"A wall is standing on Friedrichstrasse. Finally, we are on a way to establish peace."
On June 15th 2012, Peace Wall, a temporary public artwork that was part of the 7th Berlin Biennial was removed two weeks earlier than planned (the work had been scheduled to remain until July 1). The neighborhood blocked by the wall (filled with both immigrants and poverty) had spoken, and they hated it. "geschmacklos!" (tasteless); „ein typisches Beispiel pseudointellektueller Überheblichkeit“ (a typical example of pseudo-intellectual arrogance); „Das Ding ist einfach nur hässlich“ ("The thing is just plain ugly") were just some neighborhood opinions quoted in the plentiful local press coverage.
Placed on Friedrichstrasse between an affluent and heavily touristed area next to Checkpoint Charlie and a largely immigrant neighborhood, the artwork was intended by both artist Nada Prlja and Biennale organizer Artur Zmijewski, to provoke. In an interview taped while the piece was being installed (below), Prlja, a Serb with a Macedonian passport who now resides in London, said, "...We expect to have a mixed reaction to the wall. We really don't know and don't want to predict but we want to invite people ... to react to it in the way they feel. So we really want to create something for real to be there and to make people that live around it, to confront that..." Rather than taking the Berlin Wall as point of departure, Prlja instead referred to the walls constructed between neighborhoods in Belfast called "Peace Lines". She chose to use the same language to title her work, she stated, because she found it strange and puzzling; "maybe if we put the wall we create peace, but which kind of peace, and where is the peace, and do we really create peace?"
Aside from the questionable conceptual transplantation next to the former Berlin Wall of Belfast's “Peace Lines”, a tragic demarcation of battle lines drawn through a still warring Belfast, Prlja's project pretends that the rapid gentrification of Berlin could be assigned a readily locatable border, as if a phenomenon encroaching from the outside in. In reality though, the tension between wealth and poverty being played out on Friedrichstrasse is far more complex, its boundaries impossible to draw from house to house, dwelling to dwelling, or even neighbor to neighbor. Further complicating that reality is the irony that the now gentrified area belonged to the former east, while the now poor section belonged the former west.
In the show's curatorial essay, Artur Zmijewski writes that the aim of works presented in this Biennale is to "present art that actually works, makes its mark on reality, and opens a space where politics can be performed. These works create political events — regardless of whether they deal with urgent problems in society or the long-term politics of memory." Official press for the exhibition claimed that, "Despite its immediate associations in a formerly divided city, her project doesn't refer to the historical Berlin Wall, but to the social segregation present in this area today …Today a large part of the street is filled with posh boutiques and fancy restaurants, but at its southern end this gives way to a ‘problem’ neighborhood with social housing projects (once located on the periphery of West Berlin), high unemployment rates, and a population with up to 70 percent migration backgrounds. This ‘invisible’ partition, which exists today in the middle of the city, is marked by the construction of Prlja's wall. It visualizes social and economic inequalities, the existence of ‘parallel societies’ in the city, and the positions of the advantaged and underprivileged. Perhaps it is no surprise that the process of getting permission to erect this work was blocked by different interest groups and community members, including school authorities and private and public bodies."
As the final sentence of the project statement above suggests, installation of the Peace Wall stirred controversy from the start. The video of what appear to be the opening festivities shows the curator being verbally confronted, and then cutting the discussion short because he didn't like his challenger's tone. A Berliner Zeitung article from as early as May 10th covered the controversy and negative neighborhood sentiment (press coverage that the artist blames, at least in part, for further stirring the embers). According to that article, Prlia's Peace Wall caused an outcry among shop owners in the area, who claimed that they were losing business, and neighbors, who had to take detours to come and go. "'The dribbling from these people is simply insufferable, the wall means for me an existential threat.' said Hendrikje Ehlers. The shoe repairer plies her trade on the corner of Hedemannstrasse. Since the wall has stood, she has been robbed of sales and lost a third of his customers." ("„Das Gesabber von diesen Leuten ist einfach unerträglich, die Mauer bedeutet für mich eine existenzielle Bedrohung“, sagt Hendrikje Ehlers. Die Schuhmacherin betreibt ihren Laden an der Ecke zur Hedemannstraße, seit die Mauer steht, sei ihr Umsatz eingebrochen und sie habe ein Drittel ihrer Kunden verloren, sagt sie.")
Within the intentionally provocative context they co-created, both artist and curator could now handily argue that the work and ensuing controversy had succeeded wildly, that the outrage was precisely the "real" effect they'd hoped to achieve and, to some extent, Prlja does so, albeit with a tinge of bitterness. In her reflection published after the project's removal, she states that, "The Peace Wall clearly demonstrated that "critical" public art should not explain its idea to the community beforehand. Any a priori description, could nullify the project’s process, making the work appear as an ‘art product’, but not as a reflection of the anticipated reality. A meaningful description of the project was intentionally avoided by the artist/art institution during the first month of duration of the BB7. The project worked very much in ‘real time’ and it was shaped on a daily basis by the social interaction and collisions between the various power entities." Prlja continues, summing up the outcry: "Some of the reactions, mainly directed towards myself, showed a degree of ignorance, but also a sense of superiority and even racism by certain members of the community. The innermost and most honest human feelings have been exposed during the presence of the Peace Wall. The community found it hard to admit that there are any problems in the area and that they might somehow be responsible for these issues, or somehow creators of the very situation. With a sense of fear, they disregarded the reality that was uncovered and made public by the “wall.”...Did the shop owners, the investors, local institutions for community support fear the wall? Yes, they did. Did the ordinary residents - disempowered, homeless, unemployed, etc - fear the wall? No, the wall was just another obstacle in the city, probably similar to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, seen as something imposed by ‘arrogant cultural workers’." So, to recap: Prlja believes that artists must never explain their artwork's ideas to the public residing nearby beforehand and she intentionally avoided doing so before installing hers. The public is in a state of denial and afraid to face reality. To the local community the project was at best, an obstacle put in their path by "arrogant artists". At worst, it revealed how misguided (or worse, racist) the neighborhood's residents really are.
Public art controversies like this aren't really anything new. Derision for contemporary art, especially in the public sphere, is a time-honored bloodsport. An interesting comparison could be drawn between Richard Serra's percent-for-art piece, Tilted Arc that bisected a Federal plaza where office workers lunched and Prlja's Peace Wall. Serra's wall faced some similar issues, in that "those working in surrounding buildings must circumvent its enormous bulk as they go through the plaza", which caused considerable resentment and accusations of artistic arrogance. Reactions to such case studies of “failed” public art projects like Tilted Arc heavily influenced later public art exhibitions such as Places with a Past, wherein public artworks strove to develop deeper ties to their location — their social, physical, spiritual, or even psychic past, present, and perhaps, even future. Artists began working closely in concert with communities, performing what can often closely resemble anthropology or social work as much as (or more than) contemporary visual or performance art. There have been ground-breaking examples of artists embedding themselves within communities (such as Conrad Atkinson and his work with carpet weavers). "Relational Aesthetics" was a term later coined by French writer and curator Nicolas Bourriaud to classify the combination of work-in-progress, work-as-remnant, and work-as-documentation that form the product of these attempts to work with and contribute to a community in which the artist works. Certainly knowing what's at stake (and who the stakeholders are) and acting in ethical ways within that framework is critically important for artists. Whether an artist's skills and expertise best lend themselves to a form of socio-cultural therapy played out in public remains an open question.
The opportunity to engage deeply with the community and effect an entirely different, perhaps even lasting change was there, in the case of Peace Wall. The website for the neighborhood Social Democratic party representative states that, "the discussion on the social problems in south Friedrichstadt is not new. For several years now the SPD and Peter Becker's business council have had close contact with local associations and interest groups that have worked together toward a solution." (Die Diskussion über die sozialen Probleme der Südlichen Friedrichstadt ist nicht neu. Bereits seit vielen Jahren hat die SPD und der Wirtschaftsstadtrat Peter Beckers einen engen Kontakt zu den lokalen Vereinen bzw. Interessengruppen und hat gemeinsam an Lösungen gearbeitet.) Perhaps Prlja could have employed a strategy of drawing upon those years of study about the challenges residents of Friedrichstrasse face, and thus, more skillfully locate key points of possible participation.
Prlja (and curator Zmijewski) chose instead to employ a confrontational strategy by placing an interventionist wedge, walling off a poor, immigrant community in the name of art. Certainly, so-called “interventionist” art projects offer many interesting and surprising possibilities to literally (and often illegally) reach outside of institutional walls. Such projects are typically most successful when using humor and/or the element of surprise, employing alternative narratives to reveal deeper realities on the street. Prjla's strategy was clearly a hybrid interventionist approach, and since it was created within the official imprimatur of a citywide, temporary public exhibition, no guerilla tactics were necessary. The project used no discernible humor but most certainly did manage to surprise neighbors, artist, and curator alike.
Was Peace Wall simply an oversimplified attack on gentrification via failed public art intervention? Was how the controversy played out an unintended result of art-world-jet-set ignorance about the context — the street, the neighborhood, or even the city of Berlin and its people — in which they worked? Did they assume the people of Friedrichstrasse were unaware of the barriers that they face every day of their lives? If not, to whom precisely did they wish to make those barriers visible? Was Prlja unaware that her artwork would be perceived by residents as a deliberate attempt at ghettoization, making visible to all their second-class status as poor immigrants? That it would make the travails of daily survival just that much more difficult for them? That was most certainly the conclusion of the mainstream press that covered the project. For the art world press, the entire incident might as well never have happened.
Where does all of this leave the practice and potential of art in public? That such actions can reach and move people not otherwise inclined to encounter artworks remains a tantalizing possibility. It is especially so when the work is temporary, because possibilities that would otherwise be impermissible are suddenly once again at play. A careful examination of case studies such as Peace Wall affords such an opportunity, and begs some critical questions. What are strategies that work, and what exactly does "work" mean in this context? What kinds of transformation can a work of art really hope to accomplish, and who gets to decide? Those affected by the work? The artist and curator who enable its creation? Mainstream or art press? Neighborhood politicians? Identifying precisely how such works "work" and what work they can and cannot be expected to do is of tantamount importance if effective action is (still) possible.
Stretcher has been contacted by the artist and has invited her to respond in full to this article.
Thank you, Ella for your excellent article!
Cheryl Meeker • July 26, 2012