Sunday, 1 July 2012

Berlin notebook: the Berlin artist

Berlin? You want to know about Berlin? 'You're not a real Berliner; you were born here' – that's what my boyfriend told me once. I was waitressing in this bar in Neukölln, and he came in for a drink and we started talking about Berlin. I said I'd lived here all my life, I was born here, and he says, 'So you're not a real Berliner then.' Six weeks, that's how long he'd been here. He moved here from some place you've never heard of near Hannover. But he'd already got it. He already understood. He was the real Berliner, because he was from somewhere else.

I mean, that's what everyone loves about Berlin, right? It's a blank canvas. It's whatever you want it to be. No one is from Berlin. It's not the kind of place you can be from. Berlin isn't a place on a map, it's an idea you can believe in. You know Kennedy's speech, 'Ich bin ein Berliner' – that's the whole picture right there. You're a Berliner if you believe in Berlin, if you're a free person, if you see Berlin as a canvas of pure possibility. If you really want to know what I think, Berlin isn't a city at all. It's a state of mind. 'Ich bin ein Berliner' – Kennedy really meant it, you know, and he was right. He didn't mean he was from Berlin. He certainly didn't mean he was a German. It's the Berlin state of mind, that's what he was talking about. 

Why do you think there are so many artists in Berlin? It's obvious. Other cities already have their own identity. I've been to New York, you know, London, Paris, Moscow, whatever. Those places already have an identity. London is already London, you just have to accept it for what it is. But Berlin can be whatever you want it to be. That's why all the artists started coming here twenty years ago, and now it's full of people with their own dreams about Berlin. Anyone can have a dream like that, anyone can take the fragments of Berlin and arrange them however they like. The city doesn't impose anything on you, it doesn't make any demands. It's pure freedom. It's like the idea of America minus the money, you know what I mean? Spiritual freedom.

If you ask me, it's depressing. The idea of this city is so much bigger than the city itself. Sometimes, personally, I find it too much to bear. I mean, what if I don't have any big dreams about Berlin? What if I don't even want that freedom in the first place? You could practically be killed for saying this, but what if I just want to live here? Well if that's how you feel about it, there's no place for you in Berlin. I lived all my life in this city, and there's no place for me here. I'm from Berlin, but I'm not a Berliner. If you ask me, it's the loneliest city in the world.

All cities are lonely, I know that, and no place is really lonely if you have your friends. But for me, Berlin is lonelier than anywhere else. It's lonely if you're not part of this big thing called Art. Freedom and loneliness: it's all the same thing in the end.

Sure, I could make Art if I wanted to. I can write plays, I can direct them, I can write novels full of made-up things that don't mean anything. Honestly, it's not that hard, anyone can do it. But what's the point? I write every single day, did you know that? I've been writing every day of my life for as long as I remember. Other parents buy their little girls dolls and dresses, but what do you think my father gave me? Pens and notebooks. When I was older, a typewriter. If you're from an Art family, you just have to write. No one ever tells you what it means. No one ever asks you what it's for. No one ever stops to ask – this is my point – if you've got anything to say.

My university teachers, they never ask if you've got something to say. Our classes in theatre criticism, what's the point of all that? We learn all the different ways a thing can be done – that's all we talk about. Have you seen this new production of Macbeth at the Deutsches Theater? Oh God, it's just so – clever. Yes, you can put the spotlight on the audience. Yes, you can address the audience directly. Yes, you can cast a woman as Macbeth. I mean it's all so boring because the director has nothing to say. It's not about anything. The whole play – I sat through the whole thing, believe me – is just about all the different ways that Macbeth can be done. Or this production I'm going to next week – a twenty-four hour adaptation of Infinite Jest. Sure, it sounds very interesting and everything, I'm sure it will be very well done, but what's it for? This stuff is for theatre critics, no one else. It's not for an audience, that would be beneath them. The director probably feels flattered when all these university students have to come and take notes.

That's what I'm trying to say about Art in Berlin. It's not for anything, so we have all these plays about theatre, poems about poetry, films about radical film technique. When you go to university, all they teach you is the different techniques, all the clever choices you can make. Wow, incredible, a poststructuralist reading of Macbeth, a Freudian approach to Macbeth, a feminist production of Macbeth, just to show that you can do it that way, too. And they think that's theatre. They think that's freedom

You see, that's why I refuse to write plays. That's why I don't want to write anything. Because what society needs isn't Art. What they need is for you to have something to say, and to say it. That's the only kind of freedom I care about. That's the only kind of writing I want to do. 

Some people can see what's wrong with society, and they're able to talk about it. About what's wrong, and maybe what's beautiful too. They can talk about it quite clearly, without having to write a play or a novel or anything. Fine. But some of us don't how to talk about it like that, so we write a play instead. Because we've got something to say, and that's the only way we know how to say it.

That's why I won't write stories like my mother. She's quite famous you know, she's always finishing one novel and planning the next one. She studies the market – I'm not kidding – to find out what's popular, what everybody's into this season. But all her books are the same, all make-believe. Make-believe characters saying make-believe things in a make-believe story. No, I won't write stories like that. I'll never make things up. 

If you really want to know the truth, I'm thinking of giving up on theatre, giving up on my studies, give up writing, give up everything. Or maybe I'll get a place of my own, a big dark basement, somewhere where I can direct my own plays. That would suit me fine. But I don't need it one way or the other. I don't need Art.

What does anyone really need in life? Some friends – that's the main thing. Something to eat, something to drink, a place to sleep, and some friends. But if on top of that you happen to have something to say – well, go ahead and say it. That's the only reason to write. That's the only reason I write plays – not because I have to, not because of Art, certainly not because of Berlin.

I mean I love it here, don't misunderstand me, I would never live anywhere else. It's the idea of Berlin that I don't care for. 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' An idea like that is too dangerous. It's too intoxicating. It's a poison, that's what it is.

But Berlin – the city, the streets, the people, all these fragmentary lives thrown together – well, that's something else, it really is. I never want to leave. I'll die here, at least I hope I will. You can be lonely anywhere, I've explained that, but I'd rather be lonely here.

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