Free Berlin: Art, Urban Politics, and Everyday Life
An alternative history of art in Berlin, detaching artistic innovation from art world narratives and connecting it instead to collective creativity and social solidarity.
In pre- and post-reunification Berlin, socially engaged artists championed collective art making and creativity over individual advancement, transforming urban space and civic life in the process. During the Cold War, the city’s state of exception invited artists on both sides of the Wall to detour from artistic tradition; post-Wall, art became a tool of resistance against the orthodoxy of economic growth. In Free Berlin, Briana Smith explores the everyday peculiarities, collective joys, and grassroots provocations of experimental artists in late Cold War Berlin and their legacy in today’s city.
These artists worked intentionally outside the art market, believing that art should be everywhere, freed from its confinement in museums and galleries. They used art as a way to imagine new forms of social and creative life. Smith introduces little-known artists including West Berlin feminist collective Black Chocolate, the artist duo paint the town red (p.t.t.r), and the Office for Unusual Events, creators of satirical urban political theater, as well as East Berlin action art and urban interventionists Erhard Monden, Kurt Buchwald, and others. Artists and artist-led urban coalitions in 1990s Berlin carried on the participatory spirit of the late Cold War, with more overt forms of protest and collaboration at the neighborhood level. The temperament lives on in twenty-first century Berlin, animating artists’ resolve to work outside the market and citizens’ spirited defenses of green spaces, affordable housing, and collectivist projects.
With Free Berlin, Smith offers an alternative history of art in Berlin, detaching artistic innovation from art world narratives and connecting it instead to Berliners’ historic embrace of care, solidarity, and cooperation.
About the Author
Briana J. Smith is Assistant Director and Lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature at Harvard University and teaches for the Harvard Extension School.