Define Berlin art. It’s not easy. But, I would say, at its core, Berlin art feels DIY and non-commercial. I don’t want to pigeonhole local artists, or visiting artists making work here, but, Berlin has a particular punk-political art history which the cityscape, and German culture, lend themselves to quite nicely.
Population here hasn’t reached pre-WWII levels, and there are still artists’ squats. You can walk through a charming neighborhood and take note of the bullet holes riddling a building’s facade. You can see art in an old bunker. Scars of war, division, and reunification are omnipresent. Germans, who had to rebuild their city out of rubble, are prodigious recyclers. And this element of using, reusing, repurposing, and combining is, in my opinion, the heart of Berlin art.
With a GDR tradition of having to build things with limited resources, Berliners are problem solvers who make the best with what they have, and because of that, can transform something which is decayed, forgotten, or broken, into something memorable. But Berliners are not necessarily a materialistic lot, and this can make light the perfect medium - it is gone when the electricity is cut, no waste. An ocean becomes a building again. Reuse, repurpose, transform.
Since its inception in 2003, the Festival Of Lights has become a world-renowned celebration. In fact, according to the official website two million people visit the festival, and with them come 600,000 extra overnight bookings. Tourist attraction, absolutely — and the festival feels that way. Which isn’t to take away from the beauty of seeing the city transformed into a hallucinogenic playground of light — children prance around their shadows, leapfrogging across light-projected floor patterns; people stare at dizzying visuals that threaten the solidity of a gigantic palace; photographers line up their armies of one-eyed tripods; and shimmering reflected light mutely turns the surface of the Spree river into a bright and distorted mirror of its surroundings. The light festival is a yearly opportunity to see the city from a dynamic and surreal perspective.
But a lot of artists (and plenty of Berliners) don't even know, or care, about the Festival of Lights — seeing it as merely a touristy, or at best a family, affair, generally having nothing to do with echter Berlin. Surprisingly, some of the video projections can be thrilling and original, but there are plenty of them that are mere advertisements or sometimes simply a projection of already existing artwork. It might look pretty in a photo, but how does that represent Berlin?
The festival, taken over in 2005 by a marketing firm, has thus far mainly focused on promoting Berlin the city as a tourist attraction, not its artists in particular. That's what has made this year an important year. With a new collective organizing another festival, Berlin Leuchtet (“Berlin Lights Up”), into co-existence with The Festival of Lights, a refocus occurred, shifting the attention onto more local artists who live and breathe light-based art. Berlin Leuchtet is a non-profit.
This means that the light festival as most people experienced it this year was in fact two festivals at once. This is a little confusing. And, unless you were researching which festival was behind which monument/site/performance, it wasn’t clearly available information. Although new, Berliner Leuchtet was in charge of projections on some sites that Festival of Lights was in charge of previously. It doesn’t seem to be an issue either festival is making too big a deal of, and, in order to dodge confusion, the two festivals listed the others’ works in their respective online guides.
The established, commercially sponsored Festival of Lights took place from October 9th - 20th, while the non-profit Berlin Leuchtet ran longer, from October 4th - 20th. Founded this January and helmed by some of the original organizers of Festival of Lights, Berlin Leuchtet combined illuminated objects, installations, video, multi-dimensional projections, as well as fireworks together with music and performance. Noteworthy, Berlin Leuchtet was in charge of many more illuminations than Festival of Lights. That said, there was no sense of animosity between the two; they worked quite well in tandem.
Of the two simultaneous festivals, the established Festival of Lights is often erroneously covered by the media as the only festival, and there is already a lot of coverage on it. While Berlin Leuchtet was also in charge of lighting some of Berlin’s well-known monuments and sites, what I find more interesting are highlights revealing the artistic direction the new festival is heading, which support the experimental local arts community.
Kiez Oper, a Berlin project headed by Alex Eccleston and Rowan Hellier which brings opera into unexpected venues — e.g., a cozy and humble apartment, or a defunct communal swimming pool — premiered a new piece, “Mauerklänge” (“Wall Sounds”) in a war-torn church in former East Berlin.
Although they use light projections in their productions, the founders of Kiez Oper had no prior knowledge of the 9-years running Festival of Lights. Billed under the Berlin Leuchtet festival, Mauerklänge was a collaboration with Light ART Tour, and brought together performers from Staatsoper (City Opera) and Staatsballet (City Ballet), as well as video artists from Berlin-based company The Core, members of which are known for their work as light-art directors at techno club stalwart, Tresor.
Tanja Mackert, who heads Light ART Projects, an audio-visual collective, and Caren Müller from LiCHTPiRATEN, run Light ART Tour, an “audio-visual tour through Berlin” produce shows specifically for Berlin Leuchtet. They’re behind some of the most stunning highlights of the festival. They work with high-quality artists, while utilizing various environments throughout the city — this is absolutely a Berlin style; use all available resources, be spontaneous, don't feel you have to follow status quo, break rules, experiment. Light ART Tour brings an ethos of punk DIY spontaneity, blended with the stamina needed to present live light-art projections for up to 5 hours at a time.
Berlin’s light festival has promise to become something more that just a tourist attraction: it can become an artistic destination.
All in all, over 70 buildings and monuments, and hundreds of sites were decorated by light. While some sites were merely accentuated by light projections, other were transformed into visual illusions. The perennial favorites of Brandenburger Tor and the Berliner Dom delighted many. Unter den Linden’s trees glowed into the night. The East Side Gallery, the last extent part of the Berlin Wall (which has been slated for relocation due to new construction) was illuminated during the festival. Shopping centers and railway stations – all lit up in Berlin’s electricity party. The traditional OpenCity took place on October 12th, where popular museums and landmarks left their doors open late into the night. Light themed tours included an American school bus fitted inside with colored lights and a bar, a candlelit tour, and a night-running tour. Manfred Kielnhofer’s eery and inviting “Guardians of Time” was in Berlin again, the five red-hooded figures appearing in a new location throughout the city on each day.