Berlin Story: Adieu, Tacheles
The city of Berlin oversaw the end of an era last week, with the eviction of Kunsthalle Tacheles, a monumental art space that has been occupying the abandoned wreck of a shopping center on Oranienburger Strasse for the past 22 years. The eviction did not exactly come out of the blue: artists have been battling the city over the continued existence of the space since it began. What might be surprising is how anti-climactic the end was when it actually came. After all the demonstrations, benefit concerts, militant slogans and fists publicly shaken at the powers that be, when the police arrived with a locksmith early Tuesday morning, there were only about fifty protestors on hand, half-heartedly banging on pots and pans. The eviction occurred peacefully, with none of the street fighting and confrontation that might have been expectable. In truth, by the end even the artists were conflicted about Tacheles.
The 9,000 square meter building takes up half a city block. It was originally constructed as a shopping mall in 1907, but was forced to declare bankruptcy six months after opening. Left behind was the hull of an overly ambitious architectural dream, converted to administrative offices for the Nazi party during World War II, then left to sit half-ruined and bombed out through the communist era. The building was slated for demolition in the 80s, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall it was squatted by an activist artist group. Renamed Tacheles (after a Yiddish word meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to a close”), the emerging art complex became a hub of the free-for-all culture that was blossoming in the reunified city. The early 90s were a legendary time in Berlin, when cafes and bars were popping up in people’s basements, all-night dance parties were run on portable generators in the grey ruins of condemned buildings, and a post-apocalyptic culture of joy and exuberance seemed to point the way to a future in which anything was possible.
Tacheles became a symbol of Berlin’s transformation. The international renown of the project spread so quickly that demolishing Tacheles became impossible. Instead, the city government decided on a policy of leniency. The building itself was declared an historic landmark, and the artists were allowed to stay and further co-opt the structure. An official lease was signed with the owner, Johannishof GmBH, in 1998. The lease ran out in 2008, and by then ownership of the building had transferred to a Hamburg-based bank, HSH Nordbank, who were aggressively eager to get the artists out. A new round of legal struggles began, with the residents of the building, having grown used to their comfortable situation, finding themselves once again thrust into the role of the illegal, unwanted occupiers. The second time around, Tacheles residents didn’t have the stomach for a protracted battle. This is typical of the strategy used in dealing with squatters: offering a ten or twenty year amnesty period, after which the original occupants have moved on, passing the torch to a younger, more complacent generation, who are easily steam-rolled in the name of progress.
The neighborhood around Tacheles has changed in the last 20 years as well. What was once an economic wasteland is now crowded with restaurants, upscale bars, high-priced boutiques and cartoonishly dressed prostitutes, who line the street in bizarre lace and latex get-ups. Like Tacheles itself, the prostitutes are a symbol of “freedom.” Once-decrepit Oranienburg Strasse has become a tourist haven where anything goes. Tacheles did try to keep up with the times; the expansive courtyard eventually became the first stop on a pub-crawl, with corollary infestations of drug-dealers springing up in the shadowy corners. The hedonistic needs of the tourists must be provided for, and art is not at the top of the list.
In its final years, many derided Tacheles as having become a parody of itself. The artwork coming out of the place seemed increasingly stale and dated, reflecting the punk-inspired anger and scrawled graffiti aesthetic that people look for in souvenir pieces of the Berlin Wall. Tacheles was caught in the vice-grip of time: on the one hand, purists cried "sell-out!" with every step towards commercialism, and on the other hand, the dilapidated squatter aesthetic came to seem more and more a relic of the past, as the neighborhoods around Tacheles bloomed into international, capitalism-fueled life.
Symbolism aside, Tacheles had some practical upsides. If you were willing to do without bourgeois amenities like running water, you could rent extremely cheap studio space there. Up until the end, it was still a good place for an artist to find a foothold in Berlin. Photographer Petrov Ahner, interviewed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, says he moved to the city two years ago without knowing anyone. Now he has two galleries representing him. “It all happened because of Tacheles,” he says. Petrov was there on the morning of the eviction, looking despondent, standing on the sidelines and morosely snapping pictures of no one chaining themselves to the door.
Despite the eagerness to clear the space, there is no set plan for what will be done with the now-vacant property. The building is still protected as an historical monument, so it can’t simply be torn down. Mayor Klaus Wowereit promises that “something art-related” will be initiated. Across town, meanwhile, another shopping center is opening up. The investors in the parking garage on Kurfürtsen Strasse, worried that the cash circulation nearby will inevitably bring prostitutes to the parking lot, have devised a novel way of curbing red-light district behavior in their area. Loudspeakers will broadcast classical music, presumably hoping to shame potential johns by reminding them of Europe’s rich musical heritage. There’s nothing like the sound of yesterday’s glorious nostalgia to drown out the dismal landscape of the present.