Ask AA Bronson why he loves to live and work in Berlin, and he points out the window of his apartment. The celebrated Canadian artist and founding member of the groundbreaking arts collective General Idea lives in a spacious, sun-drenched flat in one of the poshest neighbourhoods in the city – the kind of place budding artists might picture when they squeeze their eyes shut and dream.
Across the gallery-filled street is a building where some of the apartments are set aside for people living with disabilities. “Anywhere else, this would be two separate worlds,” he says. “’I love Berlin, I love the horizontal equality of everything.”
When you talk to Canadian visual artists living in Berlin – there are more in Germany’s capital than there are in Canada, Bronson says, only half-joking – “horizontal” is one of the words that always comes up, along with “time,” “space” and “freedom.” It is a place to do the work, not build a career; for parties, not networking; for living (reasonably) cheaply among other artists in a city that still, improbably, exalts the effort of the imagination.
Bronson moved to Berlin from New York in 2013 with his husband, architect and designer Mark Krayenhoff van de Leur. Like many artists, he came to Germany on a one-year fellowship (sponsored by DAAD, the German government’s cultural exchange program) and like many artists, he never left. One day his husband turned to him and asked: Do you think we’re meant to stay here? For Bronson, whose work as a solo artist and with General Idea exists to question and provoke, the answer was easy. The city has long been a refuge for upheavers and rebels. “Berlin has always been a place where people come to remake their lives as artists,” he says. “It’s a place where risk-takers are attracted and people who don’t take risks stay away.’’
Across the room, Bronson’s assistant and fellow artist Sholem Krishtalka nods. They met in 2013, when Krishtalka fled to Berlin from Toronto after a bad breakup, when his life “kind of fell apart.” Bronson invited Krishtalka for a visit to one of the city’s many lakes, Teufelssee, and they’ve been working together since. After he arrived, Krishtalka began producing a series of books called Berlin Diaries – the title a nod to Christopher Ishwerwood’s novellas – which provide an illustrated voyage through the city’s nightclubs and gay bars, its u-bahns and parks.
Sitting under one of Bronson’s large canvases, Great AIDS (Pyrrole Orange), they talk about the careerist hamster wheel that artmakers in Canada are forced on, compared with a more laid-back practice in Berlin. “The joke is, it’s a great city to make art, but not a great city to sell art,” Krishtalka says. “That has its truths and untruths, but in large part, I find that here as long as you’re working on something, everyone is interested and glad for you. They’re glad for your toiling."
Then, as it inevitably does when more than one artist is in a room, the talk turns to whether Berlin, oasis of creative freedom, has finally dried up – depleted by zooming rents and soul-sucking startups. Krishtalka says, “There have been numerous lifestyle articles saying, is Berlin really over?”
Bronson shakes his head. "It’s not. It just keeps changing.”
One thing that is constant is the influx of Canadians. They come to study art, or on student exchanges such as the one between Emily Carr University of Art and Design and the Universitat der Kunste, or a residency such as the six-month one provided by the Sobey Art Award. They come on youth visas, or visas for artists and freelancers.
For many of these artists, establishing themselves is not a pressing concern. They already work internationally with institutions, are represented by galleries in other cities, or create public-art installations in Canada and around the world. They teach and publish books.
This is important, because there is very little money in Berlin – not the way there is in Frankfurt, New York, London or Toronto. It is not the place for anyone who wants to be a hot new property. For one thing, as members of the community will tell you, the city is full of galleries – including about 180 artist-run spaces – but not collectors. “If you really were career-driven,” Bronson says, “you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
Why do they come? Because art is taken seriously. Because there is freedom to think and make, and speak unorthodox thoughts. Because they can – at least for the moment – still afford it. Because there is space, both literally and metaphorically. The thing they find in the German capital is not so much riches as inspiration. As curator and arts journalist Kate Brown says, “Berlin is an incubator of new ideas."
And maybe they come in search of something they can’t even define. “Historically, this is the place black sheep have always come to be black sheep,” artist Jeremy Shaw says. “I’d lived in New York and London and Vancouver, and then I got to Berlin and I thought, what was I doing? Why was I ever trying to make it in those cities? Just the time this city allotted me was incredible. … The city gives you the time to find inspiration, and that’s what an artist needs more than anything else.”
Time is a crucial element in Shaw’s work – his videos play with a sense of the past and future being meshed in some way. His new work, Phase Shifting Index, has just opened at Paris’s Pompidou Centre. It consists of seven independent films that appear to look at dance cultures from the 20th century through a futurist lens, and synchronize every 25 moments in one ecstatic outburst. “Everything looks like it’s in the past, but you’re being told it’s in the future.”
Shaw, who is from Vancouver and won the Sobey Art Award in 2016, notes that Berlin exists in a similar kind of bubble: It is a city both at the cutting edge, and one that is resistant to unrestricted growth. Berliners fiercely guard their privacy, for good historical reason. No one is allowed to take photos in nightclubs. “There’s a history of hedonism and using hedonism as resistance,” Shaw says. “It’s the only city I know where you can still be spontaneous. In other cities everyone is scheduled from morning to night.”
At the same time, growth is coming, in the form of international startups that are flooding the city and driving up rents. The municipal government has enacted a five-year cap on residential rents, but is it too late? Residents worry that the decadent glamour that drew artists from David Bowie to Peaches may be dying, and that “poor but sexy” – words mayor Klaus Wowereit famously used to describe Berlin in 2003 – may be replaced, crushingly, with “rich and tasteful.”
Just look at what happened to Shannon Bool recently: The Comox, B.C. native, who has lived and worked in Berlin for 15 years, saw the rent on her studio jacked up 250 per cent, year on year (the space was zoned commercial, so didn’t qualify for a rent cap). Because Bool is also an art professor in the city of Mainz, and has a successful multimedia practice, she was able to buy a studio in another part of town.
However, she worries for younger colleagues who might soon see themselves priced out as they were in Toronto and Vancouver: “The price of real estate has increased dramatically and that level of gentrification has a direct impact on artists,” she says. “You see it in Vancouver, too, where the city is flattened out because cultural production isn’t viable.”
At the same time, Bool is an example of a successful ecosystem at work. She speaks German now, and is raising a family in Berlin. Bombshell, her coming show at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ont., had an earlier stop at the Kunstverein Braunschweig, a gallery that has provided a residency to many Canadians.
She has employed young Canadian artists as assistants, and she is quick to pay it forward, noting the support of the Canadian embassy in Berlin, which exhibits homegrown artists and organizes tours of Canadian galleries for German curators. She also points to the healthy system of artist-run spaces in Berlin, such as Ashley, which is the project of two young Canadians, writer-curator Kate Brown and artist Lauryn Youden.
Berlin is not a paradise, however, nor is gentrification the only serpent in it. Artists speak about frustrations, some of which are mild – learning the language, navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy – and some of which are not. There is a history of xenophobia, for one thing, and cruelty toward outsiders – especially people of colour. China’s Ai Weiwei recently ruffled the German art world’s feathers with his decision to flee Berlin for Britain, citing the city’s insularity and bigotry. “They deeply don’t like foreigners,” he said.
Krista Belle Stewart has experienced these tensions firsthand. An Indigenous artist from Syilx Nation in B.C., her practice is intimately tied to her ancestral land (her installation at Berlin’s Kunstlerhaus Bethanien involved a grid of tiles that she made using land from her reservation). In Berlin, she feels the lack of Indigenous peers – while living in a country that fetishizes North American native culture.
Stewart’s latest project is an examination of the Indianers, a German hobby group devoted to author Karl May, who wrote sentimental stories about Native Americans in the Old West that were wildly popular in the early 20th century (including among Nazis). Her coming show at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art presents some of the photographs she took at an Indianer gathering, along with a beaded dress and silver cuff the hobbyists gave her.
The experience of documenting the Indianers was both therapeutic and traumatic, Stewart says. Working in Berlin proves similarly double-edged: “It’s a very complicated space. I feel comfortable here, but I don’t feel comfortable here. There are moments when I feel good about it, and then there’s moments when I’m annoyed. I’ve had a couple of racial things occur to me, and it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to me. But I’ve had those things happen in Canada, too.”
Stewart has not yet put down deep roots here, and is subletting her place in Berlin. In that, she’s different from many Canadian artists who have dropped anchor and are content to stay for good. For Dan Young, who came for a Kunstlerhaus Bethanien residency, the city offers an unsurpassed experience. He mentions “the Berlin mix,” the process of having conversations with people who think differently from you, who are from different places, of different ages. For him, despite the soaring rents and changing city, Berlin is still a place that grapples meaningfully with artists and their practices.
“There’s a feeling of camaraderie and feeling part of something. There’s also just so many great artists here that you feel the visual arts as a global culture travels through Berlin. You also feel like you’re in one of the centres of production rather than being in one of the cities of reception. Things that are happening here might be happening somewhere else five years later.”
There is also the fun to be had, he says. Going out to gallery openings with a bunch of friends and a bottle of vodka. Being almost oppressed by the amount of good work that’s out there. The conversations, the time and – as always – the space. He jokes that he lives in “establishment Bohemia.”
Young’s residency was made possible after he won the Sobey Art Award along with his creative partner Christian Giroux. Now they collaborate on their projects long-distance, using Skype and e-mail. Feet in both worlds, they make public art installations in Toronto, and produce books about Soviet-era construction in Berlin. When I ask Young whether he’d ever leave Berlin, he gives pretty much word-for-word the same response as most other Canadian artists I’ve talked to: “Where else would I live?”
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