All Dressed up and No Place to Go*

John Beeson

Today's Berlin art world is a depot, not an outlier, in the rigorously networked, highly professionalized contemporary art field. Despite the city's notorious scarcity of collectors and decades-long process of urban renewal, for the current population of young creatives, Berlin is no Bohemia. You still don't need to make very much money to be able to live here, but there's plenty of incentive to do so. Berlin is tapped into a Europe-wide, even worldwide, circuit of travel, and cultural consumption. What's more, finding success in one's career in the arts is a motivation in itself.
  Cultural producers of various stripes from around the world live in Berlin – artists, graphic designers, poets, architects, and multitudes of multitaskers. This isn't coincidence; it's public policy. Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's mayor from 2001 until 2014, long recognized the potential for capitalizing on Berlin's burgeoning reputation as a destination for cultural production, cultural consumption, and social life. The city itself might be debt-ridden, but life in the city has drawn numerous companies to open offices here: Twitter and Google, as well as numerous startups, have turned Berlin into a tech hub that some have referred to as ‘Silicon Allee’.[1] The message to local creatives and expats aspiring to settle in an affordable and hip destination has been unequivocal and determined: ‘Berlin will be the mecca for the creative class.’ Speaking in 2005, Wowereit described his goal for the next ten years: ‘I imagine one thousand women and men of all ages gathering for a World Congress of Creatives. The designers who live here will deliver their ideas to the world’s biggest corporations.’[2]
  Of course, some Berlin-based cultural production takes form outside the purview of either corporate interests or international art institutions and the market, because the city is home to so many as yet unestablished artists. But given the Berlin art world's storied anti-institutional leanings in the 1990s, the extent to which today's scene directs itself toward the market and its prerogatives might seem uncanny, or disturbing to some. However, for decades already, curators and gallerists have passed through the city to 'discover' local talent, to establish new and profitable connections between a supposedly independent scene and the international art market.
  Berlin has long been thought of as a place where artists can make of their experience what they like. And generations of expats and short-term visitors have had radically different values regarding community formation and priorities for art. Especially in the wake of the financial crisis, which only further spurred on a generation of young creatives to professionalize rapidly and accept competition as intrinsic to earning a livelihood, an individualist mentality is clearly the status quo in the art scene. The international art market has never held such a strong influence on the perception of value as well as meaning in contemporary art. And it's no different in Berlin. In today's art world, as in society at large, where the drive to commodify permeates everything and network capitalism predominates, the individual is an enterprise – the artist a brand – and being networked and commanding attention are touted as requisites for success.
  Few spaces or organizations remain from the 1990s. That generation, wary of institutions of any kind, founded few of its own, nor entered existing institutions in the hope of effecting change from the inside – except perhaps for academic institutions. The few that do remain can't expect to represent the interests of the younger crowd, since they still service the interests and efforts of the same communities from which they constituted themselves in the first place. As a result, Berlin's young art scene is not only diverse and fractured, but most of its factions are oblivious to much of the city's recent cultural history. This lack of institutional memory isn't inevitable, though, since most communities are accessible to outsiders in a way that’s rare in other cultural capitals. For the most part, Berlin doesn’t foster a social hierarchy based on seniority or financial capital.
  Those institutions in Berlin that date from another era, and which are now reaching out to younger generations, are primarily commercial in nature: Galleries – most of which opened no earlier than the 1990s, when the commercial center of Germany's art world began shifting from Cologne to Berlin – have begun expanding their programs to include young local artists. This development comes on the heels of the increasing international visibility and market success attained by this younger generation of artists. Institutional validation dates at least to the 2011 exhibition Based in Berlin, includes the Kassel-based Fredericianum's shows Speculations on Anonymous Materials (2013–14) and Nature After Nature (2014), and continues, of course, with Europe, Europe (2014) at Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo.
  In the last three decades, new communities have arrived and thrived in Berlin and caused discernible shifts in attention and even social habits. This was the case when Cologne definitively arrived in Berlin in the early 2000s, a decade after Berlin had become a site of burgeoning cultural production and possibility. With this came a discourse on performance in a social context and a belief in the intellectual merit of popular culture (characteristic of magazines like Spex and Texte zur Kunst; Die Beute and Starship had already been located in Berlin for years). It was also the case when Karlsruhe arrived in the form of artists Anselm Reyle, Katja Strunz, and Thomas Zipp; when Hamburg arrived (e.g., Galerie Guido W. Baudach and its stable of artist-friends); and in the long years of Frankfurt's – the Städelschule's – influence, which continues until today.
  Several Städelschule professors have a strong social presence in Berlin in addition to reputations in the international art world. And the multi-generational network of students who have worked together, achieved success on an international scale, and maintained some level of contact has bolstered possibilities for new classes arriving in Berlin every couple of years. A visit to the school's end-of-year exhibition, or Rundgang, reveals just how professionalized the students are. Now that the show has become an unofficial addition to the art world's calendar of fairs and biennials, the students greet visiting curators and gallerists with an insider's knowledge of the artistic practices that lead the day's discourse as well as the politics that determine art-world working relationships. That same savvy has been transported in part to Berlin, tied to the outlook on artistic practice that has been passed on by generations of teachers coming from the 1980s Cologne tradition: Part socialite, part public intellectual, artists are expected to mobilize their social presence as a means of contributing to contemporary discourse.
  That legacy has found an echo in the habits of a younger, largely US scene that has firmly established itself in Berlin in the past five years. Berlin has become a popular temporary (or adopted) home for numerous recent graduates from liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools. And due to the bonds that students at these elite, relatively small, mostly campus-based, and largely socio-economically homogeneous schools form, US expats tend to group together. There's an appeal to forming communities of like cultural backgrounds and like interests in a distant country with significant cultural differences and a language that most expats don't speak before they arrive. And there's an added benefit, too: as some creatives (and not just US expats) have gained clout and cultural capital by relying on exclusive social groupings and by placing limits on the type of access allowed to audiences.
  In recent years, the institutions that have been most important for Berlin's contemporary art scene have been independent art spaces and commercial galleries, not museums or biennials. The one biennial-type, state-funded exhibition that did hold significance for the young art scene was Based in Berlin, though that exhibition was accompanied by intense debate. Despite the impression that it gave of aspiring to be comprehensive, whole generations of Berlin-based artists were not included in it: Out of approximately 100 participants, less than a handful were over the age of forty. This had a divisive effect on the local art scene, in that it served as pseudo-institutional validation. Nevertheless, it captured a swathe of young artists on (or just following) the cusp of critical, institutional, and market success. That the seven artists included in Speculations on Anonymous Materials (2013) who lived in Berlin at the time of Based in Berlin (2011) were included in that earlier exhibition is a testament to its prescience – as well as its power as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  Of course, to work with a commercial gallery isn't just to sacrifice one's ostensible autonomy for pragmatic reasons; in a city of young artists vying for a career in art, it's a proud accomplishment.[3] Still, what's special about Berlin, if not unique to it, is the way in which social scenes, even communities, form around galleries and benefit both them and the artists they represent. The information and status circulated through even informal social scenes constitutes a kind of cachet, which is easy enough to monetize. And given the values in Berlin's art world that have remained intact throughout generations of new arrivals and the market's ascendance – namely, respect for social interaction and some responsibility regarding context – it's no surprise that galleries reputed as active sites of discourse are widely regarded.
  Today's Berlin, an open trade for culture that still holds appeal as a place to live, invites diversity both in terms of inhabitants' cultural backgrounds and in terms of local cultural production. Artists' work tends to be vastly different in terms of content, form, and the apparatuses involved in production, whereas artists tend to be highly interconnected, both socially and via the local cultural institutions with which they interact. Though it seems unlikely that the independent spirit boasted in an earlier era by the city's young creatives will come to predominate again, this is largely the result of circumstance, not an artistic or political outlook. After all, one would be hard-pressed to find another cultural capital whose young creatives don't see integration as a rite of passage, to find one that hasn't been seized by the juggernaut of individualism pervading the international contemporary art world.

* This text originally appeared in an altered form in the reader for the exhibition Europe, Europe (September 18, 2014–February 1, 2015) at Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway.

[1]      A fitting foil to the famous socialist boulevard Karl-Marx-Allee, crossing from Friedrichshain into Mitte in Berlin.

[2]     For more on the causes and effects of Berlin's reinvention as a cultural capital, see: Quinn Slobodian and Michelle Sterling, Sacking Berlin, in The Baffler No. 23, 2013. Online at: http://www.thebaffler.com/past/sacking_berlin.

[3]    One estimate puts the number of visual artists living in Berlin over 12,000 and approximates that 6,000 have local gallery representation. Online at: http://www.berlin.de/projektzukunft/kreativwirtschaft/kunstmarkt/.

John Beeson lives in Berlin. His writing regularly appears in Artforum, Texte zur Kunst, and Spike. Recent publications include Relative Distance (castillo/corrales today #1, 2014) and The New Document: Photography's Concerns and Returns (TND, 2013), co-edited with Daniel Herleth and Cameron Rowland.