Saturday, December 30, 2006

Magical Hatred as a Platform

The Central Council of Jews in Germany is renewing the call for a ban on the NPD, or National-democratic Party of Germany [Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands ]. Such bans have failed in the past, yet the Council is seeking to reactivate the urgency of this goal. To American readers, it may sound absurd to ban a political party you don’t like, so a little background helps explain the call: the NPD platform is based on xenophobia and scorn for what they deem non-German. As their charter describes, they are against the “Enlightenment-influenced Utopias and multiethnic excesses” of modernity. Like the Nazi party they emulate, they define enemies as those who don’t have the magical quality of inherent German-ness, enemies of “the Folk”; this, naturally extends to citizens of Turkish descent and Jews. Their followers perpetrate the waves of right-extremist violence that leave hundreds dead or injured annually and make certain areas of East Germany no-go zones for those who don’t look white enough.

But can you ban a political party just because what they say is trash and their influence is abhorrent? As Green Party political Volker Beck points out, “Banning the NPD won’t solve the problem of right-extremism. Their following would still be there and they would simply look for new forms of organization.” In addition to being ineffective, such a ban also risks admitting that the current democratic methods of combating hatred are ineffective: Heribert Rech of the Christain Democratic Union believes that “Party-banning-processes don’t get us anywhere; we must fight the NPD politically.” Finally, others claim that such a ban would lessen current awareness of the NPD’s actions, even if it eventually failed, only strengthening the party.

These claims are all wrong. While banning the NPD won’t solve right-extremist violence, it will stop its condoning and legitimization from a political party that has recently made its way into Parliament and sits on many local councils. Forty-three thousand Berliners voted for the NPD in the last elections this fall; these are lost votes that should have gone to parties that want to use public funds for social benefit rather than hate. The more money is used to promote a philosophy of xenophobia, the more “okay” such destructive thinking becomes. It is an ignoramus' answer to East Germany's high unemployment (in some places, 25%) but it works when trumpeted loudly enough and in the right tone by men in suits who have the legitimacy of the political arena behind them.

Claims that an attempt to ban the NPD would draw attention away from it are ludicrous at their core, and one wonders which of the non-NPD politicians who consistently condemn extremist violence and xenophobia would feel justified in shutting up if the NPD no longer existed. One must also look at the atmosphere in which the call for a ban comes: Germany has already banned Nazi-related emblems. In the sea of Hitler mustaches and “homeland” slogans at NPD rallies, swastikas remain out of sight because of the strict illegality of displaying one. Although Mein Kampf can be found at most Barnes & Noble’s in the United States with nary a raised eyebrow, it is notoriously difficult to find in Germany and even most libraries don’t keep copies available. Such a country refusing to ban a massive Neo-Nazi organization is dangerously strange.

Finally, resistance to the ban often revolves around the distasteful idea of censoring politics, but is the NPD a political party or a hate crime organization? No one would dare call the Ku Klux Klan a “political party” in the United States, although for years they controlled the South with a specific social agenda. A glance at the NPD charter reveals ideas familiar to Americans raised on the rhetoric of the Religious Right: the importance of (heterosexual) family, anti-abortion stance, and pro death penalty. Not surprisingly, women appear on the group’s website only as contact partners for senior citizens’ or family affairs. Yet far beyond such conservative-but-not-criminal ideology are passages that call for an end to the German examination of its Holocaust past: “We Germans are not a nation of criminals!” The website also contains an image of Germany showing its pre-1945 borders, encompassing much of Poland and all the way up to Kaliningrad. Its discussion of the danger non-German-ness poses to the mystical inherent German-ness of the people is deeply troubling: no platform should be built on fairy tales.

This is not a group that should be allowed to wear the mantle of “political party” any more, or permitted in any way to participate in a democratic government. It is sad that the citizens have chosen such a group and that it cannot be defeated politically, as its growing numbers and influence attest, but the answer is not to continue to come up with self-contradictory reasons about why it should continue to appear on the ballot. Along with an NPD ban, educational measures to combat violence are needed, and sharp awareness of Germany’s problem with xenophobia must be maintained. We needn’t watch it continue to masquerade as a political platform, however.

Heribert Rech quote from "Neuer Streit ueber NPD Verbot,"
Top NPD rally image courtesy BBC. Other NPD images courtesy NPD Homepage.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Us vs. Them

“East Berlin wishes you a good trip home! Christmas 2006.” What a nice sign to have hanging on lampposts and buildings all over trendy, fast-gentrifying Prenzlauer Berg! Except that the implication is that those who were not born in the neighborhood are not “real” residents, or not truly at home—distance markers below the slogan show mileage to western cities a ways from Berlin. The ubiquitous signs are anonymous, reports the Berliner Zeitung, although they have been linked to a store called Koof im Kiez, which translates clumsily as "Buy Locally."

Rivalry between older and newer residents is an unavoidable phenomenon of areas that grow stylish: as more people move in and new shops open their doors, demand increases, prices rise, and those who have lived there for a long time feel squeezed. They also don’t appreciate the physical changes they see in a neighborhood that they feel belongs more to them than to the newbies introducing these changes. This resentment is understandable; everyone likes home to feel like home and even the corner falafel stand in Prenzlauer Berg costs too much compared to a less trendy neighborhood like southwestern Kreuzberg (in photo above). The current mood is comparable to the controversy about the gentrification of Williamsburg in New York City.

However, this incarnation of the timeless new vs. old resentment is distinctly Berlin in its East vs. West framing. “Westerners are like this,” one long-time resident is quoted as saying, pushing his nose in the air with his finger. He is echoing sentiments that have been around since early 1990, when a t-shirt saying “I want my wall back” became popular throughout Berlin. As author Peter Schneider predicted quite presciently in 1982, “It will take us longer to tear down the wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”[1]

In the article, another resident accuses, “They all act so cool, as though they brought their smugness with them from the West.” Defensive words from a local--except that he just moved in four years ago and was born in western Hannover. In other words, it is easy to frame petty, common resentment (Us vs. Them, Old vs. New, me vs. the Other) in the rhetoric of East vs. West; it is almost expected, and it gives such assessments a wave of self-aware, self-justifying flavor. Have you ever met a middle-class sociology major who despises the “bourgeoisie?” Exactly.

In fact, “feeling the pain” or at least identifying with those who grew up in the former East has become a bit stylish itself with the recent rise of ostalgie, or nostalgia for things Eastern. It represents both backlash against reunification sweetened by time into romanticized memory, and also an attempt to re-color history along more pleasing lines. Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin (2003) is a fantastic example, wherein the pitfalls of life in East vs. West Germany are summarized as outdated, anachronistic-looking food packaging and less trendy clothing.

The Christmas signs aren’t just reactionary, however, they’re also inaccurate. Frequently “outsiders” appreciate a place better than those born there, for the tautological reason that they chose to come, indicating a certain esteem for the location. Like New York, Berlin is an immigrant city made up of people from other places who frequently don’t identify with their birthplace as much as with the cosmopolitan place they now call home. “Outsiders” who become "insiders" most often make a city better by directing their energies towards use, enhancement, and preservation of its good qualities.

Luckily, according to the article, the younger generation in diapers when the Wall “fell,” seems relatively free of resentment, geographic or otherwise. One can only hope they retain their open-minded outlook when, as middle-aged taxpayers, trendsetters from other cities move into their neighborhoods and start selling chic commodities. When grumbling about how their daily latte costs twice as much, one hopes they leave behind labels of “east” and “west,” which, as time passes, are becoming just—dare I say it?—trendier, smugger ways to express tribalism.

[1] Peter Schneider, The Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story, Trans. Leigh Hafrey, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 119.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poverty and Secret Police

The municipal bureaucracies of both Berlin and New York are receiving makeovers for the New Year. On Monday Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new $150 million initiative to fight poverty that will focus two-thirds of its funds on brainstorming incentive-based programs to increase financial literacy, while cutting out programs over time that appear ineffective. With an assumption that built-in feedback-loops will allow for continual self-improvement, this entrepreneurial approach sounds like it has learned something from the Silicon Valley 80-20 mentality: throw a product out when it is 80% finished and work on the last 20% when the problems become apparent. (Witness eBay or Gmail.)

Of course, the question of whether success and failure are as easily and quickly measured in the social sector as they are in the economic sector might throw a wrench in the works, but on the other hand, it might not. Bloomberg is employing hard-core managers and capitalists to design this program and presumably they will bring their knowledge of how to measure success in diverse environments with them.

This kind of capitalistic improvisation would most likely never fly in well-planned and relatively big-government Germany, perhaps partially because the welfare system in place is less likely to let citizens fall through the cracks into abject poverty and give rise to its own need for creative solutions. Yet there are recent signs that the Berlin government is performing an official version of looking in the mirror and asking itself, “Do I look too fat?” Following a recent study that compared Berlin to other cities in Germany and found its bureaucracy comparatively bloated and unnecessary, there have been rumors that up to a third of public servants could fall under the knife. Mayor Klaus Wowereit has begun the hack job by eliminating, among other appointments, the storied position of Culture Senator and folding it into his own office.

To explain to those confused New Yorkers who know from Hilary what “carpet-bagging” means but don’t understand what a Culture Senator is: someone in this position is an official government cheerleader for the arts, a representative different artistic community members can approach as well as somehow who has a certain say in how funds are used. The Culture Senator also enjoys the privilege of attending the big art-world debuts, monument dedications, and so on, such that when Wowereit took over the post, one Berliner Zeitung columnist seriously lamented “Thomas Flierl [the previous senator] barely made it to all the museum openings; how will the Mayor ever find time?”

Perhaps more interesting than worries that a figurehead won’t be present to anoint cultural offerings with a sprinkle of civic approval are the new accusations against employees of the Stasi-Documentation-Office [Stasi-Unterlagenbehörde] that handles the mountains of paperwork left behind by the demise of the East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. It has recently come to light that more than fifty employees of the Stasi Documentation Office [BStU for short] used to work for the Stasi itself, as a consequence of one official accusing them of hindering the work of the office. These workers, however, cannot legally be fired from a position for which they might be essentially inappropriate; they can only be shuffled around within the massive Stasi-paperwork-sorting bureaucracy, a bureaucracy with apparently very close ties to the past. For example, former GDR government employees heard to be making snide remarks about civil rights activists cannot be released, but must rather be assigned a different task. Here is a bureaucracy that sounds in desperate need of a trim.

Perhaps, though, in his dual role as Mayor and Culture Senator, Wowereit can take a stand against historical revisionism of the sort expressed by Almuth Nehring-Venus, member of the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) the successor party to the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) which ruled East Germany until 1990. Recently Nehring-Venus explained in a speech at an exhibition opening that, “Stalin admittedly wanted to model Germany after his own image..[but]…the Soviet Union long [strove for] a united Berlin and Germany.” This discussion caused political opponents to call for her resignation, which seems sensible, since she clearly needs time off to open a history book and read about the Soviet Berlin blockade and airlift as well as the Soviet-constructed Berlin Wall. (For more on historical revisionism see post Nov. 27).

Nehring-Venus gave this speech in her capacity as the City Representative for Culture, Economy and Urban Development of Pankow, one of Berlin’s districts. While one Stalin apologist doesn’t imply the whole lot of public servants are rotten, it does make one more sympathetic to the prospect that Berlin’s bureaucracy be trimmed a bit. That is, tax dollars are going to Nehring-Venus with trust that her perspective and capabilities bring added value to the city’s cultural landscape. That seems pretty dubious.

In conclusion, the two metropolises, one on the Hudson and one on the Spree, are now seeking decidedly different bureaucratic strategies. While in New York, Bloomberg has identified failures in the social system and responded by creating more municipal offices and jobs, in Berlin it may be high time for the opposite to be done: in response to failures of the social system, Wowereit has begun to identify where it is time to cut back and eliminate offices. He could go further, removing particularly those offices where individuals are paid to assess culture rather than exclusively perform objectively beneficial work.

Image of Bloomberg courtesy Office of the Mayor.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Avant-Garde in the Vacant Lot

Since the federal government refused counted-on financial aid to broke Berlin (see post Nov. 6), the future of the Berliner Schloss stands in question. It may end up sharing the fate of the former GDR seat-of-government-come-public-entertainment-complex Palast der Republik being steadily ripped down to make way for it: nonexistence. (See posts Nov. 19 and Nov. 26.) Although Wilhelm von Boddien, head of the Schlossverein that promotes the rebuilding the former royal residence, suggests that individual donations can close the funding gap, this is incredible optimism. As a Tagesspiegel writer correctly observed this weekend, it is dubious if the Berliners, who don’t spend money on anything, (see post Nov. 6) will support the Schloss financially, especially since not all of them support its rebuilding.

Since the Schloss cannot be rebuilt without money, the debate has turned to what to do in the euphemistically-named “between-use” [zwischennutzung] period, the perhaps decades-long time frame in which the space will be a vacant lot. A recent suggestion is to build a large hall for contemporary art. This suggestion is justified by the fact that despite Berlin’s reputation as the international capital of contemporary art, residents like star Olafur Eliasson, whose 2003 installation "The Weather Project" for the Tate Modern propelled him to fame, have no proper space to exhibit their art. Although his studio is in his adopted second-home of Berlin, Danish-born Eliasson lately had to exhibit his larger-scale works in Wolfsburg.

Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who recently trimmed the city’s roster of public posts by anointing himself Culture Senator and kicking out the
incumbent, has announced his agreement: Berlin needs a major exhibition space for contemporary art. The Schlossplatz--whose name is quickly becoming ironic--is the perfect site. Accordingly, the press has bemoaned how a broke city whose recent political bickering has revolved around the extent to which its enormous bureaucracy should be cut down wants to spend more money to build a modern art hall.

Yet, why not build the hall with different terms of engagement? Why not sell the land on temporary lease to the highest bidder and allow them to build a lavishly trendy exhibition space and charge outlandishly high entry fees? The obvious roadblock is the local shallow-pocket mentality, but in a central spot, tourists would pay for such a spectacle. High-minded artists might boycott such a popular and gimmicky exhibition space, but perhaps not if this space gained international acclaim with a couple big names at the start and became an irresistible resume-booster. It could even broker a deal with the Schlossverein to turn over some of its earnings in exchange for access to the verein’s massive publicity machine and meddling political sway.

Finally, destroying central state architecture from multiple eras in order to build a temporary shrine to the very newest and freshest art conveys the amnesiac urge for self-invention which has been a hallmark of this city for so long—it’s traditional. Then, in another thirty years or so when the money to build the Schloss has finally been collected, everyone will have another opportunity to argue about the cultural blindness of ripping down the beloved Contemporary Art Hall, the symbol of turn-of-the-millenia aesthetic savvy, the product of the nascent Berlin Republic! There will be another public debate about historical irresponsibility, one more argument for old time’s sake. That would be true Berlin.

Wowi headshot courtesy of

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Muckraker in the Museum

“BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T LOOK GERMAN” large letters spell out across the front of a building a mere fifty meters from the Brandenburg Gate. Below the sign are placards listing the victims of right-extremist violence in Germany, mainly foreign-born immigrants who were killed because, well, they didn’t look German. Dressing up the façade of the prominent Academy of the Arts [Akademie der Künste] with documentation of provincial bigotry alongside a major tourist landmark is, however, relatively toothless for artist Hans Haacke, the man behind the sign. As “Hans Haacke for Real: Works 1959-2006,” the exhibit inside documents, Haacke’s work often bites the hand that commissions it, turning upon museums and galleries as participants in morally questionable societal practices, and exposing the skeletons in the closet of those places that invite him to create art for them.

For example, Haacke’s Manet-PROJEKT 74, created for the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum’s 1974 exhibition “PROJEKT 74,” chronicled the lives of the owners of the recently acquired Manet canvas Bunch of Asparagus. In so doing, it made public the Nazi-related past of Hermann J. Abs, the driving force behind the canvas’ acquisition. It called to attention the widespread practice of “sweeping under the rug” of National Socialist past that occurred in the Federal Republic of Germany, a point only doubly proven when the museum declined to exhibit it.

Haacke has also been censored when his works do not explicitly target the institution, such as in Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, which meticulously documents an implicitly immoral real estate practice through a series of photographs and charts. The “political” nature of the piece led to the Guggenheim’s refusal to include it in the show for which it was commissioned, creating one of the most famous cases of censorship of this century—at least until New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani tried to strip the Brooklyn Museum of Art of its funding in 1999 for showing a painting he thought was offensive.

Because They Didn’t Look German presents a point upon which educated viewers will doubtlessly agree, as well as exposing reprehensible behavior of a non-white-collar sort that museum owners, trustees, boards, and the like, are not involved in or linked to and can safely condemn. (It also camouflages a building whose appearance Haacke recently likened to a “bank from the Seventies.") However, Haacke’s work needn’t have an implied “up-yours” to challenge the viewer: in many cases, the plethora of information calls upon the onlooker to piece it together. An appreciative glance is not enough to "get" the work, which often seeks above all not to be aesthetically "appreciated" but rather and above all understood.

Thus, the way Haacke’s work defines itself as art leaves a question mark hanging in the air. Those pieces composed of informational plaques or graphs, like Shapolsky, could just as easily be found in a sociological museum or a town-hall citizens gathering or college history class; they become “art” through their location in a museum or gallery. They defy clichéd notions about viewer subjectivity, since statements like “art is what you get out of it” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” don’t apply to Haacke’s works. Rather, each has a fairly specific point which cancels out other messages; for Shapolsky, is it obviously not correct to conclude that Haacke is praising Shapolsky’s business acumen.

In fact, Haacke’s use of the phrase “Real Time System” is meant to indicate an art object that continues to function as depicted regardless of viewer perception or presence.[1] In Haacke’s early Conceptualist pieces, like 1965's Blue Sail, where a simple fan blows a blue sheet in the air, this functioning was mechanical. In later works like Shapolsky, it is sociopolitical. The choice to portray his message through the medium of art, then, when it is at times patently sociological and political, has been criticized by Slate editor Judith Shulevitz who encourages Haacke to stop “hiding out in an art museum” and join public discourse through the published journalistic word.

However, the author of “Museums and the Consciousness Industry” knows what he is doing: he picks museums as his medium because he believes they are participants in cultural discourse to an equal degree as newspapers (or online culture rags).[2] Two of these “generators of consciousness” are exhibiting “Hans Haacke for Real” right now: the Academy of Arts here in Berlin until January 14th, and the Deichtorhallen Hamburg until February 4th, with the former focusing on works where politics and history play a central role, the latter on earlier works as well as works which address economic roles of corporations and museum sponsorship.

The Berlin exhibit, filling the downstairs gallery space at the AdK, is curated with an emphasis on dialog between the works, chronologically mixing them in order to create cross-decade correspondences. For example, Manet-PROJEKT 74 is shown alongside Der Bevölkerung, Haacke’s 1999 installation in the Reichstag, presumably since both address Germany’s sometimes selective and reluctant memory of its past. In the latter case disputed memory can be seen more prominently in the response to the work than the work itself: the parliamentary debate about whether or not to install it is shown here on video. Such supplementary explanations throughout the exhibit form a necessary backdrop to understanding Haacke’s work the way he would like; as he states, “When a work of this nature is shown outside its original context, background information needs to be provided so that the viewers can understand the references and the impact it might have had.”[3] The only drawback is that explanations of the work’s cultural relevance are all in German and no supplementary English materials are available, an ironic shame given the imperative to read and understand embedded in Haacke’s ouvre.

The last gallery features Haacke’s latest works, placing pieces critical of American jingoism, flag-waving, and attitudes towards Iraq, alongside his suggestion for a memorial to 9/11 and a smaller commemorative piece, the aptly titled Commemorating 9/11. Responding to a call from arts support group Creative Time for poster suggestions in October 2001, Haacke’s entry is simply a white outline of the World Trade Center’s two towers’ silhouettes, which is posted on top of previously existing billboard paste-ups such that the advertisement composes the body of the towers while white defines the space around them.

The silhouette suggestion shows an almost insider’s sensitivity to what the loss means to New Yorkers once familiar with the sight of the World Trade Center. As seen in the annual re-creation of the buildings’ shape through the high-powered illumination of the Tribute in Light, the towers’ absence is a keenly visual loss to city inhabitants. The tragedy is not minimized but rather referenced with exquisite minimalism by these two projections of light into the sky. Haacke’s recreation of the silhouette even before the first showing of Tribute in Light—the visual memorial was first lit on March 11, 2002, six months after the attack—intuitively exhibits the same metonymy of visual loss for enormous societal loss, which makes sense since Haacke is a long-time resident of the city. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Creative Time is also behind Tribute in Light).

Unfortunately I didn’t notice that these images of billboards contained a World Trade Center outline and had to read the wall text to put it together, assuming instead it was a commentary on pervasive visual culture in public space. If a native New Yorker equipped with the awareness of cultural context that Haacke describes as equally necessary to his process as “bronze or paint on a canvas,” doesn’t make the connection, then perhaps the need for explanation has gone too far.[4]

The opposite problem was apparent with other new works, such as the enormous ripped American flag hanging from the ceiling, or the man wearing a flag-printed hangman’s hat-come-pillowcase that not only blocks his vision and obscures his individual identity but also threatens to smother him. Such simple social commentary seems a bit too obvious and uncomplex after the multivalent works in previous rooms.

Despite the weakness of the survey’s more recent offerings, it nonetheless presents a slice not just of the career of a thought-provoking artist but also snapshots of postwar Western society, through its descriptions of the work’s censorship or resultant political hullabaloo. Haacke’s work itself tries to prod the viewer into doing more than just “visiting a gallery” and the curators here ensure that the visitor sees not just a survey of painting but also of social criticism of the last several decades. And this relevance has no expiration date—with increased restrictions in American civil liberties as well as the growing Neo-Nazi movement in Germany, to name a couple examples, Haacke’s earlier work remains biting and important.

Exhibition catalog: Flügge, Matthias, and Robert Fleck, editors, Hans Haacke for Real: Works 1959-2006 Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2006. (With contributions by Walter Grasskamp, Benjmain Buchloh, Rosalyn Deutsche.)

[1] Walter Grasskamp, Molly Nesbit, and John Bird, eds., Hans Haacke (New York: Phaidon, 2004), 41.
[2] First English publication: Ian North, ed. Art Museums and Big Business (Kingston: Art Museums Association of Australia, 1984), 33-40.
[3] Grasskamp., 12.
[4] Ibid., 12.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Arch of Compromise

Recently the courts ruled that the ceilings of the lower floors of the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s new central train station, must be rebuilt at a cost of 40 million Euros. The ruling came after architect Meinhard von Gerkan sued Deutsche Bahn for altering his original plans for arched ceilings without the architect's consent, indeed, without even telling him. The flat ceilings that Hartmut Mehdorn, leader of the Bahn, chose to build in the face of rising costs represent violation of contract to von Gerkan and apparently also for the courts. Now the ceilings must be altered at a high price and lower transportation efficiency, just when the city was giddily excited about its finally-functioning train station.

The assertion of the architect’s rights before those of the paying client’s has been received as wondrous and revolutionary right of entitlement—an act that will single-handedly change the history of how structures are commissioned. But what is truly revolutionary is the aesthetic implication of the court’s decision: that the part is representative of the whole, a metonymy that mustn’t be violated for risk of injuring the entire the entire structure. In contrast to the back-and-forth history of much architecture, where parts are viewed as subject to change without damage to the work’s integrity, this act signifies a holistic understanding of architecture. Some might say that it’s about time; after all, if a Picasso canvas were partially painted over, it couldn’t be pawned off as original, yet buildings frequently receive face-lifts or alterations while retaining their creator’s name or representative associations.

However, compromise as a hallmark of the architectural process doesn’t necessarily breed disappointment. For example, the transparent cupola of the Reichstag, from which one can look down into the German parliament or out over the city, presents a pleasing space-as-democracy metaphor for representative government as well as visual charm. However, it is a product of negotiation; Santiago Calatrava, who was taking part in the rebuilding of the Reichstag complex, asked the government to ensure that the Reichstag be created with a cupola that he had been earlier informed would exist and according to which he had shaped his own designs. The government, in turn, requested that Lord Norman Foster round out his intended flat roof. The result has become a proud symbol of the Berlin Republic.

So is the decision “a good thing?” Legal precedent does not necessarily apply internationally so it is difficult to say if this decision will affect commissions outside of Germany, or even how far-reaching the local consequences will be. It may, however, scare clients into creating a new contractual culture whereby changes to the existing model are allowed only under clearly defined financial strain. But where does this leave client satisfaction, if changes may only be introduced under certain limited and constrained conditions? If Mehdorn and his company paid the artist for a service rendered, do they not have some say in how the “service,” in the case, an aesthetically pleasing yet functional and affordable train station, is enacted?

The keystone, then, to propping up the fluid process of building creation remains old-fashioned negotiation. In the matter of the Reichstag cupola Foster agreed to the government’s requests, but his contact also contains a clause outlining his right to review future suggested alterations to the Reichstag’s exterior (shown here) and interior. Mehdorn was wrong to hire another architectural firm to design flat roofs without von Gerkan's knowledge or assent; it would have been wiser to consult him and attempt communication. Now von Gerkan's resulting fury has found legal validation. He refuses to back down, pointing out that thousands of people would see the alterations to his design and associate the damaged, flat-roofed work with him. The secondary problem, then, after miscommuincation, is ego: what perhaps hasn't occured to von Gerkan is that these thousands of people will also be moving through an efficient new train station, grateful for the services it provides to the city. When the new arched roofs are installed, these people will be made to suffer delays and inconveniences, to say nothing of possible ticket price increases if the Bahn looks for ways to cover additional costs. What will these people think of von Gerkan then?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Post-Modern Power or Merely Playtime?

Here in Berlin a competition is taking place. It is between neither football teams nor politicians nor beauty queens, but rather two Ferris wheels: the “World Wheel” and the “Giant Wheel.” Neither has been built yet, but in their planning stages both represent the city’s continual effort to transform into, and literally be able to see itself as, a first-class metropolis of recognizable stature. On the drawing board, the latter wheel is winning, sort of, with 5 meters of height on the merely 175 meter tall World Wheel, although the World Wheel is having an easier time collecting funds—200 million Euros--necessary to start construction. The competition also has a dicey tinge of East-West rivalry to it, with the World located near the famous Western transportation center Zoologischer Garten, and the Giant alongside the newly spruced-up Ostbahnhof, or “East-train-station.”

(Note: both Wheels bear names in the original English. Perhaps the world’s current-day lingua franca is employed to denote construction of international significance, or perhaps the owners simply know where the tourist dollars come from).

As with the London Eye, the premise behind these wheels is a popular and profitable tourist attraction that relies on the giddy pleasure of being high up in the sky and seeing all. And, as was the case in London in the pre-Eye era, there are sufficient extant look-out points in Berlin, for example, the cupola of the Reichstag or the cloud-grazing top of the Fernsehturm, or TV tower, unofficial icon of the city skyline. The added appeal of these wheels, then, is that their slightly peripheral location provides a view of all the viewing points, an ability to take in what you can’t take in if you are in the center of the city trying to take it all in.

But is that all? The paradox of a Ferris wheel is how sharply it exposes one’s atom-like existence compared to the spreading terrain out there while empowering the individual with an expansive gaze otherwise impossible to attain. The panoramic gaze has been a source of delight for centuries; in the United States nineteenth century landscape painters like German-born Albert Bierstadt showed their enormous canvases in conjunction with carefully constructed platforms, lighting, curtains, and curved walls so that the sweeping gaze would feel real, so that the view out over the landscape would be actual. These paintings were presented not as hermetic art but rather as entertainment; Bierstadt was no avant garde artiste but rather a showman.

In fact, George W. Ferris created his eponymous attraction for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair only twenty years after Bierstadt rose to the peak of his fame, at the close of the same era of wild geographic expansion and attempts at consolidation of the American identity. It was incredibly popular, grossing over half a million dollars at fifty cents per ride, and it rose about 80 meters, or 264 feet, off the ground. Its influence has been felt at fairgrounds ever since; the photos here depict an amusement Ferris Wheel from the current Christmas Market in Berlin’s Schlossplatz.

However, to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket, “this ain’t your granddaddy’s Ferris Wheel.” Unlike the amusement-park Wheel, which one rode as part of a larger fair experience of entertainment and oddities, and which positioned itself as part of a greater festival atmosphere, the new Wheel is proud of its stand-alone shock value and peddles itself as no more than the all-consuming gaze. These new Mega-Wheels are distinguished by this self-imposed uniqueness, evinced in their sheer enormousness as well as their physical distance. They are not for views of the terrain but rather out and over it; their marketing draw is the all-encompassing nature of their gaze which by definition stems from a point outside. If one is looking at something, one is not of it: the new wheels mark a boundary between onlooker and looked-upon, between individual and urban sphere.

This gaze is not just separate; it is also empowered by its mind-boggling breadth and reach. The equation of an all-seeing gaze with power has been discussed by thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, whose “Panopticon” prison tower posited a world where the threat of constant surveillance, rather than certain punishment, keeps people in line. (The Panopticon was popularized by French theorist Michel Foucault.) Art historian Allan Wallach has called the panoramic gaze in American landscape painting “Panoptic” to connote just these struggles to gain control over the landscape, to come to terms with new geography by forcing that geography to conform to the terms of one’s own vision.

So is this new Mega-Wheel proliferation a post-modern attempt to reconstitute the individual citizen as a powerful agent in the face of ever-larger and ever-more chaotic modern metropolises? Is it a way to make the nearly-atomized viewer, who increasingly counts for less in the over-populated globe, a judge on the perimeter of the brave new world? Perhaps a cultural attempt to figure out what to make of the sprawling society that we’ve created? A push to regain the upperhand over decadent millennial civilization through re-established visual supremacy?

Or is it just another way to make money and have fun?

If the link above becomes outdated, information about the two wheels can be found in Karin Schmidl, “Das Geld reicht sogar fuer sechs Raeder,” Berliner Zeitung, 30 November 2006, 27.
Wallach’s assertion is in: "Making a Picture of the View from Mount Holyoke," in American Iconology: New Approaches to Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, ed. David C. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 83-84.