A Spree on the Spree

Here in Berlin, Spree is the name of the river that runs through the city. But in English, the word spree is used in one of two senses: 1) to describe a mindless spending binge (as in 'shopping spree') or 2) to describe a bloodbath (as in 'killing spree'). With the Mediaspree development project, Berlin’s city council seems to have done the impossible: it's found a way to combine all three meanings.
City councillors may appear to accept Berlin's underground arts scene; indeed, some of them claim to support it. Nevertheless, that scene is being threatened by the commercial developments that the council has initiated.

Until recently, the city of Berlin existed within a bubble of commercial neglect. Politically and economically unstable, it was deemed too risky for commercial investors to work with. Berlin has managed to turn its risky reputation into a virtue though, attracting tens of thousands of D.I.Y. artistic refugees from societies in which financial viability is prized more highly than creativity. These artists have often found themselves silenced by a lack of affordable, accessible creative outlets in their home towns. If they could not live in Berlin, the realization of their visions would be limited by small budgets and long working hours. The size, affordability and non-committal job market of Berlin allows artists to transcend those limitations. Hence, its underground venues have become portals through one can glimpse those visions, realized.

By now, Berlin's DIY edgy, artistic reputation has outgrown the city's potential, but that hasn't stopped investors from getting interested (does it ever?). In their cynicism, they want to try and turn a profit out of whatever's here for as long as it lasts. That means the crusty underground scene's up for grabs too, a big draw for anyone seeking the next Brooklyn to develop.  The local administration is only encouraging them with projects like (wait for it) Mediaspree.
Yet in my typically Anglocentric way, I have found a way to blame the English for the fact that Mediaspree exists. Berlin's government is doing nothing if not blindly following a formula that was created by the last Tory government. During the 1980s, Britain was turned into a battlefield as its government went head-to-head with nearly every grassroots coalition in town. The government hoped to turn Britain back into the empire it had once been - only this time, its dominion would take a monetary form instead of a territorial one.

Back then, the Tory party was just as obsessed with fostering the illusion of growth as it is now. In its quest to look good on paper it sold off most of the country's publicly-owned corporations, thereby lowering the government's spending figures. It also put caps on workers' wages to stop the cycle of wage inflation, followed by price inflation, followed by wage inflation, followed by... well, you get the picture. 

Up until that point, Britain had operated on a more socialistic model. Many networks existed to protect the public from excessive profiteering and corruption. So it is putting it mildly to say that the Tories were met with disapproval from some quarters: they were met with out-and-out social chaos. The unions, the environmental movement, the social workers and so on fought the government in much the same way that they are fighting the Tories' austerity measures today… and for many of the same reasons. Between the strikes, the sit ins, the riots and the violent police responses to all of the above, the country often looked like it was in a state of civil war.But, having laid the groundwork for running the country like a company, the Tory government did not simply give up. Instead, it turned its focus towards moulding this dissenting population into good workers and consumers for Britain Inc. To do this it disrupted many of the non-profit routes through which individuals could organize themselves and influence the world in which they lived. The Tories limited unions' rights to protest; they took away funds from community programs and social services; they even introduced an infamous bill which banned gatherings where music 'characterized by a succession of repetitive beats' was being played (raves). In the context of this last development, Margaret Thatcher's famous declaration that "There is no alternative" took on a whole new meaning. It became a statement about the place of punks, techno travelers, ravers and all other forms of creative subculture in the New World Order the Tories were building.

Only in a country in which people were isolated from their communities; in which all outlets for independent thought were shut down; in which all routes for dissent were blocked, could a single vision be implemented in the way the Conservative government strove to do. But the reality of a society that was being run for a profit was that it only offered freedom to those who were in a position to make a profit. For everyone else, the Tory vision was a glimpse of totalitarianism.

At any rate, the Conservative party failed to turn Britain Inc. into a success story - as that country's cyclical boom-bust pattern has demonstrated ever since. All that it really managed to do was trade in the country's best resources for the fleeting, numerical illusion of growth... and presumably, an abundance of private perks for MP's which outlasted the short term gains that were seen by the people. As one of the Tories' own former leaders put it, the party was "selling off the family silver". Instead of sharing the proceeds with the country, it hoarded them for the rich in the form of back handers and income tax cuts.

During the recession of the early 1990s the illusion of British growth evaporated and exposed the devastated reality behind it. It became clear that Britain's communities were suffering from a lack of cohesion and trust; that individuals were suffering from poverty and joblessness.  Millions of youth were dropping out of society in order to live in a counter-cultural, parallel reality. When those youths got old enough to vote, the Tories would be history... for  a while, anyway.

The unfunny thing is that the MPs who created the whole mess remained rich at the end of their terms. This is probably why the governments of so many other administrations have been eager to follow the Tory model of success: not because it works but because it guarantees MPs their individual futures, regardless of their constituents' fates. The global popularity of the Occupy movement shows that the Tory model of 'growth' is still being rammed down the throats of the 99% on a daily basis, worldwide, making a farce of democracy.  But as the illusion of trickle down benefits evaporates, people with nothing to lose are glad to take on seemingly hopeless fights against armed police to win back ground to stand on.

Which brings me back to Berlin...With Mediaspree, Berlin's city councillors seem to be trying to implement a crude version of the Tory model.  Crude because, in their quest to create Berlin Inc., they have already branded the city's historical sites with brand names like Sony and O2 - as if profitability were the only measure of a city's value.  And crude because they haven't managed to create even the illusion that there will be anything left at the end except for those brand name monuments to draw the masses to a city with no other industry to speak of. 

At first glance, Mediaspree seems more innocuous than either of the above developments. Its stated aim is to establish a permanent base for the creative 'industries' in Berlin in order to foster financial growth. Yet it is precisely this objective that makes Mediaspree a threat to the city's underground community.

For one thing, the companies that are setting up on the Spree are not local companies, organically sprouted from the city's subterranean flora and fauna. They are imported, established companies which possess the advantage of commercial funds and elite connections to help them uproot Berlin's local entrepreneurs from the proposed Mediaspree development site. Never mind that there are already plenty of underground bars, galleries, clubs and studios within Mediaspree's catchment area that can serve the existing community at prices it can just about afford; .Mediaspree plans to to uproot and displace those venues, then replace them with commercial replicas that pull in people who are easier to fleece for way bigger sums.  Maybe the Spree's underground will find another place to go; maybe it won't. One thing is for sure, though: it will quickly run out of places to run to in Berlin, if this sort of development continues. And then what?

Many of the artists, musicians, writers and photographers who depend upon this city's underground simply cannot find a niche in other cities for their art. And there are thousands of towns and cities in Europe which welcome businesses who toe the line... but there is only one upside-down cheapskate capital like Berlin where anything goes.

A second threat presented by these imported media companies is that they tend to view non-profit creative outlets as competition for their higher priced markets.  If the people can be creative for next-to-nothing, then they can develop a creative culture for next-to-nothing, too, which leaves no reason for them to buy overpriced products from a third party.  Because of that, the media industry will always treat cheap, non-profit venues as a threat and deploy its many advantages to overthrow them. 

Looked at it this way, it isn't so hard to see why Mediaspree has bought up some of the city's most fertile underground territory on which to build. It can never compete with a non-profit, creative underground so it may as well bulldoze it, instead.Until now, the reputation of venues in Berlin has been determined by their relevance and their popularity with the local city’s community. But with projects like Mediaspree setting the tone, it won't be long before reputations are determined solely by whoever has money to pay the highest rent. If this continues over time, then only the very rich will be in control of the city’s creative voice. Any underground entrepreneurs who choose to stick it out will be forced to confirm their worth through money instead of content. When that happens, Berlin's underground venues will become portals through which one can glimpse a corporate boardroom and nothing more. Instead of offering a way out of profit-obsessed mainstream, they will provide yet another way into it.
Right now, the city is at a juncture where it can go one of two ways: it can embrace a wholly commercial identity in which creativity gets slotted into whatever format happens to be the most convenient for mass production and profit. Or it can embrace its fertile imagination develop the elasticity to engage with the underground in a real, meaningful way. Berlin the free, low-profile creative haven is an endangered species, like a rare butterfly whose habitat has been eroded worldwide. It is a species that needs to be nurtured. Its environment needs to be protected and restored in order to bring it back from the brink. But ironically enough, the conservative city council has not opted for conservation in this instance. It has opted for preservation instead: it has opted to drop the rare, beautiful form of the underground into a jar of formaldehyde. That way, future visitors can admire it, while avoiding the possibility of being challenged by its legitimate successors. Talk about killing two birds with one stone... or perhaps should I say, 'killing two butterflies with one jar'.

'I was made to consume/create' logo courtesy of blog.unstash.com
Top two images are courtesy of artists B.S. and Tim Roelloffs via ArtTart.tv
- please click images to purchase prints or browse website
Further reading:

Altered States (A history of ecstasy culture) by Matthew Collin
LDS, Ecstasy and the Music of Politics

Suiting Themselves: How Corporations Drive the Global Agenda

No Logo by Naomi Klein (Guardian excerpt)


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