Friday, 23 May 2014

Berlin Wonderland

Last night was the first presentation of Berlin Wonderland, a book about what happened in Berlin immediately after the Wall came down, subtitled "Wild years revisited 1990-1996". It's a photo book, mainly, featuring many previously unpublished pictures by people directly involved in filling the cultural vacuum created in the middle of the city. All black-and-white, the photos show a place so different to Berlin-Mitte now that it's hard to believe they were taken only twenty years ago. Many of the area's houses looked like ruins, Tacheles of course being the prime example. And there were squats and makeshift bars and art made of fighter planes, abandoned cars and, yes, wild years.

The photos almost speak for themselves, but the book also gives us very brief statements from what it calls "protagonists" - artists, squatters, musicians, people who came to Berlin especially to experience what was feasible here and people who grew up here and knew their way in and out of the vacant buildings. And these are what made me shiver with excitement - people felt that anything was possible, in a time and place between states, between nation states and political systems but also almost between solid and liquid. It wasn't a safe place; we learn about fires and fascists, people who died or committed suicide. But it was a place where things could get done without worrying about where to get funding or how to pay the rent, and the protagonists were young and carefree, it seems to me.

I was here for some of that time but in a different world, doing different things, and I was younger. Reading the book, seeing the photos on screen at the event, accompanied by a performance on an analogue synthesizer, I felt most of all the wish that I'd been part of it all. It was tough to be surrounded by people who knew each other from those days, sighing over the pictures, chatting and drinking and smoking afterwards and blocking the pavement outside ocelot on the first sweltering night of a long summer, and not to know them. I went for a walk to compare and contrast - ach, Berlin - and then went back and bought the book.

The makers, bobsairport, run a photo agency and started out, they said, by looking for a publisher for the project. But no one wanted to commit so they've done it themselves, in wild years style. Except of course it's not a photostat fanzine with grainy pictures – it's a gorgeous piece of design, distributed by Gestalten. Because these enthusiastic kids have grown up; the bios at the back of the book tell us that most of them are still playing a major role in Berlin's culture, from journalism to dance to sound engineering.

Berlin Wonderland is a treat, to be read by guttering candlelight on rooftops or between piles of rubble by the roadside. The text is in German with a fine English translation by Wilf Moss, plus an introduction by my friend David Wagner. He wasn't there last night, too busy receiving the first ever organ donation award for his book Leben.

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