Friday, March 30, 2007

Look at this! (Again….)

Picture the most tasteless, offensive paper-selling strategy, one that would make William Randolph Hearst blush. Now multiply that by ten to get an idea of the low to which Berlin’s illustrated dailies sunk yesterday. Plastered across the front pages was a picture of the city’s iconic TV Tower enveloped in grey fumes, a-la the burning World Trade Center towers. Parroting the instantly famous “smoking skyscraper” printed by every newspaper in the world on September 12th, 2007, the Berliner Kurier as well as B Z and yes, Bild, are hoping to sell a few more prints.

What’s worse, the picture stems from a new made-for-tv movie--it’s not related in the faintest to reality. It’s entertainment. But then again, the same could be said of the “newspapers” that printed it. Perhaps it is pointless to accost tabloids for using sensationalism. There are no standards for trash; if there were, it would be journalism. The other illustrated dailies, that is, papers of non-tabloid status with pretensions to real reporting, didn’t even register the TV show today.

But c’mon, wasn’t anyone bludgeoned in their sleep last night in Berlin? Didn’t someone see Jesus in their morning coffee? There is always plenty of front page news to go around for these sorts of papers. The publicity stunt is even more indefensible since they haven’t the slightest pretense of using the attention to say anything of substance.

However, perhaps this is too harsh an assessment; after all, the article did contain a couple actual, real-life facts. It informed me that “The Inferno: Flames over Berlin” is being produced by Wiedemann & Berg, the same team that turned out Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others” [Das Leben der Anderen], which is certainly worth a smirk. And I know that the film, which centers on a fire breaking out in the sky-high restaurant in the tower dome—Windows on the World, anyone?—was filmed in Lithuania, where the TV Tower was meticulously reconstructed. (Gotta love those new EU member states and their cheap labor!) And, thank goodness, I can rest easy, reassured that such a tragedy couldn’t occur in the real tower: a smoking ban reigns in the fire-resistant structure and even food is cooked elsewhere and delivered to the restaurant.

But I wonder if anyone even bothered to read the text. During the German routine of gathering at the newsstand for a morning cigarette and look at the headlines, they may have just said, “Where are the soccer scores?” Bombarded and desensitized as readers are by the classic September 11th photos the papers copycat, it would be no wonder if they didn’t bat an eyelash. They certainly didn’t on the metro I rode, where the riders were notably unalarmed by the enormous, burning tower conspicuously smoking on rustling papers around them.

I do know what the newspaper seller had to say about it. The young man who handed me my B Z shook his head and decried the excessive press given to the baby polar bear at the Berlin Zoo, who was also allotted (much smaller) front-page coverage. “Two weeks of the same crap,” he sighed. “You know how much money the zoo is making off of this?” And he quoted an exact figure. He is certainly following the news closely, yet this crass image didn’t even catch his radar. He’s probably seen it too many times before.

That’s the irony of the tasteless endeavour: tabloids have done their job too well, printing shocking pictures so frequently that the images lose their punch. The readers are visually maxed-out. What was fascinating becomes mundane. This is bad news for the next baby polar bear born in Berlin. It may make the front page—but no one will think twice.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Updates: Posts Revisited

The timing couldn’t be better: on the heels of the last post about how kitsch and cliché are necessary evils, and not even all that evil, Der Tagesspiegel had a special feature on kitsch today, calling it “sugar water for the soul: insubstantial, way too sweet, but sometimes too good to give up.” That right there is justification to run out and buy some bad art for that bare spot above the washing machine. Or better yet a poster copy of bad art.

The Feb. 12 post reported about the DDR museum’s rosy focus on daily life and not-too-subtle exclusion of the darker aspects of routine existence under the East German dictatorship. Perhaps heeding the call to keep history, well, history, and not happy stories, the Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen, or Stasi-jail-complex-turned-memorial, just opened an exhibit about daily life in Stasi prison. Items such as a shaving brush or prison uniform will complete this second version of Alltagsleben, giving the capital two completely opposing exhibitions of quotidian material debris.

The Palast der Republik, the former seat of the East German government controversially currently being ripped down to rebuild a Baroque Palace that once stood on the spot (see Jan. 28 post) is now missing its front tooth: the foyer has been completely torn down, leaving an enormous wind-whistling gap in the center. It packs a visual punch of finality that yes, the Palast really is going to disappear, despite the work’s seemingly slow progress in dismantling only the façade. The skeleton is now losing its bones, a development so illustratively startling as to be found newsworthy today.

The momentum is likely to continue, since recent pledge of support to rebuild the Schloss’ from the American group Friends of Dresden. The group that initially collected funds to reconstruct Dresden’s once-firebombed Frauenkirche is turning its attention to the woefully broke Schloss project, vowing financial support. Henry Kissinger, who was born in Germany and fled as a Jewish refugee in 1938, sits on the Foundation’s board, giving the story a nice reconciliatory twist as well. This will make it yet-harder for Schloss criticizers to continue portraying the tear-down as work of historical idiocy and misguided Utopianism.

Meanwhile, a baby polar bear was born to the Berlin Zoo and he’s very cute. That’s it. Yet that’s not it, because the press has gone absolutely hog-wild (excuse the mixed animal metaphors) for the little white furball, focusing headline after headline on him. And this isn’t just Bild tabloid fans driving such mania; even normally staid papers are in the action. As readers of post Nov. 27 can imagine, the Berliner Zeitung has also been following the little bear, named Knut, quite closely.

Knut image courtesy Der Tagesspiegel.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

You’ve Seen it Before

Kundera rails on it (again) in his new book. I had to research its culture-consuming ways (a lot) when writing an undergraduate research thesis. Yet somehow kitsch and the related evil of cliché seem to be making the museum rounds this month. Kitsch is portraying what’s tacky as tasteful; cliché is the bloodletting of originality through repetition to reduce art, ideas, etc. to commonplace triteness. While Kundera and the rest of academe would flinch at these generalizations, they are sufficiently aesthetic for casual museum visits.

On one such visit I learned that Richard Avedon’s current show at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is being touted as convention-breaking. Rather than showing the storied West of mythic landscapes and handsome cowboys, the images “In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon” expose a horrifyingly neglected West of underpaid, overworked, or unemployed Americans. Or so the claim runs. Yet, these overworked farmers, coal miners, highway drifters, and big-haired secretaries are the spiritual heirs to the farmers and migrant workers of Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. We have seen their rural poverty, laced with both despair and pluck, in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The dust in the creases of their skin has been floating in the Western air for the better part of the last century, long before the 1978-1984 timeline of Avedon’s series.

Clearly, Avedon has cliché covered. Kitsch comes in at the icky, exploitative nature of these photographs. Is it really high art to capture human misery, then stand back and wait for it to be shocking? This technique, banking on the poignancy of failed faith in the American way, doesn’t give its viewers much credit for having been previously alerted to “hidden” America by earlier artists.

De-mythologizing a self-aggrandizing nation is a mission also close to the heart of Dateline Israel: New Photography and Video Art at New York’s Jewish Museum. Twenty-three artists tackle the Middle Eastern nation’s heroic iconography and attempt to bring it, if not to its knees, at least back to reality. Among the Israeli artists are also foreigners, including the likes of Wim Wenders, who provides two large-format photos of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, one depicting an ancient graveyard, the other a hillside strewn with trash. Beautifully captured, this juxtaposition of the dream-image of Holy Land with actual evidence of the nation’s social inequality--poverty is holding steady at twenty percent these days—nonetheless brings nothing fresh to the table. The inconsistency it highlights has been a point of concern for native artists for the last fifteen years at least.

In fact, the majority of the show’s clichéd works come from non-native hands, which is not surprising since locals are probably sick of this stuff. Brit Catherine Yaas’ 2004 film Wall follows the path of the eponymous barrier, the footage's visual monotony emphasizing the structure's threatening, bleak hegemony. Yawn. Drawing attention to the totalitarian tinges of Israeli rule is nothing new, and still a worthy message to be made, but need it be made in such a familiar, formulaic way? Similarly, Dutchwoman Rineke Dijkstra’s contrasting portraits of teenage girls in civilian clothing and their army gear feel as though we’ve seen them before, probably because we have, again and again. The tension between “normal” and military life and the effect of pervasive militarism upon the country’s youth are also long-standing preoccupations, and they are quite stale in Dijkstra’s conventional white-background, viewer-facing, “stark” portraiture. Their extreme ho-hum quality borders on kitsch, that is, the co-optation of the quotidian—in this case, common, common art—for the purpose of high culture.

A notable exception to all this been-there, done-that imagery is Sharon Ya’ari’s print Page 4. Four senior citizens walk through a grassy field towards a cookie-cutter apartment complex that sprouts perhaps a kilometer away and dominates the horizon. There are no further visual cues as to where the scene takes place or who the elderly pedestrians are, although a plastic bag toted by one suggests errands, while the kipas worn by the men indicate religious observance.

Born and living in Israel, Ya’ari witnessed the approximate 20% population growth over the 1990s, from under five million to just over six. The boom was fueled largely by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, mainly of them middle-aged or older, and this group heading towards their fresh, new housing is likely a part of this population. The geographic ambiguity of the image combines with its power of suggestion—that path is well worn; was the complex thrown up too fast for well-planned streets? The walkers have such a ways to go; do senior citizens have it rough in these new communities?—to provide a startlingly engaging and truly fresh image. From amongst the exhibits other emblematic works, including mystical and sunny olive groves, and the flashes of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox worshippers, comes the most surreal image of Israel, captured by eliding cliché.

Just down Fifth Avenue from Ya’ari’s tantalizing picture is a series of sad ones. Roman Vishniac, best known for his pre-war portraits of Eastern Europe’s lost Jewish world, also visited big-city Berlin in the 1920s and 30s. His impressions of the place then dubbed “Chicago on the Spree” are on display at the Goethe-Institut New York, showcasing the newly modern metropolis of bustling avenues, brimming cafes, and downtrodden Jews. Yes, sitting quietly alongside shots of the blithe bourgeoisie is picture of a disheveled man receiving advice at the Jewish Aid Society. He stares forlornly ahead, perhaps aware that it will only get worse.

By the mid-1930s, Hitler’s regime was already enforcing comprehensive antisemitic legislature and the lives of the Jewish community--that is, those who hadn’t already fled--were rapidly deteriorating. This makes the scene of schoolchildren smiling happily into the camera even more affecting; when one visitor writes in the guestbook that she was “moved to tears” by the exhibit, she is presumably speaking of this image and not that of the wealthy having lunch on Unter den Linden, hanging nearby.

The photographs displayed were only developed in the late 1990s, so whoever brought them to life was well aware of their poignancy, fostered by knowledge of the doom that would befall their characters. Yet, this awareness, or the fact that these heart-breaking “before” moments are ones we have viewed dozens of times previous, does not send the exhibit straight to the land of recycled cliché. Rather, it invokes familiar, well-liked cliché. And it isn't any worse off for it.

In fact, Avedon's exhibit may be verging on kitsch but it is also visually absorbing and quite impressive; it needs cliché to work its hypnosis over the fascinated viewer. This is especially so in Silicon Valley, where stupefied museum-goers can then contemplate what they've seen over a nine dollar organic-lettuce sandwich at the museum cafe. Similarly, Dateline Israel needs to invoke the well-worn conventions in order to provide a comprehensive look at the social concerns of contemporary society, thank you very much. As well, without the walls, soldiers, and olive trees, Ya'ari's image would be a lot less interesting, lost in the neutral no-context zone. In other words, Kundera and fellow cultural guardians can spend days, or more appropriately, novels and dissertations, condemning pretentious and cheap representations. The rest of us will just enjoy them.

In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford, California through May 6th.
Dateline Israel: New Photography and Video Art at the Jewish Museum, New York City, through August 5th
Roman Vishniac’s Berlin at the Goethe-Institut New York through April 13th

Avedon: Jimmy Lopez, gypsum miner, Sweetwater, Texas, 6/15/79. Edward Roop, coal miner, Paonia, Colorado, 12/19/79 . Loretta, Loudilla, and Kay Johnson, Presidents, Loretta Lynn fan club, Wild Horse, Colorado, 6/16/83. Sharon Ya'ari, Page 4, 1999. Roman Vishniac, Berlin, 1922.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Confronting the Internet
Robbing you of your dignity and your personal life. Taking over your home, your peace of mind, your social time, in short: your freedom. These are the offenses Berlin's trendy culture rag Zitty recently accused eBay of committing. The online marketplace's ability to increase personal freedom by allowing you to buy or sell exactly what you want from your bedroom, freeing up the time you might have spent searching for the item in stores or giving you back the money you would have lost by not being able to otherwise sell it, went unmentioned. Even though the author quotes 19-year-old teenager-come-jewelery-designer Ulrika's satisfaction at being able to sell her wares on eBay rather than sit at a supermarket check-out for extra cash, he manages to sum up her seller activites thusly: "All of that eats up time--Ulrika's free time."

Meanwhile, over in eBay's neighborhood, reported on Attent, a new system developed by software company Seriosity, designed to help people filter their junk mail a bit better. Attent gives each employee virtual cash to attach to emails of great importance, which is paid back by the recipient if the email was worthy, and lost forever if not. This virtual cash can later be redeemed for real-life compensation. "Never again will you read the email warning you to take your food out of the company refrigerator by Friday," a Seriosity consultant proudly claimed.

Like the folks at Zitty, Seriosity sensed a growing concern that the computer screen was eating up too much time. The solution they discovered, however, was not to accuse email of viciously devouring employees' lives, but rather to monetize exchanges to change they way people view email: as an exchange of real value, rather than a quick way to convey even the most piddling of information. Of course, their system also relies to a startling degree on trust, as well as parallel values: if the board members forget to reward my "urgent memo," then I lose just as much as if I'd forwarded the latest Youtube video; alternately, if my co-workers and I decide Youtube videos are more valuable than product updates, the firm has a problem on its hands. Nonetheless, it is an interesting solution to the helplessly entrenched problem of clogged inboxes and resultantly lowered productivity.

Yet the problem for Zitty isn't truly that the technology takes up too much time; it's how it forces the user to reconsider time, blurring the boundaries between "work" and "non-work." The author claims that being a seller on eBay eats up Ulrika's "free time," as though bagging groceries would not, portraying eBay as an invader of "free time" because the work takes place amongst shipping boxes in Ulrika's bedroom. The author feels threatened by the evaporated demarcation between traditional "work" and "home" spheres, viewing eBay as a foreign body tredding all over the private sanctum. Hence the ludicrous accusations slung eBay's way, when all evidence to the contrary points to the conclusion the commercial giant only gives people more freedom of choice, time, and livelihood.

The eBay article betrays a deep preference within German culture, one readily denied yet borne out by social practice and articles like this: Germans generally prefer rules to order their days. Things segmented, with a given order, known times, borders, and customs, in sum, the entire neat logic of rules, is much more comfortable for the national psyche than blurry boundaries. This is a nation that for decades had specific store-closing times that would drive any free-wheeling shopper nuts. The recent alterations caused a heap of press actually asking if the excess of choice--milk at 9 pm?! jeans at midnight?!--would confuse and upset consumers. They might, suggested some, end up less happy with this confusing world of options, and desire the comfort of knowing they absolutely could not go grocery shopping after 8pm.

To perhaps no American's surprise, this has not been the case. Some stores discovered the longer closing times didn't make up extra operational costs with increased sales and shortened the times back to the old way. Other discovered people did indeed want to walk in 8:01 and get what they want, and have kept the open times.

Zitty and Seriosity form a study in two different cultural attitudes: when the technology spins out of control and seems to be functioning too intrusively, Americans respond by crudely monetizing it and throwing more technology at the problem. With a money value on everything, the Silicon Valley inventors seem confident that junk mail should be gradually phased out. It's dubious, but perhaps a better response than viewing the technology as disruption of the older, more trusted ways, the more German viewpoint expressed by Zitty. The troublesome intrusion into the private sphere, as well as the time-intensive nature of e-commerce, are read as threats rather than challenges to be met with more technology.

Don't get me wrong: the nation of strict closing times is also a place of innovative brilliance. MP3 technology that has changed our world was invented here. But most of the profits go to firms outside of Germany, because, as the director of the Frauenhofer Society that led MP3 research recently lamented to Business Week, "German companies...were often too slow" to warm to the new technology. Perhaps the companies just didn't get the memo about adapting new technology--it may have been lost between car pool requests and eBay advertisements.

Source: Jack Ewing, "An Idea Incubator Tries to Grow Cash," BusinessWeek, 12 March 2007, 61.
People staring at screen courtesy
Cash image courtesy

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Piecemeal Memory

It can happen anytime—when stepping out to pick up a carton of milk, on the way home from work, or after grabbing brunch with friends on a leisurely weekend morning. You can “stumble” most unexpectedly just about anywhere in Berlin, a metropolis with over 900 “stumbling-stones” and counting. The “stumbling-stones” [Stolpersteine] are small brass-capped squares laid flush with Berlin’s stone sidewalks. One stumbles psychologically, not literally, for inscribed into their surface is the name, birthdate, deportation date, and sometimes death date of a former Jewish inhabitant of the dwelling alongside the stone. The brainchild of artist Gunter Demnig, the miniature memorials must be privately sponsored at a cost of roughly 95 Euros, and have caught on as an effective way to personalize the enormity of the Holocaust.

There have been objections—some Jewish groups say that the stones encourage “treading on the dead” and some present-day residents would rather not run into the small, grim, reminders—but on the whole the project has been remarkably successful. With Berlin’s sidewalks thoroughly dotted with stones and other cities in Germany following suit, Demnig has even begun to talk of taking the idea abroad to other European nations. Meanwhile, after so many encounters with the stumbling-stones, I became eager to talk to the individuals who funded the stones’ creation and inlay, which the artist completes himself. A phone call to my neighborhood’s stumbling-stone coordination center puts me in touch with a local couple. I am set to meet sponsors of the latest memory trend.

Thomas and Jutta Schmidt greet me at one of Berlin’s thousand cheap Italian restaurants, chosen so we could talk at length without worrying someone else will be waiting for our table. At first blush they are what Germans call “bürgerlich,” which means solidly middle-class, orderly, and normal. At about sixty years old, Mr. Schmidt is a life-long civil servant whose employment moved him from a village near the Dutch border with his childhood sweetheart and wife to West Berlin. He explains with a smile that he joked at the time to his wife, “at least we’ll be there when the wall falls.” His smile doesn’t fade when he describes running to the Brandenburg gate after watching the evening news on November 9th 1989 and dancing with joy on top of the stormed “anti-Fascist protection rampart” with ecstatic Easterners.

“He saw it all, he was there!” Jutta Schmidt chimes in enthusiastically. “I couldn’t go because our son was young,” she says in afterthought. “But he saw everything.”

Like many West German mothers, Mrs. Schmidt stayed home to raise children, later working briefly for the national insurance agency. She waits for her husband to answer first when I ask questions and lets him lead the discussion. Her umbrella lies on the floor in a KaDeWe shopping bag, emblem of the bourgeois wife.

All in all, theirs is an interesting but not atypical picture of politically conventional citizens. Yet on second glance the picture becomes more complicated.

The Schmidts have two children, one born in Germany, one born elsewhere. While contemporary media coverage portrays third-world adoptions as a practice of pretentious celebrities, it was a bold act for early 1980s Germany. Until January 1, 2000, German citizenship was still defined by inheritance, that is, by blood, in contrast to the United States and many other nations, where it is defined by birth.[1] Being born in Germany did not guarantee citizenship, and in fact it still doesn’t—one must first apply for the privilege, which is expensive and time-consuming.

In such an exclusionary atmosphere, the Schmidts nonetheless went ahead with their decision to adopt. They also hold unorthdox political opinions, supporting Israel in a climate more inclined to condemn the state as an aggressive oppressor. Finally, Mr. Schmidt believes in the “collective guilt” theory, one which many Germans today reject. The theory, popularized after a 1981 speech by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, holds that Germans as a people are guilty for the crimes of Nazi Germany.[2] A prevailing counter to the “collective guilt” theory runs that German society is not collectively guilty but rather collectively responsible; as witnesses to the terrible history and heirs to its consequences, they have can help ensure it does not happen again. While Mr. Schmidt agrees with this responsibility, he nonetheless sees the nation as categorically culpable.

And here we come to why Mr. Schmidt wanted to sponsor a stumbling-stone.

“With this stone, I’m accepting a small piece of the guilt of our people. The guilt that I inherited. I take on this guilt in recognition of the terrible crimes we have committed,” he explains slowly and carefully, as though describing a logical proof.

Mrs. Schmidt expands on their reasons, bringing up an incident from their 1974 trip to Israel, when they stopped in a bakery for a snack.

“I wanted to buy a pastry and the woman behind the counter had blue numbers tattooed here.” Mrs. Schmidt points to her arm. “When she heard us speaking German she just gasped and then couldn’t breathe. She froze, completely transported by horrible memories.”

This encounter with a concentration camp survivor stayed with Mrs. Schmidt for decades. “I had to face what my people did,” she says. “And for me, the stumbling-stone is a way of dealing with this past.”

The Schmidts’ stumbling-stone commemorates an elderly woman deported to Theresienstadt and killed in October 1942. It lies not far from our restaurant in the Tempelhof district near the old airport and we visit it after dinner.

Mr. Schmidt bends down to wipe a bit of dirt off the surface. “Now you can see how it shines.”

Without his handkerchief, however, the stones run no risk of darkening with dust. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, it is constantly being walked upon that prevents residue build-up and allows them to glisten.

“We came upon them the same way you did,” explains Mr. Schmidt. “We noticed them shining here and there throughout the city, and at some point we thought, ‘that’s something we’d like to do. We’d like to sponsor a stone.’”

They were able to turn their desire into action when Mrs. Schmidt read a newspaper article with detailed information about the local office that coordinates with the artist. She called the same number that put me in touch with them, and ten months later, the stone was set.

The Schmidts would like to do more. After reading about the former Jewish neighborhood in Venice, where the phrase “Ghetto” originated, the idea of laying a stumbling-stone there appealed to them. They were dismayed to find out, however, that the office in Berlin was only responsible for local history and that no corresponding “coordination point” exists in Venice.

“I have to get in touch myself with the mayor in Venice and do all the research about Jews there personally,” Mrs. Schmidt explains as she shows me Giudecca Island, former home of the Giudei, or Jews, in a travel guide she brought to dinner.

We study the map for a minute. The cartographic neutrality of the land mass, shaped like a bread crust lying in a soup of Venetian canals, does not betray the cramped conditions under which Jews lived.

“We’re not sure if everything is recorded, either,” Mr. Schmidt adds. “Germans like to write everything down, but other countries might not have.” He is referring to the astoundingly precise German documentation that occurred alongside their crimes, right down to careful inventories of homes from which Jews were deported.

“Only when the research has been done can I go to the authorities, and only with the authorities’ permission can I then call the artist,” Mrs. Schmidt concludes a bit wearily.

Despite these tactical obstacles, the Schmidts believe strongly that in what they are doing, stating emphatically that only by remembering can one avoid repeating past mistakes. When asked how they would advise someone planning to sponsor a stone, their message is clear, “Be sure you know why you are doing it.”

Names have been changed to protect the couple's privacy. Demnig image courtesy Shoe image courtesy
[1]“Reform of Germany’s citizenship and Nationality Law,” German Embassy in london, 2006. [] Website viewed March 2, 2007.
[2] Micha Brumlik, ed., with Doron Kiesel, Cilly Kugelmann, Julius H. Schoeps, Jüdisches Leben in Deutschland Seit 1945 (Frankfurt: Judischer Verlag, 1986), 94.