Living in a bubble?

The hype around Berlin as a magnet for artists from all over the world has been discussed for years. But how do artists – as residents, citizens and German citizens – relate to the city? A roundtable discussion, led by Jennifer Allen and Jörg Heiser with Maja Bajevic, Carson Chan, Annika Eriksson and Olaf Nicolai


Studenten der Chulalongkorn University, (Bangkok) während  des sechswöchigen Design Studios „Die Kunst des Konsums“, 2010

Students of Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok) during the six-week design studio ‘The Art of Consumption’, 2010

Maja Bajevic is an artist living in Berlin and Paris. She participated in documenta 12, the 50th Venice Biennale, the 7th Istanbul Biennial and Manifesta 3 and has exhibited at MoMA PS1, New York, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, among other institutions. Bajevic is currently preparing a solo show for the Crystal Palace at the Reina Sofía, Madrid.

Carson Chan is an architecture writer and curator. He is the co-founder of PROGRAM (Berlin), a contributing editor to 032c magazine and has been appointed co-curator of the 2012 Arts in Marrakech Biennale.

Annika Eriksson is an artist based in Berlin. In 2010, she exhibited at the Hayward Gallery, London, Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin and daadgalerie, Berlin, among other institutions. She is currently working on a solo show for the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart.

Olaf Nicolai is an artist living in Berlin. He has participated in documenta X, the Sydney Biennale 2002, as well as the 51st Venice Biennale. His work was exhibited at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as the Kestnergesellschaft, Hanover, among others. His sound installation with performances ‘Escalier du Chant’ runs throughout this year at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.


frieze d/e We decided to speak English. Is it important to learn German? Is English our bubble?

Annika Eriksson Of course, it’s good to be able to speak basic German in order to have access to information and to communicate with people who don’t speak English. I’m actually ashamed because my German isn’t as advanced as it should be after so many years living in Berlin. I can do daily small talk – chat with taxi drivers and people in shops – but if I want to communicate beyond that I’m rather helpless. Speaking the language would integrate me more, and that’s what I want. For some reason, I’m postponing my German lessons. I guess it’s because people in the art world tend to communicate in English.

Carson Chan I get asked all the time why don’t I speak German. The question is not ‘Do you speak German?’ but ‘Why don’t you speak German?’ I started to feel ashamed too, but now I resent the question. Of course, I would love nothing more than to speak German all the time with my friends. I have nothing against learning the language, but I didn’t grow up here. I grew up speaking English and Chinese. That’s why I don’t speak German. It’s not that I don’t want to learn it or that I’m resisting it.

Maja Bajevic I speak German because I grew up in Munich. I decided to stay in Berlin because my partner also speaks German. It’s the only language that we both speak.

Olaf Nicolai For me, it was extremely important to learn English. It not only means access to knowledge and information, as Annika says, but also your social behaviour is different. Knowing the language means being able to participate. I wouldn’t say everyone who lives here in Berlin must learn German. That’s up to each person. But mastering a language always gives access to something you can’t have otherwise.

CC Speaking foreign languages is a privilege, but, if you have to spend four hours a day to learn one, how can you work? People starting their careers may not have the luxury of time. In terms of having access to culture, people in the arts community see that they’re creating culture. So they’re participating already, whether or not they speak German.

FR Many artists don’t have the luxury of choice. In Germany, for example, there are obligatory language courses for many non-EU citizens. A Brazilian artist could end up speaking German better than an Italian one, who may continue to rely on English.

MB The fact that we all speak English is related to a certain politics and power structure in the world, where it’s the imperial language nowadays, as was the case with French, Spanish or German before. I don’t think it’s so evil to protect other languages by asking people to learn them.

CC But English isn’t imperial per se, it’s just a common way of communicating which happens to be English.

MB It’s a very imperial thought to think that English comes so naturally.

ON The role of English as a lingua franca around the world today also has to do with the virtual shared language space of the Internet, which is certainly also an arena of power and dominance. Before, for example, it was Spanish in South America or French in a lot of places in Africa or Asia, which were the imperial languages of the Spanish and French invaders, the colonial powers. So this universal usage of English also has a ‘self-colonizing’ quality. And it’s a nice irony that the Internet, which was initially an exclusive tool of the military, is now ‘open source’, a kind of public infrastructure that can be used by everyone.

MB I would say that the Second World War had something to do with the initial rise of English. In smaller countries, learning foreign languages is not questioned. If you want to communicate with the rest of the world, you have to learn one, two or even three. For bigger countries like Germany, France, Britain or America, it’s not necessary because you have so much culture in your own language.

AE Sometimes, there’s a reluctance to speak English here, and I wonder if there’s also an element of embarrassment. When the media is in German and the films are dubbed, learning English becomes primarily a question of education and class. In a way, it’s quite a delicate question to ask someone to speak English to you. In a country like Sweden, where we’re surrounded by American sitcoms and British series, it would be very hard not to pick English up. Perhaps that’s why people also love to speak it, sometimes with thick American accents or with the British accents in the film Gosford Park (2001). But the willingness and the reluctance to speak English is also is a generational matter and, to some extent, a historical one. Speaking with someone from an older generation who grew up in East Germany is very different from talking to a young person here in Berlin.


Annika Eriksson, Wir sind wieder da, 2010, Standbild

Annika Eriksson, Wir sind wieder da (We’re here again), 2010, Still

FR Many Germans, Austrians and Swiss like speaking English as much as the Swedes. Some seem to prefer English to their native German.

ON It also has to do with desires, fantasies and above all pop music! You learned English because you wanted to understand Bryan Ferry and Frank Zappa lyrics, because you wanted to read Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ (1955), because it was the language of Woodstock, Warhol and the Sex Pistols. Something that wasn’t accessible to me physically, only through language. Even when travelling in other Eastern bloc countries, you communicated in English. There was the idea of a certain cosmopolitanism where politics and pleasure mix and no distinction is made between high and low. In the cult East German novel Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (The New Sufferings of Young W., 1972), Ulrich Plenzdorf wrote: ‘A pair of jeans is not a piece of clothing – it’s an attitude to life.’ He could have said the same about speaking English.

CC Why don’t schools teach Turkish as a second language? A big Turkish population lives in Germany, but there’s a certain nationalism based on language. Germans don’t want to learn Turkish because they think it would take away from their German-ness.

MB Sometimes I have the feeling that I’m treated better in Berlin when I speak English. If I speak German with an accent, I’m an immigrant. If I speak English, I’m an expat – I belong to a society that isn’t dangerous, that doesn’t want to integrate or to take anyone’s job away. But if I say I’m from former Yugoslavia – oops! It’s funny how language is linked to status. English has gotten the status of being ‘good, progressive and international’. Especially in a city like Berlin that is branding itself with the international contemporary art scene.

FR Whatever languages one speaks, artworks don’t exist in a linguistic bubble but move from one exhibition in one city to the next… How does this shifting context – between cities, languages, nationalities – show up in your work?

CC PROGRAM organizes architectural workshops both in Berlin and outside Germany. As a topic, Berlin is easy to export to foreigners because it’s got a violent history and visible scars, which we analyse as a group. The city makes for great teaching situations because we’re all looking at it together. When Thai, American or Canadian students do a Berlin project, they find solutions that German students wouldn’t. With Germans, we can’t just say, ‘Let’s look at the city and see what you can do.’ There are so many other questions about historical and cultural references which problematize a project in a way that you can’t do anything. When PROGRAM collaborated with the Technische Universität Berlin, it was clear to us that there was no point in doing a Berlin project with German students. So we said, ‘Let’s look at Iceland instead,’ because it was easier for them to see abstractly.

ON This shift in perspective also takes place in translation. The move from one language to another creates distance, it transforms. This was also what enabled me to do a project about the region where I come from – about the specific type of East German Modernism in Karl-Marx-Stadt, Dresden or Leipzig. But it took me ten years to gain the distance I needed. At first I was almost worried that my specific biography, my knowledge of East Germany, would make it totally impossible to make a work about it. So I tried to get an alien perspective on this experience, and as the necessary illusion I chose an ethnological perspective. The result was an exhibition at the Leonhardi Museum in Dresden in 2007 called ‘Coral Gardens and their Magic’ – a title used by Bronis?aw Malinowski for his field studies in the South Pacific. This distancing and change of perspective also plays a part in Escalier du chant (Staircase of song, 2011), my current project at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. I invited twelve contemporary composers to write a song about what they consider current political events. I was careful to choose composers from very different musical and cultural backgrounds.

MB I’ve tried to use music a lot in my work as well. I totally agree with you, Olaf, music communicates on a different level. In the sound installation Avanti Popolo (Forward People, 2002), for example, I use patriotic songs both from the left and from the right wing, sung a capella. On the one hand, they are made to make us feel part of something. The melodies are very seducing when heard individually, but then, when they multiply and are played together, it becomes chaos. On the other hand, most of the lyrics are horrifying: it’s always ‘us’ against ‘the others’. My latest work, To Be Continued (2011) which I’m now preparing for the Crystal Palace at the Reina Sofía Museum, has a certain connection with Avanti Popolo – only this time I am working with political and economical slogans.


Maja Bajevic, Avanti Popolo, 2002

Maja Bajevic, Avanti Popolo, 2002

AE My work has changed since I moved from Stockholm to Berlin in 2002. My practice is sensitive to the place where I live, and that became obvious for me since I came here. I grew up in Sweden during the peak of the Social Democratic era, which has of course had an effect on me, my political beliefs and also my work. When I look back at the works I made in the 1990s, they are more related to that period in Sweden than I was aware of back then. Now, I have ended up somewhere in-between – a good situation I think. But it took me some time to be able to make a work with this complicated town as a point of departure. Last year, I made the film Wir sind wieder da (We’re here again, 2010), which involves a group of people who’ve been significant for this town for decades: punks. Since I first visited Berlin in the 1980s, they have always looked the same, almost like a secret society of uniformed people with dogs. They have their own community and claim that their passivity is a political statement – by not belonging, by not consuming more than the basics. And it is provoking, somehow. In another society, maybe they couldn’t be punks. They’re sitting at Alexanderplatz in front of the S-Bahn station, and tourists are photographing them. They look so displaced nowadays, almost like aliens. And I guess they’re disappearing, moving further and further out of the city.

FR Perhaps there are different ways of belonging and of not belonging, of being a citizen and being a non-citizen?

ON Many friends of mine are now asking this question, what it means to live in Berlin and be a citizen of this city. How can you become part of it? And how can you help shape it? Does the community even offer the chance to participate? Can you? Do you even want to? So it’s not just a question of whether you speak German or not. Is anyone interested that you’re here and that you’re doing something? What are you offered, apart from the chance to pay taxes? Are you allowed to vote? All this is being discussed. It does make sense to talk about a ‘bubble’ – but many people living here are very plugged into reality, not inside some kind of construct. But there’s this other problem: Most of the money spent in the art world here isn’t earned here.

MB The decision to go to other cities – like New York, London or Paris – meant that you would probably be worse off economically than where you had come from. Your life would become more difficult. In the beginning, you would live in a smaller space and would have to face and to adapt to the city, to grow with it, whereas in Berlin, it’s the opposite. You will have a bigger space and be better off economically. I still wonder how that influences the way artists live in and with Berlin. Also, many artists came to Berlin with their careers already established, as formed artists and people. I don’t have the feeling that there’s an experience of growing together with the city.

AE Obviously, there’s also something desirable about not participating. Many people come to Berlin for a short time – a form of cultural pilgrimage. In this sense, coming here is not connected to Germany as such but to the fact that Berlin offers the right envirnonment, the right conditions for this sense of community to exist.

CC I think there’s a level of participation – Olaf, you mentioned voting – that is completely foreign to most of the younger artists, fresh out of school, coming to Berlin right now. If the artist population isn’t integrating properly, it’s because that was never the original intention. Unlike immigrant populations who want to make a new life in a different place, this population is coming here to take advantage of each other’s presence and this unique economic situation, which Maja described. Germany is not a welcoming place.
I feel invested in Berlin more intellectually than emotionally. Even my German friends somehow intellectualize their relationship to the city. My theory is that a lot of recent German past is emotionally unavailable, even for German people.

ON ‘Emotionally unavailable’ – I like this description. For the figure of the artist, it’s politically ambivalent. There was a time when being an artist meant not being a citizen! And I don’t mean in terms of deliberately shocking the bourgeois. I mean avoiding identification. Added to which, there’s a process of depoliticization effecting the whole of society. The state is withdrawing from many areas, the whole political field is changing. Anyone wishing to participate has to face a huge bureaucracy, which makes it hard to get involved. On the one hand, when you move to a city you become part of all that, whether you like it or not. On the other hand, as an artist you should be able to circulate flexibly, like a free signifier. Like the description of 19th-century workers as doubly free – with no fixed abode and with the freedom to go wherever the ‘work’ is. Except that for these wage slaves, the situation was created by force, leading to trauma. For artists today, it’s more of an advantage: they can freely decide where they want to be, as long as they can afford it. The traumas come from elsewhere. You become a guest who joins an existing community – which you depend on, but which is already formatted in a specific way. And if you don’t fit, you become an alien…


Olaf Nicolai, Dresden 68, 2000

Olaf Nicolai, Dresden 68, 2000

AE In the beginning of the 1990s, when I started as an artist, no one exhibited abroad, people did not at all travel like they do now. The first international exhibition I saw was documenta 7 in 1982, and the artists participating were from Western parts of Europe and from North America. So today we have a completely different situation than we had twenty years ago. The art world has gone through a rapid process of internationalization. Berlin as it is now is a product of this constantly travelling and moving group of people.

ON The model of the artist has changed. We no longer belong to some kind of intelligentsia, we’re part of the culture industry. For Berlin’s city marketing and tourism, the image of a bohemian community of artists is as important as hotels, restaurants and infrastructure. The only problem is that this kind of community is actually disappearing, so it almost has to be simulated. If you look at the art market, its ‘middle ground’ is being abolished, leaving just the high price segment and a lot of raw material. Either you’re established, or you have to fight.

MB Interesting. The middle class of the art world is disappearing, like the middle class in general.

ON In Berlin it seems that the social elevators are still functioning, so you can go in, and you can go up, and you can dare to do this and that, but it’s all possible. In other cities, it’s much more zoned.

MB Berlin wants to be more open than Paris. So open, that a second- or third-generation immigrant, or an expatriate will start looking for references that seem to be missing. Maybe this disorientation is linked to the fact that there’s no ‘welcome package’ for foreigners. There’s no orientation because the German past is still so fragile, in particular in Berlin. So in the end, you don’t even know what you would belong to, if you would want to belong to it.

CC That’s an amazing statement.

ON Home is a concept which doesn’t fit the places you live in anymore.

CC The idea of creating a home, based on place, is not an issue for me. Home is just where I happen to be working. That has to do with the Internet: the ability to communicate and work with people, to keep up with what they’re doing. You don’t ever feel not at home, in a way. Maybe the art bubble could be best understood using the Internet as an analogy. Berlin is a city with a moving population, a constant flow of people and ideas.

FR The community is built on a connection, not a physical place.

CC In that sense, it won’t develop. We will remain in a bubble. Some people will stay, some will leave, some won’t even come. Maybe they’ll establish something, maybe not. That’s the freedom. But it’s also a new way of understanding communities.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

Issue 1

First published in Issue 1

Summer 2011

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