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.