For me it all started in the Spring of 1998 when my West Berlin cousin and his best friend brought me to East Berlin to show me some of the popular nightlife spots. We ended up biking to Oranienburgerstr and that was my first introduction to the hulking squat of an edifice that is Tacheles. In those days East Berlin in general was a dismal grey city where most buildings still looked as if they had been neglected for over 50 years, which in fact they had. The only buildings which had been built since WWII were the pre-fabricated “Lego” housing typical of Eastern Europe. The once grand old turn of the century architecture had gone to seed and not only had crumbling facades exposing the bricks beneath but were pockmarked by bullet homes and scarred by bomb damage from a war which happened over half a century ago.
Tacheles was no exception. What was once a Jewish department store with a shopping passage connecting Oranienburger Str with Friedrichstr was now a brown coal and graffiti covered, gutted artists squat 5 stories high. From the back the visitor was able to see the extent of the damage to the building. Where once stood a proud city block was now a sandy lot filled with various metal sculptures and makeshift park benches. The bomb sight had been turned into a playground of sorts for adults and from the motley collection of artists, poets, immigrants, drug dealers and tourists. I knew right away I was home.
The view from the back was quite spectacular seeing as how the back ¾ of the block had literally just fallen off leaving half exposed rooms as if a tornado had come along and ripped the building apart. The only clue how large the building once was was a bit of the ground floor which survived about 100 meters away from the actual building. This served as an art studio hangout by day and a thumping rave club by night.
As I already mentioned the clientele was quite spectacular and I have enjoyed many an interesting scene; from the crazy German running screaming through the back yard as equally deranged people gave futile chase, to the crazy Spanish resident artist who would often come downstairs in her bathrobe having violent conversations with herself to the point I thought it might come come to blows. I was always too curious to see what exactly would happen if that came to pass though more than often I would just nervously sidle away.
As a rather naïve American who spoke only English I was not exactly embraced by the locals at my new favorite bar. Even though these were the Clinton days I was often accosted and interrogated until the inquisitor was satisfied I did not condone imperialist wars or the hypocrisy of America’s foreign policy. In fact I was one of the few Americans who learned where Serbia was 6 months before we bombed. I had met a Serbian girl in 1998 who spun my head with her fatalistic Balkan version of history of which I was previously unaware. I also had to learn about Pinochet and Allende and the injustice of the American coup from Chileans living in Berlin. In fact my whole world view was spun on its head by suddenly understanding that not everything America had done was in the best interest of the world at large. This came as quite a shock after a sheltered lackluster education of a pre-9/11 world. But I digress.
The “staff” at the time were young, idealistic and a curious mix between hippies, anarchists, artists and beatniks with a penchant for black clothes and a decidedly left leaning bias. I use the term staff loosely however since it was more of a collective than a business. In 1998 one could still rock up with your own booze and even food if you so chose. I had the distinct feeling that had I decided one night to sneak into the ateliers or studios I could probably curl up in a corner and spend the night without anyone looking at me twice. I do in fact remember a pair of 60ish year old Irish twins who were a regular act. They would come in sing a few songs ask for change and then one of them would curl up under the table for a nap while the other would regal the onlookers with his exploits.
As far as I could understand at the time the house was founded after the wall came down by an assorted group of squatters who took over the house and turned it into an artist colony where everyone was welcome (except fascists and Nazis). Even as an American and a symbol of all that was wrong in the world my presence was tolerated though it did take a few years before I finally learned the names of the locals and vis versa. The founding squatters had divided up the building into different components. On the ground floor was a bar called appropriately Zapata, as well as a couple of gallery spaces, a metal workshop, and in between the infamous kitchen. The people running Zapata were also in charge of the back yard where a couple of makeshift bars were set up for the spring and summer months. One flight up were the offices as well as a huge space which was used as a theater. On the second floor (third floor by American standards) the house had set up a movie theater and later a bar as well. On the third and fourth floor were the ateliers and gallery space for the resident artists and other transient characters. There was also a fifth floor which was a huge space which they open up for special events.
In the summer of 1999 the house experienced a revival when a deal was struck with the real owners of the house who you can imagine were not thrilled with the concept of their investment being filled with the kind of radical left element which was prominent in Berlin for the first decade after the fall of the wall. Of course today many visitors are astonished by the amount of left wing radicalism allowed to flourish in the capital of Europe’s richest nation but even when I arrived there were people telling me the city had lost all its charm and the gentrification and capitalization of the city had ruined it forever. Comparing Tacheles in Berlin of 1998 to Berlin of 2011 I would have to agree but if I had just arrived from America in Berlin for the first time yesterday I am sure I would still be thrilled at the amount of freedom and liberalization of the German capital.
Sadly it was around this time, coinciding perhaps coincidentally with the crackdown of illegal immigrants and drug dealers in Tacheles that I learned of a rift that had formed in the house. As far as I could figure it had something to do with the fact that Zapata, where most of the income from the house was made, was not willing to pay their fair share of the costs from the house. To me it seemed as if they chose anarchy while the rest of the house chose to compromise and pay for the right to officially have their “verein” artist union status.
Over the next decade this rift grew to epically tragic proportions as the renegade, anarchist, Zapata team sought legal counsel and began suing the Tacheles “verein”. There were a number of these lawsuit each of which was lost by Zapata who was then forced to pay for the legal costs of both parties. The irony here is if the money they spent on legal costs was simply paid directly to the house all the problems would have gone away. In any case the climax finally came in 2009 when the lease on the house was up and some hard choices had to be made. Either Zapata had to fall in line, or Zapata had to go, or the government could not ensure the future of the entire house. As with all bureaucratic procedures this process lasted over a year until early in 2011 a private unnamed donor came forward and offered the people at Zapata one million Euro to make themselves scarce. And just like that it was all over. Within one week the website of Zapata said so long, it’s been fun.
Since this internal political struggle was not made public for most people this meant that Tacheles itself had been shut down which is what inspired me to write this blog. The original idea, and many of the original people are still there, working every day to keep the Tacheles e.v. alive and with your support this amazing project will last a very long time.
Please support Kunsthaus Tacheles by signing this petition encouraging the government to step in and allow Art to endure.