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The Doubting City: Artists and their search for forgotten places in Berlin

Christiane Delbruegge & Rolf de Mol, Guerre en forme, 2010. Photo: Wolfgang Karl Kraus.

By Christine Nippe
On Feb 1, 2011

Christiane Delbruegge & Rolf de Mol, Guerre en forme, 2010. Photo: Wolfgang Karl Kraus.

Translated from German by Birgit Rathsmann
Read The Doubting City: Artists and their search for forgotten places in Berlin in German.

Since German reunification, the capital Berlin has been in a permanent state of reconstruction that has not proceeded in nearly as linear a development as the continuously present cranes might imply. The city has become a place where many temporary occupations and empty spaces make the potential for new art-making practices in the urban realm possible. While comparing contemporary artists in New York and Berlin for my PhD research, I discovered the role that many artists play in re-imagining cities today. Inspired by urban anthropology and art history, my research has focused on the way in which artists conceptualize and represent “their” cities. Local conditions, myths and discourse as well as the global art world plot the coordinates that, I argue, define urban art practice: the idea of artists as activists as examined through artists’ strategies and processes related to urbanity.

Lars Ramberg, Zweifel [Doubt], 2005.

For the past two decades, artists in Berlin have increasingly transformed parts of the city into arenas for confrontation. The birth of these practices can be located at the time when Berlin’s new status as a capital was publicly much discussed in the media in the early 1990’s. These discussions, along with the movement known in the social sciences as the spatial turn, began to include artistic and curatorial experimentation and practice. Conceptual movements from the 1960’s, such as Situationism and performance crossed with paradigms of the 1990’s which were concerned with critiquing symbolic economies and the gentrification of urban space (Franzen/Koenig/Plath 2007). While some artists were experimenting with reaction and reflection on the post-Fordian city, others were working to create alternative mappings and image worlds accessed through the internet, with media used ranging from painting, photography, video, installation, internet and sculpture to relational and interactive projects. 

The following is a short summary of the most important paradigm I discovered in art related to the urban space Berlin: fascination with forgotten places and empty public space. 

Focus: Forgotten Places

Many artists negotiate the new order of the Berlin urban landscape through forgotten and obscure places. They research old buildings, abandoned areas and places on the periphery.

Wiebke Loeper

Wiebke Loeper, Moll 31, Berlin 1995.

The East Berliner Wiebke Loeper returned to the empty pre-fab slab building of her childhood near Alexanderplatz. Like a detective, she re-staged her parents’ photos in their now empty apartment. Rooms that were once inhabited by a happy family were now empty, de-centered and filled with garbage. In the pairs of the photo series, the dramatic vacuum caused by the sudden social collapse after unification becomes visible.

Christiane Delbruegge & Rolf de Mol

Christiane Delbruegge & Rolf de Mol, Guerre en forme, 2010. Photo: Wolfgang Karl Kraus.

Amidst the continuing political disagreements in Berlin over the rights of squatters, Christiane Delbruegge & Rolf de Mol imagined moving the Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien into an abandoned leisure park near the river Spree. During the 1970s, the Kuenstlerhaus itself was founded as a squatters’ project in an abandoned nurses’ dormitory of the hospital Bethanien. Delbruegge and de Moll’s initiative New Harmony reframes the absence of meaning of the fairground-like area which once was a place of national pride. This is tied into the history of the erstwhile hospital and it’s active squatters. Cultural activity like New Harmony or Moll 31 emphasize the passage of time in empty urban area and places of decay. 

Lars Ramberg

Lars Ramberg, Zweifel [Doubt], 2005.

Artists rarely concern themselves with iconic monuments like the Brandenburg Gate. However, one monument has inspired was the Palace of the Republic, the erstwhile site of the GDR’s Parliament. Its incredibly slow removal cast a sharp light on cultural and political forces by showing how a monumental gap could be filled with the creation of a new monument. Following a long public discussion about the eradication of the historic monument, it was decided that the palace, an important example of socialist construction, would be replaced by a newly built copy of a Prussian castle which stood at the site one hundred years ago.

Just before the final demolition in 2005, Lars Ramberg installed the word “Doubt” in large neon letters on the roof of the building as if the artist wanted to give voice to the new gap in the history of the site. As a ruin, the palace represented the husk of the previous system. After its demolition, the has become much emptier both physically and in the mind of the city’s inhabitants. The future new castle will be surely more removed from the organic use that went before.

Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla

Allora & Calzadilla, How To Appear Invisible, 2009. Single-channel video projection, 16 mm film on HD DVD, colour, sound, 21’ 30’ © Allora & Calzadilla, Lisson Gallery, London.

Before its demolition, the largely empty palace was documented by artists Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla in the video How to Appear Invisible (2009). In the video, a German Shepherd wears an empty Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket around its neck while running through the rubble as if it was at work, following the traces of history.

Every thing leaves a trace and is characterized by the traces of previous things. We are very interested in these sign which remain where everything changes and which won’t be perceptible in the near future.  This question interests us a lot and we researched how much the film could register and record the moment of transition from one state to another. – Allora &Calzadilla

The use of the Palace of the Republic exemplifies the complex possibilities of a city. Curator Sabine Eckman has summarized how Berlin’s architectonic layout– its canyons, gaps and new construction– have joined the complex discourse on German history through these interventions by contemporary artists.

The city as a definition of constant change is without a doubt an image which perfectly describes Berlin in it’s first decade. From the Info-Box at the Potsdamer Platz producing detailed images from the mid-1990s to 2000 which communicated how the void of that particular area would be filled. Daniel Liebeskind’s design for the Jewish Museum followed the motive of the void.  Unoccupied spaces, under-determined spaces, temporary use of buildings, new occupations and new codings in have played a key role in the definition of Berlin as a city in transition. – Sabine Eckman

These formally paradigmatic Berlin spaces are now porous, characterized by ambiguity of meaning and used temporarily, or partially, as art. These artist strategies have utilized the space of the everyday’s proximity to significant and contested history of Berlin. In this context, contemporary art functions as a container of a specific visual and building culture of their time– the city functions as an “actant” (Latour) on art and its aesthetic. Berlin’s physical plan, marked by gaps in rows of buildings, unused spaces and low density housing, has been mirrored in these projects through emptiness, facades and processed or contraction and demolition.

Berlin’s identity stands in close proximity to the concept of the empty urban space. The excess of urban investments led to discontinuity which activates the self-eradicating gap. – Kenny Cupers and Markus Miessen

The consistency and materiality of every city produces its own repertoire, and in Berlin this that of the void, the forgotten place or the doubted area. Artists seeks out the magic, history and future of these kinds of places. 


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Marc Augé, Orte und Nicht-Orte. Vorüberlegungen zu einer Ethnologie der Einsamkeit., Frankfurt am Main, 1994. 

Beate Binder, Streitfall Stadtmitte: Der Berliner Schloßplatz: Der Berliner Schloßplatz, 2007.

Kenny Cupers & Markus Miessen, Spaces of Uncertainty, Wuppertal 2002.

Rosalyn Deutsche, Eviction: Art and Spatial Politics, Cambridge/London, 1996.

Wolfgang Kaschuba, Nowherelands and Residencies: Recodifiying Public Space in Berlin, in: Günter H. 

Miwon Kwon, (1997), “One place after another: notes on site specificity,” October, Nr. 80, Spring, 85-110.

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Christine Nippe, Place Makers Berlin, Katalog anlässlich der gleichnamigen Ausstellung bei Curators Without Borders, 2007.

Christine Nippe, Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum, in: Adam Szymczyk und Elena Filipovic, Kurzführer – Tag, 5. berlin biennale für zeitgenössische kunst, 2008.

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