Artist exchange links Berlin to Dubai

Berlin and Dubai wouldn’t appear to have much in common at first glance. But a recent artists exchange is sign of increasing cultural ties between the two cities, writes Arsalan Mohammad.

Artist exchange links Berlin to Dubai
Photo: Christian Sievers courtesy of Tashkeel Studios.

Gigantic shopping malls, record-breaking towers, ludicrously luxurious hotels, booming industry and desert heat? Yes, Dubai is the brash, excitable city in the Gulf that just can’t slow down.

But underneath the glitz and bling, there’s an unlikely artistic revolution colouring the city, drawing on the richly disparate social mix, both within the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Middle East at large.

At least that’s the impression four Berlin artists, Christian Sievers, Mark Groszer, Rolf Giegold and Sebastian Gräfe received when they arrived in Dubai a couple of months ago. They came to the Middle East as part of ‘Fusion,’ an artist exchange programme, organized by Sam Bardouil, a young art professor at the American University of Dubai, and local arts centre, Tashkeel.

Shortly afterwards, four UAE-based artists, Amna Al Madani, Hind Mezaina, Lamya Gargash and Roberto Lopardo returned the favour and visited Berlin for a week, each toting bulging portfolios of work to exhibit at the Emerson Gallery in the German capital’s Mitte district.

Organizer Sam Bardouil, who until recently was based at the American University of Dubai, is fascinated by Dubai’s strong need for external artistic definition. He said he felt the time was ripe to encourage some cross-cultural artistic action between Dubai and the wider world.

“I think Berlin is still probably the most progressive, open-to-experimentation city in Europe,” he explained. “It has this constant search for identity – it’s been divided into two parts and then before that, the war, the bombings – whatever is left of old Berlin, it’s in lots of pieces. It’s lots of different neighbourhoods, and each has a very different feel. It’s very exciting.”

Compare and contrast

As the visiting artists discovered, the loose, spontaneous energy that drives Berlin couldn’t be more of a contrast with the scrupulously ordered environment of Dubai, where ragged charm takes a back seat to relentless urban planning, a purpose-built, new environment. Despite the recent arrival of million dollar art auctions, pristine new galleries, the annual Art Dubai fair and the government’s plans for lavish state museums and galleries filled with air-freighted goodies from abroad, there’s relatively little experimental or organic creativity about the city.

One of the exchange participants, Hind Mezaina, found herself at large in a completely alien environment. Recalling her stay, at the Park Inn on Berlin’s austere eastern square Alexanderplatz, she said she found an undercurrent in the city with which she made a connection.

“I was inspired by how the city has renewed and reinvigorated itself from a difficult past”, she said. “For me, to see how the former East Berlin has become a hip and happening place to be was very fascinating, I found it had a creative energy and fun vibe that I really enjoyed.”

Seeking to infuse his charges with the ‘hardcore, underground’ atmosphere of the city, Bardouil brought his charges to the city and promptly left them to it.

“I didn’t take them around,” he said. “They were left to explore on their own without any influence. I felt if I choose somewhere to show them, then I am saying, ‘This is an important thing’. I didn’t want to interfere.”

The group found plenty to love in Berlin. Cycles were procured, a refreshing novelty for the visitors since cycling in the scorching heat along Dubai’s chaotic roads is rarely an option. Dubai’s Italian transplant Roberto Lombardo, took advantage of Tiergarten’s canopy of trees to shoot some ‘very dark’ short films, based on Grimm’s fairy tales. Lamya Gargash explored some of the city’s galleries, checking out video installations, a form that’s still very much in its infancy in the Middle East.

The show, which opened at the Emerson Gallery on June 4 was a memorable night, Bardouil said. “It was amazing, we had around 140 people… and all evening, I was getting phone calls and messages from people in Dubai, saying, we haven’t seen anything like this before.”

‘This’, was the corresponding opening taking place that same evening, 3,000 miles away at the Tashkeel art centre in Dubai. For the displaced Berliners, Dubai had revealed itself to be a rich source of inspiration. Unlike the Arab artists, the Berlin team had prepared very little work in advance, preferring to react to their new surroundings.

And one member of the group from Germany, Rolf Giegold, was definitely impressed by his new environment. “I had already heard so much about that place, I also had read a lot,” he said. “But to be honest, when travelling to Dubai I tried to leave all the information aside and be as neutral as possible in my perception.”

Bringing art to the city

Giegold’s work at Tashkeel saw the artist creating an audio installation, based on clips recorded out and about the city, from across Dubai’s broad social spectrum. It was created entirely at Tashkeel, the new arts space that has brought a new level of artistic resources to the city.

“Tashkeel somehow is a very strange place for Dubai and a paradise as well,” recalled Giegold. “Everything is very new, up to date.”

Giegold’s enthusiasm is shared by Christian Sievers, who is based in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Sievers is known for realizing full-scale artistic scenarios and situations. On his first day in Dubai, he asked for a fleet of emergency vehicles to race around in formation, with sirens blaring. Amazingly, through the offices of Tashkeel, his plan was almost perfectly achieved, although the obliging local police station were said to be slightly baffled. But as he explained, the project was a continuation of a long-running fascination.

“I’m always drawn to things like emergencies and out-of-the-ordinary situations. And in Tashkeel, I felt like that kid in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. It’s incredibly well-equipped, and you want to try everything out,” he said.

After a week’s immersion in the city, the Berliners broadly agreed that the city simultaneously impressed, confounded and via a number of means, inspired them. Some of the more conservative aspects of Middle Eastern life aroused considerable interest.

“There is a lot of talk about Dubai being a new creative centre of the world, but to be honest, I can’t see that happening in the near future,” said Sievers.

Giegold agreed, reasoning, “there must be a process of development. Maybe one can install the infrastructure that easily if there is just enough money. But to be a ‘potential art city’, culture has to grow. Art has to have a history, which cannot be forced to exist.”

The exhibitions lasted only ten days, but for the participants in this unlikely link-up, their experiences have made a deep impression. “There is so much to see out there and so much to experience and learn – and to teach as well,” said Hind Mezaina.

Meanwhile, the German contingent left the UAE on a somewhat bemused high. For Sievers, the experience had been pretty overwhelming.

“Everything is too large, too expensive, too luxurious. For me, as an ‘old European’, I need the normal. There is no normal in Dubai,” he said.

But Rolf Giegold was smitten. “I would love do it again,” he enthused. “Tashkeel could be my Fontana di Trevi of Rome, where I have thrown my coin in and made the wish to come again.”

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‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.