No Guggenheim for Berlin

In cooperation with a car manifacturer, the Guggenheim museum was planning to set up Guggenheim Lab, a temporary museum/art space that also has sets up shop in NYC and Mumbai, India. Just now it was cancelled due to threats of violence by extreme left-wing activists who claim they are fighting against gentrification.

Gentrification has been a big and important topic in Berlin and across the globe for a long time. It’s at the core of urban development and social justice, as in an unregulated market for living space, price hikes can drive the residents of a neighborhood out of their apartments and into cheaper areas, on some very real level uprooting families. That’s one thing.

Then there’s the counter-argument, which says that low rents are usually a by-product of poverty, which in itself isn’t a good thing, and if a neighborhood doesn’t have economic growth, it declines even further, leading to a ghetto-ization in the long term.

Social and financial/economic injustice is a very serious issue, and needs addressing. In Berlin, without even trying to pull together the exact figures because I don’t have the time right now, there are several forces at work. Notably, the average income over the last two decades hasn’t risen all that much since there’s not much “real” industry in town. On the other hand, as Berlin overcomes its historic wounds, more folks move here, and also many people end up with good (and well-paid) jobs. Where Berlin used to be, in comparison to other European capitals, dirt-cheap, it’s now only very good value. Prices in many neighborhoods rise.

It’s important to note that they rise from a historically absolutely abnormal low. That of course doesn’t help an economically troubled family living on one mediocre income.

To find a solution to fix this problem, and to make sure that the income gap is narrowed, not widened, is essential, and it’s one of the big societal tasks. The most important step on the way there is a dialog with all the stakeholders, and deliberation.

Then there’s the activists, and I’m not even sure I want to call them that, as it has a positive connotation. I’m not saying that many don’t have the best of intentions. Yet, there are enough radicals among them that deliberation is killed, dialog made impossible. When the Guggenheim museum was cancelled, it was because the organizers had to protect the people working there.

And no matter what arguments these so-called activists use, if art is made impossible because of threat of physical violence, a line is crossed that removes them from the table of democratic discourse. Using violence to enforce your personal preferences over someone else’s is at the core of fascism.* If an art museum is not built because of violence threats in Berlin, I find it hard not to conjure up historic parallels.

It’s a shame, no, it’s shameful for anyone living here, really. I’ve only lived in Berlin for 10 years, and yes, it’s changed significantly. In some ways I appreciate the way it changed, in others I don’t. But not once did I feel entitled to threaten to hurt someone if they didn’t behave the way I didn’t like, and nobody ever should have that right.

And I would love to see a demographic breakdown of the idiots who do this kind of thing. I’d bet that a majority of them, too, moved to Berlin in pursuit of one dream or another, and that they, too, visited the temporary art spaces that were squat houses, and went to alternative parties, and told their friends back home about it, and did all the other things that are, by definition, the things that fuel gentrification.

Today, I’m ashamed to live in this city that I love so much. And I hope that we’ll find a way to defend any art space against these activists’ violent, ultra-conservative, purely destructive, fascist agenda.

*Might have been a rash choice of words. See the discussion in the comments, and Philip’s fair points on this.

Update 23 March 2012: Several people pointed out – rightfully, it seems after reading up some more – that no threats of physical violence were issued and that the local police just estimated an elevated risk. My apologies for following the initial reports.


Two thoughts:

I think the activists issued statements. It feels like your article is omitting those and is based on half the story, ie. the statements of the organizers and police quoted in today’s newspapers.

Also, I think you misperceive the lab by calling it art. It is first of all business, and that’s what people seem to be afraid of – same old anticapitalism at work. The usual trade (BMW or another big corporation spends money on a social or cultural event, receives positive brand awareness) may work in art contexts. It does not work in an anticapitalist left context. BMW is basically everything that Kreuzberg is not.

I would have loved to see the lab (they approached betahaus/ODC for collaboration) but I think you’re wrong drawing the Godwin card. With the Nazis it was about art. This struggle is not at all about art, but about the (perceived) invasion of an urban space by outsiders disguising their brand strategy as philanthropy.

@Philip: It’s not art because it’s sponsored by someone? I think you just discredited how most art was created for most of human history.

I actually think that in this case it’s not so much about art but about a public discourse about the future of city living, made possible by a brand that I couldn’t care less about. It’s stopped by conservatives who don’t want to accept that the world is changing all the time and want to force their dualistic world-view unto others (and use force if necessary as in this case). In my book, they are straight up xenophobic. And who the fuck decides what is Kreuzberg and what not and who’s an insider and who’s an outsider? (Sorry for the language, but there is nothing that infuriates me more about Berlin than this).

Fair point, taking back the Godwin. You know we like pretty much the same things about Kreuzberg. I, too, love the fact that it’s a neighborhood based on local initiatives nd local businesses and not dominated by chain stores. Yet, all these arguments become invalid once there are threats of violence. Maybe I should read up on the statements more closely — I admit I haven’t– but I have to say I’m unlikely to be swayed in this regard. As for the question of art vs commerce, that’s a slippery slope as any artist post-Warhol can attest… frankly, this isn’t the boring, soul-less office blocks of Medispree we’re talking about, which I don’t think are good in terms of urban development. We’re talking about an exhibition space, which I see as a different ball game altogether…

Johannes, Peter: My main problem really was calling the activists or their motivation fascist.

I did not say the lab is not art, not about art, or that art can only be created without sponsorship. I am aware that art always has been sponsored craft, before the advent of copyright at least.

I just meant to say that for the activists, I presume, the event is first and foremost perceived as a threat that outweighs “side effects” like the artistic or cultural impact or a chance to discuss gentrification et al.

And although I may not agree with the threats, I think when it comes to the question “who decides what Kreuzberg is”, I’d rather like to think that Kreuzbergers should be the ones defining it.

I know, I know. Look, we know each other well enough to see eye to eye on this and keep it respectful. In fact, I think in most questions around local communities and gentrification we’re probably on the very same side. So yes, the local communities should have a strong say in what’s going on in their Kiez. Of course! What I’m seeing now isn’t a representative sample of the local community, but a loud minority that dominates the discourse. I, too, live in the same neighborhood, and have for years. And personally, I’d love to see the Guggenheim Lab around, and know many people who would. We, too, are the local community – it’s just that my interests in this particular issue are vastly different than those opposing the Guggenheim. Maybe it’s because I see it as an art space, maybe because I’m interested in urban development and the work they’re doing, maybe because I don’t believe that this particular project would hurt the ‘hood, but help make it culturally richer.

I believe in diversity, and getting a grip on gentrification – by political means. Restriction of residential spaces used for commercial purposes, legal limits on rent hikes etc. There are strong tools available to keep gentrification under control, and to more carefully foster a neighborhood. A museum/art space/room for discussion is something I just don’t want to oppose.

So maybe the right way forward for me is to clearly articulate my position on this issue, so that it’s not one loud minority dominating the discourse, but a plurality of voices and opinions. It’s what our society is built around, and so far it’s been working out quite well, given everything.

So here we go: As a Kreuzberger, I whole-heartedly welcome the Guggenheim to Kreuzberg.

Yup, that’s one of the big questions for me, too. Or rather, it really isn’t, I just don’t think that anything (!) but living at a place should decide over whether you belong there or not. Don’t need no self-appointed Kiez police.

Totally disinformed, gut-based observation, based on nothing whatsoever: Maybe Guggenheim just didnt do this properly – neithr in terms of prep, style or excecution. They ran into some (deserved?) scepticism, and bailed. Maybe they needed an excuse?

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