disappearing berlin

All images: piety with Josh Johnson, Patrick Belaga, Thilo Garus, Cyril Baldy, Graziano Capitta & Nicole Walker, Disappearing Berlin by Schinkel Pavillon, Baerwaldbad, 2019, Photo: Julija Goyd

Nacre: Could you tell us about Schinkel Pavillon as organization and how Disappearing Berlin fits into it? The title of the series has a rather melancholy ring to it, like something linked to extinction anxiety – is the project incited by topic of gentrification and has a specific critical position, or is it focused more on observing the current shifts in the city?

Marie-Therese Bruglacher: Schinkel Pavillon is a non-profit art organization started in 2008 by Nina Pohl. Disappearing Berlin is the first performance, sound and live art program that is running alongside the yearly exhibition program at the main Pavillion location, all around Berlin. 

Our team functions as a flat hierarchy, only a couple of people work more or less permanently and the rest of us are freelancers. We are currently restructuring, or continuing a kind of ongoing experiment of how to run an institution. We are entirely publicly funded, so we don’t have any private investors and it is an interesting position because we have not reached the kind of budgetary level which requires us to report and justify every detail, so we have a lot more freedom even if it means less money. When compared to getting other funding, like Lotto Stiftung. The latter would mean we would have to follow regulations that come with the funding.

Disappearing Berlin was incited around 2017-2018, following my relocation back to Germany, and to Berlin, from London where I did my masters at Goldsmith. Each of us brings a certain perspective to the project. For my part, it was the time spent in London and my studies focused on sociology that shaped my inquiry, thinking through how one can open new perspectives on the topic of city development and the sociology of the city through art projects. When we started talking about it with Nina, the subject of change and gentrification has already been on the forefront of discussions around the world. We didn’t elect to focus on gentrification because art plays a very complicated, sometimes fortifying role in that process. And because by now a lot of large scale exhibitions and biennials have already been dealing with the topic, such as Mauritzo Cattalan’s 2006 Berlin Biennial, which dealt with specific changes that are happening in Auguststrasse and so on. 

Rather, our focus was on imminent changes in the city. The city is obviously changing and needs to change, but the current pace of change is so fast that, while it permeates our daily lives, we are unable to catch it, to notice it. Unless, that is, we are faced with having to move out of our flats. These unnoticable but continuous changes in our environment are usually mediated through articles, through radio, through third-party reporting, so the immediacy of it or closeness to the subject is lost. Bringing art, architecture and audience together through a performance helps to rethink the situation. We don’t have a solution as the inciting goal of the program because I don’t believe it’s necessarily the role that art has to play. Instead these projects could be emblematic in some cases, or they could help to bring into focus places that have been overlooked. So it’s more of a way of shaping consciousness. What is changing and why is this changing in our environment? The everyday delivery of information on this subject often has a numbing effect: we hear about protests, about issues with buildings or developments, news items, always done in the same way, and we tend to lose touch. The information flow becomes mundane and lacks urgency of engagement.

N: Are artists paid for these projects or are these works more like collaborative interventions? How do you select the participants?

MTB: Yes the artists are paid for their work, I think that’s something that’s very important to do: there is a lot of research and labor that goes into each event. These are not exactly commissions but remunerated projects. 

There are two ways that we work to select participants: either through a thematic connection to the work of an artist or by reaching out to someone whose work we like and want them to take part in these series. In the latter case it would be either a new work or something existing, depending on the individual parameters of the location and time constraints of when we have access to the location. Our programming covers a mix of established and emerging artists. At the beginning of this series we were considering intimate ties of the project to the city of Berlin. A lot of names came out of that first conversation, a list of people with a relationship to the Berlin Art Scene. But generally our curatorial process remains very open, we try not to have a predetermined, long-ranging plan, which lets us to be spontaneous, but I would not necessarily do it this way again. Even if the experience has been very gratifying, it has also been very taxing in the end. But it does mean that the way we are running it now gives us a chance to include things along the way that have not been initially my, or someone else’s, ideas.

N: When does the project end and what are your plans after that, will it remain ephemeral or be catalogued, do you have any publication plans following the completion of the series? I ask this because I think a lot about my own impulse to add layers to projects through documentation, publications, and my reminder to self is to be careful not to overextend myself out of habit or desire for visibility. CCA Montreal had an experimental workshop on publishing called “How to: not make an architecture magazine”. They discussed an example of a website as a sort of digital corpse that no one visits or that hangs in the cloud, which is tethered to a physical location of server somewhere else, taking up physical space and energy, some place away from our sighline. It’s slightly morose to begin with asceticism, but I am interested  here in the ideas of permission, motivation and self-restriction.

MTB: That’s a really interesting question the answer to which we keep re-thinking. The project ends in March 2020, as for the publication or documentation. As soon as we want to apply the authorship to the project, even if it’s the most natural thing to acknowledge our own impact or desire for participation, it becomes linked to the ego, although of course that’s also what keeps us making things as human beings. 

Ultimately, I hope that the audience, the people who came to the events retain some of the effects of performance and this impacts their relationship to being in the city, or seeing the city. In the end Disappearing Berlin is a temporary and indeterminate thing: performances that happen and become a part of the city. Wanting anything more from it is not necessary. 

As for the publication, we are thinking of two things: a larger catalogue which deals with the Schinkel Pavilion’s work over the last decade, Disappearing Berlin would definitely be a part of that. There are also several editors we are talking to at the moment, because quite a few people are interested in making some kind of publication about Disappearing Berlin series. So that is amazing, but we will see what comes out of it. What I would hope for is a website, but I am currently lacking the time to do it in the way I originally planned. It would be, in a way, similar to Nacre Journal, a platform for ongoing discussion. The website is meant as a sort of extended reveal of the process beyond what is visible during each performance, bringing together different voices of those involved in the project, so that it is not a static frozen and ideal image – since it would be impossible to convey the artistic part of past events through documentation. But rather this new platform is its own project, something that exists in addition to the ephemeral and its purpose is to showcase the mechanisms of making something like this project and the discussion around it. I thought a lot about websites like K-punk and what Mark Fisher was doing, having the website itself as an immersive space, where you enter and go through a maze, or can use it by typing in certain terms and engage with different media, text, video, music. I think the interesting part that can be documented is: exactly how does something like this come together? These are the questions that people have. I am less interested in my input here because I already know what that is, I am interested in getting the multiple perspectives that coalesce around this work.

N: I was at one of the recent events that had some tension around it, could you talk about the location — Baerwaldbad Kreuzberg — and the last minute site closure, changes to the performance and the police involvement around the event?

MTB: Baerwaldbad Kreuzberg is a protected monument, and until 2017 it was run by the non-profit TSB eV. Because they run out of money, it was too costly to renovate the space, Baerwaldbad was taken over by Bezirksamt Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. Since that time there is a legal deadlock between the two sides and neither of them is able to come up with the funds or financing to properly renovate it. About 20-something million is needed for that.

So going back to the urgency of the project: there are a lot of spaces around the city that have been vacant for years. The bureaucratic process is very slow. Renovation of Baerwaldbad Kreuzberg is at a standstill because there is no communication happening between the parties currently involved, and really the only solution is for the city of Berlin (BIM) to take over it, which would make it possible to allot necessary funds through access to a larger funding pool and that way a proper renovation can take place. 

Between the non-profit and the Kreuzburg district, we were given different information as to the actual conditions of the building and access to it, that’s why we had to make these last minute change. After we had already sent out the invites politicians got involved, and also senate got involved. Senate funds our project, and they basically said that they would have to reconsider the funding, not of the current project but it would affect our future funding, if the project continued as planned. So it was really interesting to see what voices you activate with such a project and who is involved, who is willing to fight for something and who withdraws.  

We were definitely going to go ahead and do the event. So I pretty much spend Friday and Saturday before the event on Sunday on the phone with senate and various politicians, and I was trying to have a very open and transparent dialogue throughout the whole process, and involve everyone. But then it goe escalated further, we were told by the district of Kreuzberg that if we were going to go ahead with the project they would involve the police. So I said, ok, we will deal with it artistically, because I think at this point it became even more important to continue with the project since every party felt so defensive, it was clearly a sensitive issue that needed attention. On Sunday police was there, it was still a legal gray zone, officially no one was allowed to enter the building. But in the end it became an even stronger statement, to have to broadcast the performance in a public place, in the street.

N: Was the concern over safety or did people just have a political axe to grind?

MTB: It seemed like a very extreme and over the top reaction to what we were planning to do. This wasn’t a protest or a civil assembly, it was a project dealing with an urgent matter of this landmark, that indirectly reflected on the political parties around it. Kreuzberg district doesn’t have a public swimming pool, they had to keep Spreewald Bald at Gorlitzer park which was supposed to have closed in 2019, open. The event was not going to be of any danger to the audience, as in, there was not going to be barricades or agitation of crowds. We took the politicians involved in discussion on a tour of the site on Sunday and explained what we were doing. It cost the artists a lot of energy, even if the work of this group of artists deals with improvisation. Particularly for Patrick Belaga, because he really only works with live performance, it took some time to convince him to continue. The performance that took place on the inside of the Baerwaldbad Kreuzberg had to be projected to the viewers outside, and it was a mediating device that he doesn’t normally work with.

We also had to cancel the participation of the Kreuzberg school choir that was meant to happen alongside the performance that evening, because we got conflicting information from the two sides involved, nonprofit and the district, about the safety conditions of the space. I felt torn between these two parties, so we wanted to continue to work with the site, but we couldn’t involve children. Between the adult performers we had drawn up agreements and made them aware of all available information, so it was a fully acknowledged contract, and everyone involved had agreed to accept whatever the consequences. The space is derelict but it is not the case where there’s anything falling down. Nevertheless it was important to be cautious since we had two sets of information: according to the non-profit it was fine, and according to the district – it was unsafe to be inside.

There were clearly a lot of mistakes made on both sides but it was not our place to get involved in mediating, but to highlight the predicament. It is precisely because of this kind of nonsense bickering that this building has been empty for now two and a half years. At the end of the day both parties want to do the same thing, it’s a question of who will be seen as the saviour. It’s basically a media-baiting strategy that is apparent in all of their decisions, and it’s very sad. Architecturally the space is important and beautiful, and there’s still no swimming pool in Kreuzberg.

My only regret is not sending out a letter after the fact with some clarifying information on what has taken place, but we do have a tentative idea of having a panel discussion possibly with all of the parties involved, as a follow up to the event. It’s a crucial dialogue to open.

N: At some point there was a fire inside during the performance, which was pretty out there by my paranoid New York standard: I spent too much time in the US where everything is a possible lawsuit in the making.

MTB: Yes, I received a lot of emails after the fact! Patrick and I just took that risk and decided to go ahead with it. There were two fire-department personnel on site during the performance, who immediately took out the fire after. So we were not too worried about it, it was made in a small container too. Why not have a little fun while we can!

N: There was also a small font indication of sponsorship by Nike for the Baerwaldbad Kreuzberg event, which I thought was interesting to see on this particular project. 

MTB: This sponsorship reference was requested by one of the artists, Josh Johnson, one of the dancers who co-developed the evening. He has been working with Nike, so he asked me to add that in. We didn’t get any funds from them, it was about the shoes the performers wore, so not really related to the event sponsorship in and of itself. 

It is interesting to me because I see more and more artists working in collaboration with various brands, but we, as an institution, would not go down that route. In this case there was also Nicole Walker involved who was putting together the costumes and styling the performance, she involved Balenciaga, so it’s a certain group of artists that have strong ties to the fashion industry and in the case of this event these decisions are part of Patrick’s and Josh’s practice.

N: This goes back to what you had said earlier about how artists can be a fortifying force in gentrification, to me this footnote definitely highlights the problematic relationship of art practice and corporate sponsorship given the subject matter of the project.

MTB: Josh and I kept discussing it for a while, of course for the institution it is a sensitive area. But I understand that he wants to name his sponsors, because they have been supporting him, so I decided that we will include it, but in a smaller way – as a thank you.

N: Visually however, there is no separation, the legibility of sponsorship is perceived as of the event as a whole. So it reads like Nike sponsors Schinkel Pavillon programming.

MTB: We added a thank you, but no logos, it was the artists who were involved with the brands. I knew when we invited them that this would be an issue because of how they work. There is quite a lot of craving for this type of immersive experience events sponsored by brands, but it’s not what we are interested in. In this case I was attracted to their insistence on refusing to choreograph the performance and the process of their work which solely relies on spontaneous improvisation. It fit the situation of the space, uncertain, undecided. Even though we realized their corporate investment goes against something that is transported through the whole series of events. 

Then again, the labor conditions for artists today are very difficult, or even myself as a curator and a freelancer, we fight for every small job. I do understand corporate involvement, because you can apply for grants and everything, but obviously going through fashion has been an ongoing trend because it is fairly easy to get sponsorship that way. And this tendency, to get corporate sponsorship, I see it rising in popularity amongst the artists. I am still curious about this and trying to find where I stand in relation to this.

N: The omnipresence of it is pretty striking. I would argue we don’t live in a time when it’s difficult to be an artist. There’s been times when it was much more difficult. Also, the performers we are talking about, are they living difficult lives? I don’t know them so I can’t answer that, but I do think we need to put this kind of overarching statements in perspective, it’s a choice that they are making after all. There are other ways to work within current conditions. This approach to me relates to the desire for a blockbuster presence.

MTB: It is the easier way. 

N: If you remove the corporate fashion as an option, then you are left with a situation, and this situation can in itself be dealt with or looked at, in the state that it leaves one. These are the conditions that need to be looked at, or otherwise how can anything ever change?

MTB: That’s why it is really important for us to pay the artist and offer an equivalent and fair pay to everyone, even if the budget for the projects themselves differ, we try not to repeat the problem of not paying the artists. Because yes, otherwise nothing will change.  

The reliance on sponsorship has also to do with branding and how everything comes down to Instagram today, what many artists are creating is an image of themselves. And fashion brands work very well with that. These perfectly tailored images, or projections, are then fed back to us. And then you could say that this is the time we live in.

N: What if we don’t say or assume that it is The Time, but more like one of the ways of being with time. There are overlapping timelines but one that we’ve been talking about is more dominant or more aggressive.

MTB: I think it’s The Time in a sense that it is a reality that a lot of people live. I don’t use Instagram myself, we only use the account for the work project to upload pictures or communicate announcements. I am not relying on it to inform my views or interests, I am trying to look behind the projection, but the projections make it easier, our brain works easily with these flattened images. It gives you a chance to consume and take in, more. Which is not really – more, because the relationship to the images is superficial, or pre-programmed.

N: Yes, alpha and theta waves are the autopilot brainwave mode, also active during meditation. It’s a porous gateway.

MTB: The context and the background in this case become irrelevant, what is on offer is a solution, not a process, like microwave food. There’s also a desire for these full-package events which is connected to budget, an expectation of a certain experience for the visitors who expect there to be drinks and food and entertainment, sometimes people come and ask – but where are the drinks! But, you know, that’s not why we do this, not to create that kind of event.

N: This brings me to the next question: why do the Disappearing Berlin events have to be necessarily announced – does it not remove potential of intervention or surprise from the performances held around the city?

MTB: Besides wanting to give acknowledgement to all involved participants, there is a certain pressure for us to advertise, both because of other programming around the city, and to be visible amidst the many things happening in Berlin, but also because we are state-funded and we need to prove we are accountable for the financing. It is a vicious circle where we need people to see the event so that we can keep on getting funded and are able to create future events. Because the reports have to be made in quantifiable terms: the attendance, who was involved. So this process is influencing how we do our work as an institution. It’s true that the events end up circulating to the same group of people and you always see the same faces. Perhaps when we are more established and have that trust, we could experiment more in the future.