Category Archives: CITIES

The sad truth about time travel

This article is the first thing I ever published after moving to Australia – it was published in 2007 in a Central European (Czech, I think) magazine called Plotki. For some reason, I didn’t have it archived on GS until now.

Mother used to recoil in horror remembering her younger sister saying, in full-force adolescent renaissance, Things aren’t like in your time! This was the moment of truth; mother was not at the forefront of history anymore. Mother was just one of the generations that got it wrong.

I understand my mother now. Things aren’t like in my space anymore, and Marx already established that space is time. The inevitable march of history means some societies are ahead and some are limping, looking at their backs. That’s why we have economic development: to even out time.

Things aren’t like in your time

My Australian parents-in-law and I went out for lunch to a Croatian restaurant. It was “traditional cuisine” right in the middle of Melbourne, Australia; the waiters wore national costumes and folk music was playing. I never returned. It placed my food squarely in some long-gone time.

Parents-in-law try to relate to my life, find things in common and, in a sense, we have a lot in common. We are mentally the same generation, they perhaps only slightly younger. They tell me about great-aunts and uncles. One in particular was legendary material; she learnt to cook from her mother, they say, like everyone in her generation. I remember my parents’ notes on the stove. After three hours taste the beans. Add paprika if necessary. I say nothing.

The age-old tradition of markets has recently been revived, here, so I buy unmediated food. Parents-in-law once came to lunch. I sat down with them over a big bowl of beans to shell. They observed very curiously, asked what kind of beautiful beans they were. I don’t think we’ve ever had them. I had to tell them brown [borlotti] beans look like that, purple, spotted and shiny, before they are canned. They wanted to help and asked how one shells beans.

Parents-in-law, instead, offer me only vaguely Asian food. None of that meat-and-two-vegetables stuff; that’s tradition, that’s passé. Father-in-law is proud how mother can cook anything, from Lebanese to Japanese, only if she has the recipe. (They haven’t learnt to cook from their parents.) They will happily tell you how certain people traditionally eat a cold dish in summer, a heavy dish in winter, and always cook from scratch, but then they will happily disregard it all and assemble a vegetarian substitute-turkey for their summery Australian Christmas.

Generations of the New World

In countries like Australia, people come to terms with their society by stereotyping each generation into results of market research. Baby boomers of the post-war, Generation X of the nineties, Generation Y of today, things I always thought were a crude joke, are a serious matter here. Government policies are based on fears of all baby boomers retiring together; all Generation X-ers refusing to have children; all Generation Y-ers being caring and kind. It is demographics gone science-fiction. Even the generation coming up has already been defined. The name is still undecided, however it is certain they will be scarred by their pessimistic, detached X parents.

There are many things this generation of twentysomethings, of people who look precisely my age, does not know. Market analysts will tell you. They do not know hardship. They do not know poverty. They do not know insecurity. They do not know political instability. They do not know welfare state. They do not know wartime. They do not know their own grammar and they were never educated for general knowledge, but for the labour market. They have never played on the street as children, never had to walk to school, protected from the unimaginable evils of the outside world, from the kidnappers and paedophiles. They are, thus: self-absorbed, naïve, simplistic, yet generous and well-balanced, natural-born givers. They are optimistic, and yet they do not take anything too seriously.

The older generation grumbles: the kids are delusional, they have never had it so easy, we went through real hardship. We lived through the fear of the nuclear winter, we had to buy our own houses. (We had jobs for life, free education and social welfare.) We had to play on the street!

I know insecurity, poverty, political instability, surreal inflation, welfare state and wartime. I know grammar and have general knowledge like shit itself. I played on the street. I am from another time, now romanticized. Where I come from, gay rights are not passé and Third-World poverty lives around the corner. Thus, I am not this Generation Y. I am reckless, selfish, pragmatic, organized, I cook from scratch and I am still concerned with the old-fashioned: politics, feminism, philosophy.

But not changing the world. Instead, my priority in life is to forget that nothing is solid, believe in stability. Sometimes it seems Australians of my age don’t really believe in war. Could it be that I, deep inside, don’t believe in peace?

History fast-forwarding

There is a plausible explanation. I was born in a time heaving with history. I was born in a country that went through a historical transformation, the discourse went, in order to right centuries of historical wrongs. Croatia was a realization of a thousand-year-old dream, the megaphones were ringing, hundreds of years of history were fast-forwarding in those few years of my childhood. We had a quarter-century worth of inflation condensed in two years, a historical excess of death, the packaging and marketing changes in confectionery that had been pending for fifty years all occurred together. Enough events to inspire two hundred years worth of folklore, and pathological behaviour that will fuel a century of sociological research. I saw everything change, then change again.

I then found myself in a country with no past, country galloping into an optimistic future. Ten years ago is ancient history, I am told by people who roll eyes at the nineties. Their entire written history is shorter than the last outburst of ethnic paranoia in the Balkans.

Sometimes I feel like some modern-day Orlando who has witnessed human history. I have covered the period from pre-historic tribal hatred to iris scanning at airports. I watch neo-realist films with deep nostalgia, seeing my own childhood in those children running up and down car-less streets, barefoot and skinny, free from the overprotection of some other, idler, more suburban parents; and yet I am equally fluent in post-modern angst.

Time travel wears you out. I am not at the forefront of history anymore. I am, truth be told, somewhat tired. I have, accidentally, become the stereotypical migrant from the poor East, standing in the corners of old, black and white photos with a sour face. I get irritated over little things: dishes unwashed, lunch uncooked, train cancelled. I have an order that needs to be kept. The order gives me space for sanity. Mother used to be the same, coming home from work, snapping at some dirty dishes, some precious food that she had plans for, and that I had eaten without notice. Mother herself had lived through some heavy history.

Not all is lost, though. I hear proposals to listen to “traditional knowledge” of pre-modern people, and find a way to live without air-conditioning, cars and frozen food. This is a cause for optimism, because they might make a full circle one day, and from past I will emerge in the future.

The other night I was told about cutting-edge environmentally-friendly engineering: external shutters on windows to keep the heat out! I admitted it was a brilliant idea. They manufacture them now, although they still have not invented a mechanism to keep the shutters closed, but windows open underneath. I have offered to find contacts among the carpenters in rural Croatia. The technical solution of our village houses and their funky shutters might be exactly what they need.

The Adolescent City / Ryan Reynolds of The Gap Filler at TEDxEQChCh

I am doing a small research on interim uses (also called temporary, meanwhile, pop-up), and researching the work of organisations such as The Gap Filler in Christchurch as a part of it.

What makes this video so lovely, so so very lovely, is in how Ryan Reynolds, a performance scholar, brings together a fundamentally urbanist practice and performance theory. And how he is able to explain the meaning of one through the concepts of the other.

Every so often, I feel very at home in someone’s thinking, and this was one such instance.

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Robert Dessaix: Arabesques

It often strikes me anew how many of my favourite artists are men on the fringes of gayness, men who are not heterosexual, but are not quite at home in whatever we might call the ‘gay world’, the however-much-coherent culture it is. These men have followed me through my life, right from the start: Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and finally Robert Dessaix. I’m not sure, not yet sure, if it’s a personal affinity I feel, or if their profound non-belonging, queerness about as fundamental as it can get, has sharpened both their sensibility and their minds, and made them able to accurately perceive the complexity of, and judge with understanding, both the world and themselves.

In any case, Robert Dessaix is perhaps my favourite Australian writer (speaking empirically, I enjoy Dessaix’s writing often and much). Reading Arabesques in parallel with a scholarly history of the Arab world is a great pleasure, because the shortcomings of each book cancel each other out. Whereas one provides clear facts ad dull nauseam, the light and self-centred (and West-centred) musings of the other are the easiest to enjoy when you, as a reader, feel confidently knowledgeable about the places and people he encounters to enjoy your read dialogically.

When I read Dessaix, I often find many quotes to quote, of both kinds: sometimes I feel like Dessaix says things I think and feel, and sometimes I feel Dessaix is being told things I would like many (Australian) people to know and understand better. In particular, I felt great relief when Dessaix was prepared to dissect the Protestant nature of his own culture. It is one of those aspects of Australia I find most infuriatingly, bafflingly, indefensibly horrible, and so much of it comes from its own extremism (if there is one great notion that Protestant Christian culture has no grasp of, it is the concept of balance or moderation, and the best way to understand this is to observe people’s eating habits). They are good quotes for a Saturday afternoon, and I type quickly, so here they are:

1. on happiness

‘You Westerners,’ Yacoub said with his usual elegant weariness, ‘seem fixated on the idea of happiness. You chase after it everywhere, yet you never seem to catch hold of it. I understand pleasure, comfort, beauty, passion, peace, love…’
‘You? Love?’ Zaïda was open-mouther. A drop of violet ice-cream trickled down her chin.
‘…but I don’t understand what you mean by “happiness”.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, trying to head Zaïda off before she made a fool of herself. This was the woman who had once rung her lover to thank him for a bouquet of white roses he’d sent her for her birthday and eaten them, petal by petal, while they exchanged honeyed nothings across the Atlantic.
‘Camus came up with the perfect definition.’
‘Camus!’ Zaïda looked puzzled. ‘But he committed suicide.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? Clamence in The Fall says: “I took pleasure in my own nature, and we all know that that’s what happiness. is.”
‘That’s a rather self-satisfied, self-serving notion of happiness, don’t you think?’ I hadn’t supposed that Miriam would give in without a tussle. ‘What about…’
‘Feeding the hungry? Helping the blind to cross the street? I’m not talking about the morality of it, I’m just saying that that’s what we Westerners, as Yacoub calls us, want in order to be happy: the right to take pleasure in our own nature as we see fit.’
‘Whereas we Orientals only want the right to take pleasure in God’s.’ Yacoub smiled one of his smiles.
‘But you don’t believe in God – you told me so yourself in Blidah.’
‘No, I don’t believe in God, and I’m not an atheist.’

2. on protestantism

…surely there are two kinds of forgetting: one is forever and the other is a momentary frenzy. Well, the frenzy might last a month or even a few years, but it doesn’t blot out memory for good. IT’s just taking your hidden self out for an airing.
‘Even some Buddhist monks,’ I said to Daniel, as we walked back to the car, ‘have days of divine madness. It keeps them sane. They take up with loose women and go on drunken rampages.’
‘Yes, it’s called “Crazy Wisdom”. It’s Tibetan’ How annoying that he should know that. ‘And it’s not about “keeping sane”, it’s about flux. It’s about taming instead of clinging, and then letting go. I have the feeling that your Gide may have been too Protestant to believe in flux. He probably believed in virtue and sin.’ I think he partly meant me. But he had a point: Protestants are particularly given to dualities such as sin and virtue, belief and unbelief, spirit and matter. It’s one thing or the other with us. Catholics, on the other hand, have ways of striking a bargain with God. Flux is something they understand.

(There follows a 10-or-20-page discussion of being a Protestant heathen, of Catholic comfort versus Protestant austerity, of Protestantism leading naturally to atheism, etc – but which I am too lazy to reproduce here.)

3. on travel

‘When the absurdity of my life begins to nauseate me, I don’t commit suicide, you see, as Camus did, I travel.’
‘How could being in Algeria make your life less absurd? If life is nauseatingly absurd anywhere in this world, it’s in Algeria.’
‘It doesn’t make life any less absurd, but for a few days, a week, a month, it can make mine seem worth living. I can take pleasure there in my own nature.’ This sounded less flippant than Gide’s observation about places where he found himself interesting – but it amounted to much the same thing, I suppose. ‘In a way I can’t at home – or at any rate not often.’
‘Like Gide, do you mean? Les petits musiciens?’
‘Yes and no, actually. Travel is an art, it seems to me, just like painting or writing a novel, it crystallises things. It crystallises me. Whenever I feel that I’m on the point of disappearing, dissolving into a thousand selves – and that happens when you don’t feel you have a single source – I make art. I tell myself a story, I tell others a story, and I travel. And tell stories about my travels. I crystallise anew. (…) I make art – and travel – both to remember and to forget. Like a crystal, you see – both solid and translucent at the same time.’
‘To remember and forget what, precisely?’
‘To remember who I’ve been and also who I wanted to be, to write a new script and act it out without shame. To find my source.’
‘That sounds like God again. And does it work?’
‘No, of course not, but that’s no reason to stay at home. But I also travel – and write – to forget, to sink into the river of unmindfulness, to be utterly transparent, crystal-clear, to just be.’
‘And does that work?’
‘For a day or two, if I’m lucky.’

4. on how Australians perceive Europeans

Yacoub spoke with his accustomed world-weariness tinged with mischief and, as usual, he was annoyingly difficult to read.

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The conservatism of youth OR Gen Y OR Australia…

The problem does not lie with technology. A glance around the globe shows that the youth of other countries are doing a fantastic job of combining online with offline civic activism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement and anti-austerity protests in Europe show youth tweeting and Facebooking their way to radical street protest. It seems Australia is the only country where youth are cocooned in narcissistic conservatism. They’re more concerned about their own economic future at a time of wild prosperity than environmental destruction or any number of disadvantaged groups.

Brittany Ruppert, a Herald intern, attributes her generation’s apathy to prosperity. They have never had anything to fight for, except home ownership. It’s plausible. But why is a 20-year-old worried about home ownership rather than global poverty, gender discrimination or climate change? The world is more interesting than a mortgage! I’m not sure why Australia has been burdened with such a mind-numbing, spirit-crushingly boring generation of young people. Are they just Howard’s children? Is reducing your dreams to the size of a suburban home the price of prosperity?

All I know is that there is nothing more tragic than a generation without spirit.

via Why oh why, Gen Y, are you so nauseatingly conservative?.

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NUMMI and Japanese management

This is about two things very dear to me: Asia and industrial production. (I imagine nobody who reads Guerrilla Semiotics knew how much I am into industry until this moment, so I welcome you into the know. Just the other day I regretfully thought about how, among all the low-paid jobs I’ve ever had, I have missed out on working on the factory floor. One day I will write a long post about how industrial production is incredibly important, but I don’t think that day is today.)

Europe is very many beautiful things, but it tends towards arrogance and chauvinism – especially towards Asia, perhaps because Asia is the immediate threat, the rising competition. In my past 12 months in Germany, I have seen more incidents of open, upfront, unembarrassed racism than I have seen in 6 years in Australia (although, to be precise, it came largely from French and Italian people, not from Germans; the two times I had to break some of that residual sense of propriety we have towards haters and say ‘You are a racist’, the person saying ‘No, I’m not!’ to my ‘Yes, you are a racist’ was in both situations French).

One of the most common ways in which Europeans flatter themselves is by claiming that Asia / Asians may be doing well economically, but they have no tradition of democracy, critical thinking, and the respect for the individual. In particular, democracy gets a lot of talk-time, because Asians are considered to be prone to group-think and totalitarianism, and the example given tends to be Mao Zedong. Racism towards Asian people is rife throughout the white people’s world, and I have seen it in Australia (very often people claiming to be ‘afraid of China’s rise’ or some such thing), and I’ve seen it among educated people who hold dearly values of openness and tolerance (which is to say, it is important to them to feel that they’re open-minded and tolerant), but in Europe I was quite astounded at how readily this thesis of there is no respect for the individual in Asia was bandied about by people who knew nothing about Asia.

So, anyway: NUMMI. I’ve discovered the story of NUMMI on This American Life, and I recommend it to anyone who likes to learn new things about the world. NUMMI was one of the worst-performing car manufacturing plants within General Motors, plagued by low performance, open hostility between management and the workers, and very poor work discipline among the workers (something like 1/5 of the workers were absent at any time). It closed and then re-opened, keeping the same workers, as a part of a deal between GM and Toyota, in the 1970s. As a part of the deal, NUMMI would produce cars for Toyota, but had to learn to operate under the management rules of Toyota, which are as representative of the Japanese work culture as General Motors is representative of the American management practices.

You can listen to the entire radio program here, as well as read the transcript, but here are a few highlights outlining what happened. For training, NUMMI workers were flown to Japan, where they spent 3 months learning how to operate on a Japanese factory floor.

The key to the Toyota production system was a principle so basic it sounds like an empty management slogan– teamwork. Back home in Fremont, GM supervisors ordered around large groups of workers. The Takaoka plant, people were divided into teams of just four or five– switch jobs every few hours to relieve the monotony. And a team leader would step in to help whenever anything went wrong.

Continue reading “NUMMI and Japanese management” »

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Spatial poetics: Berlin spricht… für sich

via BERLIN SPRICHT FÜR SICH on Vimeo.

I don’t think you need to know German to enjoy this video.

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Berlin-Kreuzberg, 1979 on Vimeo

Schlesisches Tor und Umgebung
Das Bildmaterial ist der Dokumentation “Spreeufer Süd-Ost” aus der Reihe “Berlinische Berichte” von Ingeborg Euler entnommen.
Musik: Brian Eno – “Dunwich Beach, Autumn 1960″ aus “Ambient 4 – On Land”
Montage: Falko Brocksieper

I have never been able to quite wrap my head around the appeal of the Berlin Divided, Berlin during the Cold War, Berlin with the wall cutting through. You see the camera in this film circling around Schesischen Tor, but always unable to get from it to my house, because my house is on the other side of the wall. I cross this path almost every day, and the film fills me with sadness.

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City-making: Prinzessinnengärten


(in English)


(in German, but with more detail and better music)

On 24th of August 2012, Prinzessinnengärten (Princess Gardens) sent out a petition, thus worded:

Petition
“Establish A Sustainable Future For The Prinzessinnengarten”

To: The Berlin Senate

—————-

The future of the Prinzessinnengarten is uncertain. The Property Fund plans to sell the city-owned plot at Moritzplatz. The Property Fund has been commissioned to sell the plot on behalf of the Berlin Senate. This could mean the imminent end of the garden.

Open spaces offer opportunities for social engagement and new forms of urban life. They are part of the creative, beautiful and wild Berlin that is so fervently espoused by politicians. Moritzplatz exemplifies the threat to such spaces, but also the opportunities that arise from them. It could become a model for forward-looking property policies that takes into account the value of places such as the Prinzessinnengarten and that include citizens on an equal footing and from an early stage.
In order to establish a sustainable future for the Prinzessinnengarten and to appropriately involve the neighborhood around Moritzplatz in the development of their living environment, we demand the following:

– the extension of the Prinzessinnengarten lease for 5 years.

– forward-looking civic participation that appropriately takes into account the diversity and different needs of residents.

– secure planning prospects for urban garden projects and other forms of social participation that do justice to the value – also recognized by the Senate – that such places and projects have for the city. (…)

The campaign to secure the future of the garden ended on 18th of December 2012, when the group released the following press release:

Press statement of Prinzessinnengarten, released December 18th

Dear press representatives,

In the last few months, we started a campaign (“Let it grow!”) to secure a future for Prinzessinnengarten. We are more than happy to inform you that this campaign was successful. Last Friday the ground was laid for the “beautiful and wild” urban green of Prinzessinengarten to thrive in the coming years.

WIDE SUPPORT FOR THE PETITION OF PRINZESSINNENGARTEN: MORE THAN 30,000 SIGNATURES COLLECTED
On hearing the news that closure threatened Prinzessinnengarten, many people spontaneously offered us their support. More than 30.000 people signed our petition regarding the future of the garden. It is the broad support for the cause of the garden that made the difference.

A STEP TOWARDS A SUSTAINABLE POLICY IN THE MANAGEMENT OF PUBLIC PROPERTY IN BERLIN
On the 14th of December, the board of the Berlin Property Fund agreed to the request of the Borough Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain: to return the land properties located at Moritzplatz and at the former site of Maria on the Spree to the Borough. A new perspective for the future of Prinzessinnengarten and Yaam opens up. According to Mr. Schulz, Mayor of the Borough, these two projects are crucial to Berlin. He considers Prinzessinnengarten as a free space laboratory for a sustainable development of the city. The decision in favor of Yaam and Prinzessinnengarten also indicates a step forward in a sustainable real estate policy, in which social, cultural and ecological criterions are taken into serious consideration; it is a strong signal in the appreciation of free-spaces in this city.

A SUCCESS, WHICH ONLY A FEW BELIEVED IN, AND THAT WAS ONLY MADE POSSIBLE COLLECTIVELY
We thank all the people, partners and initiatives, who supported us and engaged in our campaign “Wachsen Lassen!”(“Let it grow!”) for the future of Prinzessinnengarten in the last few months.

CROWD FUNDING FOR PRINZESSINNENGARTEN
To support Prinzessinnengarten we also started a crowd funding action (www.startnext.de/prinzessinnengarten)

STATEMENTS
Robert Shaw:
“The garden has now a future. It is a milestone for us, and hopefully, it will also point at a change of direction in the policy of the Berlin Property Fund”

Marco Clausen:
“Moritzplatz is an enchanted place, where another fairy tale came true. First of all, a garden grew out of a wasted land. And now, with the help of many, many people, a future is made possible for this urban garden. This could be exemplary for a sustainable management of public property in our city.”

CONTACT
Marco Clausen: mc@prinzessinnengarten.net / mobil: 0049(0)179.7313995
Robert Shaw: rs@prinzessinnengarten.net / mobil: 0049(0)176.24332297
Mail: kontakt@prinzessinnengarten.net
Web: www.prinzessinnengarten.net

I originally wanted to show these videos to my (largely non-German) readers as an example of spatial poetics, a way of conceptualising urban space that I thought was very representative of both the 2010s, and of Berlin in this period. Prinzessinnengärten is hipster urbanism, Berlin-style. It’s a fun-oriented, green-oriented, socially oriented project run commercially: we could roughly put it in the ‘social enterprise’ basket and not be wrong. (What makes it hipster? Oh dear. Everything that it isn’t: it’s a one-off project, not part of an infrastructure network; it’s not voluntary but run for money; in fact, to be precise, it’s run for glory, as an architectural project, with its own website, a company behind, it’s meant to increase someone’s public profile; it’s trading on Cool, not on Lame; it speaks to the values of the urban middle class, particularly its familied members in mid-thirties, rather than trying to be a service to the poor; and, finally, it is a neat little package of beauty and utility in balance, not a mere cash cow.)

But then they won, and I surprised myself by how happy that made me. Moritzplatz is a short walk from my house, and Prinzessinnengärten is doing a fine job gentrifying a corner of my Kiez, my neighbourhood – but, the more time I spent writing the paper I’m currently writing, on Zwischennutzungen / interim uses in Berlin, the more I realised that the story is more complicated. First, while aesthetically and functionally this really is hipster urbanism, it has an infinitely more positive function in Berlin than it would, on the surface, in another place. BECAUSE of the circumstances of its existence.

Prinzessinnengärten is a Zwischennutzung / interim use. What is a Zwischennutzung (ZN)? In the German planning law, it is defined as a ‘use which takes place while the OFFICIAL land use cannot be actualised, because of the unfavourable market conditions’. Because it’s not meant to be permanent, planning regulations for the ZN are relaxed. A land owner will often accept, or even promote, a ZN because it gives them a (usually small) rental income on an empty property, because it raises the profile of the land by bringing people there, because it gives them a user to take care of the property and keep its condition habitable, and because it saves them costs on security. It is expected that a ZN will only result in small and reversible renovations. ZN might be a shop, a cafe, a garden, an art or music event, a cinema, a sports’ park, a kindergarten, a beach… anything. The council often mediates between the user and the owner to facilitate ZNs, because they are good for the neighbourhood. And users are attracted to starting up ZNs, because they offer an opportunity to experiment with business ideas at very low upfront costs (because of the lack of regulations, permits required, etc).

Interim uses have spread around the world, but I’m pretty sure they were invented in Berlin – at least the popular form that is now touted as potentially revolutionising cities and helping renew neighbourhoods (Renew Newcastle & Renew Australia, The Gap Filler, and similar). What got lost in translation between Berlin and the world has been the seriousness, the creativity, the sense of agency and political rights that Berliners brought to ZNs, and the social consciousness with which they’ve acted. In Melbourne, a pop-up use is a cafe serving single-origin espressos for 3-4 weeks during which it’s the hot thing in town. In Berlin, a typical interim use might be a youth club organising a kindergarten, providing family services and a weekend flea market, organising workshops for kids at risk and a parkour park, and concerts in the evening, and it might have been in the same place for 18 years (the thing I’ve just described almost corresponds to YAAM, a project which also almost closed, and then didn’t, together with Prinzessinnengärten).

Prinzessinnengärten and YAAM were in danger: YAAM was served notice by its private landlord, after 18 years of at-best 6-month lease contracts. Prinzessinnengärten was leasing public land which was scheduled to be sold off this winter. Berlin’s vacant public land is managed by Liegenschaftsfonds (Berlin Propery Fund), which is required, by Berlin laws to sell to the highest bidder. After all, the two uses were interim from the start, nothing exceptional was going on. They both led campaigns to prove what good urban infrastructure they, good social, environmental, etc, services. But so have many such places, which have closed throughout the years: famously, Bar25. And yet, a full reversal of normal procedure happened: the borough (Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg) stood behind the two, and asked jurisdiction over two parcels (the one that Prinzessinnengärten stands on, and a substitute parcel for YAAM). And the board of Liegenschaftsfonds ceded the ownership of two parcels of public land back to the borough.

There have long been attempts, through city-wide protests on development proposals, to change the laws, so that Liegenschaftsfonds has to evaluate projects not only on how much they offer financially, but also on their environmental and social merit. There is a lot of hope, around the city, that what happened to Prinzessinnengärten and YAAM represents a sign of long-term change in how things are done.

Berlin’s official portal commented For years there have been protests in Berlin against a real estate management which gives the power to wealthy developers. The fact that the borough sought out a solution for both projects, with the support of the Berlin Senate, could be seen as a sign of a change of direction.

Berliner Zeitung: Finally, even the Senate has recognised that not every parcel needs to be squandered on investors. That sometimes it’s better to renounce sale proceeds, and instead do something for the image of the city as a creative metropolis, and for the happiness of its citizens.

This story is why I love Berlin. This combination of citizen creativity and agency, and a relatively cooperative government (although not as much as it could be, not at all: Berlin protests every day), is very special. When we talk about ‘participation in urban planning’, we rarely actually talk about participation: mostly it’s forms of persuasion and manipulation, very rarely even a two-way dialogue, and even more rarely does someone without millions of homey get a permission to shape the city. But in Berlin, people take that opportunity freely, or they fight for it.

I am going to start a category called ‘city-making’, to introduce some more examples. I think calling it anything else is calling it too small.

The ultimate conclusion I want to make here is that this kind of project, like Prinzessinnengärten, is genuine creative transformation of a living city. It is creative (it shapes), but the product is not an image, a text, a film, or a theatre production: the product is living neighbourhood. This is public art, but only at that highest Situationist point at which art becomes as useful as life. This kind of project is sculpting reality.

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Dance Like Nobody’s Watching: Laundromat, airport, mall

The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.”, said Bruce Sterling. James Bridle explains in great detail, here.

I am not into testosterone-driven Sci-Fi aesthetic, and personally hate when things get called New, like that, capitalised. But there is something in here that I’m really, really, really interested in, and it’s not how people make paintings that re-create the pixelated effect. Quite the opposite.

If you are interested in theatre, I think you will be able to follow easily.

I am interested in how reality, as in ‘the non-virtual’, the non-televised, the non-mediated, seems to be becoming a bit of a rare, endangered thing: because it’s getting aestheticised, it’s becoming self-referential and the material of art, exactly the way in which postmodernism made mass media self-referential and material of art.

This is very clearly happening in these videos: Angela Trimbur is not so much in an airport or laundromat, as in a ‘real airport’ and a ‘real laundromat’. Calling her a ‘one-person flashmob’, as some media have, is incredibly accurate, because these works/events share the same ambivalence as to what is a report of what, as a classical flashmob does. Does a flashmob happen in a city square, or on Youtube? Compare the two in these ways: length of existence, meaningful exposure and feedback, targeted audience, number of audience members, and performative attention towards audience experience. Is the performer engaging with the passersby, or smiling at the camera?

Angela Trimbur is, very clearly, smiling at the camera, which is what really flattens these videos for me as expressions of any kind of genuine joie de vivre or public expression. The ‘public’ here is more of a prop, a sign of a public – a little bit like the public and the public space function in Candid Camera. They are a reference to reality, which plays a part in the joke. The joke exists on Vimeo, or on YouTube.

Or, more precisely, it’s not that she isn’t in public space. She is. It’s just that we have a reversal here of the normal, pre-2005 understanding of physical reality as unmediated, and a media representation as a mediated representation of reality. Before 2005 (roughly, that’s when Facebook started gaining traction, I seem to remember), WWW and chat and BBSs and blogs were places where we imitated interaction AS PER physical reality: LOL and ROFLMAO and *hugz* and smiley faces are all references to physical reality. Before 2005, when we quoted a film character in a spoken, physically co-present conversation, it was postmodern and ironic and meta.

These videos represent fully the reversal that has happened since. Angela Trimbur isn’t referencing a film scene in physical reality; not even Candid Camera. She is referencing a concept of a real-life occurrence (‘dance like nobody’s watching’), which she enacts (so that it’s really happening) in real physical space (because that’s the punchline: the people around her), but the whole thing only comes together via social media. The apparatus that is US society + planet Earth is just a semantically laden set for a product called ‘intended viral video’. The meaningful social interaction is not happening in the laundromat, mall nor airport, but in the advancing red loading bars of millions of computers. (This is why my favourite is the Laundromat video: in it, Angela Trimbur is much more involved with the real space and people, than with the video camera.) And semantically, these videos are a response not to the urban alienation of the human race (or some such thing), but to the urban idiot savant trope of sit-com and reality TV canon, of the Flight of the Conchords.

The videos would lose the punchline if they were filmed in a studio, not in real space, but the logic of the punchline is not that of engaging with reality (as opposed to studio/fiction), but that of overly literalizing a trope: exactly like the humour of Flight of the Conchords.

The same thing is happening in performance, as things that used to be non-art increasingly become re-framed as aesthetic experiences: games and playing, human interaction and kindness, confessions and sharing secrets, and fear. All of this is now a normal part of either theatre, live art, or social gaming as represented by artists such as The Society of Coney. The point is not that we’re merely aestheticising reality, but that it appears to happen because reality (of this kind, anyway) is becoming scarce.

It is also happening in basic youth culture, as ‘real’ things such as clothes, food, jobs, communication and identity become seen as expressions of taste, style and epoch (the hipsterising and vintagefying of everyday life), rather than the simple collateral of living.

This is definitely a reflection of a scarcity of a certain kind of reality, just like the introduction of ‘conflict resolution’ as an academic matter in Australian primary and high schools is a reflection of the fact that Australian children don’t play in an unsctructured fashion in numbers high enough anymore to learn how to solve conflicts by themselves (true fact: heard from an educator on conflict resolution). It isn’t my intention to be alarmist just because I grew up before Facebook. But these kinds of changes are insidious because they’re so imperceptible, and very hard to reverse because it will take a long time to understand what their consequences have been. And then it will be too late – just like we never voted on whether to have an obesity pandemic or not.

Finally, nothing mentioned here is automatically true for Germany, Malaysia, or any place in which people live in relatively compact cities, because compact cities force direct socialisation, and direct socialisation is an engine of reality. But they are widely true for Anglophone cities, and all places in which young people are largely third-generation middle-and-outer suburbanites: citizens of places that gravitate towards no immediate city centre.

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NYE fireworks in Berlin

Two small incidents marked the beginning and the end of 2012.

My first weekend in Berlin, we went to a club which, like many clubs here, had a prominent NO PHOTOGRAPHY sign displayed. I was quite confused and disoriented there, iPhone in hand. What else to do on a night out, if not take photos of ourselves all together? And then, as I put the phone back into my bag, it slowly occurred to me: I suppose I’ll just have to be present and do stuff, participate, like the other people in this club, instead of taking photos of them doin’, and of myself among them.

My last weekend in Berlin, at NYE, we stood on the street for perhaps 40 minutes, firing rockets into the sky, screaming, sharing what explosives we had with whoever was around, all arush with adrenaline. And I thought, exhilarated: “WE DON’T WATCH NO FIREWORKS! IN THIS CITY WE MAKE OUR OWN FIREWORKS!”

Our German friends said this was normal, not even particular to Berlin. I was mesmerised: I am used to firecrackers, they’re common in Croatia for NYE, but I’ve never seen heavy-duty fireworks purchaseable, rocket by rocket, in a corner store, the way they are here. The ongoing paradox of Germany is how crazy things happen in this supposedly orderly country, crazy things by standards of both ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’ countries I know, and yet nobody seems to ever get hurt.

This has been Berlin’s one great gift to me: moving me from a position of watching life into a position of doing life. In a myriad different ways. In this city, people make their own street parties when and how they want, organise their own festivals (from Love Parade to May Day riots), invent their own folk rituals (such as the battle between Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, occurring annually on the same Oberbaumbrücke from the video).

In 2012, I learned how much better things taste with freedom. I learned how much better beer tastes when drunk in a park as a part of a game of ping-pong; how much better going out is when you wear your worst, not your best clothes, because you know you will be dancing in a stuffy, mouldy, smokey basement for 8 hours, rubbing shoulders with sweaty men; how you don’t love any bike as much as the bike whose tire you’ve patched up a dozen times with your own hands; how five people and a mixing deck on a bike are enough for an open-air party, both under a bridge and in the middle of the city, in sunshine or rain; and that no fireworks are as special and meaningful as those you fire with your own hands.

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