How Berlin’s Times Bar became a legend in no time at all
When the Times Bar closed its doors on 7 September, its aura had already been firmly established. A few days later, for the inauguration of his new gallery in the former Church of Saint Agnes during Berlin Art Week, Johann König invited the bar’s owners to make the space suitably hip for the international art crowd: ‘From 8 pm,’ the programme noted, ‘the artists of the Times Bar will take over the premises’. Over at art berlin contemporary, the bar had a stand in the Bazaar section, alongside 26 international projects.
Times Bar was run for just over a year in the 50 square metres of a former travel agency located in an inconspicuous corner of Berlin’s Neukölln district yet strategically, a short walk away from Hermannplatz and the U8 underground line which links the parties and galleries of Mitte with the new hubs to the south. The owners – the American artists Lindsay Lawson, Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff – decided to close the bar as they put it, ‘before it could become an institution and outlive its prime’. They saw the bar as an art space and a temporary project; indeed, its official name is TIMES e.V. für Kunst und Kultur, a registered association for art and culture. The core clientele consisted of artists, including well-connected, well-travelled 20-somethings, fresh graduates from the US and elsewhere. Most had only been living in the city a short while. The few German guests ordered their beer in English.
A music video by the Canadian singer Dan Bodan captures the atmosphere. Bodan, who moved to Berlin in 2007, was a regular customer, and occasional performer. The bar serves as the setting for DP, the A-side of a single he released last summer on DFA Records. In porn jargon, DP stands for double penetration. The song layers simple organ chords over a straightforward beat and begins with a noise-drenched sample from a recording of Gilles Deleuze’s voice. Bodan gently croons the conditions for love and gay sex: ‘If you want to teach me French philosophy, I’ll sleep with you. You can take me to the Stuttgart Künstlerhaus, I’ll follow you.’ In the video, we see people sitting at plain white tables with drinks and candles. Young women swing like strippers round the pole in front of the white-tiled bar counter, which was always decorated with a vase of flowers. Every few weeks, artists were invited to hang a work behind the bar.
These so-called ‘Hangings’ – including work by regulars like AIDS-3D, Skye Chamberlain and Simon Denny – were clearly intended to become part of a visual, social setting: something to talk about in a network of relationships based on looking. The Hangings tried to avoid presenting themselves as exhibitions with varying degrees of success. Although the bar was open to all and had an inviting large glass facade, the space felt more like a private club than a public bar due to the intimacy of the space and the clientele. ‘They created a nice little story,’ says Bodan, whose self-released album Nudity & Atrocity (2011) features a work by Simon Denny on the cover: ‘Everybody was posing, there was something cut-throat about it. It was certainly the most fun I’ve had in the art world.’
The history of artist-run bars and project spaces serving beer in Berlin is a long one. Time and again, such places have attained mythical status as interfaces between art, music and fashion. Recent additions to the list include Elektro, which was run by the artist Daniel Pflumm among others, in the late ‘90s, and Kim Bar on Brunnenstraße which opened in 2007. It used to take a while for such bars to build up an aura. In the case of Times Bar, smartphones and Facebook eliminated the gap between an event and its documentation, between dissemination and historicization. From day one, guests talked about the place as a legend. For the last Hanging, Skye Chamberlain made a large painting of the bar and its regulars. Depicted in paint, they can consider themselves part of recent art history – or so goes the implicitly ironic claim which only slightly camouflages a craving for significance.
Bodan’s DP video, which can be considered as a farewell to this space, includes a scene illustrating the relationship between outside and inside, as disconcerted passers-by look in through the window. In Berlin, where gentrification has been a topic of (a sometimes rather provincial) debate for years, Times Bar did not escape controversy. At the end of February, a flame war broke out on the bar’s Facebook wall, with a customer who had not felt welcome attacking the owners: ‘I hope you think destroying the lives of local residents is a price worth paying to attract rich, international hipsters.’ The owners reacted to these accusations with a statement that avoided addressing their exclusive approach: ‘Our sensitivity to audience and community is personal and our business is tied to our bodies which fill the space every weekend.’
Nonetheless, the relationship of the ‘internationals’ (students and artists who have been arriving in Berlin in increasing numbers over recent years) not only to the established scenes dominated by Germans but also to the neighbourhoods inhabited by the children of last century’s migrant ‘guest workers’ is interesting and paradigmatic – an encounter between the winners and losers of globalization, between foreigners and locals, whose affiliations are in flux. Anglophone tourists and newcomers are eyed with mistrust from some quarters because they are associated with the trend towards rising rents in the inner-city districts.
Bodan addresses these issues in the music video for Aaron which plays up the supposedly exoticist gaze of the Times Bar ‘international’ on the ‘wild’ parts of the city with large immigrant populations. The video is a homage to Kottbusser Tor, another stop on the U8 and the place in today’s Berlin where all the vectors of hipness, style and hard drugs intersect. While a languishing Bodan sings to his lover Aaron from an upper floor of the Neues Kreuzberger Zentrum apartment complex, the camera films the street from the balcony: young, mostly Turkish men pose in white T-shirts and engage in casual play fighting and, perhaps, drug dealing. This video presents a form of camp, but above all it is a statement about an exoticist way of seeing the world that registers not only what is different and foreign but also what is desired. Bodan’s video alludes to this often vilified gaze in a subtitle with the question: ‘What does he see when he looks like that?’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Ulrich Gutmair is the arts and culture editor for the Tageszeitung newspaper and is currently writing a book about post-1989 culture and the disappearance of vacant lots in Berlin’s Mitte district.
First published in Issue 7