BERLIN—A few weeks after the glamorous Belgian curator Chris Dercon lost his post as director of Berlin’s prestigious Volksbühne theater (translation: People’s Theater), the artist collective that helped chase him out of town met up in the dusty basement of a culture club.
Last summer, these activists occupied the Volksbühne, which was founded to bring art to the working classes, to stage “anti-gentrification” protests.
On Day 7, Dercon marched into the building with police officers in tow. The evacuation ran smoothly. But the pictures were described as a PR “death blow” for a man who was already being slurred around town as “opening the door for the global jet set.”
Now in the basement, a veteran director grabbed the microphone and complimented the young adults on creating a new kind of space that was “open to everyone” and free from “handshakes.” A voice thundered from the back: “Did you shake hands?”
“No, I shat outside Dercon’s front door,” the director joked, in reference to the feces that were left outside the office of a man who had quit his job at London’s Tate Modern to come to Berlin one year ago.
Back then, Dercon indicated that he wanted to escape the lucrative art business in which actors tend to watch the world fall rather than try and save it. But his appointment initially divided Berlin’s left-wing culture scene: To some he was a “neoliberal” pawn in the game plan to turn a subsidized state theater into a tourist-friendly venue with no permanent jobs for artists.
To others, however, he was a victim of macho backwardness by an aging group of predominantly white male directors. (As if the former Volksbühne director was some kind of unique patron for art boys who preach the evils of commodities but stare at women like the cars that they cannot afford.)
Berlin, after decades of tough times and post-reunification chaos, is now growing up into a familiar global capital, with Primark chain stores and soaring rent prices.
This has nudged some the city’s inhabitants into a state of confusion over what they may stand to lose, whether it is an apartment or an identity. It’s not just about theater tickets. Even at the cellar meeting, one woman said she felt that Dercon was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As of February this year, the Berlin Wall, which once stood as a border between East and West Berlin, has been down for longer than it was up. And to mark the occasion in the Volksbühne, a group of artists and historians sat down with a grumpy presenter to talk about “the walls in our heads” that remain.
The former East German painter and filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher recalled how he used to sit on the rubble piles in the city square in East Berlin (the buildings that once stood there had been bombed to pieces in World War II) and film the tourists from West Germany who would “come and stare at us, while we were locked up in the ghetto.”
In Böttcher’s film, which was banned by the East German government, one teenager who steps out of the bus is wearing sunglasses that make him look like a movie star. The boy looks at the ruins in the square and “grimaces like they were some typical shitty eastern thing—as if West Germany didn’t have ruins from the war.”
“I was outraged, but it doesn’t surprise me. Capitalism wins,” is what 86-year-old Böttcher thought of the decision to appoint Chris Dercon as the director of the Volksbühne. “For years my paintings were hanging in a gallery in Dresden. Not anymore. The Ostler [former East Germans] are being taken down. It seems like it’s just multi-millionaires hanging there now.”
Two months before the occupation last summer, the theater scholar Evelyn Annuß started a petition to “renegotiate the future of the Volksbühne.” (It criticized the government’s decision to revamp the theater for profitability as “inappropriate, top down.”) Her petition got more than 40,000 signatures. “Ten years ago, the director swap would not have caused such a great uproar,” Annuß tells us. “But right now people are just so incredibly scared over their apartments.”
“Does someone on social benefits need to live in Potsdamer Platz [a touristy inner city square]?” a real estate agent asked skeptically in the 2015 gentrification-documentary The City as Prey. The answer, to many, is still yes. “I’ve been to London and New York,” one man called out at the cellar meeting: “It’s super boring there.”
“We are not talking about some castle in the air—there are people in here who are losing their apartments,” says Hannah, who is also part of the artist collective. “I am also worried about the city’s clubbing culture, which is turning into a capitalist apparatus intended to guide tourists around. There are few non-commercial spaces left.”
Berliners have been accused of over-romanticizing their city before. (“Politics is theater” is a catchphrase.) Months after a far-right party was voted into the Bundestag with a thin xenophobic agenda that is propped up by fictions and obscene provocations, the artist collective in Neukölln has dreams to revamp one of the most influential theaters in the German-speaking world to a forum for political chats about “what kind of city we want to live in.”
But for now, “the Volksbühne lives on here,” according to one man in the dusty cellar, who introduced himself as “the heir to Berthold Brecht” and drew embarrassed looks when he suggested that “one should shit in Dercon’s mouth.” (Even in a grassroots democratic forum, there are pauses before passing on the microphone. The mantra, as one woman noted, is making art together ”even when we don’t like each other.”)
On the lawn in front of the Volksbühne, they have now built a rocket into the grass, which is painted gold and reads “Volk Mir.” “Volk” translates to “the people,” a term the group says it wants to “take back” from the far right. Though one man also pleads: “Hate us!” Many are theater students. And theater jobs, the complaint goes, feel increasingly like a choice between being a “service provider” and freelancing under “precarious conditions.” There is no way to go back in time, though: Everyone in the artist collective has a real job on the side and agrees, “wW want to get out of the cellar.”
His friend motions vaguely around the cellar: “We also have a chill-out area.”