Lost in Berlin
Thursday 4th April, 2013
I had high hopes of the Lost Lectures first foray into Berlin and wished to be enchanted as promised by the cleverly marketed event, which bills itself as using “incredible secret spaces that surprise, delight and bring the imagination to life.”
Ready to be amazed and taken somewhere completely out of the ordinary, the first disappointment was the choice of location. Stattbad Wedding, although a unique space, is a well-known venue that Berliners attend, usually for a much lower entrance fee. Sorry “lostlings”, while this may be incredible for someone from out-of-town, a decommissioned swimming pool regularly used for events is far from our most “secret” location – for anyone who lives here, it is simply part of the local cultural scene. The organisers need to dig a little deeper to find a local venue that fulfils their marketing pitch – in a city like Berlin it is not difficult to find unique, hidden and really special venues that aren’t traditionally used for events.
It was unfortunate that almost all the talks were riddled with technical problems – in part due to the location, as the audience was far away and out of sight of the speakers, who could sometimes hardly be heard over the echoes from vast tiled surfaces. Technical snafus ran the gamut from sound issues and malfunctioning speaker microphones, to speakers unable to hear audience questions, information disappearing as the presenter slides were not working and projections being difficult to see due to the dull projector and sight-line issues of the space.
The first half was underwhelming, three lectures were pitched to a basic introductory level and lacking in the level of interest, performative aspect or personal stories one needs to be “delighted.” Covering familiar topics (3D printing, fallen fruit maps and open data) from the extensive range of talks and events to which most people living in Berlin have access on a regular basis. Taking the event as one for people who would alternatively be drinking at the pub or watching TV, perhaps it has something more to offer, but for someone already informed about 3D printing, the fallen fruit maps and open government & data movements, these ideas were presented competently but without anything special to “enchant”.
While the neuroscience lecture intrigued me, I still didn’t quite get the shift in focus, which was largely about flies and leeches, and it seemed a stretch to extrapolate these to human free will. One of my companions disagreed, saying she actually found it very interesting and liked the examples of fish and insects to show the creativity, randomness and unpredictability of nature, as well as free will, being crucial in natural selection and evolution.
The PARKOUR team display was brilliant, totally shifting the energy of the space and using the empty swimming pool as their jumping platform and diving board – energising adrenaline rush throughout the house. Their talk about how and why they do this urban street sport was equally intriguing, offering a sense of passion and humility, striving only to better their own attempts rather than competing with each other, and always reaching to leap that next wall.
The absolute highlights were Peaches and “mystery guest X,” wildly inspiring Berlin artist Julius von Bismarck. His activities as artist in residence at CERN remain a mystery, however he notably won the Prix Ars Electronica in 2008 with his Image Fulgurator, a wonderful and strange apparatus that looks like a camera, but actually projects an image onto the object at which it is pointed, a subtle intervention which is only visible on the photo afterwards. These range from “NO” projected over the Pope, to the Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit being ‘powered’ by “O2” at the opening of “ART FORUM 2008” (02 World is a massive development along the River Spree), Obama having his lectern enhanced with an iconic cross, and one the most confusing to the tourists whose photos bore this strange unexpected image, a Magritte inspired dove fulguration on the Mao Zedong portrait at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
“At sacred or popular locations, or those having a political connotation, an intervention with the Fulgurator can be particularly effective. Especially objects with a special aura or great symbolic power are good targets for this kind of manipulation. It is possible to have a lasting effect on those kinds of individual moments and events that become accessible to the masses only because they are preserved photographically. In this context the Fulgurator represents a manipulation of visual reality and so targets the very fabric of media memory.”
There was something unbearably hilarious about watching his lanky form whipping nature, with his brilliant “Punishment 1” video. The artist is depicted wielding a long whip and ‘punishing nature’ from calm Swiss lakes to rocks, mountains and eventually where nature fights back with a strong ocean swell knocking him off his feet. His action on Liberty Island resulted in being arrested for carrying a weapon and his assistants for participating in an unauthorised performance – whipping the base of the Statue of Liberty. Sadly most of that footage was lost – confiscated by the representatives of said “Lady of Liberty”, however there remain some tourist videos and a short introduction to the piece, before the cops arrived. Next project is the somewhat odd coloured pigeons – look out for the yellow pigeon in Kreuzberg. Julian spoke very convincingly about how this introduction of colour to the pigeon population would allow people to focus on the sky and be aware of the city in a different way.
This strangeness and poetry in the subtlety of his interventions is exactly what makes all of these works so compelling. I find the title of the work when searching for the link: “Some pigeons are more equal than others”, which adds another layer of politics to this intelligent and thoughtful urban wildlife intervention. It’s far easier to see the effect with the documentation online than it was during the talk as the projection was not clear – the pink and blue pigeons flying over Venice are especially gorgeous and enchanting above the picturesque rooftops. I’m still wondering if Nikolai Tesla and his well documented romantic love for a pigeon had anything to do with inspiring this piece?
Finally, Peaches invited the audience to join her in the pool, where she gave a very personal and moving talk about her own journey to creative self expression, from teaching art in primary schools to dropping acid and jamming with strangers to unleash their freeform song writing. The forced audience participation was a little uncomfortable, as the vibe and energy never reached the pitch where people actually wanted to run down to wave their hands in the air. Although it was necessary for her performative talk this felt off kilter as a demand, especially in the context of talking about “creative freedom.” The moment when Peaches threatened the people looking from above to join in or she would accuse them of “looking down on her,” fell completely flat, particularly when intimating that this was a form of being fearless, which detracted rather glaringly from her stated ambition of fostering creativity.
Talking about naming herself after a line in a Nina Simone song was a charming insight into the process of developing her artist persona, as she imagined Nina singing “Her name is PEACHES” directly to her – not quite the same as “Her name is… Merrill.” After stripping off her excellent purple 80s sci-fi inspired designer onesie to reveal gold hotpants and donning a wild hot pink leather frilled-lizard style top, she asked everyone to raise their hands in support and walked out onto the crowd singing an incredible aria and directing the flow of hands to take her next step. Although you’re definitely preaching to the choir when telling an audience in Berlin to “embrace your creative spirit, take risks and become the person you can are meant to be”, this was a magic performative moment of connection and sent the audience out into the night on a high note.
Peaches – Photo uberlin
Overall, I am glad I went along for the experience, not sure if I would go again… As the location was not particularly “enchanting” or magical, the sound was overridden by echoing tiles, and the decor of mismatched furniture much like any random corner Berlin bar, I was still impressed that the place was packed – selling out 350 tickets at €13-17 a pop, the organisers are clearly onto something. Wondering what their magic formula is – a mix of secret location, mystery guest, celebrity, new-in-town and really good PR? All of the lectures are generously available online, so you watch for yourself and decide if you want to make the effort next time.
Note to the London-based team, while it’s a great idea and clearly successful, please try to do more local research into places and speakers that are exciting for Berlin residents! Admittedly we are spoiled with the plethora of free or vastly more affordable talks, lectures, workshops, conferences and masterclasses on offer in Berlin on an almost daily basis. However, when you are asking a ticket price at over 17 euro, a much higher level of content curation and event production standards is needed if the Lost Lectures is to keep an audience for future Berlin editions.
Thanks to Michelle O’Brien for thoughtful comments & feedback, Leela Shanker for documentation and the organisers, speakers and audience for a thought-provoking evening.
Lost Lectures – Watch online
Julius von Bismarck
Image Fulgurator / Punishment I / Some Pigeons are more equal than others
Prix Ars Electronica Collide@CERN Artist Residency