M&M Creative, Berlin
art, Berlin, events, Humour, Language, Life in Berlin, Literature, News, people, politics, theatre, things to do

M&M Creative: Workshops for Individuals and Business

I’ve started a company! Everyone else in Berlin has a startup, so I thought I’d launch one too.

M&M Creative, Berlin
M&M Creative, Berlin

I’ve joined forces with actor and writer Mary Kelly, and together, we’re devising original workshops to help individuals and companies maximise creative expression. We have twenty years combined coaching experience (BBC, The Opera Stage, Berlin and The Gaiety School of Acting, Dublin) and our publications include The New York Times, Nick Hern Books, Penguin Random House, Stinging Fly Press, Asia Literary Review and more.

Great. So when’s the first one?

Our first workshop is for women, trans and non-binary people who want to start writing, continue to develop their craft, or anyone who needs a creative boost. It will take place on Saturday 9th March, from 10 am — 5 pm in Kreuzberg.

How is it original?

We are combining an actor’s approach to character and story with a writer’s.

We will be working on character development, dialogue, structure, layering and subtext by getting people on their feet, into their bodies, and using their physical voices, so what lands on the page is the most connected and full-bodied expression.

What will I get out of it?

You will leave the workshop with new and original work, energised and equipped to continue.

What other workshops are we devising?

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M&M Creative, Berlin

Improv for Writers.

Improv for Women in Business.

Writing from the Body with Bowspring Yoga.

From Page to Publication.

Flow sessions for writers.

Storytelling and Acting Coaching for Presentations in English (for non-native  speakers)

To learn more and keep up to date, like us on Facebook.

Use Your Voice: A Creative Writing Workshop for Women will take place from 10 am – 5pm on Saturday 9th March 2019 at Lettrétage, Mehringdamm 61, 10961 Berlin. Book now via Eventbrite (€150).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, Magdeburg, 1600, Woodcut © Jewish Museum Berlin Jens Ziehe
art, Berlin, history, Life in Berlin, Museum, politics, things to do

Welcome to Jerusalem at the Jewish Museum Berlin

The Jewish Museum Berlin is a disorientating place. It is made up of various buildings from different periods, most recently The Libeskind building.

Architect Daniel Libeskind created his design around a series of intersecting voids and straight and zigzagging lines. Corridors veer off at angles, and lights, mirrors and installations constantly make you aware of the strangeness of the space.

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman at the Jewish Museum Berlin
Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman, Jewish Museum Berlin

One of my favourite installations in this are is Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman. You hear it before you see it, a distinct clinking reminiscent of chains or shackles. The work consists of over 10,000 screaming faces cut from iron plates, which you walk over as you approach a dark void. It is a disturbing refection of victims of war.

Adding another layer to the confusion of space is the newly opened “Welcome to Jerusalem” exhibition in the old building. The exhibition transports you through the history, sights and sounds of the city in over 15 rooms. One room, dedicated to maps, displays The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, showing Jerusalem as the centre of the world. Disorientating again, from a geographical point of view, but accurate from a historical, religious and political point of view.

The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, Magdeburg, 1600, Woodcut © Jewish Museum Berlin Jens Ziehe
The Whole World in a Clover Leaf by Heinrich Bünting, Magdeburg, 1600, Woodcut © Jewish Museum Berlin, purchased with funds provided by Stiftung DKLB, photo: Jens Ziehe

 

The exhibition successfully shows the changing landscape of Jerusalem, from 5000 years ago to the present day, where old and new constantly overlap and collide. The exhibition is full of interesting insights and facts, for example, that the keys to one of the holiest sites in Christianity, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, are held by two Muslim families, or that Muslims once faced towards Jerusalem to pray, before this was changed to Mecca, or that when the Jewish temple was destroyed, Judaism fundamentally changed to focus on the study of holy texts. In addition to all this, the exhibition provides you with a good understanding of the current conflicts that occupy the city today.

So, if you’re getting tired of the grey Berlin winter, take a trip to the Jewish Museum to be transported through time and space.

Welcome to Jerusalem is on at the Jewish Museum Berlin (Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin) until 30 April 2019.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
art, Germany, Life in Berlin, people, politics

Weekend Trips from Berlin: documenta14 in Kassel

Kassel is a 3-4 hour train ride from Berlin. It is a strange mix of regal buildings and monuments from its time as a princely residence, and bland concrete.

In the town’s main square, fountains arch hopefully into the sky only to land directly into to drains a couple of metres away. However, the small town is most notable for documenta, a contemporary art exhibition which takes over its galleries, museums and public spaces for a period of 100 days every five years.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire

After I had exhausted my two-day exhibition ticket, I visited the marble bath, where the tour guide asked me if I had enjoyed documenta 14. I said I had, very much.

“Gut,” she said, surprised. “Alle meckern.” (Everyone’s complaining.)

And she’s right. Everyone is complaining. The well-known writer Moritz von Uslar went so far as to tweet that he found the Zeit’s weekly journalists meeting more inspiring than anything he experienced at this year’s documenta. Here’s the thing: He is wrong.

different perspectives: documenta14This year’s documenta was surprising, wonderfully curated and impactful. For this first time this year, the art exhibition was split between two locations: Athens and Kassel, acknowledging the two different sides of Europe, one destitute, one rich, one central, and one at its southern edge that deals with a stream of migrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa.

And it was this alternative, disorientating, multi-sided view of Europe that dominated the exhibition. For example, Janine Antoni’s wonderful Slumber posits the idea that the fabled adventures of Ulysses had perhaps all taken place in  Penelope’s dreams. The Sámi artist Máret Ánne Sara presented us with an alternative perspective of Norwegian history, and Gordon Hookey hit us with a big, bold, political statement about Aboriginal people and Australia.

Altogether, the exhibition was political, unapologetic, anti-neo-libralist, and anti-capitalist. Probably, exactly, the kind of thing a white, German man like von Uslar, who is primarily interested in other white, German men didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, or whatever.

I found that looking at art for a couple of days was nourishing. The fresh and interesting ideas, the visual and cerebral excitement, the new perspectives and experiences you engage in, if you are open to it, makes you look at everything in a new way. At one point, me, and the entire group of people I was with, all stopped to look at this lamp fixture on the side of a building. Wasn’t it weird?

fascinating lamp fixture kassel
Fascinating lamp fixture

Artists and their works only do half the job, you have to meet them half way. Obviously, not everything is for everyone, but to call an entire, massive exhibition uninspiring and to rubbish the work and ideas of some of the most exciting contemporary artists in the world in one tweet reveals more about the tweeter than about his subject.

Documenta14 is on until 17th September 2017 in Kassel.

 

art, Berlin, events, Film, Life in Berlin, politics, science

STATE Festival Berlin: The Sentimental Machine

Berlin’s second STATE Festival, which brings together leading scientists, innovators, social-scientists, artists and members of the public to explore one topic took place recently at Kühlhaus in Gleisdreieck. The topic in question was emotions.

Emoji balloons at the State Festival Berlin, 2016

Emotions are a fundamental part of being human, and our understanding of them not only illuminates our experiences and interactions but also raises important questions about our growing reliance on machines and the nature of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

We often think of emotions as immaterial and internal, but the festival demonstrated how physically palpable and measurable they are. Adam Anderson from Cornell University’s Department of Human Development and Human Neuroscience Institute talked about how our sight and emotions are linked. Emotions, like colour, are created by the visual regions of the brain and everything we see is affected by emotion.

The Festival’s screening of Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, in which the prominent designer embarks on a navel-gazing journey in the search of happiness confirmed the strong link between the body and emotion. Sagameister pursued happiness using three methods; meditation, therapy and drugs – and drugs was the most effective. The chemical changes they affected in his body made him deliriously happy to the point of falling in love and almost getting married within a matter of weeks.

The link between the emotion of love and physicality was put to the test at the festival’s interactive Sniff and Date session, in which participants did an aerobics session, captured their sweaty scent on a small patch of material, then sniffed out a potential partner. Although smelling numbered patches of sweat felt dubious, it worked! I matched with a lovely Romanian artist with whom I had a lot in common. Yes, it was a woman, who was there with her boyfriend, but it was nice to have a drink with her.

In such social situations, the hormone oxytocin plays a big role. It helps in social bonding, sexual reproduction, birth and nurturing as well as increasing the recognition and mimicry of facial emotions. Neuroscientist Sebastian Korb explained how he used electromyography (EMG) to detect facial mimicry which is so fast and subtle that it is difficult to inhibit. Facial mimicry is important to social interaction as it is key to feeling empathy (therefore procedures such as Botox, which restrict people’s facial movements, impact their ability to empathise).

As we become more dependent on technology, the ability of machines to understand and respond to our emotions will become more important. The Android game Emotion Hero demonstrated what computer recognition of facial emotion could look like. Naturally, this led to questions about whether machines would eventually be able to experience emotions themselves and what the implications of this would be.

If machines could feel, would they be granted the same rights as people? As it stands, scientists use the human brain as a model to make intelligent, self-learning robots. Of course, companies like Nvidia, Google and Intel are nowhere near creating something as powerful as the brain with its 100 billion neurones and 250 billion synapses, but the possibility is on the distant horizon. Toby Walsh, one of the world’s leading experts on AI, said he did not think the Singularity – the point where robots overtake humans – was coming any time soon.

Still, the warnings of prominent people such as Stephen Hawking, who said AI “could spell the end of the human race” and Elon Musk, who compared developing AI to “summoning the demon” were at the forefront of many discussions. Clearly, AI and its implications must be thought about. In fact, people are already thinking about it, but they belong to an elite with commercial interests. For example, those developing the self-driving car are already making ethical decisions such as who the car should kill or injure in certain crash situations.

One of the most interesting interactive sessions was the critical thinking workshop AI Ethics and Prosthetics run by Marco Donnarumma, an artist who explores human-machine corporeality. The conversation took interesting turns, exploring questions from “Would you live with an autonomous prosthesis?” to “Where does the fault lie if a machine is responsible for killing a human?” The conversation raised more questions than answers, highlighting the complex nature of this crucial time in human history.

What was unique and fulfilling about this festival was how it hit all senses – with music, sound, visual art, films, talks, discussions and physical activities. It stimulated anxiety about a machine-filled future, passionate debate, and joy at the meeting fascinating minds – an important, emotional experience.

This year’s STATE Festival took place between 3-6 November.

Berlin, Germany, Life in Berlin, politics

A #Brexit Playlist

Stunned. There’s nothing else to say about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. For the past few months, I’ve been reassuring everyone the Brexit wouldn’t happen. I mean, us Brits like to complain, but we’re not complete morons.

It turns out that we are, proving that a) people are stew-pid-er than you think, and b) there is an Abba song for every situation.

Here is your Brexit playlist – or playlists, a separate one for Britain and Europe, since that’s the way it’s going to be…

Britain:

Crazy by Gnarls Barkly

Knowing me, Knowing You by Abba

London Calling by The Clash

The End by The Doors

Europe:

Take A Chance On Me by Abba

If You Leave Me Now by Chicago

Rolling in the Deep by Adele

I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

What wold be on your Brexit playlist? Post any ideas below!

Berlin, Germany, News, politics

Five Ways To Help Refugees in Berlin Now

Following on from Sara Chahr­rour’s wonderfully informative 10 ways to Help Refugees in Berlin, I wanted to share the ways I have found most effective.

BerlinEverything feels a bit ad hoc at the moment; there does not seem to be one central point of co-ordination or information, organisations like Start with a Friend aren’t even sending out standard responses to registrations, others, like Give Something Back To Berlin seem to be a little backlogged – although they do have an information evening coming up on the 18th September at Agora, and most emails go answered. I’ve been seeing a lot of How do I Help? posts online, so here’s a list of direct ways to help now.

1. Register at volunteer-planner.org and help out at Rathaus Wilmersdorf

Rathaus Wilmersdorf Notunterkunft has by far the most organised online presence. They have a regularly updated google doc of stuff they need, and a Facebook Page. If you would like to volunteer, just register at www.volunteer-planner.org and put your name down against a particular time and activity (e.g. sorting donations, translating, distributing food, being a runner, or even providing entertainment if you’re an artist / performer), and turn up. The Fluechtlingsheim Weissensee also uses this service, so there are opportunities to help out there as well.

2. Check out Free Your Stuff Berlin

The Free Your Stuff Berlin Facebook Group has become a hub for people who would like to help, and people seeking help – either in terms of specific things, or help with translating German documents etc. Just yesterday, a nice woman posted that she would be happy to pick up anything people have to donate and drop it off to the nearest station – if you don’t have stuff to give her, you can help her carry out this task.

3. Offer your spare room to a refugee

Refugees Welcome, which helps house refugees in normal homes, is a well-organised scheme that seems to be working well. It is an effective way to help and earn money from your spare room. The Guardian called this the ‘airbnb for refugees’ in a recent article.

4. Donate some stuff

Here are some direct links to what is needed and when / where to give:

The Kreuzberg Hilft List. Only accepting donations from 9th September. Donations can be dropped off at Dieffenbachstraße 15, 10967 Berlin from Tuesday to Friday from 12 to 18:30 clock.

The Willkommen in Westend List. The address is Eschenallee 3, 14050 Berlin.

The Moabit Hilft List: This list also has details of how to donate money, as well as specifics on what they need and where to drop it, and what they need in terms of help (at the moment: people to sort donations and give food from 09.00 – 18.00 and translators from 12.00-20.00)

The Spandau Askanierring List: Information on what is needed in terms of donations and volunteers.

The Lichtenberg List: What they need, and where to give it.

The Marzahn / Blumberger Damm List: What they need /address, or check out Willkommen in Marzahn on Facebook.

The Wedding Hilft List. What they need, where to give it.

5. Share these articles

Many people want to help but have no idea how. Use social media to share articles like this, the previously mentioned 10 Ways You Can Help Refugees in Berlin, The Local’s 5 Ways You Can Help Refugees in Germany and The Independent’s Five Practical Ways You Can Help Refugees Trying to Find Safety in Europe.

If anyone out there has more practical information on how to help or if you are a refugee / organisation that needs help, feel free to leave a comment, or contact me.

art, Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

The Bode Museum marks the 70th Anniversary of End of World War Two

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two. To celebrate, Russia staged its biggest military parade, involving thousands of troops marching across the Red Square in Moscow, displays of ballistic missiles and over 100 war planes.

Here’s a clip of what it looked like:

While such scenes of nationalistic machismo, mirroring those that led up to the second world war in the first place, are clichéd and shallow, here, in a quiet corner of Berlin’s Bode Museum, a much smaller display makes for a deeper impact.

The Lost Museum Exhibition is about the hundreds of art works from the Berlin collections that went missing, were stolen or destroyed, due to the second world war. It consists of partly destroyed works, reconstructed pieces, photographic reproductions and information about the lost works.

The partly charred or smashed statues are devastating to see, but worse are the black and white photographic reproductions of paintings, like this Rubens:

photographic reproduction of lost Rubens at Bode Museum, BerlinA masterwork like this, drained of the colour and brushstrokes that bring Rubens’ paintings to life with fleshy sensuality, makes one feel the absence of the original even more.

IMG_20150510_140410Other stand out pieces, like this plaster cast of Donatello’s John the Baptist – the original has disappeared – demonstrate the value of such a restitution project as it reintroduces the piece to the narrative of art history.

The exhibition also raises interesting questions about itself. For example, should the few remaining fragments of works that survived the Friedrichshain Bunker fire be reconstructed, taking the artists’ original visions and intentions into mind? Or should, according to the standards of historic preservation, any change in the state of a work of art be respected? In short, is it more important to show the original idea of a work of art, or its history?

The exhibition is insightful and questioning and, on a positive note, is possible due to the ongoing and ever-strengthening collaboration between German and Russian museum professionals.

What remains though is the feeling of loss for all those hundreds of works that have vanished. It is a loss to civilisation. A fissure in art history. The visions and spirits of the people that lived in those works, forever lost.

The Lost Museum: The Berlin Sculpture and Paintings Collections 70 Years After World War II is on at the Bode-Museum until 27th September 2015.

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

Pegida

Icky as it is, I’m going to have to touch the whole Pegida thing because I saw this BBC video yesterday, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum for the last few months, you’ll know that Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (so wordy!), is a new movement that has been holding weekly marches in major German cities.

The group claims not to be racist or xenophobic, but like all “I’m not a racist but…” statements, there’s nothing not-racist about it.

Surprisingly, many people have turned out in support of Pegida. On Monday, about 18.000 people took to the streets of Dresden, while around 4,000 people joined a counter-demonstration. The group has not been as successful in other cities such as Berlin, where Pegida opponents outnumbered supporters.

The first guy in the video was predictable; “Germany for Germans” is a phrase you’d expect to hear at one of these things, along with the ‘no mosques’ stuff. Of course, he neglected to tackle details like how exactly one defines a German. Is it a race? What if you are of Vietnamese origin but have a German passport? What if you German but have converted to Islam? What if you are Turkish but support Germany in the World Cup? And what about that CDU politician who does a good job of pretending to be German, but with a name like David McAllister, has to be Scottish?

And what happens when all the non-Germans leave? The country would shrivel up and die – literally. Germany’s aging population means that the meagre working population would collapse trying to support all the pensioners. In fact, immigration is the only sensible way out of this problem. And what about Germans elsewhere? You can’t swing a cat in London without hitting one – should we gather them up and send them, kicking and screaming, back to the Fatherland?

I recently visited The British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition (visited by Merkel today), which illustrates that defining Germany is a shifty business too. The German Nation was originally an idea, consisting of many different territories and peoples, ranging from Austria and the Czech Republic to parts of Romania. Clearly, the mapped boundaries of Germany were questionable to Hitler, who figured that Poland was part of German territory. By reverse logic, should Germany accept Polish, Czech and Romanian immigrants?

And about the mosques – should the constitution upon which modern Germany is founded, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination, be re-written? Anyway, I’m sure the nice man has thought it all through. He’s grand. What stunned me was the woman talking about her four daughters with long blonde hair.

It reminded me of a propaganda photograph I saw at the Topographie des Terror in which a Jewish man who had a Christian girlfriend was forced to hold a sign saying he raped a Christian girl.

The idea of the purity of one’s women being polluted by outsiders is a primitive narrative. It is the oldest fear-mongering tactic in the book. It was used in the United States to justify lynchings in the South and now, in Germany, it is toppling out of an articulate woman’s mouth – without any shame or awareness of what she is actually saying.

So why the rise of Pegida? It could be down to timing; Germany’ s recent intake of more immigrants than ever before coupled with sufficient time passing since the war might mean that people no longer feel there is a stigma attached to marching in the streets, waving German flags and expressing such views.

In theory, the Germany was supposed to be ‘de-Nazified’ after the war, but a look at Topographie des Terror exhibition demonstrates that this was not the case; judges, politicians, and civil servants remained in their positions for the most part, and there was a real reluctance to dig up the past and prosecute war criminals.

Now, these buried views appear to be resurfacing. Pegida is attracting a mix of people of all ages, from right-wing activists to ‘normal’ citizens, and a recent poll of just over 1,000 people by Stern magazine found that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islam march if Pegida organised one near their home.

What do you think about Germany’s Pegida phenomenon?

Germany, history, Humour, Life in Berlin, politics

The German State and the Church (with Father Ted)

The Bavarian and I recently visited his hometown (well, village) to attend his nephew’s christening.

During the service, he dug a sweet wrapper out of his coat pocket and tossed it onto the pew, hissed into my ear about how fat the priest was (the priest was thin), complained about how stingy the Catholics were (the church was not heated) and muttered “useless little beggars” as he passed the priest’s helpers on his way out (they were holding contribution baskets).

Clearly, The Bavarian has issues with the church. Rather than attributing this to his usual irrational eccentricity, I’m putting it down to the unique relationship between the German state and the church.

IMG_3003Despite Europe’s secular values, Germany remains closely entwined with the church.

In fact, if Turkey were as non-secular as Germany, there would be no question of it even being considered for EU membership.

The German State currently pays about half-a-billion euros per year to the church as a result of 200-year-old contracts drawn up during German mediatisation – a series of property transfers from the church to the state that took place between 1795 and 1814. That’s half a billion euros of everyone’s taxes – whether they are Catholics, Protestants, atheists or Jedi, at a time when Europe is in financial crisis and Germany is pushing for austerity and a balanced budget.

On top of that, the German state subsidises bishops wages, priest’s salaries, events such as Kirchentage (church congresses), church-run kindergartens, schools, hospitals, care homes, the maintenance of religious buildings – the list goes on, and it adds up to billions.

The church runs so many institutions (schools, hospitals etc) in Germany that it is the country’s second largest employer after the public sector.

As if all this wasn’t enough, when you register yourself as a resident in Germany, you are asked to state your religion. If you answer with ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, you are promptly charged again in the form of church-tax (Kirchensteuer). In classic German form, when an American friend said he was ‘Southern Baptist’, the box marked ‘cult’ was ticked. He was offended, until he realised that this exempted him from paying the additional tax.

Church-tax is calculated at 8% or 9% of your income tax (depending on what state you live in) – no small amount – thereby provoking many people to leave the church upon receiving their first pay cheque – a privilege for which they must of course pay an administration fee.

In July 2008, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that charging a fee for leaving the church was an infringement of religious liberty – but most German states still charge (between €10-60). In Berlin, it’s free, causing the church to complain that the city is positively urging members to drop like flies.

If anything is making people leave though, it’s this whole church-tax business itself. When you see a significant amount of your pay being taken away, you start questioning your beliefs and whether you really want to belong to the church.

Also, the binding of money with religion seems crude. After all, wasn’t it the Catholics trying to sell places in heaven that incensed Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door, causing one of the biggest schisms in Western Christianity? Have they learned nothing?!

And on a spiritual level, can one really leave the church via bureaucratic means? I thought Catholics had to be ex-communicated by the pope himself, like Henry VIII.

I know a woman in Ireland who wanted to officially leave the church to demonstrate her outrage following the child-abuse scandal – she was still writing letters to Brussels a year later. It’s almost impossible for the Irish to leave the church (she eventually did it), unless they move to Germany, in which case they just need to fill out some paperwork.

The Bavarian was the first person in his family to leave the church. He waited till he was far away from his village so as not to embarrass his mother. However, his glee was cut short, because soon afterwards, the Protestants started charging him church-tax. He was practically foaming at the mouth when he wrote to them saying that he was not nor ever had been a Protestant. The response he received said he had to prove it. This would have been tricky if he hadn’t recently left the Catholics, which was proof enough that he would never go near the Protestants – but the system does sometimes prove Kafkaesque.

What is especially opaque is the question of where all the money goes. Despite being financed by German taxpayers, the church is not obliged to disclose its spending – and it doesn’t. The bureaucracy is clueless as to how much real estate the church owns in this country, even though it’s one of Germany’s biggest property owners. For any other individual, corporation or body, this would be unthinkable.

What was revealed earlier this year is that the Bishop of Limburg spent over 10 million euros on his private residence alone – who knows what other skeletons are clacking around in the church’s walk-in wardrobe.

Despite all this, people are still christening their children in the alpine villages of Bavaria. One aspect of this is faith, although I suspect The Bavarian’s sister does not really believe in the prospect of her child languishing in purgatory in the after-life. It didn’t seem like the right time to survey the congregation about the strength of their belief, but I suspect the conversation would have gone something like this:

So why the christening? Tradition. What The Bavarian’s wrath blinded him from was the warm sight of children lighting their Taufkerzen (baptismal candles) together. The ceremony was the chance for the family to unite in good faith, and then eat cake.

On the other hand, the desire to protect tradition supports a deep-rooted conservatism; a system in which doctors and nurses are afraid to leave the church or re-marry because it affects their job prospects in church-run hospitals, a patriarchal system (it was only yesterday that the first female bishop for the Church of England was named, which indicates just how behind they are – not to mention the Catholics), an unaccountable system (how is the money being spent?), a system under which The Bavarian was taught ‘religion’ in school by a priest who only covered Christianity (in London, we were taught about the five major religions by a person who had a degree in the subject), and a system which allowed the abuse of thousands of children.

The New Yorker’s recent, brilliant profile of Merkel pointed out that the current trend of German conservatism is keeping her in power (Merkel, as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, does not support any change regarding the relationship between church and state).

The need to keep status quo and fear of what will replace the Christian tradition prevails, but there are still other European traditions – enlightenment, humanism, democracy – to build on. Maybe it’s time more people left their crumpled sweet wrappers on the pews and walked away.

Germany, Life in Berlin, News, politics

Opening of the Google Offices in Berlin

Opening of Google Offices BerlinOn Wednesday night, Google officially opened its offices at Unter den Linden 14. We used our best gate-crashing skills to get in, but the party was disappointing.

Google’s presence in Berlin will help the company influence government Internet policies. Germany’s strict privacy laws have recently resulted in a couple of high-profile cases being brought against the company here; Max Mosely is making a fuss because the site references photos of him taken at a sex party, and former wife of German President Bettina Wulff says it’s defamatory that her name appears in combination with ‘prostitute’ and ‘escort’ when typed into search. (Bettina happens to be releasing a book; the publicity can’t be bad for sales).

Although the Berlin office functions as a lobby, it has that colourful, nerdy, Googly feel aGoogle Offices Berlinbout it. The meeting rooms are named after Berlin clubs like Berghain and Weekend, you can doodle on chalkboards, lounge around on bean bags etc.

German newspapers such as Die Welt and Bild have been fascinated by the interior deco, but it felt predictable. Besides, hanging kinky toys on the wall is trying too hard…

The attempt to combine lobbying with the image of cool new media company also made the party fall flat. It started off promisingly, with proffered trays of cocktails in Google colours (blue, red, yellow and green) and an interesting flying buffet  (smoked quail eggs served with vegetarian caviar etc). A hypnotizing projection of a globe showed searches going on in different languages around the world, there was a photo booth to mess around in and a massive screen rendering Google Earth in 3D.

Google searches around the world; different colours represent different languages

This was ruined when chief lobbyist Annette Kroeber-Riel began her speech. It took 5 minutes for people to realise she was speaking, her speech was over-long and she read from paper. Then followed speeches from Hans-Joachim Otto (Deputy Economy Minister) and Nicolas Zimmer (Deputy Minister in the city of Berlin) and an uninteresting three-way video conversation using Google Hangouts, by which point everyone had stopped listening again. This would have been tolerable if alcohol was allowed to be served during speeches, but the folks at Google Berlin had told the bar staff to stop serving during this time, showing their true, dull colours.

There were a few celebrities on show, including Jette Joop, but altogether, it was pretty boring…

Looking at other coverage of this party makes me wonder whether those writers were at the same party as me, or whether they’re just making sure their articles will appear in search…

For more, read The Spiegel’s article on How Google Lobbies German Government

art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, politics

Exhibition Opening: Compass, drawings from MoMA New York

twombly, Kompass Zeichnungen aus dem Museum of Modern Art New YorkThe Bavarian, ever since deciding that we ought to buy some art for the flat, has been insisting that I refer to him as A Collector of Contemporary Art. I wouldn’t mind, if it weren’t for the fact that he has collected exactly zero pieces of art thus far. As usual, unlike a normal person, he has gone completely over the top with this art-business; we’ve visited artists’ studios, planned a trip to Leipzig (home of the New Leipzig School and Germany’s thriving art scene), and most ridiculously, he has convinced a gallery to DHL us a couple of paintings to hang in our flat while we decide whether we want to buy them or not. They arrive today.

It’s due to this new obsession that we attended the opening of Compass, a collection of 250 drawings from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York, curated by Christian Rattemeyer from over 2500 works aquired by Judith Rothschild between 2003-2005 and subsequently donated to the Museum.

Penis Hat, Paul McCarthy, 2001, Compass MoMAThe title of the exhibition – as well as referring to the compass as a drafting tool – reflects its aim of representing geographically distinct artistic centres; London, Glasgow, Los Angeles, New York, Cologne/Düsseldorf and Berlin. It features a wide range of artists including Jasper Johns, Georg Baselitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Hanne Darboven, Jeff Koons, Mona Hatoum, A.R. Penck, Donald Judd, David Hockney and Martin Kippenberger, bringing together historical, minimalist, abstract and conceptual works, detailed narrative drawings, collages and large-scale installations. The works range from the 1930s to 2005, providing a panorama of the state of drawing today, and are displayed in the freshly renovated rooms of Martin Gropius.

AereiThe Bavarian, due to his other obsession – planes – was particularly impressed by Alighiero e Boetti’s Aerei (left) and Mona Hatoum’s map of flight routes. He was unimpressed by the fact that the wine was not free, and that we had to sit through some boring speeches before getting to see the collection.

On the subject of speeches, the American ambassador made one and I was shocked to discover that he speaks German like a two-year-old. Yes, that’s right; the American ambassador to Germany cannot speak German because, unlike Britain and Germany who choose their ambassadors based on sensible criteria such as political experience, knowledge of the language, culture e.t.c, the Americans simply give these positions away as thank you notes. So it turns out that the US ambassador to Germany, Phillip Murphy, is a former Goldman Sachs banker who gave a massive donation to the Obama campaign. I never knew that…

Compass – Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art New York is open from 11 March to 29 May 2011 at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin

Life in Berlin, music, News, politics

Gazprom celebrates 20 years in Germany at the Berliner Philharmonie

You can say what you like about Russia’s largest energy company Gazprom, but they do know how to throw a party. Yesterday evening we found ourselves amidst a bunch of people, a disproportionate number of whom had face-lifts, celebrating the company’s 20 year partnership with BASF’s Wintershall in Germany.

Valery Gergiev Berliner Philharmonie 3 November 2010And how did Gazprom celebrate? They hired out the entire Philharmonie, invited 2000 people along to fill it, employed the services of Berlin Rundfunk Choir (Germany’s oldest radio choir) and flew in an entire orchestra from St Petersburg (the Marinsky Theatre Orchestra no less) along with conductor Valery Gergiev, who the New York Times describes as one of “Russia’s most potent cultural symbols.” Oh and they had pre and post-concert receptions flowing with food and wine, and dress code that stated that women should wear short dresses. Ah, the Russians…. 

The concert was wonderful; Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini followed by the third act of Wagner’s Parsifal – music chosen to represent Russio-German co-operation.

The evening, however, displayed a different type of co-operation; that between money, politics and music – a fact reflected by the attendees, from Vladimir V. Kotenev, former Russian Ambassador to Germany and recently appointed CEO of Gazprom, former politicians Egon Bahr , creator of the “Ostpolitik“, and Otto Schily ,  Minister of the Interior in Schröder’s cabinet (Schröder is currently head of Gazprom’s shareholder committee, and his taking the position was widely criticised as in this Washington Post article) to singer Vicky Leandros and Janice White, young ex-wife of German music producer Jack White.

Life in Berlin, News, politics

Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade

christopher street day berlin 2010Yesterday was the CSD Parade (or the Gay Pride Parade) in Berlin. The parade ran from Ku’damm to Brandenburg Gate and the entire area from Brandenburg Gate to The Victory Column was converted into a party zone crowded with gays drinking champagne, lesbians drinking beer, drag queens strutting about with seemingly no effort at all in six-inch high-heels and everyone in between.

The location ws perfect due to its proximity to the Tiergarten, which meant that people easily coud slip into the woods for a bit of hanky panky. (Tiergarten has traditionally been a gay cruising area). More poignantly, the city’s memorial for gay holocaust victims is also nearby. Approximately 54,000 men and women were convicted of homosexual acts under the Nazis and 7,000 died in the camps.

Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit gave a speech encouraging tolerance, and the motto for the day was ‘Normal ist anders’. The parade involved 64 groups, and attracted half a million people. However, of the groups in the parade, most of them – apart from the five political parties and a footballers’ group – were commercial groups such as Ikea and DildoKing.

Compared with Pride London, where almost every institution from the Metropolitan Police to teachers’ unions have a float, the Berlin parade seems to be politically impotent. Even the political parties were handing out general manifestos and agendas rather than specific info pertaining to gay rights. Perhaps this is an indicator that despite appearances Germany lags behind England when it comes to championing diversity and equality…

American gender theorist and Berkley lecturer Judith Butler, who was presented with a prize for civil courage on the CSD stage last night, critisied the march as too superficial and commercial. She rejected the prize and claimed preference for the alternative CSD, which due to take place is Kreuzberg next Saturday (see her speech on YouTube).

For more photos, the Tagesspiegel has a good gallery.

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Language, Life in Berlin, News, politics

English perverting the German language?

Last night, The Bavarian and I went to a terrace party in the Bundestag. At some point, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle showed up. Someone suggested that I should go and talk to him – in English. The joke being that Guido’s English is nicht so gut. Here’s a clip of him trying to answer a question in English a few years ago:

Did I mention that he’s the Foreign Minister? Then, at the end of last year, he was asked a question in English by a BBC journalist. This was his response:

Now, this man has turned his little insecurity about his ability to speak English into a political campaign to promote the German language and purify it of anglicisms. According to a recent article in The Economist, Guido would like the European Union’s diplomatic service to hire German-speakers, probably so he’ll finally be able to understand what the hell is going on.

Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer also jumped on board, saying that he would replace English words like ‘brainstorming’ and ‘meeting-points’ with ‘Ideensammlung’ and ‘Treffpunkte’. According to him, there is “no country in the world where people treat their own language so disrespectfully.”

He obviously hasn’t been to England. The English language is about as pure as the Gulf of Mexico right now. I’m pretty sure that English is polluted with more German words than vice versa: angst, kindergarten, sauerkraut, hamburger, lager, zeitgeist, schade, blitzkrieg, schnapps, schadenfreude…

If I were to get as touchy about my language as dear Guido seems to be about his, I would say that Germans are actually perverting English rather than the other way round. The use of ‘Handy’ to refer to a mobile phone, for instance. Or that jerky idiot Lena winning the Eurovision Song Contest by singing “Like a satellite I’m in an orbit all the way around you”  with terrible pronunciation. But I won’t, because the English model of openness has proved more successful than the French protectionist model that Guido would like to imitate. Sure, it leads to a lot of messed up English, but this gives entire blogs a reason to exist.

 (And why are the French and the Germans always so concerned about anglicisms? Why not go the whole way and say you’d like to purify the language of Italian and Russian words too?)

Languages are alive; they grow and evolve organically through usage. To try and curb that is futile, not to mention anti-democratic. The state has no business interfering with this process. The last time Germany tried, with the orthography reform of 1996, it proved disastrous; there were many opponents, including  Günter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Walter Kempowski and Christian Wulff, and the issue was taken up in the courts. Many editors refused to implement the new rules, and only very recently have newspapers incorporated them into their in-house orthographies (and not all of them at that). Most German people still disagree with the reform.

So, Guido, if you would like English lessons I’m available…

Life in Berlin, News, politics

May Day, Schönhauser Allee

Preparations for the 1st May around the Schönhauser Allee area started a day early; shops boarded up their windows and a police presence in Mauer Park prevented anyone from carrying in glass bottles and weapons. The result was a festive atmosphere, a ratio of two policemen per civilian and a disconcerting absence of beer bottles.

Today, contrary to my expectations, the atmosphere was much the same. I had heard that Berlin turned into a regular war zone on May Day, and this year had the potential to turn violent since a Neo-Nazi march was due to make its way from Bornholmer Strasse, through Schönhauser Allee to Landsberger Allee. The aim of the anti-demo protesters was to stop the demonstration, which the police have the right to do if it turns violent.

As it turned out, the approximatley 600 Neo-Nazis barely managed to make it out of Bornholmer Strasse; they were due to start their march at 12, and, after fires were started and arrests made, got moving at about 2.30 only to be turned back at the corner of Bornholmer Strasse and Schönhauser Allee and sent back home.

Some 250 Neo-Nazis foresaw that their effort to demonstrate might prove futile, as happened in Dresden in February of this year, and started an unofficial and therefore illegal protest on the Kudamm. Bottles and stones were thrown, and they were promptly arrested.

However, around the Schönhauser Allee area, there was hardly any violence. Music played, while families with children, punks, anarchists (mostly identified by their Schwarzer Block style clothing) and hippies danced, sang, shouted slogans, sat in the road, drank and ate and had a party in the traffic-free streets. The atmosphere was so laid back that someone even dragged a sofa out on to the road to sit on.

The diverse crowd no doubt reflected the fact that almost everyone is against the Nazis, and the politicians took advantage of the fact. Wolfgang Thiere, Deputy President of the Deutsche Bundestag (The Bavarian accidentally stepped on his foot once) sat down at Bornholmer Strasse to stop the march, and on the corner of Greifenhagener Strasse, Christian Ströbele, the Green MP for Friedrichshain, gave a speech. Representatives from the SPD, DKP (communist), the Left Party and the unions (Verdi and DGB) were also waving their flags around.

There was a massive police presence; between six and seven thousand police from all over Germany have come to Berlin for the first of May.  Most of them seemed to come from Bavaria, which pleased The Bavarian greatly.

Police dogs barked while helicopters droned above (apparently, the police increase the sound of their helicopters in crowd situations to make their presence felt) – but there was no need for all that as everything remained peaceful apart from a few trouble makers.

Tonight, however, will probably be a very different story – in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg it is almost certain that Molotov cocktails, stones and bottles will be lobbed, street fights will break out and cars set on fire.

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Sorry about the spelling mistake in the above video – can’t seem to replace the video on YouTube, so I’m just going to leave it!

Life in Berlin, politics

Summer in Berlin

Yesterday, it felt like summer for the first time in the city and the Berliners were out doing what they do best; lounging around in parks, cafes and restaurants. 

Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg
Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg

In Prenzlauer Berg the place to be was Mauer Park, where people were playing frisbee, basketball, bowls, walking on tightropes, juggling, barbecuing, singing, dancing, making music, listening to music, talking, sleeping, taking off their clothes and tanning, strolling around the flea market, eating and drinking beer….lots of beer. 

In the middle of the park, there was a mad version of karaoke going on, where anyone could step up from the crowd of about 500 people and entertain them with a song. I’ve just found out that this is a regular Mauer Park tradition – they even have a facebook page –  here’s a clip from last year…

Ah, I love Berlin in the summer. When it’s sunny in this city, the punks, families and bohemian types all come out to play and the city flaunts its laid back, cool vibe that is part of its charm. 

Next weekend however, Mauer Park will probably be very different, no matter how sultry the weather; on May 1st Neo-Nazis from all over Europe are gathering in Prenzlauer Berg to demonstrate, and where there are Nazis there are leftists and other protesters.

Although Mauer Park is traditionally a place where people gather on the 1st May, and has seen its fair share of riots, it has calmed down in recent years. In 2009 there was no rioting at all, just a party. This year however I expect Mauer Park will become a battle field, very different from the peace, love and beer atmosphere of yesterday.

Germany, history, politics

When in doubt, blame the Germans

One of the great things about going out with a German is that you can always have the last word in every conflict by saying, “Yes, but we won the war”. Or something to that effect. “Yes, but we didn’t murder six million Jews” or “Yes, but you started two world wars” also work. Even if the argument is about whose turn it is to mop the living room, The Bavarian will invariably feel a stab of guilt, pick up the mop and start cleaning in the furious manner in which Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands. It’s a dirty trick, but I’m not the only one exploiting the great burden of German Guilt.

It seems that the EU’s policy of ‘don’t mention the war’, which is essential if Europe is to move on unitedly, is not working. Germany has paid her reparations and shown much good will and support to both Poland and Greece (Walter Wullenweber of Stern Magazine recently calculated that Germans have given each Greek $12,200 since 1981), which begs the question, when will the wounds of the war heal in Europe? Will this guilt trip ever end?

For a full account, Time magazine has a good article covering this Greece-Germany conflict.

history, Life in Berlin, politics

The Anarchists of Friedrichshain

They cannot be ignored any longer – the anarchists are demanding attention. 

Cars have been burning in Friedrichshain every night over the past few weeks due to police raids and the shutting down of ‘housing-projects’, buildings illegally occupied by anarchists and usually identified by graffiti or the black-and-red flags flying from their roofs or windows. In addition, on 3rd December anarchists attacked police stations, cars and government buildings in Berlin, coinciding with anarchist riots in Greece over the anniversary of the death of a 15 year old boy who was shot and killed by police one year ago. All this proved to be a bit too much for the Interior Senator of Berlin, Ehrhart Körting from the SPD, who further fuelled the fire on Wednesday by comparing the radical left to fascists. 

No doubt, as many an exasperated Berliner will tell you, especially around the 1st of May, when nothing short of a full blown war breaks out on the streets of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, these anarchists don’t really have any ideological purpose – just some vague sense that they are against everything in the world, a tendency toward violence and the knowledge that there is a scene for this kind of thing in Berlin. We’ve all seen the images of anarchists taking part in anti-capitalist riots whilst wearing Nike trainers, but there is also something unique about the anarchists of Berlin that is related to the city’s history. 

DDR Flats
DDR Flats

Most of the city’s artists, intellectuals and generally unruly types have traditionally lived in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain because this is where all the old houses are. In the 1970s the totalitarian communist state calculated that it would be cheaper to build brand new blocks of flats fully equipped with modern amenities rather than to renovate the old houses – which resulted in these beautiful buildings you can see in the photo. 

Consequently, lots of people moved out of their old apartments into brand new homes, leaving many of these old buildings empty. The people who replaced them and deliberately chose  to squat in these old flats with only one toilet per floor and no central heating or hot water, did so because they refused to have every aspect of their lives controlled by the state. 

To this day, these houses have not been renovated and the people living there are still sharing toilets and so on. There’s something admirable in that, as is there in being alternative in a country where people will stand at a crossing and wait for the green man to flash before they step out into the road even when there isn’t a single car in sight. It is also quite an achievement that the anarchists of Berlin set fire to so many cars that there’s a special website that keeps count of just how many Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Volkswagens, are lost to them everyday.

It’s a shame that these housing projects are being shut down in Friedrichshain- they make Berlin colourful and original.  Just as the DDR tried to dictate how people should live, the capitalist ideology is forcing itself on these buildings which will all eventually be renovated and occupied by richer, more agreeable types.  In Prenzlauer Berg this gentrification has already happened – the Bavarian and I are part of the new, trendy crowd that are replacing the alternative lot. The result? Prenzlauer Berg is boring. Most of the houses have been renovated and look the same – a classier and subtler homogenisation than the DDR blocks – but a homogenisation none the less. 

I think I might have to go and set a car on fire….

The Spiegal has a good Berlin squat eviction gallery, as does the Taggespiegal.

Life in Berlin, politics

The Art of Political Lobbying

This week German parliament was fully underway, which meant that various pressure groups were swinging from the chandeliers of the lobbies desperately trying to find a way in.

I’ve never understood political lobbying – it all seems so simplistic and corrupt. Take for example E-Plus´s attempt to limit free access to content on the web on Wednesday night, when they hosted a Mobile meets Movies evening.

No matter how much wine they plied you with, nothing could shake off the corporate atmosphere that clung to the whole affair. This was partly due to the fact that E-Plus’s Unter den Linden offices are…very officey; photocopiers, bland abstract art and grey carpets all the way.

Moreover, the people at E-Plus did not really care about the topic Mobile meets Movies, and scarcely bothered to hide the fact. We expected something vaguely in line with Virgin Shorts, The Pocket Film Festival and creative uses of new media; we got two short films – one from 1981 and the other from 1989 – shown in a meeting room normally used for PowerPoint presentations. Now why would they pick two very old films when there are thousands of brilliant short films made every year, especially in Berlin? One; the people organising the event had no interest in movies, and two, one of them was made by Lutz Dammbeck, filmmaker and Professor of New Media, which brings me to the low point of the evening.

After the films, we were subjected to a lecture from the aforementioned Professor and Christoph Keese, a journalist who works for Axel Springer AG, Germany’s largest newspaper publishing company and owner of the Bild.

Both of them spent the next hour and a half pleading for the limitation of free content on the web using the stupid arguments. For example, that free web content would result in there being less artists in the world, which is the stupidest statement I’ve heard since Elton John suggested that the Internet should be cut off for 5 years to encourage creativity.  If anything, the Internet democratises and encourages creativity – and it’s not just losers like me that are using it – Elfriede Jelinek, the feminist anti-capitalist former Nobel Prize Winner is shunning massive advances to publish her latest writings online for free.

In short, both the journalist (for the profit of his paper) and the filmmaker (for his art) were dancing around like apes trying to protect their territory.

It was with this attitude of annoyance that I went to an event hosted by Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, who wish to extend the service life of nuclear power stations, the following day. While I had previously not really cared one way or another about free content on the web (although by Wednesday night my opinion very strongly against that of E-Plus), I have never really been in favour of nuclear power stations so I was geared up to start an argument with the first suit I saw.

However, when we arrived at The 12 Apostles, the party was in full swing and there was no one round to have a serious argument with. The restaurant, situated under three arcs of the S-Bahn between Friedrichstrasse and Hackesher Markt, had a self-service buffet in each room as well as a flying buffet. There were also several wine bars, beer bars, cocktail bars, a fresh sushi bar and a cigar bar where you could get a genuine latina to roll you a fresh cigar (unfortunately not between her thighs).  In the red smokey atmosphere, surrounded by religious frescos with the train rumbling occasionally overhead, we felt like we were having a party in the depths of hell.

There were no speeches, no-one telling you what they wanted and why, just pure, sinful decadence. Sure there were lots of evil-looking Mr Burns types around, however, there were also quite a few well-known faces – Andrea Nahles (deputy and gerneral secretary of the SPD), German soap stars, Peter Scholl-Latour (non-fiction writer and documentary filmmaker) and Heiner Bremer (former anchor man and TV journalist). What were they all doing there? Who cares. What do I think about nuclear power stations? Well, here’s a short piece of free web content to help express my thoughts: