks alone? Or is it another case of leftists slotting themselves into a pre-exisiting media construct, limiting their efforts to negation and division?

Being More Than Just "Against"

Stories like the one above make me want to put my head in my hands.  In my own activist lifespan, I’ve witnessed materialist anarchists bashing pagan anarchists; first-wave feminists being trashed by third-wave feminists; queers trashing trans people; vegans getting trashed by vegetarians.  For a while, all this griping and sniping nearly put me off politics altogether.

Eventually, though, I realized that rejection is is just the first step on a long road that takes you from the lesser person that society says you are, to the better person that you can be. Recognizing a bad pattern of behaviour is the first step, but dealing with it is the essential second one. Attack, denial and avoidance are all just ways of postponing the hard work that's involved in doing that... but again, they are the only modes of reaction that the media ever presents us with.  Little wonder, then, that some destructive behaviour sinks in to the best of us.

In an age where people socialize alone, through the medium of a computer screen, the habit of unfriending and blocking people who one disagrees with has become an almost unquestioning first resort for dealing with disagreement, using a third party server to whitewash undesirables instead of facing them head-on.  Each time this happens, the prospect of true unity - which takes effort, as Spiral Tribe so effortlessly explained - grows dimmer.

This tendency to reject rather than reform is hardly a modern issue for activism, nor is it even a Berlin issue. Way back in the 1940's, Orwell was already griping about the hyper-critical tendencies of his contemporary lefties:

"The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power." [From 'England Your England', 1941]

Besides, arguing over the "right" way to be feminist, socialist, environmentalist seems like it's kind of a waste of energy when there's an ever-present threat that one might be beaten, raped, exploited and murdered.  But maybe that's just my weirdly subjective view, getting in the way of the bigger picture...?

However, I also don't believe that the left wing scene should turn a blind eye to unethical behaviour in its own ranks - just that it should try confronting it instead of shouting it down or shutting the door in its face.  We all have colleagues, school friends, neighbours and family members who sometimes say racist, sexist or other stupid things, but we carry on making the effort to relate to them a) because we have to and b) because we want to.  We’re deeply enough entwined in their existence that we can see the benefits as well as the drawbacks in the relationship.  Why should it be any different with our fellow activists?


Even as I'm writing these words though, I'm aware that they also sort of fall into the category of critical statements. So far, I haven't actually said anything about what the left wing activist scene can do to become more balanced.

Perhaps action groups could try organizing meetings where the only goal is for people to share their personal, everyday experiences and backstories... without judgement.  A safe and non-defensive space for leftists is sorely lacking in activism today, and it has been as far back as I can remember - except for that short period of time when Reclaim the Streets was active in London.  Their approach was entirely flexible, leaving decisions and reactions up to everyone; the only mandate seemed to be to stick together and stay on the streets.

Activists still need that kind of a space where they can just be together; where the ever-present pressure to be the "best" or the "most egalitarian" person is gone.  They need a place where they can create a balanced scene by being a balanced person, who is allowed to have strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs.  And they need space to experiment, too, instead of expecting to hammer out the perfect rhetoric and then go about fixing the world without any doubts or hesitations whatsoever. Rhetoric has a dangerous tendency to narrow the world down to blacks and whites, when it's mostly made up of grey areas. 

Any unstructured meet-up could achieve that same result as a street reclaiming action.  Hanging out, making music together, having a picnic or party. Alternatively, one could organize a 'talking stick' group where people take turns to talk freely about any subject that comes to mind without fear of accusation or rejection.   This would make it easier for activists to see each other as people, works in progress rather than just symbols of a cause.


The above map from Muckety.com shows some of the business interests and politicians that are linked to Monsanto

It's funny how the leading corporate and political bodies never seem to limit themselves to working with people that have the exact same sets of beliefs that they do. They don't just choose Christian or white male partners to work with, either at home or abroad. The Bush administration was infamously happy to work with the Taliban until September 11th happened, and competing companies merge to increase their profits all the time. The powerful aren't closed minded about exploring all avenues and alliances to get what they want. They definitely don't limit themselves to meeting up at massive conferences full of allies they barely know and swapping strategy tips - which is what many left wing meetings and protests are like.

No: they also meet in restaurants and bars, go on holidays together, and party together. They sleep together, have families together, and live in communities that they established together. They also argue together... and then stay together in spite of it all, much as Spiral Tribe itself has done.   In fact, you could say that the super-wealthy are a sort of dark twin of freewheeling music collectives like Spiral Tribe.  They spend an inordinate amount of time in direct personal contact and stick together no matter what kinds of scandals hit them.  The capitalists of the world are defined by a tendency to form larger and larger alliances, not to subdivide and self-segregate as the left wing currently does. 

Now look at how they tell us plebians to act, by comparison; they say, "Vote on our own.  Stand on our own two feet.  Express yourself.  Rely on yourself.  Be your own boss.  Strike out on your own. Stand out from the crowd. Be unique."  And all the while they speak as a faceless & unified collective.  It's a stark an illustration of, 'Do as I say, not as I do' as there can be.  Why? Because they know that, if we did as they did, we’d suddenly become a force to be reckoned with.  

In order for any activist movement to be as effective at attracting and maintaining the support of the masses as capitalism has been, it would have to be just as integrated, and become as relevant on every level of our lives as capitalism currently seems to be.  No matter how "unrelated" to the cause an activity might seem, if people are doing it, it should be incorporated into the rhetoric... somehow. And if it cannot be incorporated, then it's probably the rhetoric that needs to change, not the people.

Many modern activists seem to believe that it should be the other way around - that they should abandon any parts of their lives that don't fit the rhetoric.  This is a surefire way to open up a chasm between the cause and the people affected by it.

The left wing really can't afford to be elitist, in times like these. There aren't enough Spiral Tribes around, but there are countless Money And Power Tribes in the world and the only way to even out that balance is to find a way to work together, even when it's hard. Especially when it's hard. The answer isn't to diss the tribal mentality or 'rise above it', it is to embrace it. When the media is so clearly desperate to fragment society at the grassroots level, then the only possible defence is to become even more whole.  

It also just makes sense. Because, eventually, you run out of things to stop, reject and be against.  After that, you’re left with whatever you are and the strange, discomfiting fact that it is all that you will ever have to work with.  That's when the real work starts to happen. 

Breaking up is easy, but sticking together?  That's the real test of one's ideals.



FOR ANOTHER ARTICLE LIKE THIS ONE, CHECK OUT THIS POST ON UNSCENE BERLIN BLOG.



Friday, 20 November 2015

Terrorism follows a scary logic. The system's logic is scarier.




Not long after moving to London in 1997, I went to the tube station one night to take the train to my boyfriend's place, only to find out it had been closed due to a "bomb alert".  I got the bus and met him anyway, telling him the story of my close encounter with terrorism with wide-open eyes. 

"Oh no," my boyfriend said and clapped his hands to his face, parodying the look on my face.  "Not a bomb threat... we're all gonna dieee!"

As he fell about laughing I asked him, earnestly, why he thought that someone putting a bomb on the train was so funny.

"They have those threats every week," he said, composing himself. "Nothing ever happens.  Well, maybe there is a bomb but so what?  There's nothing they can actually do to stop some nutter getting on the train and blowing it up."  

It made a cool, rational kind of sense that I couldn't argue with.  There was no way to neutralize the threat of a bombing, even though the panic alarm of fear ringing in my head made me want to race around trying to find a way to deal with it.

That's the same alarm that people are hearing now, in the wake of the latest terror attacks on Paris and Brussels, etc.  But it's an irrational alarm. 

Ever since 9/11 the media has been acting as if there's something that can be done about terrorism, but they're wrong and they know it.  Terrorism is not new, and it's not the preserve of any one group.  It endures because it's so extreme.  It's also rare because it's so extreme.

In 1999, I was still living in London when, one day, a customer in my pub told me that his boyfriend had been blinded in the nail-bombing attack on a gay bar in Soho.  Another friend of his was walking with a crutch after losing his leg in the same attack.  In 2005, I got up late for work one day, only to discover that the train I was meant to board for work had been blown up by a group of radical, Islamic Britons with bombs in their backpacks. 

By then, I had realized that what that first boyfriend had told me was true: no amount of planning in the world can prevent a terrorist attack.  That's why it's a very successful strategy for scaring the hell out of people.  A terrorist is malevolent, determined, and can go unnoticed when he's living in a massive, faceless urban centre. That helpless realization makes our fear explode with more force than a dozen suicide bombs.

Because, how do you protect everyone in a dense urban sprawl, when a network of disguised madmen are running amok, armed and dangerous? The answer is you don't. You can't.  The threat is always there whether you are aware of it or not.  Dense urban sprawls contain plenty of  murderers and rapists, serial killers and child molesters, power mad cops, corrupt politicians, gay bashers, neo-Nazis and gangsters.

The last time that there was a serial rapist on the loose in London, though, I don't recall the government issuing a code red alert.  I don't recall them telling every man in the city that he should stay indoors and not approach women or else he would be considered as a suspect, beaten and possibly shot. 

Why, then, is this deemed an acceptable response when there is a terror threat on the go?  Why suspend all civil liberties or treat peace activists like they're a threat, without provocation or explanation?

Because we tolerate it, and we don't stop and think about how little sense it makes. 

Terrorism plays on our worst fears about what can go wrong someone throws a spanner in the works in a sprawling urban centre.  But then, so do escalator fires, train crashes and mall roof collapses.  The thing is, escalator fires and train crashes are usually caused by  political and corporate wrongdoing, whereas terrorism is a usually caused by an  individual, ideological wrongdoing.  When individuals and idealists are to blame, our leaders are only too happy to pull out all the stops and stamp the problem out.  But for some strange reason, ordinary citizens are forbidden from taking the same hardline approach toward their leaders when they fuck up.  (See: Guantanomo Bay, Jean Charles de Menezes etc).  The blame only ever flows in one direction, which speaks volumes about another kind of tyranny.

Besides, history shows us that peace only actually comes out of listening to terrorist factions and taking their demands seriously. Stomping them out does not work.  George W. Bush infamously said that the American government wouldn't negotiate with terrorists, but the US utterly failed to kick the Taliban's ass and actually hastened the spread of radical Islamic factions in the Middle East.   The UK government, on the other hand, finally tried to negotiate with the IRA after almost a century of bloody skirmishes and, lo and behold, peace was established within a few years.  Lesson learned.

Except it wasn't.  Every terror attack that has happened since 9/11 has resulted in ham-fisted overreactions that seem intended to inflame the situation. Could it be that that is exactly what they are designed to do?

'Fighting' terror doesn't work, yet many policy makers and media shakers embrace it.  Why?  The fact is, going into military overdrive has huge financial benefits for the well-connected rich.  If you dont believe me, take a look at what happened to the share prices between March 22-March 30th for  BAE Systems and Rheinmetall , two huge weapons manufacturers.  They both jumped by about a dozen points.  Why?  Because the Brussels bombings happened on March 23, silly.  BAE Systems shares some of the same directors as Barclays Bank, JP Morgan, Reuters, and the New York Federal Reserve do. They are typical of arms manufacturers, in that respect.

So the hardline approach to terrorism also boils down to money.  'Fighting' terror with weapons, surveillance and armed police is sexy for us because it's sexy for the people who print our news, who are able to buy that much more cocaine, prostitutes and flashy cars thanks to it. 

After all these years of living next door to terrorism, I'm still not really sure what the bad guys look like.  One year they're neo-Nazis, the next they're Muslim.  Quite often, they're guys in suits.  I can, however, imagine that acting paranoid, detached and avoiding authority figures are the standard characteristics of someone who is carrying a home made bomb.  So scaring peple off of the streets with armed police and randomly searching them creates the perfect environment for terrorists to blend in to.  It puts us all on the same level as them, thereby adding fuel to the flames. 

My boyfriend was right.   You can't ever be sure that the person standing next to you isn't a crazed maniac.  You can't be sure that they're not carrying a bomb, or a gun, or a knife.  But you can make sure that they never have a reason to use it.  Standing up for freedom, peace and equality is the only surefire way to do that. 



For more background, read this piece about  9/11 and the anti-WTO protests


Friday, 25 September 2015

Magpies

There was a family of magpies bouncing around in the tree outside of my window last week, shaking its feather boa branches, bustling with leaves.  They squawked and squeaked and pecked playfully at each other. 

Oradually, one started to make a gentle drilling noise, which slowly changed into something more like trilling.  A few seconds later, I hear an answering trill from the car park behind the tree.  A mobile phone ring was answering the magpie call.  No: it was the other way around.  The magpie was mimicking the phone ring just for a lark (no pun intended).  That ancient bird habit of echoing and relaying sounds, transmitters and receivers, sending out a signal to see if one comes back.  One sentience broadcasting to the other. 

I heard the human in the car park answer his phone.  He didn't return the magpie's call though, abandoning another ancient tradition of our own.  Like all our new technology the phone fulfills ever more basic functions in ever greater diversity of ways, sends ever more than it receives.

Later on, I had to take a train and started to read a magazine I'd found from 1999.  Back then it seemed that people broadcast signals both ways: to each other, to everything, using their evolving technology to make sense of patterns of information. A din of news was coming from everyplace at once, a rainbow of views approaching universality.  Today there's the same din but the underlying views is singular and resolute: saying the same thing in a million different ways: 'Welcome to the dog-eat-dog world.'

Everyone on the train was staring downward, as one, at small rectangular cases in their hands.  Shoulders hunched, looking cowed.  The possibility of seeing patterns was gone; only one pattern can fit in there at a time.  All other patterns had to be fit into its lines.

Smart phones are a visualization, concretization of dogma, of the dog-eat-dog mindset itself.  The reason why we're screwed, hidden in plain sight under a shifting screen.  They tune out all messages except the one in isolation: a single, byte sized, narrow perspective of 'I'.  'My' view.  It's only functional in the absence of all others, just like the device.  Only valid for as long as it can shut out the din.

However imminent the crisis our eyes remain down turned, searching for a way to tackle it in isolation.   Muttering vacantly that, ‘There's a button for this, I know there is, but when I press it nothing happens.  Why??  (Maybe the IPhone 6 will have a fix)'.  As if this tool can somehow be reprogrammed to do what we haven't learned to, haven't had time to, rendering ourselves obsolete just to prove it works.  Waiting for the final update that'll justify the beta-test.  It's just life, after all.    

Meanwhile, nature sends messages on a frequency we're not receiving.  Even when the magpies call us, we're unable to echo their concern.  Maybe we're too fixated by the shiny objects in our hands.

That would be ironic.


Thursday, 10 September 2015

Underground for e.V.er!

"London's not the center of techno anymore. It's definitely in Berlin!"


...said my friend, Mel.  This was not your usual hyperbole coming from a tourism board PR rep whose never been clubbing in his or her life. This was coming from a 20-year veteran of London's deepest, darkest underground parties and a kickass artist, to boot.  She was shouting the words in my ear in the warehouse techno room at Sisyphos, in Rummelsburg.

Back when I first moved to Berlin, the clubs here were kinda boring but those days are hard to remember now. You would never have found proper banging techno or house playing in places like Sisyphos.  It was all slow, drugged-out and commercial; the sound of someone limply writhing in Ketamine and glitter (not as cool as it sounds). There weren't any techno openairs like those that Sounds For Berlin, Reclaim the Gorli and so on have been doing.  The temple of bass called Gretchen did not exist and Stattbad hadn't yet started up its Boiler Room sessions.  Even the F*ck Parade used to have half a dozen boring floats.   The shunkel music sound was as inescapable and annoying as that loud ringing noise it left in your ears the next day.

But that's all changed.  These past few years have been like that boiling-frog analogy, in reverse. Berlin has gradually crept toward a richer convergence of its various dance music styles, but it's done so in such tiny increments that we didn't even realize it was happening.  It was only when I brought my friend Sisyphos that I suddenly felt the heat.  Finally, Berlin is living up to its hype: this scene is in a full-on boil.   Not just in Sisyphos, either.  But it's a good example of a club that has come into its own, blending the surreal elements of Renate with the atmospheric warehouse techno of Berghain and the house music intensity of Wall of Sound into some sort of perfect Berlin all-in-one experience. They even have a massage parlour and a sweet shop.   And a lake.  (The chickens aren't there anymore, though, unfortunately).

It wasn't hard to see why my mate was blown away.

I was relieved that it's not just me who thinks things are improving, here.  Most Berlin promoters used to seem like were only interested in finding a misguided shortcut to glamour and fame.  Now, they're doing parties for a purpose, as a concept, as a protest.  They're doing them to change things now, and more importantly, for a good time.  And they seem less inclined to use the industry's coke-covered credit line to judge how good the night is, instead going by mood on the dancefloor.

My friend and I went outside and stood under the lampshade trees by the lake and she said, "Yeah, I reckon this is what would happen if one of the squat parties in London kept on going on for years. Why don't they do something like this in London, in fact?'

The answer is always the same: the authorities don't let it. At the slightest sign that some group is putting down roots, the government goes into overdrive trying to uproot them, or (if they go legal) forcing a profiteering mindset on them.  It bogs their ideals down with licensing fees and absurd health and safety regulations.  This way, it constantly seals up those untapped veins of creativity in red tape, so only the most obsessive bean-counters can succeed at a game that was created by and for an autonomous and anarchistic elements of society.

"They always have to kill the golden goose, don't they?" Mel lamented.

"Yep, that's England for you."  Insist on the impossible. Slash and burn all your potential for an immediate return on your investment.  Expect more potential to simply arise from the ashes, fully-grown, somewhere down the road without any investment or support. Write off as worthless anything that takes time.  Kill off as a pest anything that is slowly growing toward a more promising future.  You have to wonder how these people raise kids.  You have to wonder how they even raise gardens.  (Or are those all covered in concrete, in anticipation of becoming a fourth runway for Heathrow...?)

How does Berlin avoid this same fate?  In part, it's the history - no one knows what to do with a vast, underpopulated city, so people here get a lot of slack from the officials.  But mostly, it's because the government here concedes the German people's right to direct their own cultural evolution, vis-a-vis the Eingetragener Verein (or e.V. for short).  Germany's  Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or civil code enshrines the right for its people to create community-interest groups which bring people together in some way.  Any way at all that you can imagine.  If more than seven people with a shared set of ideals and goals get together, they can legally run almost any kind of venue as a non-profit organization - along with all the attendant tax deductions and exemptions that that entails.  Just as long as it brings people together and profit isn't its primary aim.  That's why it's rare to find anything grassroots going on in this city without that mysterious suffix e.V. at the end of its name.  (Schokoladen, Megaspree, RAW Tempel, Supamolly... even Holzmarkt and Kater Blau have an e.V. underlying their existence).  The majority of Berlin's 'squatty' venues rely upon their e.V. status to survive without too much interference from the officials. 

Virtually all of the smaller venues and organizations that fight for Berlin's right (including the right to party) are categorized as e.V....  and one day, any one of them could rise up to be the next counter-cultural complex.   Someone in government seems to know that there are limits to what bureaucracy and capitalism can achieve on their own. And a large segment of Berlin's population is constantly reminding them of that fact!

Art Doesn't Help People - People Help People.

"Art Doesn't Help People - People Help People" by Herakut.

In Berlin, the art scene's fate always hangs in the balance.  Since the fall of the Wall, artistic outcasts have come here seeking a cheap place to work and live while they find their feet; yet the scene still retains a precarious feeling to this day.  The best art here is to be found on the streets, exposed to the elements, having been left out in the cold by the conventional art gallery scene.  Yet the precarious balance that enables a DIY scene to flourish here is bound to change. 

Berlin is a prime destination on the bargain flight trail for now, and so its art scene is booming... for now.  But that boom obviously can't last forever.  The  forces that attract the world to Berlin - cheap oil, low wages, and the low prices they create - are unsustainable.  But so is the alternative: turning Berlin into a relentlessly gentrified enclave for the world's wealthy, where the prices are too high for artists and other people on low incomes to survive.  The city needs a new model if it's going to hang onto what it has here, and with so many creative minds present, there is a brief window of opportunity for the art scene to help create that.  Is the scene making the most of it?  Or is it merely standing on the sidelines, painting pretty pictures to distract itself from the harsh realities that it faces?

Works by artists like Blu and Roa (above right) seem to reflect the uneasy balance that exists in cities like Berlin.  Each artist employs stark imagery to expose the cruelty and absurdity underlying the Western economic machine.  They seem to speak from inside and outside of the system simultaneously... like a cog that's suddenly become self-aware.

Vermibus (right) has taken that self-awareness a step further by actively sabotaging the messages sent by the advertising industry.  He specifically targets beauty ads, sabotaging models who've been airbrushed to the point of artifice. You've probably seen his work and wondered if it was just another cynical ad campaign (or if those mushrooms were finally working).  It's not (but they might be).

Another Berlin-based artist who speaks to that tendency to treat people as soulless commodities is Berlin-based Hito Steyerl.  In her video, "How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational" she makes a funny yet scarily-apt statement about the sense of invisibility underlying urban life.  ("Be a woman over 50" she suggests in her video, as a way of achieving invisibility).  


Many of Berlin's artists use art as a way of having a say in a social discourse that would otherwise limit their options to various forms of consumption.  Their choice 'speak' in a different way leaves them out in the cold; in Berlin, many are surviving by the skin of their teeth, getting by on a mixture of self-employment contracts, Minijobs and the dole.  This puts them at the mercy of city's employers, investors and bureaucrats.  The only power that they really have is people power, and the power of expression, yet many seem content to merely sit back and wait for a patron to come along and offer them a chance to be heard and seen in a commercial gallery patronized by the elite.  At events like the upcoming Berlin Art Week, "Attracting investment is one of [the] key aims" as if money is the only possible solution for an artist's woes. But maybe what they really need is for the system to 'spare them some social change', instead. 


As Noam Chomsky says in Manufacturing Consent, "A decent society should maximize the possibilities for the fundamental human characteristic [of creativity] to be realized."  We seem to be headed for a mostly-automated future, in which the majority jobs will necessarily be in creative and theoretical fields.  There simply won't be much in the way of work that is productive, in the industrial sense of the word.  Isn't it better to find a way to sustain people in those fields now, instead of crushing them in poverty to preserve an outdated paradigm for another day?

Berlin seems to offer a preview of how that future could look: superficially it functions, despite having a small productive sectors.  It's intellectually rich, despite being physically poor.  It is saturated with artists and idealists: street artists, installation artists, tattoo artists, interior designers and video artists.  Many of the students here are studying in theoretical fields, and research and development is one of the city's key sectors.  Together, these groups have renovated the city, rebuilding it from the ashes to fit the mould of their progressive imaginations.  But that vision has yet to trickle up.


Over the past few years, Berlin's visionary residents have led popular movements against development projects (Mediaspree, Tempelhof) that would have fenced off vast areas of public land for the use of private investors.  They have also agitated against rising rents and forced a rent cap to be put in place.  The locals tend to vote the same way that they think too: the universal basic income, sustainable development, equality and privacy rights have all been championed by two of Berlin's most influential left-wing parties: the Greens (who are dominant in Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg) and the Pirate Party (which took 8.9% of the vote in Berlin, compared to 1.4% nationally).


'Drone Shadow' by James Bridle at 'Fire & Forget', KW Gallery
Meanwhile, the Senate that actually runs this gaff seems stuck in a 1980s  Thatcherian mode: it takes a repressive stance on refugees, is engaging in its own miniature version of the War on Drugs, and has been so thoroughly bankrupted by official corruption that it licks the boots of every investor who comes to town, however contemptuous their vision for the city is (e.g. luxury condos in the former Death Strip).  The Senate may be good with investors because it guarantees them obscene profits, but those same profits ensure that the cash always disappears before it trickles down to ordinary residents, denying them the means to take charge of the city. 

But what if, instead of waiting for one of those investment windfalls to bypass the Senate and land in their studios, Berlin's art scene got together and tried to solve their collective problem through action?  One group of people who have done this in Berlin is Mein Grundeinkommen.  In addition to petitioning for the implementation of a universal basic income in Germany, Mein Grundeinkommen has crowd-funded the money to give one person a basic income for a year in order to show what life could be like, if the government spread its profits around more evenly. 
Center For Political Beauty's Wall-Sabotage Diagram

Of course, the creative reality that Chomsky speaks of is out of reach for millions of other well-educated people in countries that have been torn apart by petty rivalries.  Many of the refugees arriving in this city have been displaced from good jobs and homes by an over-zealous, Western arms trade that promotes war by making lethal weapons easily accessible.  That arms trade was the subject of a recent exhibition at KW Gallery, called 'Fire and Forget'.  It was named after the newer brand of war technologies that allow the user to kill without witnessing the deaths of the people he is lashing out at.

What future can the refugees/victims of these technologies hope for when they have no home base to go back to, much less ply their trades from?  Artsy Berlin dissidents at the Center for Political Beauty regularly stage actions aimed at answering that question.  Their stunts have included tearing down sections of the European anti-immigration barrier and exhuming bodies of drowned refugees for re-burial in Berlin, during meticulously staged (one could almost say "curated") actions that are engineered for maximum shock impact.  Is it life imitating art or the other way around?  They don't want you to know - just to act.  More info about the group can be found on the group's website. 
Center for Political Beauty' attempts to auction off Chancellor Merkel

In times like these, can any artist really afford to view reality with a sidelong glance, when they could be facing it head-on? It seems that merely hinting at the existence of larger pressures and struggles is no longer enough.  Instead of staging another tasteful exhibition, maybe it's time that Berlin's arts community stages an assault on the outdated system that keeps them begging for change... be it financial, political, or social.