East Berlin 1994
[Author’s note: This is part of a larger diary I wrote in 1994 during my first trip to Europe, soon after I graduated from college. I recently discovered the text when rifling through some old relics in my mother's garage. I don't even remember writing it. At the time, I had no plans to ever become a professional writer, no idea I'd evolve into a journalist years later, and certainly no idea that anyone else would ever read this. But it contains the seeds, the germs, of what I would later turn into. As a result, I’ve cleaned it up only a tiny bit, with some inexperienced cliches removed for my own mental sanity. It’s 95% percent as I originally wrote it, so the rawness of a wayward college graduate, a rank amateur, half punk and half academic, falling in love with the avant-garde arts in Europe still remains.]
Probably the biggest metropolis in all of Europe, there was just so much history in Berlin that we were in constant awe of it all. From the Reichstag to the Brandenburg Gates to Checkpoint Charlie to hundreds of museums and galleries, it really takes at least a few weeks to experience Berlin. Right away, I got to stand in front of that famous sign, 'You are leaving the American sector.' In Russian, English, French and German. What a first highlight. (How many movies was that thing in?)
We were only here for a few days so all we got to see was the east part of Berlin. And what an east it was. Every building looked like a rectangular prison, dark gray or dark brown, and the entire area was under construction. Literally. We were shacked up in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, even more torn up, but home to the city's radicals and artists, and a complete shambles. I loved it. Graffiti covered every building. Everywhere we went elicited a grim feeling I hadn’t felt before. The whole area of town evoked the subtle air of a young, frustrated generation of people. But the initial 'grim' feeling eventually wore off, however, as I began to take an uncanny liking to the place. Even though every building was under construction and hardly anybody spoke English, I felt almost at home. We could easily perceive that this area of town historically housed the young working class, the crazy art students, and the social outcasts. I could almost feel the forty years of tension that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I could feel how the pessimism and frustration of the past were gradually being overturned. It's going to take a long time, but the east will eventually turn around. This part of town was perfect for a sound poetry festival. There seems to be lots of money for the arts here also.
One good thing about the unification of Germany is that the art scene in East Berlin has since completely exploded. People are telling us: not since the twenties and thirties has there been such a flowering of activity here. Berlin, during the first few decades of this century, was one of the main cultural centers of Europe. As far as the arts go, it was one of the places to be. Now that the east has opened up, many people my age have moved to the Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin. The housing is extremely cheap, and it's the perfect place for art students. Everywhere we went, there was either a gallery or a cafe or a place where 'alternative' people were hanging out. Once again, I could easily see how this area of town attracted people interested in all forms of experimentation, whether it was music, poetry, sculpture, or bashing on amplified rocks in an old underground army bunker. I felt more at home than I've ever felt in San Jose.
And the best thing is that many everyday, common folks seemed literate in the arts or the avant-garde. Even the cab drivers are aware of the art scene. It's completely unlike my home town-- where classic rock and vintage Mustangs are the status quo and everyone feels that it's too much work to understand anything new.
Anyway, I was here to attend the Bobeobi International Festival of Sound Poetry. If you're not familiar with Sound Poetry, it's a form of poetry based on the sounds of the speaking voice, rather than words and semantics. An uninitiated ear would probably just think a sound poet is merely making noise with his mouth, but this is not true. It's a very rich and lucrative art that has its roots in Italian Futurism, Dadaism, and Russian Constructivism. The actual term, 'Sound Poetry', is pretty much meaningless now, as the genre has encompassed many other facets of vocal art.
This festival would feature a wide variety of performances. Everything from Russian trans-rational languages to computer manipulated anti-narratives to phonetic poetry and pure vocal-noise improvisation would unfold at this festival. The importance and prestige of this festival cannot be emphasized enough. Almost every major sound poet alive would be here. Larry Wendt was still traveling with me, as he would be performing at this festival as well. Larry has done gigs over here a few times before, and many of these crazy old sound poets have been friends of his for years. It was great to get into this scene. I ended up making lots of contacts. It was completely the opposite end of the spectrum from the Computer Music Conference I attended in Aarhus. With that conference, I was mainly dealing with dry, academically oriented, esoteric researchers. Here, I was getting tanked with middle-aged, drunk old curmudgeon artists. It was great to experience these two opposite types of crowds. Now that I have contacts in both of these scenes, quite a future could be in store. This was the main reason I was staying in Europe for so long--for the contacts. And the fact that a few people were parts of both crowds impressed me also. Trevor Wishart, who delivered the keynote address at the ICMC in Aarhus, was also performing at this sound poetry festival. He was like me: part academic, part freak.
The great aspect about the arts in Europe was the massive overlap in many different kinds of art. There are sound poets, performance and audio artists, people who play experimental music, people who do radio plays, people who do computer generated noise compositions; and many different types of artists and musicians that are all corresponding with each other. Everyone hangs out with everyone else, and everyone is aware of each other's work. This whole 'cross-culture' in the arts is completely non-existent in the USA. In America, everything is separate.
Anyway, we ended up staying in a 'hotel' that was in reality an old social workers' apartment complex. A few of the festival organizers picked us up from the train station and drove us to the hotel. They even carried Larry's bags for him. In Europe, from what we saw, artists are generally treated with respect. If you're performing at a festival, people treat you like someone special. This concept is completely foreign to arts organizers in America.
A beautiful Dutch girl came to pick us up. She was twenty-three years old, she was fluent in four languages, and most of all, she was actually interested in the performances. We talked quite a bit and later I ended up mailing her some photos I had taken of the festival. She never wrote back.
Our hotel room ended up being a story in of itself. There were no telephones and the decor was a bad suburban nightmare. Bad rugs, bad plants and bad furniture were the highlights. We even watched a bad German talk show for about half an hour. It was exactly the same as an American talk show: three idiots spewing out all their meaningless problems to a bunch of stay-at-home types and college yuppies. It was not refreshing to see that the only slice of Americana one saw in East Berlin was the insipid pop-culture aspect. Unfortunately, this is the only part of America they seemed to know. In Sweden it was the same way. All I saw in the train station was a countless number of televisions blasting bad rock music from MTV. And stupid ads for the new R.E.M. album were everywhere.
As my trip was now drawing to a close, I really did not miss being home in San Jose. Just as I had felt in Aarhus, I did not want to go back to the US. Once again, I started to figure out how I could send for all my belongings. But this time, I was trying to figure out how long it would take to learn German, instead of Danish.
Endre Skarozsi, a sound poet from Hungary, was staying with us. Every morning an older man would come bring us breakfast and coffee. Endre would eat most of the food, while Larry and I would drink a pot of coffee each. We spent lots of time just hanging out in the room and listening to the city ambience. The noises from the street are entirely different in Berlin than they are in San Jose. The melange of the constant construction, the trucks, and the German sirens made up a great form of city ambience that I've never heard before. All three of us were pissed off that we had no way to record it.
We spent an entire day traveling on foot around the old borders between the east and the west. Walking through areas where the Berlin Wall used to be made us ill to our stomachs. I pictured the Berlin of fifty years ago, as I imagined it to be -- tanks rolling down the street, historical landmarks being dropped off in a second, and the constant background hum of aircraft, explosions, and airraid sirens. Since the wall came down, everything in the east was starting to finally open up. I just stood there at the old border and looked around. I just gazed in awe at the rubble, the weeds, the fenced off areas, and the desolation. It was like a giant graveyard of dead political ideas. Pieces of the Berlin Wall as big as the side of a house lay piled up behind a barbed-wire fence. These graffiti-stained fragments of the wall reminded us that East Berlin is going through one of the biggest periods of change in history. It might years before East Berlin is even close to being caught up with modern times. I couldn't imagine what it was like having to live there thirty years ago.
We happened to be in town the weekend leading up to October 3rd, the anniversary of the unification of Germany. The entire country shuts down on this day, as it's probably one of the biggest holidays in all of Europe. There was a giant rock concert at the Brandenburg Gates. Elton John and Chuck Berry were playing. I don't know what they had to do with the unification of Germany, but there they were.
While in Aarhus at the Computer Music Conference, I was always too burnt out from working to really enjoy the goings-on. In Berlin, I was a free man and watched every single performance at this Festival of Sound Poetry. Like I said before, it was great to hang out and have dinner with crazy old artists from all over Europe. We all had a grand old time and every performance was fabulous: David Moss threw rice all over the stage; Valeri Scherstjanoi poured milk on himself; I ran the slide projector for Larry's performance while he rambled on about Bakersfield and computer-processed his voice; Jaap Blonk and Trevor Wishart produced some unbelievable vocalizations; A few grandfathers of the genre: Henri Chopin, Bernard Heidseck, and Arigo Lora-Totino were in rare form as well. These were only a few of the performers. The entire festival was a huge party.
Each night we would all gather at a nearby restaurant and embarrass the waitresses with our drunken behavior. About ten of us would commandeer a table in the back room. Everyone was speaking different languages, but somehow we all understood each other. Maybe it was the alcohol, I don't know. I took some great pictures of the artists and ended up sending them back to a few people. I passed out a few of my cassette, and Endre played it on his radio program in Budapest. So I've got my foot in the door hopefully. Europe was looking really good, and I didn't want to go back home. The 3rd of October was my last night in East Berlin, and in Europe, but I wasn't ready to call it quits. I was ready to go on to the next city.