The German capital of Berlin is cutting edge. Avante-garde hairstyles, experimental music, and sleek modern architecture make it unlike any other capital city in Europe – on a continent renowned for its historical significance, Berlin is a city with one foot planted firmly in the future, instead of the past.
If you want quaint European charm, go to Munich or Heidelberg. In Berlin, street art is treated with revery typically reserved for the Renaissance masters. The city is a magnate for those with a flair for the absurd, the quirky, the hip, and the post-hip – like Portland on steroids.
Since the fall of the Berlin wall, the merger of Eastern and Western ideas and ideals has created a unique environment for artists and expressionists. And for the last 20 years, ground zero for this movement was a free artists space known simply as ‘Tacheles‘ – meaning ‘to speak directly and honestly’ in Yiddish. An appropriate name for this house of art, culture, and free expression.
The Formation Of Tacheles
The building that housed Tacheles had many past lives before adding ‘hub of alternative culture’ to its list of accomplishments. Starting life as a shopping complex, the building was taken over by the Nazis during World War II. French prisoners of war were kept in the building during the war. After the Nazis, the Soviets took their turn controlling the building.
And after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the now well-worn and heavily damaged (yet still structurally sound) building was set to be demolished. Recognizing the history and significance of the building, an artists group stepped in to save the building deeming it a place of historical importance to the city.
Following German reunification, East and West German artists moved into the building to work and create together in the new unified city of Berlin. They built studios, performing spaces, and even apartments where artists in residence could live. Over time, the space and purpose of Tacheles evolved and changed. A movie theater, restaurant and sculpture garden were added, creating additional spaces and mediums for expression. The residences were eventually removed, but classrooms were added providing the community with a new arts education resource.
Walking through the halls of Tacheles, you can feel the rawness. Makeshift galleries are put together in barren concrete rooms. Walls are covered and recovered with graffiti art, windows are turned into abstract art pieces, stairwells smell of urine and beer, and a pile of clothes and a sleeping bag alludes to the fact that though the residences were removed years before, people are still sleeping and living in Tacheles.
The art ranges from hand crafts and photography to bizarre installation, performance, and even musical pieces. Tacheles forces visitors to question and redefine for themselves what art is. Tacheles certainly isn’t the Louvre, Uffizi, or Prado, nor does it strive to be.
An Art Scene In Flux
Despite its success not only as a cog in the German arts scene, but also as a tourist attraction, Tacheles has faced uncertainty about its future. The artists’ lease on the building ended in 2008, but instead of vacating the property, the occupants peacefully resisted and stayed in place.
For four years, Tacheles existed in a state of limbo, with waves of eviction notices and threats to shut the cultural institution down. When I visited this summer, Tacheles was on its last legs. It was well known within the community that the final eviction was imminent and Tacheles as it was known would cease to exist within the coming weeks.
Finally, on September 4th, 2012, Tacheles closed its doors for good. The remaining artists packed up their things and left peacefully. For now, there are no immediate plans to reestablish Tacheles at either its former site or a new location. It lives on in the memories of Berliners and those who had the opportunity to visit the uniquely Berlin institution.
For 22 years, Tacheles was a lived as a cooperative arts community like no other, a symbol of the ideas of a new Germany. Who knows what the future will hold for the community that once thrived? But today, Tacheles is dead. Long live Tacheles.