Friday, November 25, 2022
Getting Popular: Back to Berlin, Part One
Like everywhere these days, the German cities of Berlin and Hamburg were unseasonably mild in early November. I came there after a long time gone to pick up the trail of squatting for a new book project, a dream deferred.
The squatting movement is pretty low now, and nearly sunk in Berlin. You have to sniff like a hound to catch a whiff of the acrid flame of its spirit smoldering beneath the rubble of bourgeois consumption society.
I have in mind now a book on the after-effects, the leavings, the important accomplishments of the European squatting movement in some of its major sites – most of which are long gone.
My first stops on this trip were archives – the Papier Tiger Archiv in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, and a library in the New Yorck im Bethanien. Moving on to Hamburg, I visited Park Fiction and Gaengeviertel, and failed to find the Rote Flora and its Archiv der Sozialen Bewegungen open. I met a few folks and chatted, and lit the lamp for the German part of my project. A lingering ideology of revolutionary resolve is part of that.
Gone, Gone, Gone
The most salient thing about the famous Berlin squatting movement of the 1980s and ‘90s is its near total invisibility today.
The extent of the old movement can be grasped in the map of “Berlin Besetzt” (Squatted Berlin), which locates and briefly describes most of the Hausbesetzung (squatted house) projects in Berlin in the last several decades.
It was vast. Our research group SqEK (Squatting Everywhere Kollective) was toured through its then-quite-evident remains over 10 years ago.
Squatters in Berlin, 1981. Photo by Tom Ordelman
The streets of Kreuzberg tell the story of today. Great tall kiosks are covered top to bottom with the same commercial posters, kiez after kiez (i.e., barrio). Corporate monoculture and its wage slaves are winning against the ragged hordes of volunteers of yesteryear. And the artists who aren’t stadium-commercial seem to have largely checked out of street communication. Graffiti is plentiful, but it’s aimless pointless name tags.
“When Kreuzberg was wild” (title of an article on a tourist website)
Now, besides colorful stories and the memories of old folks in their co-op apartments, what remains of the movement?
An enormous revaluation of property is what. The Guardian wrote in 2016 that “rents in Kreuzberg were on average the highest in the German capital.” Exactly the same thing happened in “Loisaida rebelde”, NYC. David Harvey was right – rent-seeking is the new basis of capital accumulation in cities today. And first come the squatters and the artists, then come the speculators and developers.
When developers were afraid. "Fire and Flame" in 1981. Photo by Paul Glaser
I began in Berlin by retracing some steps from our SqEK meetings there of long ago. In May I had launched my new book Art Worker in Berlin, and passed by the Regenbogen Fabrik (Rainbow Factory). This early squatted complex celebrated their 40th year in 2021. One can never get a room in their hostel as I’d hoped, but I could see that the principal projects in this live/work complex were still active:
What Is Still Going On at the Fabrik
– A wood workshop, established soon after the occupation of 1981, when the urgent task of restoring squatted buildings was uppermost.
– A bicycle workshop, at one time the largest in Berlin. (The city was a bicycle heaven a decade ago, but that seems to have changed a lot. There's still a morning commute, but bikes on the streets are much less common today, and the many rental spots for tourists have vanished.)
– A cafe, which I was told is open now only one day a week, although on Facebook they say it is reformulating yet again, with migrants as cooks; – A movie theater, the most unusual aspect of the complex, which continues to host regular events.
– the children’s care center – the “kita” – was a key early project, and they still describe themselves as a “childrens, cultural and neighborhood center”.
– I spotted a bookstore setup in a window there, but that was closing and I could not see it clearly.
The Regenbogenfabrik was and is committed to concepts and organizational forms of a “solidarity economy”, a way of living that is proactively anti-capitalist. It’s a public micro-utopia, an important vestige of the squatting movement of the 1980s.
The Papier Tiger Archiv
I had an appointment to visit the renowned Papier Tiger Archiv. This Berlin archive of left movements is where Josh MacPhee and Dara Greenwald collected scans of German political posters for their important 2008 “Signs of Change” exhibition at Exit Art. That show preceded the couple’s founding of the Interference Archive, an active autonomous archive in Brooklyn.
The PT Archiv also houses the library of Kukuck, the Kunst- und Kulturcentrum of the 1980s, but I forgot to ask about it. Although Sarah Lewison contributed photos and a brief text on it from her time there to our anthology Making Room: Cultural Production in Occupied Space (2015: PDF online), what Kukuck was is still vague to me.
“Punx”, who was sitting the archive that day, didn’t seem very jazzed by my project. I wasn’t well prepared. There’s a lot online I haven’t processed, and secondary books which I’ve yet to see.
I explained I’m on a search for the residues, the important outcomes of major squatting projects in different European cities. Besides the enormous raises in rent, which I recall led radical Baltimore housing activists to call for the houses of squatters to be attacked, I proposed that bookstores are important cultural artifacts of the squatting movement in Berlin. I got that flash from a photo by Philip Pocock of a Berlin squat from 1982 posted which shows a newly squatted building with an incipient bookstore announcing itself with a banner.
We spoke about places like Oh21, where I later ordered the Autonome in Bewegung book which was stolen from me in Philadelphia. I’d bought that a decade ago from a weird street fighters’ gear shop run by a guy in a wheelchair – Hans-Georg Lindenau. He’s a Kreuzberg character, it turns out, whose M99 shop was evicted around 2016.
The PTA is an important repository of radical left documents. A young woman arrived as I was there to work on the Autonomen.
An artist in our Colab group, Diego Cortez visited Germany in ‘77. He went with Anya Philips to Stammheim prison to try to meet Holger Meins, an imprisoned member of the RAF. Meins had been a filmmaker. He studied alongside Harun Farocki. Diego wanted to interview him for our X Magazine. I learned later that a film was made about Meins – Starbuck Holger Meins, which includes some of his film footage. “Starbuck” because he was the helmsman like in Moby Dick, the strategist of the RAF group.
This is a cross between art and the most extreme left activism. German Autonomen were famed for their fights with cops. Still the book of their history has an oddly whimsical cover image – a masked street fighter seated in a shopping cart – “in movement”.
Joseph Beuys’ engagement with the German Green party before he was purged was also a moment when art and politics crossed strongly. Punx suggested the Green Party archives could illuminate that. That may be a little too far for me to go; the recent epic biography of Beuys is still untranslated.
We talked about the Tutenhaus, the mythical squatted street. And he pointed me to an exhibition “Tuntenhaus Forellenhof 1990: Gay Communism’s Short Summer” still up at the Schwules Museum. I made it there some days later (details in next post).
Social centers, I suggested, were places where working class young people could become involved with cultural activity. Punx laughed at that. He said squatters were middle class people.
That’s something of an open question, I think. I wonder also about alternative kids, commune brats. To what class do they belong?, since their upbringing and schooling etc. removes them a little from the normal runs of class reproduction. Is that a small thing? Miguel Martinez is the only person I know who has interviewed enough squatters to give some kind of answer to this question.
NEXT – New Yorck im Bethanien, Georg Rauch Haus, “Bitte Leben”, Peter Missing and Hamburg-- Gängeviertel and Park Fiction, Vokü at the Haffenstrasse.
“Berlin Besetzt” (Squatted Berlin) map of squatted house projects in Berlin
PDFs of my zine, “House Magic: Bureau of Foreign Correspondence” from 2012 and 2013, with records of our German visit can be found here:
"launched my new book"
It's a memoir of my years in the NYC artworld: Art Worker: Doing Time in the NY Artworld (Journal of Aesthetics & Protest, 2022)
in paper and e-book at: INS BITLY
“rents in Kreuzberg“
Philip Oltermann, “'State enemy No 1': the Berlin counter-culture legend fighting eviction”, Wed 10 Aug 2016
“Signs of Change” exhibition at Exit Art. The full program of this show is on an Italian website:
Lily Cichanowicz, “M99: Berlin’s ‘Corner Shop For Revolutionary Needs’”, 20 December 2016
AG Grauwacke, Assoziation A e.V., , "Autonome in Bewegung: Aus den ersten 23 Jahren" (2003; reprints up to 2020)
buchladen oh*21 - oh21.de
"Tuntenhaus Forellenhof 1990: Gay Communism’s Short Summer" at the Schwules Museum, Berlin
The M99 shop before its eviction in 2016