Early Sunday afternoon. Bright sun shining outside. Spring seems to be taking its first tentative look around the corner (while last week the world was still slow and white beneath a blanket of snow). Tacheles stands lonely and out of time, waiting to be moved in the tourist guide from its present ‘Places to see’ to the ‘Short history of Berlin’ section.
Tacheles in Hebrew means ‘say things as they are’. Perfectly ironic, considering that no one involved with the future of the place does that anymore. The massive building – an exclusive Kaufhaus in the ‘30’s – located smack in the centre of the centre of Berlin (the district is called ‘Mitte’, which also means ‘centre’) is still, as it always must have been, an impressive site/sight. But what started as an artists’ squat following the fall of the wall, is now a dilapidated, run-down building, overtaken by dealers, and nasty internal squabble (in the form of countless lawsuits).
Most of the members of the core group of artists from 1990 are still here. They built the place up in the midst of the post-Wall energy of dreams and belief in the possibility of a truly new world. Now they could not be further apart. One is an artist on the third floor, another runs Zapata, the touristy bar on street-level, a third has a gallery of metal sculptures a bit further down, and then there’s Martin Reiter, who runs the building (and has refused to turn the heating on this past winter). Children squabbling in a play-pen. Except one with an 89 million Euro debt behind it. One good reason why, although the building and land behind it are up for sale, no one is likely to buy it anytime soon.
The whole place is like an Event gone wrong, derailed, imploded back into whatever promise it once harboured. When the wall fell there was (I’ve been told) a visceral sensation in the air of the possibility for real change. Hope for a truly new future. Well not to start about Berlin’s 60 billion Euro debt and 15-20% unemployment and whatever else is going on, but Tacheles, the sometime idealistic artist-squat (was it ever really?), has become a caricature of itself. Always the same amazed tourists who think that they have stumbled upon one of the last free havens in the city, while most of what happens here is cheap art (sold expensively), private bars making lots of dinero, teenagers hanging out in the stairways selling weed leaves (instead of real bud) at laughable prices, drunk regulars fighting over who has a higher testosterone level.
In a wider sense, Tacheles also seems to epitomize Berlin’s present transitional moment. There are still some signs to be found of the massive run-down buildings that used to be spread throughout the city. But they are being steadily torn down, renovated, and painted (in awful tints of yellow and green). Prime example: the huge skeletal structure behind my house that stood abandoned for ten years has recently been transformed into a conference-hotel lit up from the outside by spotlights that fade into purple, red, yellow, green. And next to that, monumental slaughterhouses have been planned to be redesigned as expensive lofts. Thankfully, they still survive for now; beautiful, long, and finely decorated red-brick buildings, (a stone sculpture of a pig’s head sticks out from the side of one).
Back to Tacheles: despite all the disappointment and strife that have become part of its larger story, I can’t help but also feel a strange affection for the place. Maybe instead of thinking big, one way of appreciating it now is as a place where wandering tourists briefly lose their anonymity, as they connect with each other with an openness of mind. Even if that space of openness comes from an idealistic misunderstanding of what this building is, or probably ever was.