Globe

With its unique culture, Berlin a magnet for artists from around the world

February 24, 2013

By DAISUKE IGARASHI/ The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

It was the final night of the year, and I was wandering past upscale boutiques lining the streets of Mitte, a central district in what used to be East Berlin.

There, I came across a procession of 50 or so slightly intoxicated young people who greeted me with shouts of “Happy New Year.”

Guided by posters plastered throughout the city, the group, beer bottles in hand, was on its way to a New Year’s Eve party.

Personified by techno electronic dance music, Berlin boasts a thriving club culture. It has about 300 clubs, including one in a reconstructed swimming pool and another that occupies an old Western-style house.

“There are jazz and swing clubs that have been around since the 1920s; the city’s culture is centered on music. After the war Berlin was occupied by the Americans, British, French and Soviets, and a new musical culture was born,” explained Jan Kühn, 32, a DJ and doctoral student doing research on Berlin’s techno scene.

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the city’s youth began to arbitrarily hold parties in unused buildings located in East Berlin. The scene is said to have swung into full gear in the 1990s. Taking advantage of discounted airline tickets, the 2000s saw an increase in youth coming from Spain, Britain and other countries in Europe for short-term visits.

Berlin’s youth culture is not limited to techno music. Walking the streets reveals a preponderance of graffiti art.

The entire wall of one brick building in the Kreuzberg district, home to many Turkish immigrants, is covered with the picture of a man in a white shirt and necktie who has expensive-looking gold watches on both his wrists. His arms are also bound together with chains of gold.

“The painting is a satirical representation that means even if you get rich you are still bound by time and social status,” explained Martin Gegenheimer, 33, who works at the museum of youth culture.

Drawing graffiti without permission is illegal, and the police department has a specialized division cracking down on the practice. Even so, many people show a certain appreciation for the art.

“Art painted throughout the city is symbolic of Berlin. Some tourists come with the specific intention of seeing it., I think it’s fine,” said a female employee working in a boutique.

Berlin is also a poor city. Gross domestic product per capita is about 60 percent of the German average. There are few major corporations and the unemployment rate, at 12 percent, is double the national average.

On the other hand, rent is cheaper. According to Deloitte, a professional services firm, the price per square foot of a newly built residence is about one-third that of Paris, and also about 30 percent cheaper than in London or Rome.

Hip hop artist Akim Walta, 42, said, “Berlin is like an island floating in the middle of former East Germany. It’s poor and prices are cheap; and, overflowing with ideas, it attracts artists from both inside and outside the country.”

Kazuhito Habu, 46, who operates a music label based in Berlin, said, “If you are in Berlin you can meet artists from around the world. It’s like London in the ’70s and ’80s.” He said the number of young artists from Spain and Greece is also increasing.

In 2007, Walta opened a training center in a residential area of former East Berlin for young artists seeking independence. He provides a studio and teaches various arts such as dance and painting.

However, with the German economy continuing to perform well, land prices in Berlin are starting to rise. Even in former East Berlin, rents are rising steeply due to redevelopment over the last few years, and artists have begun moving to other areas.

Many of the city’s residents repeated the words of governing Mayor Klaus Wowereit, “Berlin is poor, but it’s sexy.” One has to wonder what kind of city it will be 10 years from now.

HAVEN FOR HACKERS

Germany, home to the likes of global electronics powerhouse Siemens and major software and solution services company SAP, is the largest IT market in Europe. It is also home to an active hacker community leveraging its computer knowledge and skill.

Toward the end of December 2012, I visited Hamburg in northern Germany. In a rather spacious event hall dubiously lit with cheap and sleazy ornamental lighting in various colors, young men could be found hunched over laptop computers. Amid the throngs dressed predominately in black, young people with hair dyed orange and pink would occasionally pass by.

The first words out of the mouth of a man wearing a black shirt and working the entrance desk were a warning: “When taking pictures, be sure to get permission from anyone whose face is shown.”

I was attending the annual congress of the German-based Chaos Computer Club (CCC), said to be Europe’s largest hacker club. The congress, which was being held for the 29th time, attracts thousands of hackers from both inside and outside Germany.

Over four days, more than 100 presentations and workshops were held. The majority of topics dealt with computer technology and how to use it, for example, to share information while avoiding government censorship. However, there were also plenty of sessions on the theme of “How to engage society and government.”

“I can listen to interesting lectures and directly meet with people I have met on the Internet. Just being here is fun,” said Nick Zbinden, 22, who works for a Berlin-based start-up.

Sporting shoulder-length hair and dressed in a gray T-shirt, Nick added: “Hackers are people who work to clarify and skillfully steer complex phenomenon present in society and the Internet. The media predominantly paints a bad image of hackers. However, the members of CCC are using their skills in a good way.”

As if in support of this claim, during a workshop nearby, I saw a young boy soldering electronic circuits with his father.

CCC was founded in 1981 when Berlin was still divided between east and west. Initially, membership was comprised of about 10 computer enthusiasts. The club states it advocates “transparency” and “freedom of the Internet,” while opposing the use of political power to control information.

Pointing out security flaws with government agency networks and such, the club’s visibility has slowly been increasing.

In 2011, the club generated considerable publicity when it revealed that government agencies were using spyware for surveillance purposes. At that time, Der Spiegel magazine published a comment from the government’s public relations office stating, “Chancellor Angela Merkel was taking the CCC’s allegations very seriously.”

Constanze Kurz, 38, a spokesman for the club, said: “Our thinking is different from hackers who engage in criminal activity. In Germany, hackers are thought of in a comparatively positive manner.”

Recently, hackers have begun to involve themselves in real politics. The Pirate Party of Germany is a movement representative of this trend. The “Pirates,” who seek transparency in government and free access to government data, were established in 2006. The party currently has about 35,000 supporters, of which 1,500 are CCC members. In local assembly elections in 2011, the party seated 15 lawmakers in Berlin’s House of Representatives (Abgeordnetenhaus of Berlin). The leader of the Pirates, Bernd Schlömer, 41, who made an appearance at the CCC congress, said, “We have many highly educated young supporters who have a strong desire to participate in society’s decision-making process.”

Sven Becker, 30, a journalist with Der Spiegel who has been covering the Pirate Party, explained: “Their influence on the Internet society is increasing. They say matters can no longer be entrusted to older-generation politicians who do not understand things like smartphones and IT technology. The party is an embodiment of the younger generation’s consciousness.”

IT start-ups are a growing presence in Berlin. “Hackers who start business are probably seen as being ‘cool,’” added Becker.

By DAISUKE IGARASHI/ The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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Graffiti in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, which is home to many Turkish immigrants. This painting, the work of artists from a range of countries, including Germany, Brazil, Italy and Japan, incorporates a satirical message. (Photo: Daisuke Igarashi)

Graffiti in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, which is home to many Turkish immigrants. This painting, the work of artists from a range of countries, including Germany, Brazil, Italy and Japan, incorporates a satirical message. (Photo: Daisuke Igarashi)

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  • Graffiti in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, which is home to many Turkish immigrants. This painting, the work of artists from a range of countries, including Germany, Brazil, Italy and Japan, incorporates a satirical message. (Photo: Daisuke Igarashi)
  • Graffiti art in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin (Photo: Daisuke Igarashi)
  • Graffiti art in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin (Photo: Daisuke Igarashi)
  • Graffiti art in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin (Photo: Daisuke Igarashi)
  • Hackers at the CCC congress (Photo: Daisuke Igarashi)

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