Monday, December 12, 2022
Germany in Autumn #2: Picking Amongst the Textual Ruins
"No Power for Anyone" -- cover of the Ton Steine Scherben songcomic
This is the 2nd post in the account of my visit to Germany in Fall of 2022. I’m looking for the traces of squatting in EU cities, returning to the trail I followed in my work with the SqEK group from 2009 to 2016. In this I tell of my visit to a squatted institution in Berlin, the search for Peter Missing, and rave geek Tobi’s big new book “Please Live”. I connect with old artist comrades Wolfgang Staehle and Philip Pocock, and ruminate about others.
For my second day of research in Berlin, I visited a comrade living in the old Bethanien hospital complex. Among its several projects, NYiB houses a Collective Library and poster archive. There I learned of some important recent books and historical exhibitions that have come along since I last paid attention.
New Yorck im Bethanien adjoins the Georg Rauch Haus, one of the earliest Berlin squats. They have their own song – "Hau ab: Rauch-Haus-Song" ("Get lost”; “Das ist unser Haus!") by the band Ton Steine Scherben. The band is beloved, and I picked up a graphic comic book done around their lyrics. When I passed by, the Rauch Haus was still very colorful with its graffiti slogans and encrustations of political posters.
It’s tricky to get hold of comrade X. He asked me to install Signal, an encrypted messaging app. This wasn’t so easy, but it was worth it, an excellent meeting in which X showed me several important sources.
“Comms” in general on this trip turned out to be quite a problem. Expat U.S. artist Peter Missing only uses Facebook messenger. I don’t have FB on my cel phone. We set up an appointment to meet, and Peter wasn’t there. “Something came up…” It was a trek out there, and fruitless. I tried to catch him on the swing back from Hamburg to the airport in Berlin. Again, no dice. “Today I realized I have to be at a funeral.”
Peter Missing is the squatter artist par excellence. He was in the thick of the movement in NYC in the ‘90s, fronting a band called Missing Foundation notorious for a graffiti slogan of an upside-down martini glass and the epigram “Party’s Over 1933”. Later he moved to Hamburg, where he also squatted. (I saw his martini-glass tag there in 2010.) I last saw him in the yard of Kunsthaus Tacheles, the giant Berlin art squat before it was evicted in 2012. Ten years on, Peter Missing is painting large-scale murals in his dense colorful jigsaw puzzle style. He did one recently for the Berlin Urban Nation street art museum. Finally, he said, “mail me your questions”.
(A recent screed of his is stuck at the end of this blog post.)
Comrade X showed me his recent essay in Rebellisches Berlin: Expeditionen in die untergründige Stadt (Gruppe Panther, 2021). He also had the book Tacheles: Die Geschichte des Kunsthauses by Stefan Schilling (2016), which is o.p.. The Urban Nation library couldn’t find their copy when I visited in spring.
The biggest book find at NYiB was Bitte Lebn (Please live), a new fat tome edited by Tobias Morawski. I met Tobi when he did Reclaim Your City in 2014, a slim book on political graffiti in Berlin. Tobi then was involved in a party-production group called Mensch Meier. I got the idea that he’d given up working on political graffiti and was down for making music business money, like that guy in Amsterdam.
But it looks to be more than that – “We are a venue,” MM write, “A platform. A collective. We are all about grassroots democratic solidarity. We are Mensch Meier. And you are, too, when you are here.” Yes, they do music, and more. The name seems to come from song by the Ton Steine Scherben group, a talkin’ blues about an Everyman. The MM gang is mostly into techno & rave. Their website is splendidly designed.
Rave people and culture played a central role in squatting during the 1990s, a story which, unlike anarcho-punk, remains still to be told. ETC Dee, another SqEK comrade, was a DJ with a free party tribe which roamed Europe during those years.
I had a visit in Berlin with expat Canadian artist Philip Pocock. He’s been posting photos from the early 1980s squatting scene (see my last “Occuprop” post). Philip is still hiding from Covid, but he emerged into the open air for a while to talk. Philip recalled his days amongst the squatters. Some of their buildings fronted directly on the Wall, and they would ‘entertain’ the East German border guards in their towers with public sex acts and rooftop jazz concerts.
Philip is a photographer who has burrowed deep into technical processes. He regaled me with his past art adventures, which included a globe-trotting expedition to survey the equator. One of collaborators he worked with was Wolfgang Staehle, founder of the early online community The Thing.
When I caught up with him, Wolfgang was in the midst of a new Thing exhibition, “The thing is…”. He and Caspar Stracke hosted me for a book talk about my new memoir (see the related blog: “Art Gangs”). The best part of that was a video jam of old ‘70s and ‘80s cable TV work rescued by the XFR Collective and posted on archive.org. Viel spass!
Berlin buzzes with a multitude of art projects, many riding the border of starkly present political issues. It’s a serious town. In addition to the multi-sited Thing exhibition (I only had time to glance at one of them), I caught a book talk by Jacopo Galimberti on the artists of the Autonomia movement. The meat of his talk was strictly art historical. He had interviewed artists who worked on Autonomist journals, examined their archives, etc. His iconographic analysis connected radical grahics with classical themes, much like the "many-headed hydra", an emblem for the people – the rabble – in revanchist 18th c. discourse.
So far as a classic art historical analysis of the squatting movement artists goes, I can't follow that path, although I hope someone does. Nearly all of the artists who paint in and on the exterior walls of squatted buildings are anonymous. Of course they all have names. This work builds rep for street artists, but it's an underground I don't know. Bitte Lebn may open some doors on this question when I get around to studying it.
For my "Occupation Culture" book (2015) I recounted direct experiences with squatters and squat researchers. This trip I focussed on remnants. There are quite a number of anniversary publications of squat projects which I have yet to sort through. Berlin, like NYC, has been about processing its radical pasts for quite a while now. Opportunities for experiment and innovation when foreclosed still become archival products and events. And tourist attractions.
As for literal remnants of the period – (even exactly what is that? i.e., how to periodize, another classic historical question) – I saw one last giant steel sculpture still standing in Goerlitzer Park. In ‘86 there were many of these monstrous metal constructions to be seen, rising like transformers throughout the park. Where did they go? Were they "squatter art"?
I was told that Josef Strau was set to make a history about them for a show in Berlin in '04 (“Now and Ten Years Ago”, Kunstwerke, Berlin) but he decided against it. That show was also intending to draw a line between NYC and Berlin in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I loaned ABC No Rio materials to it. But the focus shifted (curatorial shit happens), and the catalogue remained unpublished.
Some textual remains sit on Stephan Dillemuth’s rabbit-hole of a website, “Society of Control”. He and Strau worked together on the important artists gallery project Friesenwall 120 in Cologne in the ‘90s, laying the ground work for the genre of the artists research exhibition.
Christine Hill, an artist with Ronald Feldman Gallery, had one of her first shows at Kunsthaus Tacheles, called “Hinter den Museen” (Behind the museums), in 1991. She was an early “services” artist She told me of wandering with her little red wagon amongst the Berlin squats in those days when I sought her advice at her ‘office’ in the gallery.
Tacheles in ruins
On this trip, both Philip Pocock and Wolfgang Staehle told me they knew artists who’d been closely involved in the Berlin squats. More work to do, in my follow-up visits.
This is pulling up threads from a pile of rememberings, like digging through my boxes and coming upon scattered notes that seem to hang together. Artists have taken inspiration from squats, have worked and lived in them, but it’s a thread of art history which hasn’t been picked out – in fact, it’s been suppressed.
Which is why I go on.
NEXT: Tutenhaus and the “Communism of Love”; Hamburg, the “Dangerous Neighborhood”.
Collective Library and poster archive at New Yorck im Bethanien
Tobias Morawski, “Reclaim Your City” (2014) - PDF Free Download
Rave culture: “My city: Berlin with Andreas Schneider”, who runs the analogue synth mecca Schneiders Büro in the city. The post includes a video about Schneider's analog synthesizer shop
NYC texts on Stephan Dillemuth’s website “Society of Control”
Martin Beck in conversation with Stephan Dillemuth about the Cologne gallery project Friesenwall 120
Stephan Dillemuth, "Shnitzelshanke back from storage", image from Society of Control website. The yard of Tacheles is visible in lower left.
“IN THE DEAD CENTER OF BERLIN =oranienburgerstr ==== the old berlin is gone circa 1990 - present ; but the memories are burned into our subconcious / tacheles kunsthaus (photo} /===== and the new berlin is set up to kill culture / and force people into submission / the rents will be the final nail in the coffin .........in this'' capital ''city ....as we all knew in 1990 this time would circle around ...# unfreindly place # dead energy # babies puppies & yuppies # unliveable prices # a place to waste time # only tags survived # sitting in cafes for no reason”
– Peter Missing, Facebook, December 2022