Creative Alternatives

The new political art in unified Berlin

Artists’ tactics during the studio protests signaled the emergence of more overt forms of political engagement among the local art scene following unification, largely in response to the new political and economic situation. In an article on the “new political art,” art historian Sabine Vogel suggested the art world could benefit from the fresh injection of ideas and new forms of political art from artist activists in the 1990s.

A new generation of artists (born in the 1960s) staging actions and installations in public space and forming new alternative art spaces drew inspiration from the street theater scene of the 1970s and 80s, Jotter and Petersen’s work at the Office for Unusual Measures, and from the legacy of art and political activism originating during the late 1960s anti-authoritarian movement. But these artists also built on the innovations of Berlin’s action artists from the 1980s like the Büro Berlin, who staged art outside galleries and museums and saw art as a powerful means to transform everyday life. The political action art appearing in Berlin in the 1990s was also part of a broader international trend in the 1990s that turned to more participatory-forms of art and encouraged collective action in public space.

 

Group Material- Democracy Poll

Group Material, Democracy Poll, Berlin 1990.

Group Material--Democracy Poll

In summer 1990, the American artist group Group Material brought their unique form of political activism and public intervention to Berlin at the invitation of the NGBK’s Frank Wagner, for a project called “Democracy Poll—Democratic Uplift.” Earlier that year, Group Material members randomly interviewed 120 men and women of all ages in New York and Berlin on a range of questions related to German unification and the themes of “intolerance, xenophobia, and chauvinism.” The group then reproduced 65 of the responses to the poll on advertising boards in subway stations at Wittenberg Platz, Kottbusser Tor, Mehringdamm, and Neukölln, on the large digital screen on the Kurfurstendamm from midnight to 6 am, and in an eight-page “advertising” supplement in the Tagesspiegel in June 1990.  Through the Democracy Poll project, these artists reclaimed commercial spaces in Berlin for the purposes of art, activism and promoting public dialogue. Artists in Berlin returned to these issues throughout the decade, as the growing spread of commercialism and privatization of urban space threatened to eclipse the democratic potential of the public sphere.

 

Wir starben für Deutschland

Thomas Kunzmann and Nikolaus Berendonk poster, December 1990.

Berlin Art Gets Politicized

New locally-based artists and art groups emerged within the unified city seeking a greater capacity for art to engage directly with the political issues of the day in alternative art spaces and on the streets. In late 1990, a series of posters and installations appeared in diverse spaces across the city loosely related to the upcoming Berlin elections on December 2nd. The series used a similar approach as Group Material, i.e. installing visual and text displays in prominent public spaces in order to incite dialogue on contemporary political issues. Many of the posters resembled the campaign posters that covered the city’s advertising kiosks and billboards in the days leading up to the electioan.

Though some actions were officially registered with the city, others were unofficial and illegal. This is a good place to stop and remind readers that, in spite of the end of GDR controls on art, artists in unified Berlin (as in West Berlin) were still subject to official controls over art in public space and could either go through official channels to present work in select public spaces or pursue the project illegally. Without securing official permission, Thomas Kunzmann and Nikolaus Berendonk pasted two hundred posters around the city that said: “we died for Germany: Meinhof Baader Schleyer Ponto Ensslin Herrhausen,” referencing the legacy of terrorism in the FRG. Neglecting to distinguish between the names of victims and perpetrators, the artists instead emphasized the gray area among them.

Carsten Höller from the newly formed BOTSCHAFT, e.V. artist collective constructed a sign outside the group’s building in Berlin-Mitte that presented an old CDU slogan, “together into the future,” with the CDU logo removed. By removing the phrase from its typical context, Höller revealed the hollowness of political slogans often obscured by one’s association with a party logo. Renate Paulsen’s installation on a construction fence in Mariannenplatz in Kreuzberg wrote responses from local artists to the “political and social developments in recent German history,” on plywood that she then hung to the fence. This striking evolution in Berlin’s experimental art scene after unification emphasized participation, political dialogue and collaboration among cultural producers and the public. This was a notable change from the subtle experimental art actions in the 1980s and the micro-managed Happenings of the 1970s.

      

InnenStadtAktion (Inner City Action)

In 1996, a network of artist activists spanning cities across German-speaking Central Europe calling itself InnenStadtAktion and raised the basic question: “Who owns public space?” Under the slogan: “against privatization, the obsession with security, and marginalization,” the group began staging actions and demonstrations calling attention to the social consequences of the neoliberal zeal for free markets and privatization that was threatening artists’ living and work space. The InnenStadtAktion network also pursued a collaboration with migrant and homeless rights groups to organize collective actions and demonstrations to demand their “right to the city.”

In Berlin, InnenStadtAktion staged actions that mocked the heightened presence of “security” in Berlin’s public spaces and reclaimed commercial spaces for other purposes. In one action, group members dawned security guard uniforms and began pestering shoppers within the new Friedrich Strasse shopping district. They asked shoppers to show them their purchases and tell them how much money they had spent. By assuming the authority of a security guard (primarily through the official-looking uniforms), the group sought to critique the real life actions of private security firms that violated individuals’ freedom of movement in the city every day. The action also probed the degree to which people accepted the presence of security guards as regular and necessary, and their willingness to obey officials in uniform when they became the target of harassment.

InnenStadtAktion also used art actions to lobby for the greater “heterogeneity of public spaces” and counteract the oversized role of capital in structuring public space as a space for consumption. In their 1997 action, “Anbau” members from the Berlin College of Arts joined InnenStadtAktion to install a swimming pool and a provisional “Container Bar” in the recently redeveloped Friedrich Strasse/Mohren Strasse district. The area had recently become populated with new high-end restaurants and shops, and a squad of security guards. Anyone who wished could lounge in the pool and watch short films on marginalized groups in the city. The group also hosted gunny sack and egg and spoon races, and installed a stereo in a garbage dumpster that they rolled around the street as a mobile DJ. One evening, the group turned the bar into the “Schwarzfahrbar” and offered to compensate for fines incurred by people who rode the Berlin subway without paying fares (known as schwarzfahren) with free drinks equivalent to their fines. This action presented the public with alternative uses for the area other than consumption, while also provided a meeting place for activists in town for a week of actions and demonstrations.


A video made by the group (in German) around the Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten and Kurfürstendamm shopping district can be viewed on youtube.

The new political art in unified Berlin