When the lights go out in Wallywood

Wallywoods, a seminal gallery for Berlin’s avant-garde art scene, is locked in a Stalingrad-esque struggle for survival with intractable municipal officials. Ben Knight slips behind the lines to talk with its curator of chaos.

When the lights go out in Wallywood
Photo: Wallywoods

Paul Woods likes chairs. “Some artists do landscapes, some do portraits, I do chairs,” he says, and he has scrawled thousands of little black ones over the walls of his legendary Gallery Wallywoods.

Its current incarnation resides in the Kulturhaus Peter Edel, an old East Berlin cultural centre in the German captial’s Weißensee, named after an Auschwitz survivor turned Communist writer turned Stasi informant.

In the middle of this swarm of insect-sized furniture, Paul, aka Paradox Paul, aka Wally, is building twelve giant chairs – thrones, actually – out of a set of derelict pianos. “Each is also an execution machine,” he adds pointedly.

Wallywoods is more than a studio and a gallery. In the last five years, it has become a teeming venue and working space for Berlin’s avant-garde, a place where live performance, painting, sculpture and extremely loud music constantly gets thrown together by and with Berlin’s most committed punks, drunks and general eccentrics. It’s a place where you are equally likely to see rap, poetry, wall-painting, mock machete fights, or get caught in an impromptu techno party.

Click here for a Wallywoods photo gallery.

Unlike other artistic communes though, there’s no mutual self-satisfaction here – the people who work in Wallywoods seem to derive their creative energy from a relentless quarrelsome restlessness born of frustration. When describing the history of Wallywoods, Paul dismissively alludes to fights and instances of “attempted murder,” then enthusiastically tells the story of a 14-year-old boy who showed up one night, displayed a precocious talent for percussion, spent 45 minutes smashing up a keyboard, and then disappeared.

Paul’s friend, a performance artist known as the Shitty Listener, says Wallywoods represents “the squat scene that isn’t a squat.” The Shitty Listener enjoys listing the luminaries of Berlin’s underground who have graced the Wallywoods stage – Bruno Adams, Nikki Sudden, Alex Tornado – people as little known in the mainstream as they are revered in specialised circles.

Another friend of Paul’s, the Swiss painter Cecile Lutta thrived in the open atmosphere, where strangers could come in, drink beer, and suggest improvements while she was painting. “I worked so well here, you can’t imagine,” Lutta says.

But now Wallywoods is threatened with closure. The district council of Pankow, to which Weißensee belongs, considers Paul’s contract for temporary use of the Kulturhaus terminated, even though he continues to pay the rent, and is waiting for him leave.

But Paul refuses to comply, for several reasons. He want to finish his execution thrones, of course, but he has also developed a deep love for the Kulturhaus Peter Edel itself. Apart from the ground floor rooms occupied by Wallywoods, the facility includes a concert auditorium, a jazz bar, vast gallery space and much attendant technical equipment.

Doomed to be derelict?

Since the council has no immediate plans for the building – the public funds for keeping a cultural centre in Pankow were cut two years ago – Paul believes that his presence is protecting it from dereliction. A private theatre school, Die Möwe, was meant to take over this year, but negotiations have stalled indefinitely.

But the main reason why Paul is staying is a typically Wallywoods-esque combination of indignation and bloody-mindedness in dealing with authority. Last summer he was ready to leave in search of a new space, but a wrangle over when he would leave led him to ask if he could stay. His answer was a bureaucratic brick wall.

“I’ve been saying till I’m blue in the face: ‘Tell us what the costs are on the whole building, or these separate rooms, and we want to pay them!’ But they won’t listen to us,” he says exasperatedly. “They don’t want any of our ideas.”

So Paul decided to fight it out, and his tireless efforts have made him the nemesis of Left party councillor Christine Keil, on whose desk the case has landed.

Both Keil and Matthias Zarbock, Left party culture spokesman for the district of Pankow, claim that the district is looking for private investors with cultural ideas for the building, but they refuse to discuss details or be interviewed. If no investor can be found, the most likely fate for the building will be the open market, where its demolition can no longer be prevented.

Paul has drawn up a series of proposals for the continued use of the space, but Zarbock and Keil are unwilling to discuss them because, they say, he is an “unreasonable partner.” Political deafness has stirred Paul’s determination. “I feel offended that they’ve not listened to our fantastically creative, financially creative ideas – no, they’d rather let it rot, let us rot and eventually make more money.”

One reason why Paul is building execution thrones – apart from to satisfy his chair-mania – is to keep warm. Not only has the water been turned off, the caretaker has taken a hacksaw to the pipes, scuppering the heating for good. Paul’s few portable gas heaters have to be used sparingly, and the big rooms of the Kulturhaus take a lot of warming up. So when he is not fixing guillotines to his sculptures, Paul is often under two duvets, hacking at an old computer, from which he writes letters to politicians and newspapers, or appeals for help on social networking websites.

Until now, and despite universal pessimism amongst his friends, Paul has managed to put off the council one month at a time, using creative excuses to avoid returning the keys. The first was to explain that he needed extra time for storage purposes; then he bought more time by insisting on negotiations for further usage.

Eventually, Paul organised a demonstration to save the Kulturhaus. He and around 40 friends marched ten minutes down the road to Pankow town hall with “Save Culture” banners, an official police escort, and, of course, a giant chair on wheels. Paul claims that since this show of defiance the caretaker has stopped hacking the heating system to pieces.

“Keil’s under a lot of stress now. They didn’t like my demo where we went to the town hall and banged drums outside and I walked up the steps with a bucket on my head, and gave her a public letter,” Paul reminisces gleefully. “Let’s see if I can find another method to hinder their eventual plan – to lock up and destroy the building.”

But Paul knows that his month-to-month luck will run out eventually and he will have to move on. Ever the survivor, he’s already busy working on a new project, called Paradox Berlin, which is set to rise out of the chaotic ashes of Wallywoods.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


‘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.