Berlin’s tale of two art scenes

The Berlin Wall might be a thing of the past, but Daniel Miller believes there might as well be a death strip dividing the German capital's art scene.

Berlin's tale of two art scenes
Photo: Susanna Majuri via Art Forum Berlin

Berlin these days is being touted in some quarters as the current hotspot of the contemporary art world. But the historically divided city hasn’t managed to forge a common art scene.

This was made abundantly clear last week as the German capital hosted two separate art world events, radically different in scale and ambition.

From October 31 to November 3, the 13th annual Art Forum Berlin returned to the gigantic fair grounds in the city’s well-heeled Charlottenburg district. Featuring 127 galleries from 26 countries, showcasing a total of around 2,000 artists, the high-profile event was even opened by Mayor Klaus Wowereit.

The mayor’s presence was called for, since Art Forum Berlin exists at the commercial heart of the city’s art scene and it plugs it into the international cash nexus. Berlin may yet “be creative,” as Wowereit’s current city-branding campaign “Be Berlin” suggests. Yet, like most of Berlin’s money, most of the finance that fuels this creativity comes from outside the city.

The forum is primarily a magnet for moneyed investors, even though the event attempts to be coy about this by hosting a series of lectures and a curated special programme alongside its spread of commercial galleries. But in the end, Art Forum Berlin is a trade fair, with priorities to match. This year, a performance by the art collective Fame – which would have involved handing out free bowls of soup – was cancelled after the official caterers, fearing for their profit margins, applied pressure.

A number of gallerists believe that this commercial focus is about to intensify further. Art Forum Berlin 2008 will be the last one directed by Sabine van der Ley, who has managed the fair for the last eight years. From next year, the helm will be taken by two former Art Basel employers. Eva-Maria Haeusler and Peter Vetsch.

“Art Basel is a more strictly commercial affair,” noted Hajnal Németh of the artist-run Lada Project. “In the future, it’s possible that there won’t be space here for galleries like ours.”

Along with this commercial question, the size of the fair also caused problems for visitors. “I see many people walking through here hands behind their backs, strolling through like a walk in a park,” observed Hans Gieles of the Amsterdam gallery VOUS ETES ICI. “As a result, they never really have an encounter with any particular work. Other people go up to every piece and stare at it intently and then at the end of the day are exhausted.”

Gieles suggested that there is an art to attending an art fair: “What my wife and I say, is that if you go home with three or four really memorable works stuck in your mind, you’ve done pretty well.”

Of course, the other alternative is to avoid the trade fair entirely by going underground.

Bang in the middle of Art Forum Berlin a very different kind of art event took place in the city’s gritty Neukölln district. Essentially a sort of urban safari involving a good deal of walking – despite the free taxis – the neighbourhood arts festival Nachtundnebel presented art in the context of a living, breathing city, as opposed to the context of a shop floor.

Nachtundnebel, which means “Night and Fog” and is the German phrase for “cloak and dagger,” was organized by Markus Pachowiak of the Schillerpalais gallery. Pachowiak set up the festival in 2002 and for the past seven years it has served as a way of linking Neukölln’s burgeoning art scene together.

“Neukölln is the place were something new can develop,” he said. “There is a still a lot of empty space here, with new artists moving in every day.”

There is a widespread idea in the art world that fairs offer the widest variety of contemporary art works and trends. In fact, this is only partially true. Because fairs only exhibit works which can easily be sold as a commodities, they tend to be more restrictive than they seem at first glance.

The range offered by Nachtundnebel was more genuinely diverse. The attractions included an amateur fashion show, a talking dragon in a shipping container, live performances and a playful installation consisting of old arcade games. Perhaps none of the work on display was as accomplished or smart as the best at Art Forum Berlin, but unlike the trade fair, the safari in Neukölln was greater than the sum of its parts.

And one project – a richly atmospheric “art apothecary” devoted to deploying art towards therapeutic ends – seemed to mirror how one half of Berlin’s burgeoning art scene is contributing to the rapid transformation of a troubled neighbourhood like Neukölln.


What’s behind Germany’s obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

Forget the Bundestag. If you want to understand German politics - and see how lively it can really be - turn on your (almost nightly) talk show.

What's behind Germany's obsession with roundtable politics talk shows?

It may well be one of the most German things imaginable – a roundtable discussion designed to give a fair amount of time to a wide range of viewpoints before (maybe) achieving some sort of consensus.

Failing that, viewers – theoretically anyway – walk away better informed and open to changing some of their opinions after a, again theoretically, respectful discussion.

Welcome to the German political talk show circuit – a collection of moderated roundtable discussions.

Whether its Anne Will on Sunday nights, “Hart aber fair” or “tough but fair” on Mondays, or Maybrit Illner on Thursdays and Markus Lanz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – you can tune into several political panels a week if you fancy.

If you have politically-minded German friends or co-workers, you might ask: “Did you watch Lanz last night?” Anecdotally, at least as many people who watch will have strong opinions about why they don’t.

Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk makes a video appearance (left video) on the Markus Lanz show on 10 March 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Cornelia Lehmann

“Lanz is a disgrace!” and “I don’t watch Anne Will out of principle!” are both phrases I’ve heard myself more than a few times over the years.

But if you are a fan and you miss an episode, don’t worry – many news outlets will run summaries of what happened during said roundtable the next morning.

“Newspapers regularly publish these recaps almost as if they were relevant parliamentary meetings,” says Peter Littger, a columnist on language and culture in Germany. “It’s super relevant politically. It can increase your voting base and certainly your book sales if you appear there.”

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

‘Consensus-oriented political culture’

If the nationally-focused ones aren’t enough for you, there’s a good chance you can find a show on a regional broadcaster focusing on issues in your federal state, again in – you guessed it – roundtable format.

As you might have gathered, the show’s name is often the same as its host, who functions first and foremost as a moderator there to facilitate and mediate a discussion between guests who are chosen specifically to balance a panel.

For a discussion on Ukraine, for example, you’ll regularly have people from every political party, from ministers and high-ranking parliamentarians who chair important Bundestag committees to pro-Russian voices from the German Left Party and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

And no one is too high-ranking not to make at least the occasional appearance. Chancellor Olaf Scholz himself joined a Maybrit Illner roundtable on July 7th this year.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears on the Maybrit Illner show on 7 July 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/ZDF | Svea Pietschmann

Both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba have also made appearances on Anne Will this year.

In characteristically German fashion, state broadcasters have extensive written regulations to ensure a panel also has a balance of people from relevant expert disciplines. For instance, a coronavirus panel may well feature a notable doctor alongside a civil liberties lawyer.

“Germany has a more consensus-oriented political culture than you might see in a country like the UK, for example, which is more confrontational and even adversarial,” says Sebastian Ludwicki-Ziegler a PhD researcher at the University of Stirling’s Department of Communications, Media, and Culture.

“You’ll still get some invited guests who are very contrarian and even aggressive – like Thilo Sarrazin (a former politician who wrote a controversial book in 2010 about Muslim immigration to Germany) for example. But even then, the moderator often tries to maintain a softer, more civil tone.”

Ludwicki-Ziegler says that while the roundtable format reflects German political culture, it also reflects its institutional setup. A show producer can simply get more obvious ranges of political opinion in a country with Germany’s proportional representation, which has seven parties in parliament.

Historic roundtables

Unlike the often subdued German Bundestag though, German talk shows can certainly get lively, or even historic.

Perhaps the most notable TV roundtable happened right after the 2005 federal election. With then incumbent Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder having finished only one percent behind Christian Democrat Angela Merkel when all the votes were counted, party leaders gathered in the traditional “Elefantenrunde,” or yes, the “Elephant’s round,” to discuss the results.

READ ALSO: Talking elephants and grumpy politicians: Four things that will happen after the German elections

With the final election result having been so close, observers still discuss whether Schröder lost his chancellorship at the ballot box or during the 2005 Elefantenrunde. In contrast to a calm Merkel, Schröder insisted he would stay on as Chancellor.

Brash and arrogant, some observers have asked whether he was drunk at the time. German media outlets ran anniversary pieces looking back at his disastrous roundtable performance 5, 10, and 15 years later. One such anniversary piece from 2020 called the roundtable “Schröder’s embarrassing end.”

The 2005 post-election roundtable, or “Elefantenrunde,” is considered by many German political observers to be the disastrous end to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder;s political career. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | ZDF/Jürgen_Detmers

Mastering the roundtable appearance is a big plus for a German politician, or anyone else looking to move the needle of German public opinion.

Satisfying a particularly German impulse, you can certainly also walk away feeling like you’ve considered all sides. But are there drawbacks?

On 8 May 2022’s edition of Anne Will, social psychologist Harald Welzer appeared to lecture Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk that 45 percent of Germans were against delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine because of German war history. Many observers criticised Welzer for patronising the Ambassador of a country at war about the need to have weapons for its own self-defense.

The exchange, and a fair few others, lead some experts to wonder whether the roundtable format so many German political talk shows seem to love gives too big a platform to pro-Russian voices or to controversial writers like the aforementioned Thilo Sarrazin.

“If we take Germany and Ukraine as one example, you can get some great guests who come on and really set things straight with facts, data, and plain talk,” says Benjamin Tallis, a Fellow in German Security Policy at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“But you can get false balance. You’ll get people on with rather fringe opinions given a platform against people who have a lot more experience and evidence. That’s true in a lot of places now, sure, but this talk show format really lends itself to that because of the amount of guests you need on a nightly basis,” says Tallis.

“Unfortunately in Germany, many guests are invited on based on their opinions about an issue rather than the level of their expertise, in order to try and achieve balance,” says Minna Alander, a specialist in German foreign policy who recently joined the Finnish Institute of International Affairs after more than a decade working in Berlin.

“When you start equating opinion with knowledge, it makes it way more difficult to have a fact-based debate. On matters of life and death, like in Ukraine, that can have a polarising effect.”