Middle Ground #8: Berlin Blues – The German Capital as an Arts Hub

Essay / May 2022

Middle Ground #8: Berlin Blues – The German Capital as an Arts Hub
By Jacob Barnes

         I’m late again, although perhaps this delay deserves to be qualified by an asterisk. I’ve been on vacation, driving with my partner Ella through the Pacific Northwest, so I have been thinking about things other than art. However, as we drove from city to city, I had a moment to consider my relationship to the places I live and work in, reflecting on the qualities that have driven me to come to (and stay in) a given city.

While I cringe at the self-importance many newsletters are often laden with, perhaps some background is useful here: I grew up living between Dublin, Ireland, and New York City, before moving to New Hampshire for high school. I went onto Philadelphia for university, before moving to Berlin, then New York, then back to Berlin, before I finally settled in London. Between those main stops, I spent several extended periods in Los Angeles, where my father lives. In turn, Ella’s been between Australia, South Africa, Toronto, and Barcelona. Between the two of us, we hold six passports. That is to say, figuring out where to live is at best a complicated question, and more often, a deeply fraught one.

However, despite the options, the decision of where to go often makes itself clear, at least in the moment. Philadelphia was easy to leave once university finished and there was never enough of a pull to bring me back, while I harbour an innate distrust of the happy-go-lucky attitude LA’s — and for that matter, Australia’s — climate breeds. And sometimes the exigencies of a given situation are too strong to resist: you’re drawn to a place for a reason, and that reason could have taken you anywhere.

But the city I can never quite seem to shake is Berlin. When I wasn’t living there, I was spending a lot of time there; I would get over whenever I could squeeze in a weekend away, or make myself scarce from New York over the summer months, choosing instead to while away time in a city that can almost uniquely harbour such aimlessness. Even now, I travel almost once a month for our work at Backhaus Projects, with each trip feeling equal parts like a testament to progress and regression.

Importantly, I’ve always felt justified in doing so. When I was growing up, Berlin was entering another phase of being considered a bonafide cultural destination, and when the lull of each zeitgeist-y revolution came, and the hype around the city would wane, a new cohort of ambitious artists and writers would declare it home base, causing the cycle to start anew. I’ve always felt that even when I didn’t need to be in Berlin, I could be in Berlin and still be proximate, if not party to some of the most culturally relevant work being produced. And while the calls of Berlin becoming too expensive have now become deafening, the art-minded calculus (for the most part) still adds up: it’s a city that affords you the time and space to do exactly as you wish whenever you want, paired with a culturally-ingrained anonymity that makes a fear of failure a non-issue. Who cares if you fail with your project if no one cares enough to know you had a project in the first place?

But these are the very qualities that make it so threatening, albeit insidiously. I know more than a few people who have lost themselves in Berlin, dancing a little too much and working towards anything other than the next blowout too little. The laxity of the lifestyle can breed a malaise, causing seemingly unstoppable vectors, at times almost impossibly, to turn back in on themselves. This all contributes to the transience that has come to define Berlin: people stay for a few years, find themselves or find themselves doing things they’d rather forget, and leave. And all the while, the very “bohemia” that makes it so attractive to artists and writers is the same thing that makes it an impossible site of commerce: there simply isn’t the capital in the city to sustain industry, unless your industry is a shitty burger chain or a späti.

This makes me sound (and feel) like a puritan; like I’ve taken the can-do ardor of American capitalism a little too much to heart. It also wilfully forgets that millions of very capable people allow the city to function as any other European capital would. Indeed, the trains still run (in very German fashion) on time, the streets are cleaned, and stores remain open. I should know this better than anyone: Backhaus’ Berlin team, Ash and Amaan, hold down full-time jobs when they’re not getting married, having children, or starting myriad other projects.

Then again, it is a perception of the city that is repeatedly reinforced by those who have spent time there, and by ever-increasing personal experience. It is the lack of capital that has left Berlin perpetually on the brink of becoming a true art world destination, and has allowed for the resurgence of Cologne as a German cultural hub, rekindled from its West German heyday. It remains viable — and exciting — as a site of experimentation and confluence, as English’s dominance as the city’s lingua franca has made it an easy place to make broader European connections. But it is the very precariousness of that identity, that of reckless abandon and the serendipitous rendezvous, that continues to make it a place best kept at arm’s length – within reach, but not to be embraced too closely. Every time I go, I feel like I’m one good döner or Mauerpark karaoke away from moving back, but with that, veer uncomfortably close to the chain-smoking insecurity I know all too well to be possible. 

Image Credits:
1. Giphy.