Paul Sullivan talks to urban culture author Stephen Barber about his book, The Walls of Berlin…
Stephen Barber is a writer on urban culture, experiment in film and Japanese culture. He has been writing since 1990 and has published thirty books since then (22 non-fiction books and eight fiction), many of them translated into other languages. He has been a professor and arts researcher at universities and art schools in many countries, such as the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, Sussex University in Brighton, the Berlin University of the Arts, the IMEC Institute in Paris/Caen, the University of Tokyo and Keio University in Tokyo.
He has travelled widely for his work and has lived in Berlin, as well as Tokyo, Los Angeles, Paris, Vienna and London, among other cities. He currently serves as Professor and Research Centre Co-Director at the Kingston School of Art, Kingston University, London, and from September 2022 to June 2023, is a Fellow at the Hamburg Institute for Advanced Study (HIAS).
For his book, The Walls of Berlin, Barber explores the intimate connections between those surfaces and the works of art and film that have both incised Berlin’s urban screens and been inspired by them. Drawing on a vast range of material— from the first films of Berlin in the 1890s to the city’s place in contemporary digital art— the book takes the form of a series of image-propelled journeys across the face of Berlin and through its urban histories, excavating the ricochets among the city, art, and film.
In Barber’s hands, Berlin’s walls become apertures that mediate the city’s preoccupations and manias, damage and scars, strata and outgrowths, sexual obsessions, and urban vanishings. The Walls of Berlin is a rich cultural history of the city’s memories—as well as its acts of forgetting—that illuminates overlooked spaces and the sensory presences that inhabit them.
You briefly describe the catalyst for The Walls of Berlin in the introduction to the book, but what background events or interests led to that point and ultimately to the project itself?
Since I first came to Berlin as a teenager in 1979 I’ve been a compulsive walker of the city and the walls and facades of the city have an infinite fascination for me as multiply inscribed and memory-embedded surfaces. During the years 1990 to 1994 I lived in Berlin at a period which then felt like one of intense citywide experimentation, elation, bewilderment and improvisation, as well as of rapid transformation marked on the city’s surfaces as well as in the perception and through the bodies and presences of Berliners, exiles, travellers.
I also saw entire lineages of graffiti appear and disappear from the city’s facades during those years, and I’m interested in graffiti eruptions as a vital language of urban space. I wrote a book at that time, based on my incessant walks and travels through the city, Fragments of the European City, published in 1994, and I had the idea a couple of years ago that it would be interesting to write a ’20 years on’ Berlin follow-up book, that involved some of the same walks – through now-vanished spaces and erased or absent cityscapes (or through entirely new cityscapes).
But I was also interested in writing this time also about the extraordinary range of films and artworks created over the past century or so in Berlin, many of them depictions of the city’s surfaces at moments of crisis or transmutation, and one of the first things I saw on returning to Berlin was the cinema projector used by the Berlin film-pioneers, Max and Emil Skladanowsky (two young inventors/magicians from Prenzlauer Berg) for the first-ever screening of films to a public paying audience, in November 1895 at the Central Hotel in Friedrichstrasse—showing films they had made themselves, including one shot on the roof of a building in the Schonhauser Allee which is the first film of Berlin.
It was a curious experience looking into the lens of that projector, since it’s at the same time an idiosyncratic, ramshackle invention and a kind of omniscient, seminal artefact for the future. Since film is such a powerful medium in the visualising of Berlin, both in terms of documentary and fiction film, I started wondering what images of the contemporary city would look like projected through that lens. So, the book is a collection of forty journeys across Berlin, as though they held the capacity to absorb images from the past, present and future of Berlin.
Can you explain the concept of the book in layman terms?
The book tries to seize the intersections between the urban surfaces of Berlin and the film and visual-art images that have been made of those surfaces, to transmit a sense of why those extraordinary surfaces have been such a source of captivation for filmmakers and artists—as well as writers and travellers—in a sustained way. The book also tries to give a sense of journeys through cityscapes of Berlin that may imminently be subject to erasure or wholesale reconfiguration in the near future, and also tries to excavate into the past of Berlin through the multiple, compacted layers of its buildings’ surfaces.
When did you conceive of the idea of walls as “apertures” or ways into the layers of Berlin history? And what made you settle specifically on the realm of the “visual” or “ocular culture”…
In recent years, I’ve been interested in derelict and abandoned cinema spaces, especially those in Los Angeles’ Downtown, and one of my previous books, ‘Abandoned Images’, involved spending an entire year exploring and documenting the facades and interiors of an avenue of disused or ‘re-purposed’ cinemas in the Broadway avenue of Los Angeles. Probably as a result of spending so much time in the spaces of cinemas that no longer showed films, I started thinking about how urban surfaces, in Berlin especially, so intimately resemble screens that still carry the residues or detritus of all they’ve experienced or seen, and how the eyes of travellers through Berlin, involuntarily or not, might become apertures that projected urban obsessions or preoccupations either onto those screens, as well as absorbing deeply embedded images and traces from those screens, thereby creating some kind of new urban experience for the eye.
Why Berlin? Could this concept apply equally to other cities?
Berlin has such a unique history of surfaces that become abruptly redundant—but still carry the traces of something which had been deeply believed-in, or which people were profoundly attached to – before having additional and contradictory layers added to those existing ones, as well as holding the residues of conflicts and revolutions which are conceivably concentrated more densely into the infrastructure of Berlin than elsewhere. So there’s no city like it.
At the same time, I’m also contrarily attracted to cityscapes—such as that of Tokyo—which often appear to have almost no depth at all, and are frequently renewed, even when they hold an equivalent history of turmoil, so that it’s much easier for them to appear more sensuous or vivid cities in terms of the films and artworks made of them, as well as in terms of their signage and their buildings’ exterior digital-image hoardings. But maybe those kinds of dynamics will be predominant in Berlin too, in a year or two.
Of the 40 “sites” you chose, some are more obvious than others; what was your selection criteria? Did you simply stroll the city and include places that you came across or were they painstakingly researched?
It’s probably about half of each. In some cases, I researched a site, doing urban historical and film historical archival research before then visiting it. Those were mainly instances in which I’d seen a particular film of an area of Berlin, or an art work of some kind, and went to investigate the connection between what had been filmed (at any moment from 1895 to 2011) and its current condition.
The topography of Berlin is such that those kind of connections mean you are walking across abysses, at least in terms of the endurance of images and traces. But many of the sites were totally unforeseen and they grabbed me as I was walking around. In some cases, I have a definite walking route I want to do and know that it may take me through sites that could interconnect with other sites or preoccupations, but at other times I just walk without direction. As I mentioned, I think Berlin is infinitely fascinating and revealing for those kinds of traversals on foot through the city.
The book doubles as an idiosyncratic history of film (and visual culture) in Berlin. What would you regard as the five key visual works connected with the city?
I looked at a huge range of films and artworks in preparing the book, but only those which, in some way, depicted or incised the surfaces of the city, so that’s why there are many Berlin films or artworks missed out. In fact, that misses out an equally vast range of the visual culture of Berlin which is concerned with more intimate or interior relationships (though those, too, often materialise tangentially in urban space).
Many films, especially from the 1920s and early 1930s, also capture journeys out of the city to the spaces at its edges – as for example in People on Sunday, whose key sequence is of a range of journeys from inside the city to the lakes and forests around it (journeys that are almost exactly the same as those made today), or seize moments in the upheavals and renovations of the city. Other films oscillate between preoccupations with sexual and urban spaces, or depict urban perceptions (as in the film Possession) in which the city malfunctions and goes awry, and has to be transformed in one way or another, however monstrous or aberrant its new form may be. So in those terms, five interesting films (these are all with English titles, rather than the original titles) would be:
Max and Emil Skladanowsky, Alexanderplatz, 1895
Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, People on Sunday, 1930
Piel Jutzi, Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1931
Frank Ripploh, Taxi zum Klo, 1981
Andrzej Zulawski, Possession, 1981
Five interesting Berlin art works, in the context of the book, are:
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Potsdamerplatz, 1914
George Grosz, Metropolis, 1917
Werner Heldt, Berlin-by-the-Sea, 1946
Heinz Loffler, Construction of the Stalinallee, 1953
Stefan Hoenerloh, Field of Steles, 2007
I also like the contemporary photographic work of Angus Boulton and Beate Gutschow, and innumerable anonymous, accidental or unintentional markings on the face of the city.
What were the most interesting or fascinating things you learned or felt about Berlin while researching and writing this book?
That Berlin is inexhaustible: that you think you’ve seen it all, and something else—that seems to reveal intimate connections between obsolete or disregarded elements of the city and its contemporary forms—suddenly appears. It’s often been said that the most fascinating aspects of cities are those that are just about to vanish, they appear with the maximum intensity, and over the past couple of years, as the DDR’s detritus has been supplanted or built-over, devoid of any past nostalgia, its awry architectural preoccupations and the sheer intensity of attachment it attempted to conjure up has been something that seized my attention. Also, that Berlin has always been a city of raw sexual obsessions, and of nightclub cultures that never diminish in sensorial power.
What are the key overlaps between The Walls of Berlin with your other “urban” books, such as Abandoned Images or The Vanishing Map?
Some of my books focus on particular cities, such as Berlin, Tokyo and Los Angeles, or the ways in which film cultures intersect with urban cultures. In other books, especially Extreme Europe (2001) and The Vanishing Map (2006), I’ve been intrigued with a particular idea, such as what exactly Europe means to the people inside it and at its edges.
So the first of those books involved a journey between cities positioned at the ‘peripheries’ of Europe (in a wide range of senses) and The Vanishing Map involved the converse, opposing project of exploring the idea of the ‘heart of Europe’ and whether that could be visualised through a set of journeys around cities that had been presented as being pivotal to Europe, geographically or in terms of their power, but were also cities whose histories and memories appeared simultaneously to be disintegrating, through a pervasive oblivion.
Are you living in Berlin on a permanent basis?
I’m not really permanently living in Berlin because my book projects take me away for long stretches of time, but I’m more attached to Berlin than to any other city.
The book (and others) suggests you’re a fairly committed flaneur / urban topographer. Do you often strike out on random strolls, and if so, which kind of areas do you prefer to explore (peripheries, innercity, WWII areas, industrial zones)?
I like the idea of pleasurable, slow and directionless strolling, but if I’m working on a book, or preoccupied with ideas about cities and their surfaces, I tend to walk fast and mostly to have an itinerary of several sites to look at in the course of a walk—and they may be small fragments of graffiti, or tiny incisions in the face of the city, as well as areas like industrial zones, overlapping or multiply impacted sites, areas where the city gives out, post-DDR or post-WW2 sites of various kinds, old sanatoriums or hospitals or asylums or railway-turntable sheds, ruined nightclubs or cinemas, and so on.
I tend to write in the mornings and then walk for around five hours in the afternoons, sometimes late at night too. Urban topography sounds like it may be solitary, but I also take walks with friends, which is useful if you’re going somewhere in which the police or guards may stop you. And urban topography explorations can be interesting ‘collective’ experiences too, that exhilarate and disorient and surprise people who participate, as with the event a month or so ago when the derelict Spreepark funfair in Planterwald was opened-up again for a couple of nights, and films were projected in the old storage warehouse.
Which part of the city are you living in and what do you like most about it?
At the moment I live by the Helmholtzplatz in Prenzlauerberg, though I’ve lived all over the city across several decades. I came to live here because of a memory. In the winter of 1990, I visited an art gallery in someone’s apartment in the Helmholtzplatz (at that time, it was a square of improvised galleries, something that seems almost inconceivable now) and I have a very strong memory of looking down into the snowcovered square from the gallery window, in an era when all the abrasured facades of the buildings had been stripped down almost to the bare brick.
So, when I had the idea of writing a ’20 years on’ Berlin book from my Fragments of the European City one, I thought it would be interesting to base myself in a site from which I had a particularly tenacious (though irrational) memory. So it’s that memory—and its transmutation into the contemporary Helmholtzplatz—that I like the most. I also like to stop for espressos on my walks, or on the way back, so Prenzlauerberg gives you a good range; Cafe CK in the Marienburgerstrasse is probably the best of all.
You were once hailed as “the most dangerous man in Britain” by The Independent. What’s the reason for such a fantastic epithet?
It’s hard to know exactly what the person who wrote it meant, but the quote refers to my book Extreme Europe (2001) which explored urban spaces, at the far peripheries of Europe, including eastern and south-eastern Europe, which I thought might be those from which the stultified conception and future form of Europe were disintegrating, and had become delusional or in flux, in one direction or the other, from the inside to the outside or from the outside to the inside – at a time when many people interested in the future of Europe were preoccupied with another matter: the single Europe currency, the euro, which was just being issued at that time.
Ten years on, it looks like what then appeared as a relatively mundane and banal bureaucratic event – the euro’s introduction – was actually perilous and could potentially ignite still more serious disarray and street protest in Europe than it has so far. But in some perverse way I still like the thought that a writer or a book could be thought of as ‘dangerous’, rather than just a consumer product or an item in an inventory, but I’m really not a literary axe-murderer.
For more information on Stephen and his work, check out his personal website