Friday, May 25, 2007

At the G8: the Stasi and Seaside Views

As an employee of East Germany’s secret police, Axel Hilpert used to befriend dissatisfied citizens and then turn them into the authorities, shattering lives. He now works in real estate. He is in fact partial owner of the dreamy hotel get-away in Brandenburg where various G8 finance ministers met last week.

This story, which was broken by The Wall Street Journal, strangely declined to mention the luxury resort by name. The only reason I can think of for this would be libel concerns, perhaps fearing that the astute businessman would claim legal damages for sullying the vacation spot’s good name, which happens to be Resort Schwielowsee.

This may even be a sensible concern, since their investigation about Mr. Hilpert, pictured in this photo at left, reveals a particularly depraved past. He assisted the broke socialist government in extorting valuable antiques from private ownership to then sell at a profit for the state under a project called “Koko,” or commerical coordination. He also, as mentioned, developed personal relationships to gain information about possible “traitors,” later turning on those who never had a clue who he really was.

Yet Mr. Hilpert, codename "Monika," is only one of many employees of the Staatsministerium für Staatsicherheit, or "Stasi" for short, who got off scot-free after German reunification. Official literature from the the BStU [Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatsicherheitsdienst der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik], the office responsible for sorting out the mess, proclaims this sad truth quite openly.

The office also represents this truth to a certain extent—52 of its current employees were also on the Stasi payroll. It defends this number by saying that these employees provide inside knowledge vital to sorting out the labyrinthine paper trail of espionage left behind. The BStU is hoping to finish organizing and reconstructing the total 180 kilometers of files and 5,600 sacks of shredded paper by 2012.

Perhaps it is from one of these continually-sorted shredded sacks that Mr. Hilpert’s file was reconstructed. When the Berliner Zeitung first wrote a feature about the real estate developer’s past in 2004, it described the files as “disappeared.” It also describes KoKo as an antiquities business rather than as a shadow Stasi organization of essential thievery, hinting at a lesser grasp of exactly how the state machinery worked.

But a lot can change in three years, as German citizens hungry for the facts of their own history keep pulling back layers. On this May 16th, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg published the efforts of investigative journalists Gabi Probst and Sascha Adamek, whose search for the thought-destroyed files produced duplicates, and who savvily turned to victims’ files as well to continue collecting the facts.

Since “The Lives of Others” [Das Leben der Anderen] (Post Feb. 12) won the Best Picture Oscar in February, international attention has turned to the Stasi, especially in America, where Hollywood is buzzing with talk of an English-language remake. Probst and Adamek took advantage of this atmosphere and shared their findings with Journal correspondent Marcus Walker, who published the English-language expose the following day on May 17th.

It is important to call attention to a Stasi spy who expresses no public regrets about his past. (Although he may sense that investors or hotel guests won’t find them particularly palatable; he declined to ‘fess up to the Berliner Zeitung, staying mum on supposed devious acts that Probst and Adamek’s research later confirmed.) As Timothy Garten Ash recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, “The Lives of Others” is flawed by how easily its protagonist turns tail from Stasi die-hard to nice guy. It makes his salvation a bit too easy, a bit too relatable; in short, it obscures the fact that many Stasi employees were selfish, ignorant, or both, and simply have no regrets whatsoever, never thinking twice about their victims.

Rather, Mr. Hilpert’s thoughts are presumably now about his Resort, whose offerings include a spa called Tao Life Wellness Center housed in a faux pagoda, as well as quaint, white vacations huts that look out upon the blue Schwielowsee, one of the many bodies of water dotting the Brandenburg landscape. Near the historic city of Potsdam, the Resort is also not far from Berlin, where the latest financial figures show that the federal government is spending about 50 million euros per year in federal aid to victims of the Stasi. This sum represents 3% of what the feds pay to former Party functionaries, including Stasi employees, who receive an average of one and a half billion euros per year since 2002. One wonders if they spend any of this money vacationing at an idyllic spot on the Schwielowsee, visiting an old friend.

Tip: “Stasi, Slander, and the Schloss: Remembering the GDR,” appears in this month’s Exberliner. For it, I researched the debated history of Berlin’s various Stasi memorial sites, including early 1990s bickering between victims’ groups and the newly united government about who would administrate the memorials and what they will say. Fans of “The Lives of Others” will learn about what happened to the secret jail as well as Stasi headquarters featured in the movie after 1989. Unfortunately, the article text is only available in print and not on the web, but the magazine can be ordered online.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

To Err is Human, to Protest Berlinish

You can feel it in the air in Berlin right now—the combined anticipation and wariness as the G8 summit approaches and thousands across the city prepare to protest. One hopes that slogan-memorizing, placard-painting citizens stay peaceful from June 6th to June 8th when Germany hosts the international forum in the northern city of Heiligendamm.

Then again, perhaps all the preparation feels more ho-hum than highly alarming to Berliners: protests are modus operandi here, and the latest slew of non-G8 headlines only confirms this. Axel Springer Verlag, among others, recently protested in court against the successful renaming of a stretch of Kochstrasse to Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse (Post Jan. 20). The conservative media mogul whose publishing empire bears his name was criticized heavily by Dutschke for his reactionary publishing. However, political concerns weren’t officially cited by Springer et. al. in their appeal to overturn January’s citizen’s vote for the renaming; rather, they focused on the costs they will have to incur. You know, big stuff like ordering new letterhead. Their case was rejected by a judge’s decision that emphasized the democratic weight of the local ballot, but the Dutschke-doubters plan to appeal the ruling. No surprise there.

Another rather ornery figure was also recently dismissed in courts: famously self-important architect Meinhard von Gerkan, who designed the capital’s Hauptbahnhof, has been chastised for claiming that it is Deutsche Bahn’s fault that hurricane-strength winds in January caused a steel support to fall from the station’s roof. Von Gerkan is already known for bickering with the Bahn about the extent to which they followed his original design when he insisted they rebuild the a lower-level roof at great cost so as not to disrupt the aesthetic effect of “his” train station (Post Dec. 6) Von Gerkan has now been slapped on the wrist by the same legal system that so surprisingly supported his earlier protest.

It remain to be seen, however, if protest will work on Kreuzberg’s Wrangelstrasse, where 24-year-old Katrin Schmidberger is organizing against the neighborhood’s first McDonald’s franchise. The interesting part of this picture is not Schmidberger’s youth or emphasis on non-violence (both “no duh” s in the world of home-grown social activism) but rather her justification: there are 7,000 schoolchildren living around the planned construction site, and many don’t learn proper nutrition from their parents at home. Schmidberger avows that she “knows what makes Kreuzberg kids tick” and wants to protect them from McCholesterol.

Home to all these nutrition-ignorant children, Wrangelkiez is also the same area that was briefly famous last fall when a group of Middle Eastern youths surrounded policeman and forced them to retreat from attempting to arrest two young men who had just mugged a third. The incident alarmed the public, largely because the press went into yellowest journalism mode, crying, “The next Paris?” and hoping to stir angst at banlieue-like chaos. Banlieue it isn’t, but Wrangelkiez is heavily settled by immigrants. In other words, what Schmidberger is essentially saying is that these foreigners don’t teach their kids how not to be fat. They are easy prey for McDonald’s.

With or without the perhaps gentrifying influence of the fast food chain, the neighborhood will likely retain its slightly rough reputation, one not helped by violence on the 1st of May. Although the traditional riots did not take place, thanks in part to a citizens’ initiative called Myfest bent on replacing drunken vandalism and drunken dancing (Post May 1), one woman was badly beaten during a protest/riot that did break out that night. The catch is that neither flying bottles nor stones injured her, but rather a clubbing incurred from a policeman when she tried to take shelter from the fray in an apartment building entranceway. According to reports from Der Tagesspiegel, the victim and Amnesty International employee, who suffered broken ribs and sharp pains after her beating from the peace-keeping forces, is looking into a lawsuit.

And there are continuing protests at the city’s oldest university, Humboldt, about the administration's participation in a federal “elite initiative,” or competition for government money to improve the school’s facilities. Students claim the measure will neglect other subjects.

This is just a selection, of course. There is a lot of reality with which to be discontented in Berlin. It will be interesting to see if G8 protests stand a chance at drowning out local rebelliousness on the news or in the popular mind. If so, this diverted attention surely won’t last long, as life slowly returns to normalcy…and people begin objecting to it once more.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Trail of Question Marks…?

The latest puzzle in Berlin is no longer what to build on Schlossplatz or when the next piece of the Hauptbahnhof’s roof will come whistling off. Rather, it is what to make of Thomas Hirschhorn’s new installation “Stand-alone,” which opened last Friday in Arndt & Partner gallery. With fireplaces vomiting broken furniture, obsessively repetitive wall graffiti, “mega-form” cardboard tubes stamped with gruesome “war porn” images, as well as mutilated computers and tape-wrapped armchairs, the art confounds the viewer and overwhelms the senses. Thrill-seekers, forget the return of Tresor: walking into Hirschhorn’s installation is just as psychedelic as Alice’s trip down the Rabbit Hole. Perhaps more.

Hirschhorn condenses the stimulus of everyday reality into a few cramped rooms while removing our usually helpful filters and controls. The result is visual onslaught combining commentaries on contemporary media saturation, violence in Iraq and collective consciousness, and consumer acquisition. All at once. Or so I argue in my review for white hot, written only after sorting through a thick tangle of impressions and images.

Indeed, Hirschhorn’s jam-packed collage technique has left some viewers scratching their heads, including a writer who couldn’t make heads or tails of his spring 2006 installation “Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress”: “at first sight…I was knocked out...[so] rather than a review, this will be a gathering of my first impressions.” She was, however, able to conclude that the work was a “bold affirmation of art as communication.” Another reviewer for Art in America required several thousand words to address Hirschhorn’s loquacious clutter, yet found it to be an impressive “exhibition that engulfed one with its mix of burgeoning chaos and hyper precision.”

Of course, there are also critics who recoil at Hirschhorn’s bombastically overwhelming approach. The New York Sun lambasted his 2006 “Superficial Engagement” installation at Gladstone Gallery in New York as an “adolescent crap-fest” with a “puerile addiction to the macabre and scatological.” Ouch. Another New York reviewer of a Hirschhorn cut-and-paste extravaganza “left puzzled whether the artist had anything much in mind,” a complaint echoed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s discussion of “Utopia, Utopia,” which faulted the artist’s “staccato, redundant, fragmentary and possibly self-contradictory presentation” for presenting issues worth thinking about and then undercutting itself with the obsessively collected bits of visual noise. The reviewer concluded, “One departs not stimulated to think further about such questions but merely relieved that someone else has apparently taken them on.”

So may be the case with Berlin’s very own Der Tagesspiegel, whose short review resorts to simply listing the gallery’s contents, inventory-style, rather than tackle the task of interpretation Hirschhorn may (or may not) be challenging us to. Whether he makes viewers think or numbs them with his overload, one thing is certain—his work has a happy home in Arndt & Partner. Although represented locally in abbreviated form in this spring’s “Into Me/ Out of Me” exhibit at Kunst-Werke Institute of Contemporary Art, Hirschhorn’s hyper-stimulated style has real breathing room this time around and is being enthusiastically received.

A pre-opening talk at Humboldt University last Thursday was so full of sweaty bodies that the moderator ran out multiple times to fetch Hirschhorn fresh water. Hirschhorn played along gamely, speaking about his trajectory as an artist—which only recently resulted in the overstuffed installation format—and taking an hour’s worth of questions afterwards. He was also an affable presence at his opening, shooting the bull with whomever wondered up to mutter words of admiration, and likewise enthusiastic at a overflowing gallery talk the following day. He surveyed his methods and motivations with statements like “Material as philosophy, that interests me!” or “I don’t want to make arte povera. I want to make poor art!” or even “I don’t want to eliminate anything. I just want to show what is going on in the world.” That should help puzzled viewers, somewhat, but for those who missed it, there is always the map of his thought process provided at the entrance to “Stand-alone.” Hirschhorn is trying the best to talk, share, and show—and it would be a shame to miss it.

"Stand-alone" is at Arndt & Partner until 7 July, Zimmerstr 90-91, Phone +49 30 280 8123.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

My Kiez, Myfest

To fight violence and vandalism with music, food, and community fun is the idea behind Myfest, a large street fair that took place today in Berlin’s Kreuzberg. On the 1st of May 1987, mass riots broke out in the neighborhood’s rougher quarter, nicknamed SO 36, forcing police to retreat for hours while rioters set cars on fire, broke windows, and stole from storefronts. Since then, the 1st of May, which is traditionally a national holiday called “Day of Work” or “Day of the Workers’ Movement,” has also been a time of civil unrest in the neighborhood. However, in 2003 some residents sick of the radical Left’s unruly overtures organized to create a neighborhood celebration dubbed Myfest, a play on the German pronunciation of "Mai" meant to indicate that this is their neighborhood too.

As Myfest’s website explains, the themes of social justice and labor can be confronted peacefully through the medium of music. Today’s Myfest, the fifth, featured twenty stages stretching from Kottbusser Tor to Oranienplatz to Heinrichplatz. Present too were the expected punks and alternative-looking characters, but conspicuously absent were angry revolutionaries inciting the crowd to an uprising. Despite objections from some in the Left who accuse the event of turning a day of resistance into a watered-down carnival and even led counter-demonstrations last year—the banner in this photo says “Myfest is bullshit Revolutionary 1st of May!”--there was no aggression as of 9 p.m. this evening. Long lines of police cars stood idle near Myfest’s entrances while revelers streamed underneath the U-bahn tracks in the mild weather.

In fact, Myfest is both an admirably successful “take-back-the-streets” project and a showcase for Kreuzberg. As organizers promised, here was “the neighborhood in all its diversity”: Turkish families sat behind makeshift börek stands (a doughy pastry stuffed with spinach, cheese, or both) alongside rainbow-headed teens sipping beer. Visitors could sample sausages, pretzels, falafel and döner as they listened to indy-rock, techno, and Arabic-language tunes. Meanwhile, police arrested over 60 people for throwing bottles and other acts of violence around Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain last night, reports the Berliner Zeitung. The rowdiness there stemmed from observance of Walpurgisnacht, a pre-Christian tradition more recently linked to witch-hunts in medieval Germany.

Here are some images from Myfest’s decidedly violence-and-sorcery-free happenings.

Punks munch under a revolutionary banner in Turkish and German.

Bands play while visitor pour into Myfest via Adalbertstrasse. Below, homemade böreks for sale and a cigarette break in the shade.
Burnt-out “Bolle” supermarket image from 1987 courtesy
Anti-Myfest protest image courtesy