Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Real Scene: Berlin

I linked a couple weeks ago to a series of video shorts on Detroit. One of them was a documentary about the city’s techno heritage. The same producer created videos of other techno scenes as well, including the one below of Berlin.

It’s an interesting overview of a slice of Berlin’s famous creative scene, but I wanted to highlight a couple points about it. First, per the video, the thing that originally drew creatives to then West Berlin was a West German law that residents of West Berlin were exempt from compulsory military service. Second, a key catalyst for the explosion of the techno scene was the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This led to a mass exodus from East Berlin that left many abandoned structures with no clear legalities around their ownership or use. The curious and creative Western draft avoiders then went to explore these and ended up creating the techno scene.

I think this is interesting in assessing policies to lure the creative class and what you need to do to support a creative scene. There was no policy to attract creative people to the city. They came on their own to exploit a loophole in a law wholly unrelated to creativity. Once there, they took advantage of cheap, available spaces with few restrictions on what to do, catalyzed by a massive social upheaval.

This suggests the genesis Berlin’s creative environment was an accident that can’t be replicated by others. The one item that seems amenable to copying is cheap spaces with few restrictions. Indeed, this is sort of what we see playing out in Detroit at present. It’s hard for cities perhaps to produce the spaces in the first place, but they can make a choice to keep their hands off when people start experimenting. Detroit did this unintentionally through government incompetence and severe resource constraints. Whether other more capable city governments can resist the urge to intervene is a question yet to be answered. For more thoughts on this, see Detroit as Urban Laboratory and the New American Frontier.

Here’s the video: If it doesn’t display for you, click here.

Topics: Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Berlin

12 Responses to “Real Scene: Berlin”

  1. John Morris says:

    Cheap spaces and no restrictions is not a very hard thing to offer. I guess what one is saying that most cities are not politically or culturally ready to do that. That’s the real problem.

  2. Jim Russell says:

    Great video. Thanks for posting it. I think you are right about the fall of the Berlin Wall as something serendipitous and non-replicable. But I’m not sure the initial draw was/is important. West Berlin was flooded with young adult outsiders from all over West Germany. That generic pattern can be replicated, a necessary but insufficient condition for a creative boom.

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    See: Portland.

  4. John Morris says:

    Berlin really proves that it’s a myth that one has to have a strong commercial gallery base to support a large visual art scene.

    I’m not sure it’s in the top five places where art is sold but it has a massive brand. A Berlin dealer can take that brand to a NY or London fair and cash in.

    Right now, Detroit has that kind of a name.

  5. John Morris says:

    A very interesting article that shows how much Berlin dealers rely on sales from fairs outside the country like Art Basel.

    One can say fairs now butter the bread for most galleries but this is an extreme example where Berlin has a brand and is a better place to make art than to sell it.

  6. uffy says:

    John Morris, not to argue, but I cannot think of single gallery of any import from Detroit, nor any other visual art institution of any type for that matter unless Cranbrook is considered to be in Detroit (which it might be).

    Minneapolis has the Walker Art Center, and even Kansas City has some impressive galleries such as Bill Brady, but unless I am out of the loop, I hear very little about the Detroit (visual) art scene.

    I could see Detroit scoring quite a few points for authenticity if it were making waves in the art world, and it’s quite nice in theory, so maybe I am just missing it.

  7. John Morris says:

    Buzz wize Detroit is doing pretty well. At least two of the artists in the Whitney Biennial live and work in Detroit. A good number of NY galleries have held group shows of Detroit based artists.

    When refering to “Detroit”, I do include galleries in some of the wealthier suburbs like Ferndale. Both Susanne Hilberry and the newer Butchers Daughter gallery are in Ferndale.

    Detroit poses actually a very interesting marketing problem. A lot of people are interested in the “edgy buzz” are not ready to visit yet, but they would be very interested in seeing Detroit based galleries at a fair outside the city.

    This is similar to the galleries in the former East Germany after the wall came down. Places like Leipzig had lots of buzz that galleries like Eigen + Art could cash in on by participating in international fairs.

  8. John Morris says:

    Here is a good article from the LA Times about Detroit’s growing street cred as a cutting edge art spot.

    A quote,

    “The problem for these artists, said Simone DeSouza, is that “Michigan artists don’t sell to Michiganders.” Local collectors might visit New York or Los Angeles to buy work made in Detroit. Aiming to change that, DeSouza opened Re:View Contemporary Gallery in 2008 in a loft-style building that could be at home on either coast.”

  9. uffy says:

    Thanks for the info. Sounds promising.

  10. Bow says:

    “This suggests the genesis Berlin’s creative environment was an accident that can’t be replicated by others.” I disagree with this statement. I look at the LGBTQ community in the around the world and particularly, Gay men in America. You will find Gay “ghettos”. These concentrations of gay men in export a tremendous amount of art, culture and creative class.
    I am not trying leave out lesbians, but they don’t tend to cluster as gay men do. Most people are shocked to find out gay men and lesbians don’t interact all that much.

    These concentrations of gay men and GLBTQ in general have created their own culture and sub cultures.

  11. Bow says:

    These groups are pretty insular. But, even if these men aren’t geo-aligned, the culture still makes up it’s own space…largely because we never had any rules or guides.

    It hard for me to imagine that Mass Ave. in Indy would be anything like it is now had it not be attached to Indy’s LGBTQ community and it’s primary ghetto. A common joke told in Indy for years has been: Fountain Square will up tick when the “gay boy” show up.

  12. Bow says:

    Most ghettos like this are almost always near the urban core of cities and are created in somewhat, if not completely blighted areas and are transformed over time. It’s really very similar to Berlin the example even if it looks different.

    I look at as: You can’t buy culture with currency, but culture can be exported and transformed into cultural currency.

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