Peripheral Visions

n.b.k., Aristide Antonas, The Island Interface, from the series Blooms Room, 2013-16 © Aristide Antonas

This year’s Berlin Art Week opens on 14 SEP, and its programme points to a shift. On movement away from the centre—and towards the periphery

We’ve heard for years, well, decades really, that Berlin was a global metropolis. At least one in the making. And a global metropolis has a huge draw to many, albeit for very different reasons. And so after 1989 they came first from the Swabian provinces, then from other European countries connected via easyJet and other no-frills airlines. Those who could afford it fled 9/11-traumatised New York City in the noughties; those forced to fled Syria in the twenty-tens, then Ukraine in the twenty-twenties.

It’s a drastically simplistic picture, of course, painted with rather broad strokes. And yet the story of the city’s allure is roughly that, or is it? Berlin, a magnet, Germany’s supposedly only true metropolis, has been the country’s political capital for nearly 25 years and a cultural one for far longer. All the more so when it comes to contemporary art.

Yet for years, well, decades really, we’ve heard the opposite time and again: what is Berlin if not an outsized provincial nest, a proverbial »Parvenupolis«—ultimately less a metropolis than »big city«, as author Jens Bisky aptly and not unaffectionately describes it in the subtitle of his monumental biography of the capital. Yet for all their apparent contradictions, both of these seemingly contradictory stances have one thing in common: a focus on the geographical centre and the principle of centrality as an organising idea.

»The people who once flocked to the city are now moving further and further from its core.«

Georg Kolbe Museum, Mona Hatoum, Remains of the Day © Mona Hatoum

The city’s mass appeal was boosted not least by the matter of its surroundings: Berlin sits perched like an elevated island in the sandy march of Brandenburg, is seemingly without a hinterland and, for historical reasons, has a relatively slim commuter belt. Nothing seemed further from Berlin’s Mitte district—appropriately dubbed the German word for ›centre‹—than the villages and small towns in Brandenburg. Even a Berlin district outside the city’s S-Bahn Ring would seem remote by contrast. Stuttgart, London, New York City—all appeared (certainly felt) much closer.

But something has shifted in the meantime, more radically and rapidly than anyone thought possible. Triggered by real estate speculation, rising prices, and an increasingly acute housing shortage; accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic and the possibilities of so-called ›home office‹; ultimately reinforced by the suddenly very real effects of climate change—a onetime spectre that is increasingly turning the stony inner districts of Central European cities into almost unbearable, blazing ovens—a rethink is underway.

In short: the people who once flocked to the city are moving further and further from its core. The reasons for it are again are as manifold as the manifestations themselves: from the romanticised, rural idyll of the sparsely populated hinterland for those who can (still) afford it, to displacement to the periphery for those who cannot afford to live in the city centre (anymore). All in all, we find that centrifugal forces have long exerted a stronger pull than the centripetal ones: socially, yes, but geographically as well.

»Artists are moving to the countryside to work farmland, whilst institutions and other players are moving to the city’s outskirts.«

It goes without saying that this movement has also affected the art and culture sector, which is so important for Berlin. Artists are moving to the countryside to work farmland, whilst institutions and other players are moving to the city’s outskirts. A look at the programme of this year’s Berlin Art Week shows it as well.

A few examples: Fahrbereitschaft—collector couple Barbara and Axel Haubrock’s now longstanding exhibition space in the eastern Lichtenberg district—is joined by Wilhelm Hallen, a venue in a onetime iron foundry in Reinickendorf at the other end of the city. Gallery owner Mehdi Chouakri has established an outpost in the latter, and once again, a number of galleries will hold joint exhibitions there during Berlin Art Week. The neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK), having lost its traditional premises in central Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg after years of protests, has for now found a home at station urbaner kulturen in Hellersdorf, a district in the far east of Berlin. Meanwhile Anna Gritz, one of the city’s most interesting curators, has taken the reigns at the venerable Haus am Waldsee, an institution deep in Berlin’s southwest. Finally, BAW Garten—which is entering its second round this year—is moving to the Uferhallen in Wedding, one of the city’s crucial studio locations. Current development plans have left its future hanging in the balance.

»What new or different concerns and issues does a more ›marginal‹ perspective bring to light?«

In the coming weeks, we at the Berlin Art Week Journal will be introducing you to the artists, exhibitions, and events featured in this coming edition. Although of course not everything can be described in terms of the dynamic outlined above, we will try to take up a number of these issues in essays and interviews. What are working conditions like on the periphery, how productive is the tension with one’s surroundings? How do priorities shift? What new or different concerns and issues does a more ›marginal‹ perspective bring to light? And what funding instruments and infrastructural conditions are needed to ensure that the inner city remains a place for art and culture? Because ultimately—and again with somewhat broader strokes—the question as to how the centre of Berlin not only perceives itself an era of growing de-globalisation and increased focus on its immediate vicinity, but also connects with its periphery and the surrounding countryside, of how opportunities are (hopefully) used and pitfalls (ideally) avoided in the process, will be a defining one for the coming years. Well, decades, really.