A longer period has already passed since the Anti-Fascist Protection Wall – official name used by GDR authorities – or Wall of Shame – a term originated by Willy Brandt and used by the majority of Germans – has been torn down, than it stood firmly erected. At least symbolically, because most of it was physically removed by the end of 1992. So, this year Berlin is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the crucial event in its post-war history. Night footages taken from space are still capturing more light west from the former borderline.
The City-state and new-old capital doesn’t actually fit into usual stereotypes about German efficiency. A few years ago, in a slightly pathetic gesture liberal media declared it as classical example of a failed state. Indeed, with its level of wealth below the national average it is a pretty unusual exception compared to other European capitals. Complicated administration, huge public debt, poor results in its primary public education system, relatively high crime, unemployment and poverty rates, etc… causes are intertwined with consequences, while Berlin is benefiting from the federal funds established for balanced development.
But there are always two sides to the story. Out of context, statistical surveys are only one of the possible approaches to contradictions of reality. Besides, positive trends are emerging throughout public finance and the local economy as a whole. The number of touristic visits to the city is increasing almost constantly since the beginning of the nineties, doubling in the last decade alone – together with London and Paris, Berlin became a European top destination. Public and private companies gradually moved their headquarters and factories back to the city, many powerful corporate players are residing there again. The local Startup scene, something regarded like an omnipresent panacea of our days, is growing rapidly. With the influx of federal and corporate capital, revitalized power heavily marked its presence in the urban landscape. While the construction fever of the nineties was concentrated on the district Mitte, the recent boom is spreading diffusely throughout the city. Relaxed Berlin, a speculative playground – the word of the day is gentrification.
When the heavily indebted city’s officials decided to privatize large and rusty parts of land laying along the Spree river, where the former Cold War border was dividing the city, many expected another glass skyscraper to be erected. Instead of that, the city opted for a project with an alternative vision of urban development. Supported by Swiss capital, in the heart of the Fridrichshain-Kreuzberg district, with the motto nature, economy and culture, the Holzmarkt was opened nearly two years ago. Lead by one main organization there are different educational, cultural, communal and commercial contents to be found joined under one roof. But its long-term financial sustainability depends upon something that was intended from the very beginning – spacial and contextual expansion. And it is not clear whether the city’s authorities still support that idea. The future of the whole project is uncertain.
Silber&Salz gallery was opened nearby while the Holzmarkt was still under construction and today is a part of it. It is run by photographer Chris Schmidt. He adapted an overseas container into an exhibition space and hosted over twenty (mostly photo) exhibitions. Vanishing Berlin: Dokumente des Übergangs/Documents of transition, the latest exhibition which was recently concluded, showed a selection of photographs taken by Alexander Steffen (1967).
The author was born and raised in West-Berlin. He studied political science at the Free University of Berlin. In the late eighties and early nineties he was trained at Dirk Nishen, a publishing house specialized in photography. At the beginning of the century he was running transition gallery, connected to the famous SO36 club. Since 2009 he has been working on his Vanishing Berlin project. First exclusively presented on his private blog, in the meantime his photographs are shown at dozens of exhibitions. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, he managed to publish two bilingual editions (750 copies each) of his book under the same title (still available online).
Every city is kind of a palimpsest; manuscripts of Berlin are gathered in a especially stark contrasts. Golden and Iron ages, imaginarium of the mature culture divides them deeply. While we can be relatively confident about the reaches of the glorious Twenties, the evaluation of the Nineties is not so clear. A view on our own present, marked with ongoing conflicts, is always blurred. Photographs of Alexander Steffen, which he unpretentiously calls documents, are giving us insight into the city after (at least partially and at least temporary) consumed utopia, at the edge of fierce campaign of creativedestruction. With all topical and technical discrepancies taken into account, a clear concept and a permanent obsession with empty cities put his work in line with the tradition we are familiar with since the Atget era. His photographs, along with the channels he is using to present them, are actually subverting Flussers programmed magic of images. Yet, Alexander Steffen puts more confidence into – words.
We talked with the author about growing up in a divided city, the underground scene at the end of the century and especially about his long-term photo project.
Your fascination with wastelands, it goes back to your childhood, when ‚the whole city was a wasteland‘?
There is an ironic joke I make very often – “we – the West-Berliners – have been the imprisoned”. Because the East-Berliners had always the possibility to go to the countryside, the lakes, the woods which surrounded East Berlin. As a child I had to travel five or six hours on a bumpy road by car if I wanted to go somewhere else than Grunewald or Wannsee. But I didn’t feel like being trapped. For me Berlin was always the center of the universe. I didn’t suffer from being surrounded by the wall, but that’s the reason why it took so long until the city prospered. In the Eighties nobody was investing here, people were afraid to come here, Germans, but even more so Americans. Only the very brave ones would come here. The city was very provincial, dark and dirty. Everybody had coal heating – central heating is a very new phenomenon for the city – that’s one of the reasons why it was so dirty and quite smelly. My childhood memories are full of ruins and wastelands. Near Nollendorfplatz, where I grew up, you had all these huge empty spaces where basically nothing was going on. Those kind of places were my adventure-playground. You could never know who is approaching you in the middle of nowhere. It happened quite often that some kids would give me a hard time, beat me up or steal my bike. But I would never give up going out on the street alone. I spent much of my childhood on my bicycle exploring my neighborhood. I was always attracted by that kind of dodgy spaces, they influenced the way I perceive the city.
The divided city was a clearly defined playground, were you hoping that the wall will disappear?
It was so hard for my mother to explain the political situation, as it was totally abstract to me. It took me a long time to understand, but I was not walking around thinking that this wall will come down one day. Never. I didn’t care about it, as I was feeling quite comfortable with the situation. It was interesting, it was something special. I remember, I once did Interrail and we got stuck at some station in Portugal and needed to spend the night there with a group of twenty young people. And the moment I said ‚I am from Berlin‘, I got all the attention. Wherever I went people were hanging on my lips and they wanted to listen to stories from world famous Berlin. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy that the wall is gone. But while I was growing up, it was cool to be connected to this divided city. It still is, but that will disappear one day.
Politically and economically the city was deep province, but it had a strong cultural scene, especially in the underground – when politics steps aside, culture comes in, and those two often can’t go together?
It has always been like that and still is. During the late Seventies and the Eighties there was a big underground scene in Berlin. But being a late bloomer, I was not really part of it. The next big movement was across this whole techno ‘thing’ after the wall came down. This was something that influenced me and my views on the city very much. For a couple of years it was just total freedom, you could do whatever you want because nobody cared… Whatever building you wanted, you could say, ‚yes, I take it over for a while‘ and there was nobody giving you a hard time about that. It was very much laissez-faire. Enough space for everybody.
There where enough empty spaces, especially in the East I guess, but it was also possible because of general euphoric atmosphere?
I think the whole techno thing did a lot in terms of the reunification of East and West, because in these clubs nobody cared where you came from. Many people from East Berlin, East Germany, from Hungary, from all these eastern countries participated, and joined what has started in places like Manchester or Detroit. But even in the microcosmos of former West-Berlin it was interesting to watch what was going on. Suddenly you could see people coming to a club like Tresor who have never been to a disco before. Everybody was curious and wanted to be part of this thing. And the music was so different, it destroyed all those subcultural differences that existed in the Eighties. It was new for everybody.
More precise, which period we are talking about? Could we still find some echoes of the energy that was deliberated back then?
It started immediately after the fall of the wall, there have been some techno parties even before but that was very much underground back then. Sven von Thülen wrote a very good book about the subject. He made a series of interesting interviews with the most influential DJ’s and club owners, etc. and then he edited it in a way that it feels almost like reading a novel. I think one generation participated, more or less. It is still present in a way, if we are talking about music and lifestyle, but some crucial parts are gone. The atmosphere and places are not there anymore, at least not in the city centre. Now Techno has become museumsreif, part of the past. There is a big multimedial exhibition about the Nineties. I haven’t been there yet, because I am afraid it’s going to be really cheesy. Such an exhibition is a sign that it is over, the revolution is eating itself. Now we have people coming here to buy properties, and they feel disturbed by the club downstairs. Those are the people who have been attracted to come to Berlin because of that history. And now, maybe without even realizing, they are destroying the essence of the city. But it’s not only a Berlin phenomenon, it is something that is going wherever you go right now.
Your interest in photography, where does it come from and how was it realized in the earlier stages?
I started taking photographs since the age of eight or ten. My first camera was a Ritsch-Ratsch-Klick! – Agfamatic 4000. After that I had a polaroid camera to play around with. Since my late high school years I took it more serious. I was shooting in black & white and did the prints myself in a photo-lab I shared with a friend. In 1988 I started working at Verlag Dirk Nishen which was specialized in historic and contemporary photography as a trainee. I was working in sales & marketing before I got more into editing. In 1994 I edited the book “William S. Burroughs – A photo diary” which marked the peak and at the same time the end of my career at Dirk Nishen. The working experience inspired me and got me closer to photography but at the same time I was taking less pictures myself – maybe out of respect for the masters I was confronted with. But it gave me confidence in being an all-rounder and skills on publishing of course.
For a few years you were running a gallery called transition, how did it influence your later work?
It all started with the opportunity to rent a small shop connected to the legendary SO36 on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg. I inspected the place with my student friend Friedhelm Böpple and we decided that this looks like a perfect space for a gallery. We did not have a clue about art but we started it anyways. transition sounded like a good name. We called up some artist friends for advice. In the beginning it worked like a collective gallery, everybody involved wanted to do basically his or her own exhibition. My companion and I, we’ve been like the spin doctors, trying to get them going, write press releases, do the website. It worked out quite fine, after a while we had a big fan base. It was always crowded when we did something. I think the name was very good, it reflected the concept of not having a concept, and different topics and medias sounded good ‚in transition‘. We tried to be on the move the whole time and to be open to all different kind of thoughts and art forms. We did exhibitions but also readings, talks, parties, theater, etc in our own location but also in different venues around the city. Money was of course always an issue, but not really our motivation in those days. I learned a lot during these years, I made a lot of connections and I studied how people do it. After six very intense years it was over and at least we closed the experiment down without any debt.
Today I feel great relief that I switched sides. I am not confronted with unrealistic demands of eccentric artists anymore. No more endless discussion with my partner or my colleagues. It was very liberating for me to have the opportunity to organize my project in the way I want to. I do not depend on anybody else’s decisions. That is something that I was looking for for a long time. And last but not least – I am dealing with something I have done myself.
The idea for your project came to you in New York?
Yes, it was more or less ten years ago. Wherever I go, I am attracted to areas which are not tidy and all set up, which are not so easy to adapt. It was hard to find wastelands in NY ten years ago. Some have been left in Harlem. But for the storefront theme, I was inspired by an exhibition and a book of photographers who documented vanishing storefronts of New York, of all these family run, mom and pop shops and boutiques.
Initially, you wanted to document some places from your childhood, explore the city?
In the beginning it was more random. I photographed places which attracted me, I wanted to remind myself of things I should keep in mind. It was about strolling the city, having a reason to go to places where I have never been before. I didn’t even take a camera all the time. When I started noticing the city is changing so fast, I got much more disciplined. I am not a full time photographer, I still use a small digital camera which is fitting in my pocket, but I am faster and I am planning more than I used to. I feel that the positive feedback I get from many people is because they can sense that my book took a while to create and that the photographs were taken by someone who has a real connection to the city. That’s what makes the difference.
Storefronts, wastelands, brickwalls with graffiti street art – what is connection between your motifs?
All of them are disappearing. In a way, I am trying to save it, to keep it alive.
What is behind the storefronts that you are taking photographs of?
Most of them are family run businesses, most of them have a long tradition. There is history behind that, you can feel that there are many stories connected to this very place.
Photographed objects you were using as an exhibition space, what was the aim?
My exhibition concept “Vanishing Berlin: revisited” is simply to try to get a hold of one of these abandoned shops for two or three weeks to do a show in there and then leave again. This is about bringing the history of that place back to the present. It worked out perfectly in the two cases I did so far. The exhibition at “Pudel Salon” was the most successful thing I have done so far. 300+ people came to the opening. Most of them I have never seen before or after, neighbors coming around because they have been so curious to get inside this shop, which was closed for ten years. The lady who was running the “Pudel Salon” for forty years is still living in the same building. She came over and was kind of the star of that exhibition. While we were preparing the space, we found a lot of material, some of it from the pre-wall period, and it was also shown in the exhibition. Like a sign for „Anandrüsenreinigung“ für 8 Mark. It was ordered quite often during the opening. The glass sign is very unusual and also funny in a contemporary context. Now there is a family living there, they love the sign and they want to preserve it, they would never sell it.
Some neon signs with specific typography (Korsett Engelke) that you photographed already ended up in Buchstabenmuseum. Neon signs could be seen as a part of a cultural heritage?
I just think they are very beautiful, very appealing to me. I hardly use maps, I am very bad with street names, I always go for the signs at the street corners. They give you focus during a stroll, this is the way I navigate through the city. They are very important to me. Now they are disappearing and maybe that is ok, just a change of time. But I am really disappointed by the ugly plastic banners which are replacing them.
Wastelands are not only kind of a physical space, but also a concept, connected with a notion of freedom and the potentials of open future?
Yes, freedom is the right term. It’s freedom in a sense that there is room and space for interpretation and imagination. But also freedom in a sense that you actually can go there and do whatever you want without being disturbed. Today, most of these places are fenced unfortunately. They show you this is a private property and basically you have to ask somebody for permission to enter that property. The cityscape of Berlin was very much influenced by not having these fences. It was just open space. Old industrial buildings with big wastelands surrounding them. I think it is beautiful, I like it very much. It’s not clear, who you could meet, what could happen to you. Sometimes when I climb up and down those fences these days, I think about that.
Berlin is in the middle of normalization, it is becoming like other German centers?
Berlin has become a magnet for tourists. I think this is one very crucial thing which happened. Investing in property is one of the best ways to earn money at the moment. You can go wherever you want, at least inside the Ringbahn, and the prices are rising to the sky. When I started the project in 2009, the whole city was still sleeping. Of course, property has been sold and resold, the whole process of speculation already started. But as somebody who lived here, you couldn’t see it. It was still a wasteland. They had no reason to build anything because they could just wait and make money. This whole process of brutal gentrification as it’s going on right now started a few years later. In that sense, I caught a very good moment to present the Vanishing Berlin book/project. It was not why I started it, but during the creation process these issues became really big. The book and the whole project is much more successful than I ever expected. At the exhibitions you can feel that parts of the audience are sentimentalist, my good old Berlin. The other part is taking my pictures as a starting point to talk about their current situation as part of a broader perspective. The question is how to get out of this trap many other cities have been going into. We have a very progressive government in Berlin right now. But the funny part is that the same progressive forces/parties were selling all the public property ten or twelve years ago.
In retrospect, I believe the whole techno movement had a very political aspect, but on the other hand, they missed the moment to come out of this party bubble and take responsibility for what is going on in their city. They should paid better attention, so they wouldn’t feel the consequences of their actions as they are unfolding now. Since the fall of the Wall the Berlin senate sold almost 200.000 flats to private investors. From today’s perspective for ridiculous prices. And now, more or less the same political parties are trying to buy these properties back. They made a really bad deal. On the other hand, I am still hoping (I don’t know if this is realistic) that maybe Berlin is brave enough to not just follow the path of London and New York. The people of Berlin and the government should be more confident in developing a sustainable vision of the city they want to live in. Alternatives are growing, maybe now is a critical point where we should try and join them. Genossenschaften, properties run by communities, without any interest in profit or private ownership have been very strong in Berlin during the Twenties. This sector is still very much underestimated. Now we have politicians who seriously compete with investors to buy back properties to protect the tenants. This is something that wasn’t possible twenty years ago. And since a couple of weeks you have a discussion wheter it’s a good idea to disappropriate the biggest cooperative tenants. Last weekend there where around 40.000 people demonstrating for a new deal for rents. Berlin should definetely lead this movement and try to really change the status quo.
It’s a normal thing for a city to be changed; as you stated before, you are not nostalgic, but the question is ‚who is building what and for whom‘?
Of course, it has to change. The city is growing, we need more flats, and people must invest money here. But I don’t have the feeling that there is a good masterplan or clear priorities. A city where only a certain bubble is allowed to live because others cannot afford the rent prices is not my definition of a city.
And if you look at the architecture, for example across the East Side Gallery, this is really offending me. If they have to build office houses and shopping malls, even though we already have 70 of them, they should at least try it with brave architecture as a contribution to the city. Instead of new landmarks it looks like LEGO, many of the new buildings, even of big international companies are just mediocre. If this continues it will definitively extremely change the shape of the city in a bad way.
Did the former eastern part of the city change more radically after the unification?
In the beginning everybody was talking about Mitte, maybe it was about finding a center, because it’s special thing about Berlin, it doesn’t have a center. Now you have construction sites all over the city. But the former eastern part definitely changed much faster. In a way it’s symbolic for the way the whole reunification was managed, where the East was taken over by the West.
Officially, it’s unification, not occupation…
Yeah, but the way they managed it… Many East Germans got the feeling that they have been occupied by the western lifestyle. I think it’s one of the reasons for the big rise of the far-right parties in Germany. Besides Ampelmännchen, there is not much which was taken over from East German society. In every sense, the West was convinced that we pretty much solved our problems already and that they gave East Germans the opportunity to move to a better system. They destroyed many industries because they haven’t been profitable any more. It was actually producing lots of these spaces, I like to stroll around today. I believe they tried to erase the past of East Germany as quickly as possible. That was one of the reasons why they took off the wall so fast. I don’t think it was a very smart idea. We could have left more pieces of that wall, now it’s almost impossible to see where it was. There was a big discussion about having some sort of pattern on the streets, to let everybody know that this city was divided. Back to your question… so, first Mitte, then Prenzlauer Berg, and now Friedrichshain, it’s much different.
You published the book after a successful crowdfunding campaign, you have been supported by people from different continents; you had a dozen of exhibitions, you are printing photographs on different kind of materials. Who are the usual recipients of your work?
The support I received during the campaign was very international. But I think all have some personal connection to Berlin. I got an invitation from the Goethe Institute in Taipei. They wanted me to come over and present my book. It didn’t work in the end because there was no budget, and I didn’t have the time.
But one thing is for sure, I sold most of the books in Berlin to Berliners. If I would do a marketing research (which I luckily don’t have to do), I would imagine the main target group is my age or even a little bit older. To be honest, if this would be the reach, it would be a little boring. The interesting thing is that many very young people are coming to the exhibitions as well. People araound twenty are very alert about whats going on at the moment in terms of politics.
In the book there are also a few intimately tuned stories. Do you think there is always something subversive in the photographs, left alone, something that goes beyond intended interpretations, or you just tried to give them a proper surrounding?
All texts are written by me, except one piece that was contributed by my gallery partner. These stories give you some insight about the guy who took the photographs and they give you some orientation. But they are not directly connected to the photographs. I am not taking pictures of typical landmarks, but places which are much more in the back of your mind; you may have seen it, but you are not sure where, or if they still exist. One very important decision we made for the book was that there are no captions underneath every photograph. Because if you do that, most of the people would react like ‚o, yeah, I know, it’s there and there‘. I think this way we created some unusual atmosphere.
On the exhibition was also presented a poster with some dada combination of words, part of which are appearing on a photographs, could you tell me something more about it?
Some people call me an artist now and it sounds nice, but I don’t feel like that. It’s not the way I would present myself. I haven’t made this step and I don’t know if I will ever do. It’s funny: At least I am a photographer now. There is a book out, I made many exhibitions, there are articles about my project. But on the other hand, I never learned it in a way I believe you need it to call yourself a photographer.
The poster is another story, this I think is definitively a piece of art. It was coming straight out of subconsciousness. It started with looking at the pictures and everything that is written on them. Then I mixed it with some individual mythology. It’s a very personal work. These are my memories, but they are not private anymore because it’s not something I kept for myself. There are people who can connect with that, it’s basically a tour to trigger some of their own memories about the city. It is a special, secret code. If somebody is interested in that work I am much more touched than with any of the photographs. The poster is much more intimate and I am giving away much more.
It could be said that it is list of key words of one (West)Berlin experience?
No, it’s not West. I thought about starting from West and then going to the East, but then I thought it’s stupid. There are some older memories from my childhood, but most of the things that were included are from the post-wall period. The wall is gone, I have lived on both sides and I want to bring them together. I don’t want to make this distinction anymore.
Do you have any final comments? Maybe something about the future of the project?
Berlin is a big city and you always reach new people, but I have done quite a lot shows already and I think it’s time to try to give the project an international scope. I would like to work with two or three other photographers who do the same kind of stuff in their cities and then make a group exhibition and try to go on tour.
I would like to do it with the same concept trying to find temporary spaces which are connected to the images. New York, Vienna, Hamburg, Croatia. I am very attracted to go to the eastern countries, like Poland and Hungary or Romania. Everybody is telling me I have to go to Belgrade, which is supposed to be the city for me. I don’t know why, I haven’t been there yet. I already made connections to New York, I met these people who inspired me, but they laughed at me when I said ‚we just rent an old shop for two weeks and do our own exhibition‘. It is too expensive to do it there without funding.
05-04-2019 slightly edited / originally published by Vizkultura (Croatia)