Thursday, November 27, 2008

love, life, and bad habits

Graffiti in Europe is as ubiquitous and impressive as the coffee and public transportation, but the other night a very simple tag caught my eye. From my part in the Twin Oaks production of the musical Cabaret I knew that "leben" in german meant life, so when I saw this scrawled on a window I was intrigued.

Being in Berlin I did quite some reminiscing about Cabaret, which is set in this world famous (and infamous) city. The musical depicts well the astounding transformation of a decadent center of arts and music to ground zero of one of the most horrific events in world history. Berlin was and continues to be a city of extemes, and this tag, which roughly translates to "life, love, and bad habits" illustrates this well.

Berlin continues to be one of the world's most popular points for arts and music, with thriving alternative sub-cultures all around the city. It also continues to have a strong conservative-right movement. Berlin was host to the Love Parade for many years before the city shut it down because it didn't want to pay for the trash cleanup (which was much less than the amount of tourist money that came in from the event.) It is also home to the largest population of Turkish people outside of Turkey. The conflicts and tensions of the world definitely seem to congregate here, and yet this laisez faire attitude continues to permeate.

C'est la vie.

Our time in Berin was short and sweet, staying at one of the older former squats that started in east Berlin after the wall came down. Squating was quite common in west Berlin before the wall came down. Being completely surrounded by the GDR (east germany), it was not a particularly easy place to live or do business, leaving many abandoned buildings. Once the wall came down everyone in east Berlin flocked to the west, leaving many abandoned buildings in the east part of the city. In the early years there were as many as 150 buildings squated, a significant collection of which still exist, mostly now legitimized in some way or another.

K77 is one such building, which is actually the oldest building in the neighborhood. Their success came in part because the squating was done as a performance art piece. The residents-to-be made a giant heart, dressed up in nurses and doctors outfits, and made a show of transplanting the new heart into the "dying" building.

Over 100 people from other squats came to witness the event, and a lawyer was on hand to explain to the police that this was a public art piece, which has certain protections under Berlin law. The east Berlin police were also still unfamiliar and a bit mystified by the whole concept of squating (which was simply not something people did under communism) and allowed the action to happen.

Over the last 15 years or so it has been an important haven for artists and crafters. One of the three buildings on the property, and parts of the others are devoted to such activities, and it is in the mission statement of the collective that it wll continue to support the arts. Currently this includes an independent cinema, a yoga and dance studio, a pottery studio, and an art therapy practitioner.

The house has a curious approach to shared living. They share food completely, but they have no labor system to speak of, nor any requirements for cleaning or other tasks, except being part of a cook team to make dinner once a week. In part this means that the place is very dirty and messy most of the time. But generally people don't seem to mind. They are a very close knit group (they might not think so, but sitting with them at the dinner table or breakfast nook made it obvious to us), and it seems that the lack of requirements actually supports this, whereas rules or requirements on cleaning would probably just create tension.

Artists... go figure.

1 comment:

memeticist said...

The tag line for Berlin was translated to me as "Love, life and sin" which is at least more compact.

An old friend who lived in Berlin before the wall came down, pointed out that some of the progressive characteristics of the city were positively influenced by the cities laws. Specifically, old East Berlin (like present day Alaska) gave people money to live there because of the hardship of being surrounded by the east and difficulties traveling. Also it was the only place young men could go and avoid the German mandatory military service. And the bars were permitted to stay open late, unlike all the rest of then West Germany.

So you get poor pacifists who want to stay up late partying. This is not quite the definition of artists - but there is a lot of overlap.