Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Berlin: In the Belly of a Whale

Here’s a test to see how many of you are actually serious about attracting creatives and building a creative economy in your city: will you actually watch this 53 minute documentary about Berlin that’s in German with subtitles?

“In the Belly of a Whale” is a great film that consists of talking head style ruminations on the art scene and life as a creative in Berlin. The people featured are “all in” as artists and fully part of that scene themselves (though as you’ll see most of them wear many hats). We get to see plenty of their often very cool art as well as hear some cool tunes.

Given that Berlin has attracted more artists than any any city in the world, it’s a case study worth looking at if you plan to try attracting any sort of creative base. Nobody has succeeded like Berlin.

First the video, then some additional commentary on what I saw in it. If it doesn’t display for you, click here.

h/t BMW Guggenheim Lab

I have generally argued that talent migration is not a zero sum game. However, according to these folks Berlin really has hoovered up a good chunk of Germany’s artists. This makes it more difficult to be an artist today in second tier cities than it was in the past. How true this is I don’t know. The people here clearly take a “global elite” type view. They frequently refer to places like New York and London. They clearly recognize that Berlin is in the top echelon by reputation in the global art world and don’t hesitate to act like it (though they candidly recognize Berlin’s weaknesses).

How does this play out elsewhere? I do think there are certain industries that are extremely centralized. Art and fashion are two of those. There are only real commercial markets in a handful of places. So while secondary cities can perhaps attract more artists and creatives than they did in the past (just as they have more coffee shops than they did back in the 80s or 90s, for example), building a real economy out of this will be extremely difficult. While this might seem insulting, the art would in a smaller city is to some extent scenery or decoration, not the integral part of the city and its economy that it is in Berlin.

This is probably doubly true since even in Berlin there’s no money in art. None of these people really make much of a living from it, except one person who seems to exhibit internationally. They all admit people in Berlin want cool stuff, but don’t want to pay for it. You need international representation to get paid. But what Berlin lacks economically, it makes up for in dirt cheap rents, abandoned buildings without clear title (even today), and an unmatched richness of interaction with other creatives.

I do think it’s fair to say that while perhaps the artists haven’t profited much from their work, the city has. The art scene and the techno scene (which seem very inter-related) have put Berlin on the map and drive huge tourism dollars. So I’m guessing the economic impact is much higher than direct art spending. However, having a collection of artists unmatched anywhere in the world has certainly not succeed in turning Berlin into an economic dynamo, and the city remains “poor but sexy” as its mayor once said.

In any case, if “creativity” is on your city’s agenda, then this is a much watch video. Also must-watch is Real Scenes: Berlin that I previously posted. That one is a nice complement that covers the rise of the techno scene and the reasons behind that.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Civic Branding, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Berlin

11 Responses to “Berlin: In the Belly of a Whale”

  1. John Morris says:

    I’m still only 5 minutes in but I haven’t seen one person who doesn’t look white or even non-German. I know the city attracts lots of artists from outside Germany too- I knew some New Yorkers who moved there. Even so, it doesn’t seem to be the full on creative “melting pot”. Immigrant communities seem culturally isolated as they are in most of Europe.

    A full on melting pot would also involve lots of creative people who are not “artists”, in the strict sense.

    Still watching.

  2. John Morris says:

    Just past 13 minutes and the first non-white – a street drummer passes by- then on to the German artists again.

  3. John Morris says:

    I watched the entire piece and aside from references to Turkish building owners and a few multi-ethnic models, the entire video is comprised of white Germans.

    I think the scene is actually slightly more diverse than it looks here. One can’t help feeling like the filmmakers tapped into a very limited number of personal connections to find interview subjects. Notice how similar the aesthetics of many of the artists and designers. One gets that type of ambient group think in the NY scene as well.

    Don’t get me wrong, NYC’s “diverse” art scene seems dominated by white kids wealthy enough to have afforded art school but the overall scene is much more diverse than this.
    At least one artist admits, Berlin is not really a global city. Most immigrants are a separate underclass- or at least not culturally connected.

    One is struck by the absence of even other Europeans. Wasn’t the EU expected to enable free movement and wider migration within Europe? Where are the British, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and French artists? One person refers to Polish artists in Berlin.

    Anyway, the basic message repeated over, and over again is that many, if not most creatives crave affordable housing and work space and and the opportunity in free environments open to collaboration. In spite of this, most cities go out of their way to tear down or undermine really creative places.

    The reason Berlin has never become a major place to sell art is related to a series of laws like Droite de Suite (mandatory artist re-sale royalties) which have discouraged major galleries and auction houses.

    I know less about German law than French but many European countries also have a habit of declaring important works “national treasures”, banning transport out of the country. Since many dealers, get a lot of their income from the secondary market in established artist’s work, this is also a big barrier. It also makes it crazy for very famous artists to keep on making work in a country in which their best work might be kept off the global market.

    We can add on a number of luxury taxes etc all of which ultimately hurt the poor artists at the bottom of the food chain.

  4. John Morris says:

    BTW, I’m pretty sure one “cool” urban mural they show is by the Brazilian street artist team known as Os Gemeos who have a big mural on west 20th street in NYC and a bunch of works in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Shows how ubiquitous and international many of these artists are and how media savvy. Clearly most works are in the “hip” places where they will be seen, tweeted & instagrammed by the “right people”.

    Clearly, Berlin rated as one of the important places they should put up work.

  5. John Morris says:

    Yes- at 18:11 they show a mural by Os Gemeos.

    Hiptopias around the world all tend to blend together.

  6. Giulietta says:

    “Given that Berlin has attracted more artists than any any city in the world, it’s a case study worth looking at if you plan to try attracting any sort of creative base.”

    I hope you are not suggesting that this ‘talking heads piece’ is in any way going to help another city figure out how to build a creative base? The only pointer given (over and over) is cheap accommodation.

    I very much agree with John Morris’ point about the filmmakers tapping into a small circle of their friends and thereby not accurately reflecting the world of art in Berlin. Different age groups are not canvassed, neither are enough women.

  7. John Morris says:

    I sort of disagree. This video can offer valuable tips, not so much on how to develop creative scenes as much as instruction on what not to do.

    How many seemingly amazing organic districts like Pittsburgh’s Hill District or Newark’s Central Ward were destroyed by people who wanted to remove anything ugly, gritty or unplanned without any interest in the life under their upturned noses.

    The amazing thing about Berlin’s scene is that most of the leaders of Germany, if provided enough money would have torn down the post industrial districts where the artists took root.

  8. John Morris says:

    I hope some people with extensive knowledge of Berlin’s art scene comment. I don’t know how representative this small number of interviews are. Art can be a very private activity. My guess is this may represent some of the crowd that is more active in exhibiting & participating. Under the surface lies a much larger group of people who lack the social skills, confidence or connections to even be found. Add to this, likely language barriers. How many of the Polish artists alluded to, speak good German? Do many Germans speak Polish?

    Still, the basic truths spoken over and over about the need for affordable space and lots of other artists are absolutely true, as is the fact that one can support a good scene with very little cash or a great local market.

    Perspectives from art world figures like curators & gallerists outside Berlin would have helped. Why do they think the city has not developed a better market? Why hasn’t Berlin better leveraged this energy in fields like film or fashion?

    Much more video outside on the streets would also help.

  9. John, I know you’re an artist, so thanks for the expert insights.

  10. John Morris says:

    When cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland rushed to tear down former industrial districts they closed the door Berlin style redevelopment on a huge scale.

    I’m sure you have seen the 1960 vs Today before and after gif of Cleveland’s warehouse district.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    Caveat: I know nothing about the Berlin arts scene.

    I think the main story here is that Berlin is a deindustrialized East German city with East German unemployment levels. High unemployment means housing is affordable, so for people who don’t make a lot of money it’s attractive. The government has been trying to turn it into a Great Capital, but the wealth and growth are still in Frankfurt and Munich. It’s the same story with Portland: it’s an affordable alternative to San Francisco because it’s a poorer city.

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