Reading: Julia Bock, Axel Völcker — Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook

(Full Disclosure: Kerber Verlag wanted me so much to review this, they chased me down and sent one boxed up via registered post. I also pestered them via email, which is the real truth.)

Wedding. Repping the best Ortsteil and Kiez in Berlin. My home for most of the time I’ve lived here, where I first landed, where I got my mobile phone number, where I made art (when I was disposed to do that), where I still call home, even as I live in the beating heart of gentrification, between Graefe Kiez and Südstern. I will fight anyone who says Wedding isn’t echt Berlin, who says, “Oh, but you must go to Charlottenburg for the real Berlin”, like Wedding isn’t — we all know what you really mean. Marzahn-Hellersdorf might be on the up, but Wedding bleibt. If only it could ditch its uncool neighbour Mitte.

I see a book on Twitter (via Weddingweiser) called Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch — The Photobook and I know it will be mine, and I know I can’t be throwing down mad Euros on every book I see when my reading list is … even Paul in my favourite bookshop won’t touch its full extent without bribes. It’s got Helvetica Neue for the title and Communist Red endsheets, ’cos Volksrepublik Roter Wedding also bleibt — or at least that’s what the best pub in Germany tells me. I haven’t read it; I’m reading it. I read it. One of those usual non-review reviews.

A story of Wedding: When I first was living in Berlin, and I’d answer the question, “Where are you living?” the regular reply to that, by locals who’d been in the city for years, would be, “Oh Wedding. Be careful. It’s rough.” or other variations on the Wrong Side of the Tracks line — it’s outside the Ring, so yeah, wrong side. So I believed them, and exited U-Pankestraße with some apprehension, ’cos it was like being up Sydney Rd in Melbourne on a Friday night before that got gentrified. But then I noticed no one stared or got in my face or even gave a shit I was walking up Badstraße, and that ‘rough’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘not really Berlin’ meant Turkish and immigrant and working class, and about as much home in a city as I’ll ever find.

Another Wedding story: There’s a street off Badstr. called Buttmannstraße. Yes, really, Buttmann. I laughed. We all laugh, we of the former Empire’s colonies, ’cos we all have toilets for brains. I have a dear friend who lives for many years in Buttmannstr. The best pub in the world used to be on Buttmannstr. There should be a superhero called Superbuttmann. Obviously it’d be a porno, like Flesh Gordon, or Sex Trek, or Buttman vs. Superbuttmann. Buttmannstr. is the street that ‘brings down the neighbourhood’, where you see the hard fist of gentrification, forced evictions, police doing high-rotation patrols, rents doubling, locals with nowhere to go, who’ve called Wedding their home from the time it was the arse-end of Berlin, getting the boot.

Buttmannstr. officially isn’t in Wedding. The 2001 Bezirksgebietsreform hewed off the eastern half and renamed it Gesundbrunnen. Everyone still calls it Wedding; it’s going to take more than an administrative ‘reform’ to change that. Berlin-Wedding: Das Fotobuch properly takes Wedding in its former fullness, from Bornholmer Brücke (otherwise known as Böse Brücke) — where East and West Berlin first opened on November 9th, 1989 — all the way west to the edge of Flughafen Tegel. Wedding, where Marlene Dietrich performed when Buttmannstr. was the Queen of north Berlin.

I turn through the pages and sections, portraits of retired workers propping up their local bar, of parents and their children, portraits of Wedding-ers at home, and there’s Anna and Wolfgang Dumkow, in their beautiful Wiesenburg apartment, surrounded by art, looking unfathomably stylish. Each of the eighteen chapters or parts is by a different photographer from Ostkreuz-Agentur (skewed about 2:1 men:women ratio, yes, youse all know me, I count), so each chapter is a story, separate from the others, telling a particular theme without being beholden to an overarching narrative or curatorial aesthetic. Yes, it’s about Wedding, but it is not attempting a comprehensive or definitive appraisal; it is a moment shaped by the suburb’s past and its impending future.

And Wedding is a strange, unremarkable suburb, there’s scant imposing or singular architecture, the streets are a mix of congested thoroughfares banked by post-war Neubau — like all of Berlin, it’s missing teeth, more so than other districts, having been one of the main industry districts, and on the receiving end of heavy bombardment — of Kiez and Viertel with names like Afrikanisches Viertel (memorialising Germany’s colonial history), Brüsseler Kiez, tree-lined residential side-streets broken by old factories, and on two sides bounded by massive railway lines and the Westhafen canal port. There’s history here that’s uniquely Berlin and Wedding, but little of this remains immediately evident. In its absence, it’s one of the quieter parts of Berlin, where people carry on ordinary lives — even if they are artists.

So I’m reading this book and part of me is delighted to see my home represented like this, and part of me wonders why this book exists at all. Perhaps because Julia Boek and Axel Völcker also delight in this rather mundane cul-de-sac. But who’s it for, then? Wedding doesn’t have the punk and techno history of Kreuzberg, certainly not the cataclysmic history of Potsdamer Platz, Bowie and Iggy Pop didn’t live in Wedding, if there’s a suburb of Berlin which history seemed to have passed by, it’s Wedding.

It’s a suburb worth considering though. Barely 50% are of German origin — I have no idea what that means, I suppose germano-German, white German, though these kind of demographic descriptors slide into insalubrious fantasies of nationhood and ethnicity — almost 1 in 5 are Turkish German, and more than 1 in 20 Afro-German. It’s been a suburb of migration for its entire history, and only in the last few years has it been the site of the gentrification-type migration. One of the photo essays is called Black Wedding, a group of Cameroon-Germans who export cars, church on Sunday, family portraits at home and in the park. Another is of empty mosques. The introduction tells us Wedding has the greatest number of Mosques of any district in Berlin.

I’m going to jump into criticism here, all staccato like. My first criticism comes back to the imbalanced ratio of men to women photographers. I think here of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, where she says, “Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.” She also talks about — and I can’t find the quote here — the artlessness and naïvety of the amateur as more natural, more real, and therefore an essentialist resistance to the artificiality of the professional photographer. I was thinking of this looking at some of the essays, street photography shot without looking through the lens, as though this method in itself conferred a higher value to the work. I just thought they looked kinda crap, and had images in my head of tourist bros one-hand running and gunning their multi-thousand euro DSLRs, taking without asking. I contrast this with the family portraits, where the photographer set up an impromptu studio in a paediatric clinic, and asked her subjects, “What is your greatest wish?” And the answer so often was, “A better life for my children.” Asking and receiving. This is the Wedding I recognise, and when Mutti Merkel and other lost white Germans clamour multiculturalism and integration have failed, I say, this is Germany, and these are Germans.

There’s a photo in one of the empty mosques series where you can see a sliver of curtain. These spaces are absent of people, but were they not, then the absence would be women. Behind that curtain, that’s where the women go. An absence doubled. There are portraits of the Imam at the end, all male, by the photographer, also male. How a man can move through these spaces and streets — if they can at all — is very different from a woman. It’s like the reportage on Afghanistan I’ve been reading for years, only half told because of this absence. I feel tired and embarrassed to endlessly, year after year, book after book, movie, TV show, exhibition, cycling, motorsport, always, always hammering and banging on about representation. Fucking women. Where the fuck are we? Is one woman for every two men equality? Does 30% somehow read as half? And what does it mean that in a suburb where half the locals aren’t “of German origin” that almost all the photographers have hella German names? If I ask myself, “Do I spend too much time thinking about and asking these questions,” is it because they don’t?

Is this book harmless?

Sandwiched in-between Black Wedding, Artists, and In the Mecca of Berlin, is Gentrification of Wedding. Rent has more than doubled since I first arrived, pushing tripled. People let out rooms for a week what I would pay for a whole apartment for a month. And it’s on their coffee tables this book is more properly at home, irrespective of how the artists involved might want to hold a middle finger at them. As artists, we serve as the shock troops of gentrification, softening up the area before the front arrives. And when it does — which for Wedding is now — we’re pushed out and on to the next place. When I lived in Uferhallen, I photographed it constantly. I loved that I could be there, a former tram and bus depot in the middle of the city, now half turning to fields every summer, foxes and wildlife moving in. So I understand how Julia Bock and Axel Völcker could also feel the same about their Wedding, and want to share this. Yet once shared, it becomes commodity, serves interests other than, and in the present climate opposed to, the Wedding they call home.

Moving abruptly onto my other criticism, then. The English translations are a little shaky, a little word-for-word literal from German.

Like an anthology of short stories, some photographers I like, others I don’t, others leave me indifferent. This is both an affinity with a visual aesthetic as well as with what this makes explicit about how they see the world. If I flick through the pages, does it give me a feeling for Wedding? There are a number of photographers who remove entirely people from the milieu. Is this an intentional theme, or a habit of the photographers of the agency? A lot of them work for press, and there’s a strong thread of reportage in their work. I recognise people and places, and recognise Wedding, yet simultaneously, I see very little of Wedding here. I see photographers who use Wedding as an abrasive to rub up against, but it could be anywhere, Kreuzberg, Hamburg, Düsseldorf — the architecture often gives it away as German, but it could easily be Footscray or any of the other poor suburbs I’ve seen go through what Wedding presently is. They photograph Wedding but do not see it, they level it out, and some of the work is frankly lazy and pedestrian. Others, like Dorothee Deiss — I keep coming back to her photographs in the paediatric clinic — could go anywhere, her studio portraits against a plain background would always look like the place they came from. I would be far less critical were all the photographers to have her sensitivity and skill.

I show it to my Wedding friends though, “Hey, look at what I got, it’s our Kiez!” strange book for an odd ’burb.

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Brussels from the Rooftops

In Brussels for a week, staying with Hans Van den Broeck and seeing the prémiere of his new piece Celestial Commute. This morning I finally made it up the squirrel stairs to the mythical rooftop garden. 31º, blue sky empty of clouds, warm air, the silence that comes from being on the fifth floor above the city. It is epic.

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Torri Asinelli

A lazy day and no museums open, with Martin arrived from Freiburg, we set off for a wander southwards with the plan to climb Torri Asinelli, the highest tower still standing in Bologna, and one we pass often, being at the hub of a radial set of roads which lead variously towards home, the theatre, south, and other easterly directions. Mostly I wanted to see the city from above and see how the ragged curves of the streets resolved themselves.

The greasy, narrow, steep stairs and head-buttingly low ceilings were completely worth the 3 euros it cost to make the climb, and the damp, grey air somehow also well-suited. I’m sure it looks sublime at the height of summer, but to see it subdued also has its rewards. As for the tower, now 900 years old, it’s sad and dilapidated, far from the days when the city was full of nearly 200 similar such fortifications, impossible to say whether the gaping, toothless holes were part of the original internal floor structure or later additions and removals.

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A Day of Bologna Tourism

A day off from rehearsals today, and Monday plus the religious holiday Epiphany means no museums are open, so it’s off for a wander around Bologna to see some porticos, churches, terracotta colours, window shutters, more churches, more porticos, some excellent doors, not many trees at all, a lot of alleys and winding streets, a couple of city gates, quite a few relatively new-ish modernist buildings which are in sense architecturally identical to the old ones and are well-tasty in that high, internationalist modernism way, churches again, various small religious icons of the Mary (with or without Jesus) variety embedded in façades competing with plaques and coats of arms for quantity, and finally the grand Piazza Maggiore where I met Dasniya for coffee and cake while sitting outside Palazzo Re Enzo. Very tourist, me.

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Summer’s end, Uferhallen

Again spending uncomfortable lengths of time in front of laptop, indulging in the joy of renewing my Aufenthaltserlaubnis, with the scintillating possibility of permanent residence this time (unlikely due to large, baroque concatenations of Behördebürokratismus), und then working on another project that requires me to write attractively on shibari and BDSM …

So I wandered outside for icecream, and took my camera to enforce a period of outside-ity, and to do something other with hands, eyes, thoughts. It felt decidedly awkward, and I should be making more of a habit of this because I lose the attentiveness to what I’m doing very quickly when I leave gaps of regularity in my taking of photos.

Reading: Janet Chen – Guilty of Indigence

Unlike Iain Banks, Janet Chen’s Guilty of Indigence — The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953, has more in common with Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory, and shall not be inhaled in a 24 hour period. It’s possible, but I suspect I’d lose any attempt.

I read about Guilty of Indigence on The China Beat, where the author was interviewed, and figured there would be a lot I’d find interesting. For a start it’s Chinese scholarship written by a women, and having spent more than a decade reading predominately this field written by men before discovering Hershatter, Susan Mann and others, it’s obvious to me my renewed interest has been entirely due to women academics.

Secondly, it covers an era that I find has in general been under-represented – certainly in more popular writing on China – being sandwiched as it is between the Qing Dynasty and Mao. Too often this is referred to as the warlord era – even Wikipedia does, (and it irritates me immensely I can’t refind the brilliant essay deconstructing the term in the context of its use in Afghanistan, as it is eminently applicable to China during this era), used to cover the entire Republican era rather than just the twelve years post-WW1 when the country was split under various military fiefdoms (cliques, hegemonies, etc). I don’t have an alternate suggestion for a name for this era, but I find not reducing it to the preconceptions inherent in the word ‘warlord’ helps to think and write about it with a little more subtlety.

As for the China part itself, Janet concentrates mostly on Beijing and Shanghai, which in general in almost everything I’ve read on China is what is meant by ‘China’; a cluster of provinces, Hebei to Zhejiang, and rarely further west than Henan. Yes, I have a fondness for the Southern Barbarians, and all things border-ish, so experienced small but not unexpected disappointment at absence of Canton in the index, though of course if any book tried to be even slightly all-encompassing when it came to Chinese scholarship, it wouldn’t be finished in this lifetime.

Anyway, it’s beautifully bound, the cover and layout are very attractive, and I think I shall take a pause now to begin reading.

Janet Chen – Guilty of Indigence
Janet Chen – Guilty of Indigence

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Uferstrasse Trees

A few months ago various people in Uferstrasse got together to save some trees that were to be felled in order for water works to be done.

A while ago we thought the trees had been saved. It turns out not.

Today the Berliner Wasserbetriebe began cutting down some the trees in Uferstrasse. This is the ‘compromise’; the old Plane tree was saved in exchange for two not so old trees being cut down. Some compromise.

As always, trees lose to fuckholes. And there’s nothing that can be done.

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uferhallen – autumn

A warm autumn afternoon yesterday with Michael, come all the way from Madrid. A morning cleaning, and more warmth of sun in the café at the gates of Uferhallen; many people wandering about on the last day of a large exhibition. I read my way through Iain M. Banks’ latest at too fast a clip, and so decide instead to attend to the photographing of the former BVG workshops.

I’ve been meaning to do this for months, and have on occasion pointed my camera somewhere, though not in the thorough manner I have planned. The Uferhallen is vast; on the north of the street, three massive long, low buildings interspersed with other buildings of various ages, as though a geologic collision across several epochs left the different architectures crushed and entangled. The further back one wanders the more this is so, pointing to the loci of impact just this side of the fence at the far end of the site.

Cut north-west to south-east, perpendicular to Uferstraße, are three main thoroughfares. The most westerly being the former parking ground and turning circle for the busses’ overnight sojourn. The middle leading to smaller workspaces and twisting alleys, and the most easterly, once passing the cavernous entrances to the machine workshops, leads back to possibly the oldest part of the area.

Of course, then there is the southern side of the street, with its massive block of generator building and accompanying chimney, and two further banks of endless workshop space.

I’d been wanting to photograph here for some time; thinking of how over three-quarters of a year last year I observed the Bötzow Brauerei and wondering what I might find here. The light today was quite beautiful, utterly clear skies, warm sun sinking slowly lower towards the horizon; I wanted to have this as a memory before turning to the more obvious greys and muted tones of late autumn and winter.

I am still limiting myself to shooting 1:1 and both black and white and colour simultaneously. I’m not sure why I don’t allow myself to venture into other aspect ratios, but something of the constraint appeals, even though the obvious distortion from the wide-angle lens at times frustrates me. Not to mention feeling distinctly clumsy and often wielding the camera like a drunken bludgeon against the object of my attention.

Today I walked through perhaps a third of the area, and turned my camera to far less, not even venturing inside. I had an idea it would be nice to do this also, somehow explore the place, insinuate myself in by virtue of the lens, show a bit of this quite special place that exists in the north of Berlin. Perhaps to be my small project for the next short while.

die bäume bleiben

(Just before cycling back to rehearsal…)

Our beautiful tree of Uferstrasse will remain for the moment. The Berliner Wasserbetriebe has said it will consider all possibilities to preserve the Plane tree. Thank you to everyone who showed up and helped on the 21st. A video from RBB (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg — in German), for you to enjoy.

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meine bäume

Outside the window where I work with Dy are many beautiful trees. My view, as I sit here and write or work or make yoga, cooking, eating, talking, life… is with trees. Through their boughs and leaves, branches, stems, twigs, dappled today in the hot light, I can see the UferHallen, a low mass of dark dried-blood brick. Though I cannot see it, I know also beyond is the small canal. More trees also.

Between my trees on this and the other side of the street, and those beyond — also to the side, is a wide, flat expanse, an area for turning busses or parking them, after all UferHallen is in the old BVG tram and bus workshops. In summer this plane is a heatsink, blackness sucking the sun and broiling the surrounds — a microclimate not altogether unpleasant but oh for some more trees, no? In winter past it was under ice thick enough and layered like a dirty cake. Under the trees shade though it is cooler, bearable.

Some months ago these hundred-year-old trees were doomed. Engineering works on the drainage beneath setting their fate, only to be saved by many of the dwellers in UferHallen and surrounds. Now it comes about they are doomed again.

The Berliner Wasserbetriebe – Berlin Waterworks turned down the offer of use of the vast and empty UferHallen yards, far more space than they could need for their work, saying, “We do not work on private land.” No attempt to reach an agreeable solution, just an obnoxious, “Piss off! We’re cutting them down!”

On July 21st at 18:00 there will a meeting at Uferstraße 8/23, 13357, Berlin to prevent this stupid, shortsighted act of vandalism coming about. I won’t be here, stuck in Vienna… But!

July 21st is my birthday, and as a present to me and all of Uferstraße, please come along, write to the Berliner Wasserbetriebe, or otherwise save our beautiful trees.

Baumfällung Uferstraße

Liebe Mieterinnen und Mieter, liebe Baumfreundinnen und Freunde,

vielleicht habt Ihr schon mitbekommen, dass die eindrucksvolle Platane am Eingang zur Uferstraße 23 gefällt werden soll. Die Berliner Wasserbetriebe, die sich die Fällung vom Grünflächenamt genehmigen ließen, sind scheinbar nicht bereit, nach anderen Möglichkeiten zu suchen, um ihre Wasserleitungen zu verlegen. Wir, die UferHallen AG haben den Wasserwerken schriftlich zugesagt, bei der Verlegung der Rohre das Grundstück der Uferstraße 23 mitbenutzen zu können. Die Wasserwerke lehnten dieses Angebot ab und begründeten dies mit der Pauschalantwort: “Wir bauen nicht auf Privatgelände”. Auch das Grünflächenamt Berlin hat ihre Genehmigung zur Fällung dieses Baumes nicht zurückgenommen.

Für den 21.Juli. 2010 (Zeit: 18:00 / Ort: Eingang der Uferstraße 8/23, 13357 Berlin) Uhr ist ein Termin anberaumt, an welchem die Wasserwerke für Fragen, Sorgen und Anregungen, die Fällung betreffend, zur Verfügung stehen.

Wir bitten Euch, an diesem Termin möglichst zahlreich zu erscheinen, um zu demonstrieren, dass sich eine große Anzahl an Mietern für den Erhalt des Baumes einsetzen wird. Wir denken, dass dies der einzige Weg ist, die Wasserwerke dazu zu motivieren, nach anderen Lösungsmöglichkeiten zu suchen. Bitte leitet diese Mail an interessierte Personen weiter.

Schon einmal im Voraus vielen Dank für Euer zahlreiches Erscheinen.

Mit sonnigen Grüßen

Die Menschen der UferHallen AG

— UferHallen