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Reflecting on the Berlin scene

Reflecting on the Berlin scene

Turkish gay clubs, record labels, Russendisko, electronic music festivals and night-time club culture are just some of the subjects explored in a new book of essays about the cultural scenes of Berlin.

Poor, But Sexy: Reflections on Berlin Scenes is edited by Dr Geoff Stahl, a senior lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Contributors are academics from around the world, all with personal connections to Berlin, including Dr Stahl, who has lived in Berlin and visited the capital regularly for the last 10 years.

“Many people are fascinated by the scene in Berlin, but not a lot of people are writing about it in English,” says Dr Stahl. “This is one of the few scholarly overviews of Berlin’s varied cultural life available in English.

“The various reflections it provides give readers an insight into what’s going on, and how the shape of the city has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

The title phrase ‘poor but sexy’ is taken from a statement by Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit who, a decade ago, attempted to attract creative people to the city by declaring "Berlin ist arm, aber sexy" (poor but sexy). The cultural history of the city and its low rents compared with other European capitals have helped draw artistic people from across the world and made Berlin a major centre for artists, writers, musicians and, increasingly, technology.

“Berlin, with its rundown look and feel, became a bit of a playground for a while after the Wall came down—derelict buildings became squats, clubs, cafes, workshops for artists, and venues for all kinds of collectives.

“Rather than simply romanticising or valorising the idea of the scene, however, Poor, But Sexy reflects on various issues, such as the way the city has got caught up in marketing itself as a creative cultural capital and the dilemmas that creates for the creative or artistic people who live there. There’s been dramatic change in the last 10 years, with pockets of Berlin becoming a kind of ‘bohemian consumers’ paradise’ that has become a symbol of the new Berlin.”

Dr Stahl’s essay ‘Getting by and getting older’ focusses on the organisers of transmediale, an annual festival for art and digital culture, who have been working on this event for more than 13 years.

“I was fascinated by the ways in which these people remain connected to this project as they age, their struggles with issues such as health, the juggling act that inevitably comes with settling down, ensuring that the festival keeps reflecting contemporary culture, and the precarious life of having to seek funding every year to keep the festival going. I was also interested in the impact of the festivalisation of the city, and how although it’s an advantage to be part of the ‘Berlin brand’, there’s this impulse to try to resist it in some way.”

Dr Stahl says Berlin’s influence has even infiltrated as far afield as New Zealand. “The [now-closed] Mighty Mighty bar in Wellington was modelled on a couple of legendary hedonistic bars in Berlin—White Trash and Bar 25—and numerous New Zealand artists and musicians have spent time working in Berlin. This has been documented in Cowboys and Communists, a documentary made by Wellington film maker Jess Feast about White Trash and Broke But Sexy, a series of short films about New Zealand artists living and working in Berlin.”

Poor, But Sexy: Reflections on Berlin Scenes is published by Peter Lang.


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