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Down and Out in All the Wrong Places (Berlin 2010)

When I was asked to write about “Berlin in the nineties,” the quest for the “postcapitalist self,” and the idea of “queering the economy,” my gut idea was to contribute a text titled “How We Fucked It All Up.” But I soon realized that in this particular context, the term “we” was rather problematic, and might have further confused a discussion that seemed to me quite conceptually precarious already. This context is not just the highly heterogeneous mesh of critical initiatives in and around art and politics as they existed in Berlin around 1995 (whose highest virtue, in retrospect, may have been their fierce mutual ignorance), but also the Berlin Biennale of 2010, and the fuzzy sense of place, time, and bedfellowship it seems to generate among its participants and audiences. So I decided to bet on the first-person singular with the hope that this person is not so deeply invested in the history that is being rewritten here.

I moved to Berlin in early 1994. Even though friends who came earlier, whether in 1979 or 1991, would have argued that everything was over by then, Ariane Müller, who moved in one year later, recently reminded me that it was still a period in which one would never leave the city for more then ten days, since so much was happening that it would have been impossible to catch up on any of it. And I realized that this was an accurate description, not just a shared illusion, since not only did I recall having the exact same impression, but I also knew that I didn’t know her back then, and was doing entirely unrelated things in completely different fields. I only realized much later that I had been surrounded by artists the whole time, but had simply mistaken them for people running bars, since, after all, that’s what most of them were doing. It didn’t take long to develop a precise and irreversible sense of what a club should be like. The only door policy was finding the door, audiences were mostly domestic and regular, the producer/consumer hierarchy had been flattened to the difference in height between a bar and a bar stool, a popular misreading of Deleuze and Guattari had led to the abolishment of all stages, and while one would rarely enter a conversation that didn’t go somewhere consequential, there was hardly any business to be done, since what was being sought and offered in these places was transparency, much more than distinction.

I’ve thought about this configuration a great deal recently, when thinking about cities in Southern and Western Asia, the few artist collectives there, the even more unlikely non-elitist and self-organized ones, the rare attempts at creating spaces just for themselves, the instant international recognition they get from curators, the predictable way in which the first biennial usually tears them apart, the irreversible centrifugal energy when they partition (typically along the lines of class, caste, gender, or passport) into frequent and not-so-frequent flyers, and how fortunate, in contrast, the situation had been in Berlin in the nineties, when a few people got a bit of time, and space, to just find out and repeat and refine what they were doing, on their own terms. (As Godard said about the Nouvelle Vague: We were just three or four people who spoke with each other, but that was enough to make a difference, to give us a lead of about half a year, and this lead we would always retain.) Not only were there no curators, there wasn’t even any press yet. Word had it that pop music and youth culture were dead, but the German feuilletons had so far been unsuccessful in locating their corpses. Those were the days, and the crackers at Universal weren’t even playing yet.

Like many West Germans, I had moved to Berlin to “go to university,” which didn’t mean to go to university much, and I never went back after the student strike of 1997–98, when my fellow students turned from ghosts into zombies, proudly mobilizing what they thought were their memories of past revolts, while all they had in mind was to demand more efficiency from the collapsing educational bureaucracies. This was at a time when Pisa and Bologna were just cities in Italy. I spent half a semester trying to write a text that would top “On the Poverty of Student Life,” and then, since getting anything larger than an MP3 online was still not practical, went on to produce a three-hour VHS version of “The Society of the Spectacle,” in full ignorance of the original film. While, in retrospect, the remake included a number of close matches, and maybe even the occasional improvement, I don’t feel much nostalgia for the futile exercises of the pre-Napster era. The internet was slowly getting better (even though everyone was busy lamenting the sellout to the dot-coms), Nettime had become the most splendid academic ad-hoc network on the face of the planet, and with regards to local brick-and-mortar institutions, there were still enough bars, clubs, and storefronts that no university would have had the means to compete with them.

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