Berlin: name-writing

Berlin surfaces are written on to a degree I haven’t seen in many places… Tags, whether words or icons, are everywhere. The city’s lack of cash (Berlin is hugely in debt) means that graffiti, postering, stencils and so on are rarely removed, but simply layered over each other or gradually fading away. And so the walls (and many other surfaces too) are filled with images and words, many of them the names of the author or artist.

Lots of these are tags: tagging in Berlin has both an idiosyncratic history and quite distinctive contemporary forms. When reunification occurred after the taking down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many in the former East wanted to participate in graffiti writing, and began to develop styles and tags. For many, however, it wasn’t an invented tag name that they initially practised: one artist showed me scans of pages from his black book from the early 90s, as an artist growing up in the newly unified, former East Germany, he wrote brand names, instead of tag names, before he developed his own tag (the notebook was filled with ‘Diesel’, ‘Reebok’, ‘Nike’ and so on). But then Berlin style developed very quickly (many artists looked to cities such as Prague for inspiration, after initially being influenced by Brooklyn, New York and so on) and huge block letter throw-ups developed in 90s, many of these still being done or fading but visible still, on train lines especially.

Right now, I’m told there’s a fashion for the so-called ‘ugly’ style of tagging, writing as if in a ‘toy’ style. Interestingly, many tags are very simple, but their significance lies in the prolific range of places that they have been written (this would apply to many, many artists, including Brad Downey, Charlie Isoe, PiTR, 6 and others); other tags are amazing because they have been placed on rooftops or high on walls. Some have developed beautiful forms and shapes (such as the stencilled tag of xoooox); others have used icons s a means to get up all over the city (especially someone like Kripoe).

There’s tons more that could be said about Berlin’s culture of obsessive name-writing, but for now, here is a selection of my favourites…

The insanely prolific tags of Brad Downey:

The equally prolific French artist, PiTR, whose tag features here in the toilet of a cafe on Kastanienallee:

Some nice placement here, low down to the ground (as were all the tags by Isoe that I saw):

Kripoe’s iconic fists, followed by his equally iconic rollerskate:

And the little face drawn by Prost (which means ‘cheers!’) all over Berlin (usually laughing, although sometimes angry. This shot shows the archetypical smiling Prost icon:

Here’s an elegant stencil showing xoooox’s tag:

The utter simplicity of a tag that’s reduced to one digit: 6’s tag, here done on paper and pasted high up on a wall:

And along with the memories of Paris provided by seeing PiTR’s tag all over Berlin, here’s the tag of one of my favourite French artists, L’Atlas:

Berlin: city of memories, city of history, city of names.

Berlin’s visitors….

As I mentioned before, I’ve recently been visiting Berlin. Like many cities with a reputation for interesting street art, Berlin attracts a wide range of artists who pass through the city for a short time and leave their work on the walls. So I thought I’d put up a selection of images by people who, like me, have been visitors to Berlin.

In the first few days that I was there, I went to see the Kunsthaus Tacheles, a massive building famed for its history as a squat and now as a centre for creative activity (although to me its atmosphere of hippie-chic cool seemed a little contrived and also somewhat dated…). On its external wall there’s a huge work by one of my favourite French artists, Yz (also known as Open Your Eyes) – and above it is the tag of one of Melbourne’s most prolific graffers, Bones (whose tag, along with those of other members of the 70K crew, I saw all over Berlin):

Here’s a small cat by C215, almost hidden in a corner to the rear of the building currently occupied by Kunstlerhaus Bethanien.

Bethanien is inextricably associated with Backjumps, the creative venture of Adrian Nabi, who over several years produced magazines and curated exhibitions and cultural events in Berlin, involving artists who work in public space. Over the years, artists such as Swoon, the London Police, Nomad, Brad Downey, Dave the Chimp and many other exhibited in Berlin under the Backjumps aegis. Part of the Backjumps events involved the curation of walls around the Kreuzberg area of Berlin for the display of works which would remain after the events were over. Here are a couple of examples, one from os gemeos and one from the London Police:

The area of Friedrichshain is also well known for its art on the streets, and the warren of bars, warehouses and skate park on Revaler Strasse contains hundreds of pieces, some commissioned, some added spontaneously. Amid a riot of tags, stencil, paste-ups and pieces near the Cassiopeia skate park I found a piece by Orticanoodles, with – once again – a tag by Bones accompanying it:

The River Spree constitutes a boundary between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, and as you travel over the Oberbaumbrucke (a wonderfully gothic looking bridge), the landscape is dominated by a massive piece by Blu, one of a number he has done in the city. Here’s a close up of the work:

Roa, the Belgian artist who has been achieving a lot of well-deserved attention recently, was in Berlin while I was there, and produced some fantastic work, such as this:

I also saw some old pieces in Kreuzberg by the French artist Nelio, whose work I admire greatly for its beautiful placement within any particular space (and which I’ve written about previously on this blog, see here). Here’s one:

And on my last night in Berlin, as I walked down Danen Strasse in Prenzlauer Berg to go back to my apartment, I discovered that Nelio must have been visiting Berlin once again, since a new piece had appeared:

It was nice to think that the phenomenon of artists making visits to this amazing city and contributing to the flux of images in public space was continuing, even as I was about to leave….

Travelling time….

As mentioned in the previous post, I’m travelling at the moment – in the Highlands of Scotland right now. I’ll be moving from place to place for a while, and sometimes won’t have much access to the internet. I’ll post when I can (there’s lots I want to say about Berlin, for example), but posts might be a bit irregular for a while. But please keep visiting the site – normal service will be resumed eventually!

Scratching the surface

Recently, I spent a little over three weeks in Berlin. It’s the first time I have visited this city. I therefore had no firsthand sense of its backstory, or context, or history, my knowledge of it and its street art was based only what I had read or heard from others or seen online. Throughout my time there it felt as though there was always something new to learn – one gigantic learning curve….

For Berlin is a city whose surfaces are almost entirely covered in images, many of them illicit. The sheer number of these uncommissioned images is remarkable: walls are tagged, postered, and painted; street signs are stickered, and rooftops spray painted to a degree that simply doesn’t occur in cities such as Paris or London or New York. And although there are other European cities, such as Athens or Budapest, where a vast amount of wall writing can be found, in Berlin what is striking is the diversity of images and the variety of locations for their placement. Old school graffiti is common, but so are paste-ups, stickers and stencils. Bill posting is an ingrained feature of the cityscape, covering hoardings and walls, sometimes many layers deep:

The placement of images isn’t limited to those walls readily accessible to artists; any surface can be altered, with rooftops, hard-to-reach signal boxes, train carriages, and the undersides of river bridges being covered by illicit art.

There’s so much to say about Berlin, it’s impossible to say much in one post. I’ll be writing several when I get the chance (I am currently travelling in the Highlands of Scotland, without much access to the internet). So here I’ll simply say this. I spent three weeks and three days in Berlin and saw more illicit art (and more types of illicit art) than in pretty much any other city I’ve been. I took hundreds of photographs, but I could easily have taken hundreds more: after a while, I had to stop, because the vast number of tags, throw-ups, stickers, paste-ups and so on started to seem commonplace. I met many artists and ran out of time to meet more of these generous and friendly people, willing to give up their time to talk with me. Three and a half weeks, and this was only scratching the surface, in a city where the surfaces are quite literally indistinguishable from images.

Inside City Outside (walking in colour)

Today I went to see the first solo exhibition in Berlin, Innen Stadt Aussen (Inside City Outside), by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (who has been a resident of Berlin for many years).

I can’t recommend this exhibition highly enough – if you are anywhere near Berlin, you should definitely go to see it.

It’s at the Martin Gropius Bau, which is a powerhouse of a museum, showing major blockbuster exhibitions: at the moment, the crowd-puller is a huge Frida Kahlo exhibition. When we arrived, people were queuing to buy tickets, then queuing again to enter one level of the musuem, then queuing again to get into the exhibition. We were always intending to go to the Eliasson exhibition, but the sight of so many people simply existing in a kind of suspended animation, made me doubly glad that we had decided just to go to the one show.

And the show… it’s really quite hard to describe, because it had such an impact on me. It’s the sort of experience that I think I will remember for many, many years to come.

I say this partly because I can still vividly recall my first encounter with Eliasson’s work – back in 2003, in London. Eliasson was one of the artists who was invited to produce a work for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London, the massive entry hall of the former power station. Eliasson’s work – The Weather Project – created a giant sun at one end of the hall, with the effect that the entire space was bathed in an orange glow: the chimerical orb, no matter what time of day it was viewed, seemed to be in the middle of setting or rising, pouring warmth into the cold grey of a London winter:

You can see in these pictures how rugged up against the cold we all are…

And yet, people, while viewing this artwork, acted as though they were at the beach, lying on the ground, in sunbathing mode, prone before the image of a golden sun:

The Weather Project was an unforgettable experience, one that I always felt lucky to have seen. And now, this solo show lines up beside The Weather Project in offering one of the most outrageously immersive artworks I have ever encountered…

The show is designed to explore notions of internal and external space as it relates to the urban setting. It starts in sedate but pleasurable fashion, laying paving stones from one room to another in the museum, and offering the visitor the unexpected delights of walking on an artwork:

Eliasson has a fetish for light and mirrors (The Weather Project, like most magic tricks, was all done with mirrors and really big lights), and some of the subsequent rooms show him playing with these devices, in a way that allows the spectator to have a lot of fun as well. In one room there are some undulating mirrors that distort sections of bodies across an entire wall in patterns that resemble the tiles and paving stones that are routinely used in urban space:

In others, bodies are projected against white screens in shades of pink and blue, or violet and green. Here’s me, taking a photograph of myself in the artwork…

…and he builds sculptures of silver metal which contain cleverly placed lights and mirrors so that when one peeps into the internal cavities it appears that there is no floor, with the sculpture falling away to nothing before one’s feet.

There’s also a fascinating piece of moving-image art, a short film made around various locations (such as Moritzplatz and Kortbusser Tor) in Berlin, using a mirror to generate a sense of liquidity and shiver in the density of urban locations.

But in addition to these, there are two absolutely show-stopping artworks. In one, you enter a space that is constructed entirely of angled glass. It is a narrow space, an inverted triangle, but the mirrors make it appear to open to infinity on all sides, so that one fears to approach its edges, which initially seem to fall away, but then tilt to reveal another floor on which one is reflected, standing firmly and looking back into the main space. Sadly, this room was populated with museum staff whose main aim seemed to be to stop people taking pictures, and so I can’t show you what this amazing room looked like in any way.

It seemed like this might have been the highlight of the exhibition, until we entered another room, which was taped off, and which had a warning notice on the door stating that only children over six years old could enter….

This space inside this room was as hot as a sauna, and initially appeared to be filled with steam. (Although i know I should be fearless in my experience of art, I’m ashamed to report that my first thought was ‘oh no, my hair will go frizzy…’.) But the steam was actually smoke (and so, my hair survived, un-frizzed). The room was filled with smoke, which was coloured by long narrow lights in the ceiling, segmented by barriers, which shone down into the space. The lights in the ceiling were ordered according to the spectrum, so that the smoke in the room was in effect dyed according to the colour of the lights above. The dense smoke in the room meant that you could see only as far ahead as an arm’s length, meaning that all depth of field was lost, and you moved through the spectrum of colour, from one to the next, with no horizon, and no sense of boundary, horizon or limit.

It was utterly disorienting and completely transporting. You were literally walking in colour. At one point, in the red-to-violet section of the spectrum, the colour was so intense that my eyes could hardly make sense of what they were seeing.

And so we stumbled around, joyfully, for quite some time, until we admitted it was time to leave (well, it was as hot as a sauna – maybe it is designed to be hot so that people don’t stay in there for hours). And we emerged from the room and into the body of the museum (where people were still queuing hopelessly for the Kahlo exhibition), blissed out on colour.

I’ll always be grateful to Eliasson for this experience. A thoughtful, thought-provoking exhibition, capped with a mind-blowing artwork which takes on some of the limits of the relationship between artwork and spectator and dissolves them into coloured smoke.

Memory and the labyrinth

I’m in Berlin for a few weeks, doing some research on street art here (about which more later, no doubt). But Berlin is not only a city filled with uncommissioned art, it is also a city immersed in the work of memorialisation of the past through public art and sculpture. This is very much one of my interests – how a city represents its relation to events which have marked its identity and character – and so on Wednesday, I went to see the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

This massive memorial site is located in the heart of Berlin, one block from the Brandenburg Gate, two blocks from the Reichstag, across the road from the US Embassy, close to Potsdamer Platz, and so on. Locating the memorial here (rather than in, say, some out of the way park, as might easily have been done) thus embeds it within the centre of Berlin as a seat of government, as an international city, and as a tourist destination.

The memorial, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, occupies a site that is pretty much the size of a city block (4.7 acres, in fact), and consists of 2,711 dark grey stelae (stone blocks) of various heights, arranged in rows, but patterned in that they appear to undulate across the site. This undulation is created partly by the varying heights of the stelae, and partly by the fact that they stand upon ground which rises and falls, rolling across the site in paved peaks and troughs (something that is hard to see from the outside, and which is instead experienced as you walk into it).

It’s an important part of the design that this is a memorial that you enter, rather than simply look at. It is designed to offer a range of unmarked paths that can be traced through the grey blocks. At its sides, the stelae are relatively small – knee-high, looking more like seats than columns. But the undulating unevenness of the ground means that, as you enter the site, very quickly the ground falls away, and you are surrounded by higher and higher blocks of stone, until they fairly tower above you, reaching as much as fifteen feet in height. At these points, sound – from other visitors, from traffic on the nearby streets – is muffled, and there is a feeling of being, quite suddenly, cut off from the world.

Thanks to the arrangement of the columns in blocks and rows, it’s possible to invent a path through what is revealed as a labyrinthine structure, in order to come out on the other side. Some paths are, literally, straightforward, marching in one direction across the site; others suddenly take you into a trough, in which the way through seems obscured. And, thanks to the presence of other visitors who can’t be seen until you almost collide with them as their path intersects with your own, any way that you choose may turn out to be momentarily impeded.

In this way, the memorial enacts a powerful narrative about the Shoah – the randomness of horrors, the ways in which escape routes chosen by individuals could turn out to be blocked by others, the suddenness with which people were isolated from assistance….

Before visiting, I had seen pictures of the memorial, and thus knew something of what to expect from it. But I hadn’t anticipated the experience of being at and in the memorial to be so effective (although note that I’m not saying ‘affective’ – and more about the memorial’s affect later).

So what was it that was striking, in the experience of being there (as opposed to simply seeing pictures and reading about the memorial’s design)? I noticed immediately (and can vividly remember) the smoothness of the stone used for the grey stelae: to run your hands down the side of one constitutes a beautifully tactile experience.

And I later recalled that there was controversy about the anti-graffiti coating that was applied to these stelae – the product originally used was made by a subsidiary company of the one that manufactured Zyklon B for the gas chambers. It seems unclear whether this was a slip-up in the memorial’s manufacture: perhaps some functionary sourced the coating without checking whether its manufacturer had any links to the Shoah, but perhaps instead it’s a means of provoking discussion about how many companies that were operating during – and profiting from – the Holocaust are still engaged in commerce today… But what can be said is that this is also one of the effective things about the memorial (smooth stone prompts one to think of the chemical coating the stone, and perhaps also its provenance and manufacture): its tactility directs thought in ways that words can’t quite manage.

I also went into the visitor centre, located underneath the memorial. I’ve written elsewhere about Holocaust museums and visitor centres, and I have great scepticism about how some of them are constructed, but this one is well done. It engages the senses – rooms with visual timelines of events are matched by a room in which a voice reads out the name and a brief biography of each Jewish person lost in the Shoah (to read them all will take over six years). Most remarkable was a dimly lit room with lighted panels in the floor (rather than placed on a wall in standard museum format): the panels showed letters and postcards written by individuals in ghettos and on the trains to the camps (some of these thrown from the trains and salvaged by others).

But most interesting of all for me in the days since seeing the memorial is the question of how there is no necessary affective relation between the architecture of this monument and the experience of being there. Its affect is contingent upon knowledge of what it is there for; its status is therefore nominal, in that solemnity and gravity depend upon its being named as the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’.

For my 8 year old daughter, who as yet knows almost nothing of the Shoah, it was not a place of sadness, but was rather a space of joyfulness: a maze that had to be navigated, a labyrinth that brought to life some of the puzzles that she does at school and some of the stories in her books:

We didn’t burden her with any of the narrative that the memorial seeks to animate – and in fact I rather envied her the ability to experience the site in its purely physical form without its metaphorical overlay.

Did her delighted leaping from one corridor to another have an impact upon my affective relation to the site? I certainly found it far less affective than some other Holocaust memorials that I have seen (for example, in Prague and Budapest, and also here in Berlin, on Grosse Hamburger Strasse). So what is the affective relation sought by this particular site? Perhaps it’s not that it failed to generate the solemnity and pensiveness that arises so easily at some other memorial locations, but perhaps instead its affectivity is mutable, intricate and elusive. At any rate, I’ve thought of it and about it many times since we visited a week ago, and in this respect – as a spur to thought – it performs an admirable function.

Street/Studio at Readings

Readings bookstore in Carlton was kind enough to host a panel discussion and Q&A to showcase our book Street/Studio recently.

On the panel, there was Miso, Ghostpatrol and Tom Sevil, with me acting as a kind of discussion-facilitator and moderator for the discussion.

We started off with the artists saying a few words about how they came to Melbourne, and how they came to do artwork for the street in particular. Each one them spoke about the good and the bad things in the street art scene, and about what makes Melbourne such an amazing place for street art.

We then took questions from the audience, and a fantastic discussion ensued, with people making commenst about how much street art means to them in their neighbourhood, about buffing, about council policy and State government policy, about Melbourne as it compares with other cities, and about how street art has become part of the very essence of Melbourne.

It was a really enjoyable event for all of us, and I hope that everyone who came along enjoyed it too.

Some pictures, taken by Andrew McDonald from Readings….

Refiguring the Walls of Paris

Street art and graffiti, when spoken about by those who don’t enjoy the experience of discovering unauthorised art in city spaces, are sometimes said to deface the walls of the streets in which they are found. Calling it ‘defacement’ is a way of saying ‘damage to property’, of course, but interestingly, when street art’s detractors want to focus on the question of purely physical damage to property, they usually use the term ‘vandalism’. So the term ‘defacement’ seems to speak to something else, as though the walls of the city have an outward face, which has been altered, spoiled, or even destroyed by the artwork – literally de-faced. (There’ an excellent book on the concept of defacement by Michael Taussig, if you are interested in thinking more along these lines…)

Thinking of city walls in this way sounds odd, until we start thinking of how we are quite accustomed to speaking of the facade of a building, for example; both ‘facade’ and ‘face’ share the same root, from facia (face) in Latin.

On my way home from Paris to Melbourne, I was thinking about the term ‘defacement’ and how it gets used as a negative descriptor of street art and graffiti (well, it’s a long, long flight, you have many hours in which to ponder these things). If walls have faces that can be ‘damaged’, then that sets the street artwork up as operating as a form of disfigurement.

[If you don’t look at street art as a form of disfigurement, then of course the addition of artworks to the city walls by its artists can be construed in many, positive lights (as written about in previous posts on this blog): as a gift, as a contribution to the community, as a means of beautification of drab spaces, as a form of communication between the artist and other members of the community, and as a means of celebrating the city itself.]

It seemed particularly fitting to me to think through the idea of street art and graffiti as a form of defacement and disfigurement after having spent two weeks in Paris this May. I spent hours walking through the streets and saw some amazing and inspiring work. One of the things that was striking about it is the preponderance of figurative work: there are hundreds of portraits by dozens of artists adorning the walls of Paris, and here is a selection of some of the ones I enjoyed most.

Here’s a section of a large work by the Vancouver-based artist Indigo:

One of the curving black figures created by FKDL:

A beautifully placed image by C215:

The incomparable Miss.Tic, making stencils since the mid-1980s:

Two works, dancing together. The corps blanc, or white figure, is by Jerome Mesnager, the female figure is by Jef Aerosol, both also veterans of the French scene:

And here is one of Nemo’s typically segmented scenes, in which a dark silhouetted figure tumbles through various scenes against a backdrop of sandstone:

As a graduate student, much of my time was spent reading the work of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (and since becoming an academic, a lot of my time is spent teaching his work too), so it was a great pleasure to come across his face on a number of walls, placed there by the stencil artist PITR:

And I was fortunate enough to catch some freshly painted stencil works by Jana und JS, stunning in their photorealistic detail:

Finally, a slightly different kind of portrait, that of the grinning yellow cat made famous by Monsieur Chat. These cats apparently bound across many of Paris’s rooftops, but I caught sight of only one. You can just see its Cheshire-cat happiness high above the street, beaming down at the passers-by:

It’s easy to find this kind of street art appealing: well-executed images in bright colours, skillfully applied in well thought-out spaces. What’s not to like? Who could call these images a disfigurement of the walls? But I think that what I saw in Paris was more than just a negation of the criticism of street art’s detractors. And so I’ll say this: instead of simply being not-disfigurements, these works actively re-figure the streets of Paris, opening for the passer-by moments of narrative and instances of beauty where previously none had existed.

Street/Studio: the Launch!

Last Friday was the launch at Federation Square of Street/Studio: the Place of Street Art in Melbourne (Thames & Hudson), the book that Miso, Ghostpatrol, TImba and myself have been working away on since last August.

The launch was amazing! We were completely overwhelmed at the numbers who turned up to buy a book, get it signed, have a beer or a glass of wine, and celebrate the publication with us.

No Vacancy Gallery put on a really nice exhibition based around the book, which ran until Sunday:

Some of the artists featured in the book are overseas right now and couldn’t be there, but Niels Oeltjen, Twoone, and members of Everfresh came along to sign copies of the books.

Thanks to Thames & Hudson for organising such a great night, and thanks to everyone who came along; apologies to those who weren’t able to get in because of the crowd.

And a huge thanks to Alex from NIce Produce for the amazing photos.

More Street/Studio events to come in the next couple of weeks….

Street/Studio launch: sneak peeks

The launch of our book, Street/Studio; The Place of Street Art in Melbourne, takes place tomorrow night at No Vacancy gallery, in the Atrium of Federation Square.

Here are some sneak peeks at how the launch is shaping up…. Come by tomorrow night to see some great artworks and have a look at the book!