Writing about a city: Berlin

Berlin has a sort of Three Sisters resonance in my mind. I’m particularly envious of its international writing scene, with place writing and cultural heritage galore.

Readux Books has published six and a half little books/essays about Berlin –  four in its Berlin series and two in its Urban voids series. The half is Eliot Weinberger’s The wall, the city, and the world, a good chunk of which is set in Berlin.

While the books are beautifully designed and all, at $1.99 a snip I thought they would work well as ereading experiment. I’ve never been drawn to ebooks, with years of trying to scan needless PDFs leaving me a digital reading sceptic. As Julian Barnes says, “books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information”, definitely a work thing. Having purchased five I was left wondering what the e/book format really added to these short pieces – take out the prelims etc and you have a rather different proposition.

The Berlin series

The four essays in the Berlin series portray the city in the 1910s, 1920s, 1990s and the present day. The two early works, Cities and city people: Berlin 1919 (excerpt), by critic and literary historian Arthur Eloesser and translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and In Berlin: day and night in 1929 (excerpt), by Franz Hessel (“a Francophile intellectual who brought the concept of the flâneur to 1920s Berlin”) and translated by Readux’s Amanda DeMarco (update: Walking in Berlin, now rewalked), feel of their time, while the later two are rather more interesting.

Berlin TriptychBerlin triptych (excerpt), by David Wagner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, visits three Berlin locations in 1998/2000 and 2013: Friedrichstraße in the centre of the city, Schönhauser Allee in the east and Café M in the west. The text previously appeared in DW’s Mauer Park (2013; KD’s post), an update of his In Berlin (2001). For another excerpt see An ode to Mauerpark (translated by KD), and finally Welche Farbe hat Berlin (KD’s post), short pieces written between 2001 and 2011.

In May 2013, in one of her sadly missed Going Dutch with German writers series, KD and DW go for a walk, DW’s preferred mode of exploring the city. (KD: “The poor guy must get tired of going on walks with people who want to write about the experience, as he’s one of those great walker-writers everybody loves.”) This walk makes an appearance in Mauer Park, how fab.

For more David, see the interview on Deutsche Welle and listen to his episode as part of R4’s recent Reading Europe series (highlighting the “tourist streets” of the former East Berlin, marked by stands with postcards of romantic ruins and charming Modernist architecture; the seriousness of German literature, making translations especially from English popular; how Sebald’s emigrants are now being replaced by immigrants, which may mean that subject matter finally moves on from Die Wende). For more Katy as flâneuse see The shadowboxing woman, a site accompanying her 2011 translation of Inka Parei’s novel, with photos matched up with quotes.

The texts are perhaps rather too rooted in the place for non-Berliners, but the overall themes of transience and transformation, currently most often expressed as gentrification, explore how history makes the city anew:

[Mehringplatz] is a remnant of a time that felt over-zealously obliged to make everything new and do everything better. Each era gets the architecture it deserves: the circle is lined by a double row of residential bunkers.

Construction sites serve as a motif, with empty spaces and the gaps between buildings gradually filled in. What happens when these constructions start to be pulled down and replaced by something new? Will Berlin ever ‘find itself’ – is the city ever finished?

Actually we all miss something. Or it’s invented in retrospect. (source)

City of RumorIn City of rumor: the compulsion to write about Berlin (2013) “Gideon Lewis-Kraus struggles with the very act of putting anything about Berlin into words”. A fine entry in the expat writing canon!

Gideon Lewis-Kraus lived in Berlin for three years and City of rumor gives an account of his “shifting understanding” of the city, which finally took shape in the Berlin chapter of his first book, A sense of direction (2012), a travel memoir about pilgrimage and restlessness.

Katy Derbyshire has familiar issues:

A while ago I wrote about Anglophone visitors writing about Berlin and perpetuating a certain image of the place, those journalistic pieces citing budding microbrewery cultures and proclaiming that “nobody in Berlin” gets up before the afternoon. That’s a Berlin I have never really recognized. (source)

As it turned out she didn’t hate City of rumor at all: “it’s less an attempt to describe his version of Berlin than an exploration of his – and others’ – compulsion to do so”. We all see  a different Berlin and experience a place differently, even if some prefer a “fantasy life of a country”. It’s a question of ownership and home vs restlessness and exile.

The urban voids series

The urban voids series examines “the places that are marginal, ignored, vacant, or destroyed…walking their fraying edges, or probing the absences that lie at their centers”.

Suburban wonder: wandering the margins of Paris and A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the use of phantoms tackle Paris and are hence on my backburner of prejudice for now, while the third title is an English original, The idea of a river: walking out of Berlin (extract) by Paul Scraton, also to be found Under a grey sky and Elsewhere.

City SpacesCity spaces: filling in Berlin’s gaps, by Annett Gröschner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, “explores the lacunae at the heart of our city…the history of erasure, demolition and annihilation that has shaped the face of Berlin” with pieces taken from Parzelle Paradies (2008).

Pleasingly, AG can be found on t’Web described as Die Stadtführerin. Her other works include Mit der Linie 4 um die Welt (2012; Amazon; review | video), the result of riding bus/tram nr 4 to the end of the line in a series of cities (latest: Rotterdam), and two collaborations with photographer Arwed Messmer: The other view: the early Berlin Wall (2011) and Berlin, Fruchtstraße on March 27, 1952 (2012). Time to dust off my German reading skills. See also KD’s Going Dutch from December 2013 and Berlin: alienated city (trans: Katy Derbyshire; auf deutsch) in Slow Travel Berlin:

Gone are the coal trucks and the outside toilets, but also what fascinated me back then: the traces in and on the buildings, grown over each other in several layers, which told countless stories into which one could enter like Poe’s man in the crowd, wandering until one no longer knew were one was or how to get back. The traces have been obliterated, the old men and women with their memories as if swallowed up by the ground, all is the present…In some inner-city neighbourhoods, Berlin has already lost its diversity; the individualists all look the same.

So much for curated reading! The issues articulated and explored in the two series are just as valid in Copenhagen, if on a rather smaller and less striking scale. With a different mythology, Copenhagen seems to attract a different style of writing, an issue to explore further in 2016, along with an overdue return to Berlin.


B_Tours 2015: Berlin and Leipzig

2017 update: interesting post on how participation works

This year’s walking inspiration from Germany – see posts on B_Tour Berlin and Belgrade in 2014. Twitter: @b_tour_festival | Facebook.

B_Tour Berlin, now described as “a new hybrid form of public art that provide locals with a new perspective of their city and an opportunity to experience it differently”, ran from 26-28 June, with the theme of Re-placing the periphery. 

First up, B_Talk #1 around the festival theme:

The terms “center” and “periphery” are conceptual constructs denoting not only geographical but social, economic and cultural formations. Representatives of artistic and academic institutions will illustrate the challenges these conceptual constructs bear and present their approaches to creating new and thought-provoking conceptualizations of contemporary spaces. Which are their approaches to the problematization of the terms “periphery” and “center” and why is this extremely relevant to every and any city inhabitant?

Presented in cooperation with Ogino Knauss, who run a Re-centering Periphery project, working with VJing as a technique for creating open narratives and developing creative and critical ways to observe, describe and perform the city – see their work in Berlin.

Come in, Vestegnen and Udkantsdanmark!

Next, B_Talk #2 on  Touristification! New ideas for sustainable tourism:

Museum tours, “underground” or “alternative” tours and traditional sightseeing have become common day practices in most urban environments. This panel will investigate the more nuanced effects of tourism on the city. How does tourism and touristification impact spaces, people and local culture? B_Talk #2 will look at the ways in which tourism can become a more sustainable practice and what could be the role of artistic interventions in redefining and challenging touristic practices.

This is of interest due to the increasing #touristification of Copenhagen, lapped up on all sides at the moment, but fashions change. Plus is there an element of benign ‘Nordicism’ at play? I don’t identify with this fairy tale city, nor does much of the imagery reflect the two thirds of the population who don’t live in the capital (back to B_Talk #1). See too Leipzig’s Hipster Walk (below) – lovely Leipzig has now made it as far as the Guardian’s Alternative Europe series.

See this Barcelona story and Nana Rebhan’s documentary Welcome Goodbye:

15 tours in Berlin, including:

  • Eat the wall – foraging on bikes with two Danes who have MAs in Rhetoric and German studies from KU; see interview
  • Mapping stories on the Ringbahn – “during a 37.5 km journey participants are invited to share their personal memories of, and imagined fantasies about, the stops along the way; these intimate offerings will determine the route of the tour and will be collected and edited into a textual atlas of the city”; see interview
  • Plattenbautour (review) – “The ‘Plattenbau’ has a bad reputation. It is perceived as anonymous and boring. The names of individual Plattenbauten seem almost scientific – PH16, WBS70, M10, Q3A –  yet people live in them and call these strange architectural forms home. How do people turn concrete jungles into liveable spaces? What are the small scale, but crucial, techniques they use to bend the alienating into something familiar?…Boring was never so exciting.”
  • A sesnsual expedition to urban voids –  the hidden magic of linear district heating pipes, abandoned industrial landmarks and community gardens within GDR housing blocks
  • Shadow – seen this before, several times; “After a brief exchange of text messages at the beginning of the tour, the participant will find themselves setting out on an adventure in the footsteps of a stranger. At the end there will be a meeting and a surprise. Bring an open mind, curiosity and a phone.”

No B_Tour Belgrade this year, but instead we have B_Tour Leipzig in cooperation with Tanzarchiv Leipzig, from 2-12 July with the theme of movement in urban space, reflecting on current perspectives of city development and stories of public spaces in Leipzig.

13 tours, including, although pretty much all of them are inspiring:

  • Ghost Tracks: Karl-Heine-Straße – the hidden tracks of the urban space, traces left in the present by ghosts from the past and the future; the audience is led through the so called “booming districts“ of Plagwitz and Lindenau via a GPS-based audio tour
  • Kaufhaus Ury – performative installation, reconstructing the ground plans of what was once Leipzig’s biggest department store owned by a Jewish family
  • Hipster Walk – some people call Leipzig ”the better Berlin“ while others have used the terms ”Hypezig” and ”Likezig”; the walk brings a literary, ironic perspective to the notion and status of ”hype” districts and streets which no longer lie on the periphery of public awareness; available via Talk Walks
  • The Living Boundary – “The airport is the ultimate symbol of the modern world. It is an inbetween space that represents the contemporary hunger for speed and information. Kursdorf is an island of memories, nostalgia and dreams hidden behind the highway noise barrier at the edge of the Leipzig/Halle Airport.”
  • The Monday Walks – follows the Leipzig Montagsdemos of 1989 on the city Ring; audio tour, based on interviews with eyewitnesses aimed at triggering the imagination of participants about how urban spaces can be re-appropriated as public sphere, for the expression of democratic rights and as a place of political action
  • Nightwalkers – follow the traces of countless workers in the former industrial area of Lindenau
  • Phonorama – self guided tour through the Clara-Zetkin-Park, where the Sächsisch-Thüringische Industrie- und Gewerbeausstellung took place in 1897
  • Silent Walk – cross the Waldstraßen district, once the main Jewish quarter of the city

Also four B_talks, on art and activism (3 July), urban sounds and imaginary spaces (4 July), creative capital(ism) (8 July) and tracing histories of public space in Leipzig (12 July), not tweeted.

Finally, B_events in Leipzig include a workshop entitled Traces of walking: creating an imaginary sound book of Leipzig, with noTours, augmented aurality:

Jewish wildlife recording pioneer Ludwig Koch made a ‘sound book’ of Leipzig mid 1930s which was intentionally destroyed in WWII. We recreate this sound book (imaginary maps, urban interventions and site-specific soundscapes) retracing Koch’s paths through the city and his urban and natural recordings, inspired by his memoires. Participants are introduced to methods of artistic and sound walking and field recording, using noTours, a free online editor, to create their own sound walks.

B_Tour Berlin

Update: Urbane Räume in Berlin (vid) from Alex TV

B _ Tour Berlin, an “international art festival of guided tours”, ran from 8-10 August, moving on to Belgrade from 26-28 September. An interview with Artconnect Berlin and article in Exberliner give good spiel, but in practice artiness may well have been on a sliding scale, as at #metropolis13:

On a route through the public space, a guide leads an audience along a narrative and is therefore a narrator interpreting the urban space. A B_Tour generates an interaction between a guide, an audience and a space. B_Tours are engaging in the sense that they call for participation and enable exchange. A B_Tour questions the convention of a guided-tour and challenges its format. It is conscious of the existence of multiple narratives and truths therefore it does not provide “The True” perception of a space. A B_Tour is not a spectacle. It is not a conventional touristic “alternative city tour”.

Guiding lights are “an exciting group of young women from all over Europe and its surroundings. We are a young and enthusiastic team, in our twenties or early thirties, at the beginning of our professional careers”…could maybe do with a bit of native English copywriting assistance and general adjective pruning. See the list of tours (15 presented by 26 artists/urbanists from 12 countries), events on Facebook, discussion panels. Twitter: @B_Tour_Festival but little action traced.

Taps into all the contemporary memes, eg slow food (Field of sensibilities in the community gardens of the Tempelhofer Feld), climate change (Microclimate mapping), urban nature (Strays), but rather too much play and headphone wearing involved. Smart walking?

Tours I would have been tempted to participate in, were I lucky enough to be living in Berlin:

  • Audiodrom – audio walk through the Velodrome Park, “surrounded by tall grey buildings and housing blocks, an artificial green plateau with apple trees and wild high grass plateau which appears out of nowhere, like a surreal oasis”
  • B-B – Berlin and Belgrade, “two cities that have much in common but are yet so different. The tour will take you through two cities at once: one visited ‘live’ and the other presented interactively through visual and audio material, showing some surprising similarities and highlighting the transformations taking place. Can we feel one city while walking through another?”; see also have you ever been to Belgrade? and B-mapping Belgrade
  • The Berlin Circle Audio Walk – from the Berliner Ensemble to Checkpoint Charlie and the Pergamon Museum with dialogue from Charles Mee’s Berlin Circle, a collage­-like collection of events set on 9 November 1989
  • Die Wohning – exploring Berlin’s Bauhaus settlement; see vid

For more Berlin walking goodness see the Berlin tag on the A/drift tumblr. From the write-up in Slow Travel Berlin:

Some examine the city in terms of memory, others in terms of movement, and still others in terms of microclimate; but regardless of their particular subject or approach, each tour has the potential to unlock some of the magic hiding within the urban spaces of Berlin.

Geoff Nicholson walking in ruins

cover of Walking in ruinsGeoff Nicholson’s Lost art of walking was one of the first walking-as-a-thing books I read, and every post on his Hollywood Walker blog is a delight. His effortless ironic style slips down a treat, and his occasional digs at psychogeography and academe are reassuring.

In October he published Walking in ruins, where he muses on ruins in various locations, including Sheffield. I lived in Sheffield for a couple of years, so this section was particularly evocative. The whole thing slipped down easily for a post-Xmas read, although modern publishing models are fascinating – the individual chapters would fit ‘longform’ outlets such as Aeon just as well as a formal book. On a screen I tend to skip, whereas books I have to force myself to read these days, often putting them down after one session. Reading is increasingly drifting too.

The back of the book offers Opacity [Urban Ruins] and British industrial ruins. And CphCph has pics of unseen Copenhagen, some of which are ruins which haven’t been quite airbrushed out yet…two reviews: The Spectator | Erotic Review (!).

Hollywood Christmas past looks at the phenomenon of people going on Xmas walks, lots of them hereabouts this week, and the fate of Xmas trees, perhaps a metaphor for trees in cities in general. Trees are a rather tender subject in Cph at the moment, making the habit of hurling Xmas trees out of your window particularly poignant:

an abandoned Xmas tree in Hollywood

Updates: Some solutions for discarded Xmas trees on Classic Copenhagen. Ruin Lust at the Tate (by Geoff | in Times Higher | Guardian | and again | Economist). Berlin: city of decay.