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Kolja Reichert - Introduction: In The Town That Is No Town <|>

Today, the big cities are filled with many discontent. Such leave for Mahagonny, the goldtown. […]
Drinks are cheap.

East of Chelsea’s white exhibition hangars, past Bushwick’s bars and project spaces, past the surf of Rockaway Beach, lies the sixth district. This is where people go for whom rents have gotten too high, or who have always wanted to set up their own bar, or who have simply chosen to live with two fewer side jobs for a while. In the pale light of the Brandenburg desert, under which everything looks like an undeveloped Polaroid, they erect their camps where they return in the morning on their way home from clubs, their hair falling unkempt over their crooked glasses, pulling their Parkas tighter, a warm borek in their hands as a hangover snack.

Later, they can be seen sitting on shaky chairs along with the other arrivals, who have come from the looted metropolises of the South, exchanging the latest news about volatile options on flats, relationships and project spaces, half guessing that there is no wage awaiting them for their preliminary activities.

Far from the machinery of the world […]
The long-haul trains don't stop here […]
Lies the goldtown Mahagonny. […]
Here, they asked for you just yesterday. […](2)

An exemplary founders’ story, set in the American West: On the run from the marshals, three villains run out of gas. Right there and then in the middle of the desert, they decide to found a town. Their business model is based on bars and brothels, their target group, traveling gold miners and the malcontents from other cities. You could call Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”, which premiered in 1930, the first post-Fordist opera. It proposes a model of a town that is based merely on consumption, and that does not house citizens, only customers.

… Mahagonny
That means: Netville! […]
It shall be like a snare
Put up for the edible birds
Everywhere else is trouble and work
But here, there is fun.(3)

Like Berlin: a post-capitalist utopia where there is no work, only leisure. Here, money is spent that was made elsewhere – from woodcutting in Alaska, from the parental seat belt factory in Swabia, or from subletting the London condo.

And one week here means seven days of leisure
And the big typhoons won't reach us here(4)

But then a typhoon does approach, in concert with the customers’ unrest. The startup pioneers have raked the grit for the newcomers and have constantly lowered the prices for drinks and sex. Yet: Oh, this lovely Mahagonny / has not brought in the business. The first guests depart, and those remaining feel a void.

Wonderful is the approach of the evening
And lovely are the talkings among men
But something's missing.(5)

While the storm plays havoc with the surrounding towns and heads for Mahagonny, the residents mount the barricades and turn the law on its head. The prohibitions which so far have secured harmony and tranquility are superseded by the motto: Go for it!(6) This plays right into the hands of the three founders. In an unleashed market anarchism, the customers guzzle and box themselves to death and bet all their money to the point of bankruptcy; for the bankrupt, there is no social safety net, only the death penalty.

Can't help him or you or me or no one(7), echoes the waiting loop message of neoliberalism in the closing line. At the very last moment, the typhoon steers clear of Mahagonny. In a place where everyone is against each other, there is no need for limitations imposed by nature: There's no havoc which they might have done / That we cannot better do.

The typhoon is gentrification. The moment before the typhoon: That’s the state of Berlin right now. Berlin, which, like in Brecht’s and Weill’s time, is once again the capital and destination of choice of the world’s hedonists and intellectuals. Berlin, which lies in the desert and has nothing of material value to produce and therefore builds nets for tourists and young creatives who are meant to find a space of self-fulfillment here, so that Berlin gets even more colorful and more exciting, so that more tourists come and stay in even more hotels where artists once lived and where art will be hanging on the wall tomorrow. Berlin, which has extravagantly slashed state housing and rent regulations over the past decade, hoping for money to come in and solve everything. Berlin is Netville. But, This Berlin / has not brought in the business. And something’s missing. The first arrivals are already leaving again, like the young Australian musician whose report in the New York Times of the loss of foothold through hedonism in Berlin(8) was wearily dismissed by those who have settled here: Your fault! Lousy organization!

You've learned to mix your cocktails every way
You've seen the moonlight shining on the wall:
The bar is shut, the bar of Mandalay:
And why does nothing make sense at all?(9)

Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin had been what Paris was in the 1930s and Tangier in the 1950s: the promise of an Other, an alternative space, open to anyone who is, like the founders of Mahagonny, on the run from rigid regimes and up for building new ones. Like Mahagonny, Berlin’s attraction is based on the fact that this world is a foul one(10).

And just as Mahagonny borrows its right to exist from the cities where assembly belts rattle, the art city of Berlin is still drip-fed as it was during the era of the Wall. Money for the art being produced here usually comes from outside, and that’s where the art also goes. The galleries, who have cheap rents and a flexible workforce for next to no money here, close their crucial sales at big art fairs, with collectors in London, Brazil and Mexico. And ironically, the handful of works which the local public collections are able to secure so as to keep some fragment of today’s Berlin for posterity, are paid by lottery funds – and therefore, even if indirectly, by people ready to bet on their own existence, like artists do.

The art capital? Maybe in the 19th century. Well, no, that was Munich. The gateway to the East? That’s Vienna, with its Russian scene and its links to the Balkans. As far as contemporary art goes, Berlin is – at least on the level of state institutions – a Potemkin village, dependent on private initiatives.

Premature conceptions of Berlin are often based on the misunderstanding that Berlin is a city. Yet a city has institutions that interact with its (art) scenes on a par. A city has agoras for debates. A city has a plan. In a city, paths lead not only sideways, but upwards as well. In Berlin, paths lead upwards for a few, sideways for many and downwards for some. New York or London are vertical cities; organisms with greater differences of wealth, but also binding narratives, supported by stakes across generations from the rich, middle class and artists. Berlin is flat and tries hard to stay so. Berlin has no mountain to climb. It provides endless escapes to the side, and forces everything to the fringes, to the very outskirts of town.

Like in a centrifuge, everything here drifts apart and solidifies in separate scenes that do not necessarily interact with each other. In the void of the vast Tempelhof airfield which has been converted into a public park, heavily equipped windskaters lift off over the heads of mothers bending over the fields of urban gardeners to steal their tomatoes. In one house, people head for the bathroom to snort lines and plan wicked features in stylish magazines or the loving restoration of a GDR building. In the next house, they sit on empty beer crates and tell each other stories from the Nineties, of disappearing free spaces and the sellout of dreams, until the crates are taken away from under their weary butts.

Berlin is the sum of projections by its users who are left to their own devices. “Be Berlin!”, as the city marketing slogan goes. Berlin is a prop city, or, like art critic Marius Babias once wrote, a fata morgana. Camp, refuge, Netville, sweatshop and eternal boarding school. Everybody here can build their own Mahagonny and be their own exploiter, customer, boxing opponent and whore. Oh, and by the way, dad, could you please send me some more money?

“If everything else fails, put up a show (and why not an opera)”, as literary scholar William Rasch sums up the model of Mahagonny: “Open a shop or, even better, found a new political and economic space!”(11) Why not a project space? The first artist-run space in Germany, maybe the world, opened in 1963 in Schöneberg: Großgörschen 35, near the Education Faculty of the Hochschule der Künste, founded by students and graduates like Markus Lüpertz and Karl-Horst Hödicke. West Berlin rediscovered Dadaism and New Objectivity and began to open up internationally, the means then as now being culture. The writer Walter Höllerer founded the Literarisches Colloquium. The Ford Foundation (which at times used to operate as a secret gate for culture funds from the CIA) initiated the Artists-in-Berlin Program, which was taken over in 1964 by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and brought artists like Marcel Broodthaers, Nan Goldin or Paweł Althamer to Berlin. Some stayed longer and brought their friends. In 1972, two years after the opening of the Neue Nationalgalerie, curator and galerist René Block wrote:

“The ‘culture capital Berlin’ proudly points over and over again to its various superlatives: the number of museums, public exhibition institutes, private galleries and resident artists (in excess of 1,000 painters, graphic artists, sculptors). But this positive record can not hide the fact that the discrepancy between subsidized public institutes and a mass of artists barely able to sustain themselves renders the Berlin art scene one of the most complicated in Europe.”(12)

Today, the Berlin Federal Association of Visual Artists (BBK) estimates that more than 5,000 artists live in Berlin, of which, as a study by the Berlin Institute for Strategy Development (IFSE) has shown, not more than a fifth can live from their art.(13) For fifty years, the art center Berlin has survived mainly from bottom-up investments by informally organized pioneers. On an interactive map that art sociologist Séverine Marguin has developed, you can follow the opening and shutting of project spaces from 1970 to today in detail.(14) Berlin might not be an art capital, but it is the capital of project spaces, whose organizers produce, exhibit and discuss according to their own rules while trying models outside of the market. Only at this grass-roots level can the wealth created in Berlin be called its own. This has even been acknowledged by the Senate’s culture department, which, instead of having a broad funding model, grants 30,000 euros to seven independent projects every year. Also art fairs like FIAC or art berlin contemporary have come to recognize the importance of the project space model with its flat hierarchies. About 150 project spaces are spread across the city, more than anywhere else in the world. But, although creative people are continually moving to Berlin, the number of independent projects has been dropping since 2009, a reflection of the rising rent levels.

With “Mahagonny”, Brecht and Weill intended to destroy the consumption-oriented theater apparatus from the inside. Musicians, writers and critics, Brecht wrote, believed they were “owners of an apparatus which in fact owns them”. Brecht and Weill were dealing with the culture industry in its classical form, which was based on the clear distinction between producers and recipients. Today, recipients themselves are incited to constant production, if only in the sharing of cell phone photos on social networks. Their opposites are kraken-like organizations like Facebook or YouTube that generate profit merely by providing algorithms while the actual work is done by the users themselves. On online social platforms, the Netville model has reached its potential. It is a grand, wide plane, offering a broadcast slot to anybody. As for finding an audience, you yourself are of course responsible, and this struggle can dissolve a critical public as much as foster it.
The spread of production tools was first welcomed as a so-called long tail principle, allowing for endless option segments in every niche interest to exist alongside the mainstream. Yet, it has been proven that the long tail mainly works to the advantages of major players who sell production tools and cables. The vast majority of creatives at the workbenches of self-production, who pay for their own tools in the meantime, lose themselves in individual fights for attention and thereby stop themselves getting involved in battles about the actual distribution of wealth.

Over the past few years, this structure has also been adapted to the art market. As middle-class customers tail off, business increasingly shifts to four New York mega-galleries who profit from smaller competitors who have built up artists over years, and whom they simply pick up when they are successful. According to another study by the Institute for Strategy Development (IFSE), the New York brand leader Larry Gagosian, who now runs 16 branches around the globe, has a bigger turnover than all German contemporary galleries put together.

Art is often expected to reflect reality. On the economic level, it pretty much does that in fact: The art market demonstrates an immensely dangerous drift of the global distribution of wealth in the biggest financial crisis since Mahagonny, which is nothing more than an expropriation of large sections of the global population. While Mahagonny’s bankrupt were still provided with a theatre tribunal and an electric chair, the subcontractors in the neoliberal Mahagonny of today are even left to decide how they should be disposed of, as the suicides of tens of thousands debt-ridden Indian peasants and hundreds of unemployed Greeks has shown in recent years.

In German galleries, 80 percent of the turnover is concentrated into the upper 15 percent, according to the IFSE study. Only a small section is actually able to finance the work of artists, employees and their own employees. While for quite some time now, there has been talk of 400 to 500 galleries in Berlin, the actual figure is in fact only 230 – which, according to IFSE’s Hergen Wöbken, are still too many for the weak market. So the art market is a fata morgana as well. We cannot pin hopes on it.

It’s true what Berlin marketing has been emphasizing for several years: that the diversity of exhibition spaces constitutes the appeal of the city. However, that plays into the hands of the tourism economy more than those of the art economy. For good reasons Berlin is praised as a laboratory, as an experimental site

for new concepts. But who profits from this in the long run if we take a sober look at the money? It’s the few that succeed and the big galleries they end up in. Berlin, while often proudly calling itself the production center of contemporary art, is first and foremost a subcontractor’s town, the coal mine of the Western art industry. Like the operators of the first Mahagonny, we constantly lower the prices for our services, but the audience just walks past anyway, and we are still sitting in the desert, and still, nothing is fulfilled.

This, of course, is complaining on a level of first world problems. There are enough people for whom Berlin is a city indeed and who have traditional occupations. Or who are even excluded from the business of dreams, such as the unemployed. Or who are banned from carrying out their professions, such as refugees. Or artists whose ateliers are taken away from them through the social security services, and on whom absurd reports and training measures are imposed.

If everything else fails, found a new space: If this world is a foul one, it seems reasonable to withdraw into personal projects and take charge of the distribution of recognition and power yourself. Curating and production can thereby easily turn into compensatory action, to make up for the general loss of overview and influence. If everyone is his own boss, so goes the promise of the neoliberal Mahagonny, you don’t have to worry about the big picture anymore.

But: If everybody invents their own counter-space, the big counter-site that facilitates all the smaller ones can suddenly easily shut down. At the same time, the idea that art and economy can go together is full of misunderstandings, false hopes and as harmful for art as it is for the city. If the Senate wants a sustainable market, it first of all has to organize one itself – by bigger acquisition budgets that would allow museums and Kunstvereine to compete with private collectors. Acquisitions not only contribute to the collective memory of a city. They are also the most direct funding for the commercial sector of the art world. And considering how quickly prices are rising today, they are also an investment. Project spaces, meanwhile, can be fostered in the same ways as diverse neighborhoods: by caps to rent rises and policies for public property that are oriented towards common wealth instead of the highest bid.

In the gentrification process, creative people are players in three ways: as pioneers that render neighborhoods attractive, as victims of the resulting rent rises, and as critical analysts of the process. This experience can be used for sustainable city development policies that are also seen as a form of cultural policy and vice versa – in symposiums, publications and long-term think tanks. The only way that Berlin can excel on an international level is by safeguarding its status as a counter-site where alternative models of work, living and distribution of wealth can be tried out. If this opportunity is wasted, then little will be left but hostels and souvenir shops. Enjoy, we’ll be off then.

Maybe we should think less about founding new project spaces than about founding a city. For this to happen, you have to meet up, as is increasingly happening in the Koalition der Freien Szene (Coalition of the Independent Scene), the tenants’ organization “Kotti & Co” in Kreuzberg and a round table to reframe Berlin’s public property policies. Otherwise, we might be so busy with looking for funding for the next project that we might miss the moment when there is nothing left to distribute.

You want to make God laugh? Tell him about your plans.
You want to make capital laugh? Don’t make plans.





This essay was written for the catalogue of the exhibition “Give Us The Future” at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (nbk), (March 1st to April 20th 2014). It was published in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel on February 22nd 2014 in a slightly revised version. Translated by the author and Lucy Renner Jones ( Kolja Reichert (born 1982) is a Berlin art critic who writes for newspapers and magazines like frieze d/e, Welt am Sonntag and Der Tagesspiegel. He also writes for exhibition publications (like the catalogue of the 2010 Berlin Biennial) and gives lectures.


  1. Bertolt Brecht: “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny”, in: Bertolt Brecht, Werke. Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, ed. Jan Knopf et al., vol 2: Stücke, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp 1988, p. 335-392, p. 336
    Translation based loosely on the English: “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”, in: John Willett, Ralph Manheim (ed.): Brecht. Collected Plays: Two, p. 171-235
  2. Ibid. p. 338
  3. Ibid. p. 336
  4. Ibid. p. 336
  5. ib. p. 349f
  6. ib. p. 358
  7. Willet/Manheim p. 235
  8. Robert F. Coleman, “In Berlin, You Never Have to Stop”, in: New York Times, 23.11.2012,
  9. Willet/Manheim p. 189
  10. Willet/Manheim p. 175
  11. William Rasch: “Aber etwas fehlt: On the Futility of Critique”, in: Gerd Koch, Florian Vaßen, Doris Zeilinger (Hg.), Können uns und euch und niemand helfen. Die Mahagonnyisierung der Welt. Bertolt Brechts und Kurt Weills “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny”, Frankfurt/Main: Brandes & Apsel, 2006, p. 234
  12. Exhibition catalogue Szene Berlin zweiundsiebzig, Kunstverein in Hamburg, 1972, p. 1
  13. Institut für Strategieentwicklung: Studio Berlin II, 2011,
  14. Séverine Marguin und Erik Streb del Toro: Berliner Projekträume seit 1970,
  15. Willet/Manheim p. 233