BERLIN PLUGGED IN
Berlin is often described as a city in an endless state of becoming. After the wall fell in 1989, artists, entrepreneurs and experimenters of all stripes began colonizing the city’s big, underpopulated buildings, where rents were low and there was little to lose. Now, Chelsea-caliber galleries line the old East Berlin thoroughfare Augustrasse and a stream of tech startups like SoundCloud have rebranded the city “Silicon Allee.” Along with precision engineering and techno music, Berlin has also become a home for digital and electronic art.
In 1988, the Berlin Berlinale launched the video program Transmediale, which has grown into its own experimental art festival that attracts tens of thousands of visitors between the main event and its music arm, Club Transmediale. And in the years since the economic crisis, a crop of artists and galleries are finding new ways to bring the electronic arts out of LED-lit bedrooms and into public space.
“Berlin made sense on so many levels,” said Texas-born art dealer Mike Ruiz of his move to the city in 2007. “Space is abundant and it’s easy to just come here and do something,” he said. Soon after arriving, he and his girlfriend, Anne Betting, founded the Future Gallery for internet-based art in their living room. Last year, after neighbors began complaining about openings that stretched into the hallways, the couple opened a commercial gallery in the Schöneberg section of town, where he said they now operate at a modest profit.
“If I had tried in London, New York or Paris it would have been somewhat impossible,” he said.
Today Ruiz and Betting have a roster of five artists, including Jon Rafman, who sold a few of his prints of Google street maps to Charles Saatchi a year ago and opens a show at the collector’s London gallery next month, July 26-Aug. 19, 2012. The Future Gallery doesn’t yet cater to many art buyers like Saatchi, but Ruiz said he’s happy brokering art to a small, international collector base, works that can range from print-outs to domain names, at prices between $1,000 and $20,000.
The more established Galerie Mario Mazzoli, which opened in 2009, has also found a bridge to the market for its multimedia and sound-based program. Earlier this month, sales for Zurich-Berlin artist Pe Lang’s kinetic sculptures went “very, very well” at Volta Basel, said gallery assistant Tania Tonelli. The booth sold all of the artist’s works for between €5,000 and €35,000 to collectors and institutions across Europe, China and the U.S.
Plenty of artists are more interested in their researches than the art market, of course. Last March, Daniel Franke, Kai Kreuzmüller and John McKiernan opened the Lab for Electronic Arts and Performance (LEAP) in Alexanderplatz, a pan-media space that’s already organized some 35 shows, ranging from a mechanical drawing machine controlled by flies to an upcoming workshop on the “augmentation of the body for musical performance.”
“Many of the works and areas of discourse that interested us were on show only at festivals,” said McKiernan. “We wanted to bridge this gap between digital arts and performance and present the work in a gallery context for a wider audience.”
The directors fund the space themselves, with the occasional boost from grants and studio rentals. “Selling work is a possibility, but it doesn't play a central role in the concept of the space; we prefer to focus our energies on the curation of the shows,” said Kreuzmüller. “The potential for sales of digital art will increase in the next years.”
The gallery’s current exhibition, “Coded Landscapes,” June 8-29, 2012, is probably one of its more conventional, featuring a three-part software video, sculpture and print series by Berlin artist Andreas Nicolas Fischer alongside kinetic sculptures from Brooklyn-based Charlotte Becket.
Becket makes high-gloss tape and plastic structures with internal motors that cause them to sluggishly swell and contract. At many galleries, a work like the hulking, breathing boulder Curdle II might be the sideshow. But “[LEAP] has dedicated itself to a genre of art making,” she said. “I wanted the opportunity to do something where, rather than being a one-off, it’s a place committed to showing that work.”
Berlin is well known for having a meager collector base, which has meant that much of its art is exported. Robotics artist Karl Heinz Jeron has been working in the city since the early 1990s, but said he rarely shows there because most of the art spaces can’t pay the fees or commissions he relies on. Plus, the bigger galleries there “play it on the safe side. If they call it electronic art, they mean they might show a single-channel video piece.” Maybe that’s not so surprising, since his latest project, Hermes Libretto, features a choir of little robots performing an opera of overheard cell-phone conversations.
So what’s a Berliner to do? Go to Switzerland. At least that’s one option, according to Jeron, who said he’s been thinking more like a touring musician these days. This fall, he’s sending his opera to Basel and Zurich, “which is a great thing for me because they have a lot of money there.”