Janet Leyton-Grant


Berlin’s Medialab to close at the end of the year

'Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein' (Berlin is a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being). This statement was made not after the wall came down in ’89. Not after the devastation of the second world war, nor even after the turmoil of the first. It was made back in 1910 by a certain Karl Schefflerand – and rings as true today as it did then. The city is in a permanent state of transition, and the locals are still forced to use their ingenuity to adapt to constant change.

In Berlin’s club saturated old East, where techno, electro and house dominated all night (and day) parties are now big business, the most interesting events are often found outside the usual club circuit. TESLA, not far from the Television Tower in Mitte, has this year, for example, hosted the sold out 'Emperor Remixed' Rechenzentrum show, a series of performances on the Subharchord, a one-of-a-kind prototype synthesizer, as well as a wealth of other sound installations and small concerts. All with a miniscule budget and minimal facilities. In a city increasingly pumping with the bass and kicks of dance music, TESLA is a place for musicians, artists and enthusiasts to get exposure to new and old concepts, to meet and to exchange ideas.

The slightly anarchic space is, like the city itself, in constant flux. The building has a bare minimum of facilities: a huge foyer, a makeshift bar, a small shop selling vinyl and CDs, and several large empty rooms. But the performances and studio residencies held there represent a cross section of electronic music. Techno legend Monolake’s Robert Henke has done concerts, as well as a residency to develop his interactive interface ‘Linear Grid’. Artists such as Gert-Jan Prins, Edwin Van der Heide, Frank Bretschneider and many others have passed through. TESLA is a vital experimental electronic hub in a Berlin that is moving gradually towards the commercialism of other European cities; it draws otherwise loosely connected and disparate folks together.

A lot of the older clubs that built Berlin’s reputation for electronic music were forced out by post-Wende development, only to re-surface in different locations. Tresor for example, once in a bank vault, now occupies a huge old power station. Or Ostgut - once in disused train station sheds, reappeared as Berghain, located in the stately, Stalin era steam power station that once heated a large area of old East Berlin. A few places, like Club Maria, or WMF, are shape shifters – shut-down multiple times only to pop up time and again in unexpected spots.

Between the cracks, new clubs, events and projects still appear regularly in backyards, vacant lots and old buildings, and a few small, privately run clubs for experimental music, like Auslander, or KULE, or the exhibition/project space General Public seem fairly stable, though they more often in the red than not and are unable to support artists or foster new projects the way publicly-funded TESLA does.

TESLA is a relative newcomer on the scene, and has been an enormous boost to experimental music in Berlin. It was founded in the Podewils'sches Palais, an underused public building run by Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH, a department of the Berlin Senate. In GDR times, Podewil was a state-run ‘entertainment’ venue for youth where concerts and discos were held. After re-unification, it continued to limp along under the directorship of Wilhelm Grossman, became the first home of the transmediale festival and offered limited residencies for artists. When Grossman left three years ago, it looked as though it would close permanently until Andreas Broeckmann, Carsten Seiffarth and Detlev Schneider stepped in to direct the project collectively.

We applied to run the artistic program here, says Andreas Broeckmann. We got that contract for three years, and with the building and some personnel come 500 thousand euros, with which we have to pay all sorts of fees, ourselves, for many of the technicians and further running costs as well as the residencies and everything else, plus the program. It's a lot of money if you have less, but if you want to run an annual program in a fairly large public space then the money runs out quickly.

Since the take over, TESLA has built an internationally recognised residency series and performance program with barely anything more than the empty spaces and an extended network.

It was interesting for me to see that it was possible to develop a programmatic focus around art and media without having high tech equipment. Because you know, we never spent much money. We never had much money. The artists bring their own equipment, a lot of the time what they need is quite limited, what we did do was to provide good presentation material, so when somebody needed a good PA we would rent a good PA for the presentation or for the concert, says Broeckmann. What we offer for residencies is a concentrated period of four weeks to eight weeks with a table, chair and a phone line in an empty room.

Stephen Kovats, the new artistic director for the transmediale festival is quick to vouch for the venue. “I’ve been in Rotterdam for the past four years while TESLA started in Berlin, and the residents that we had from TESLA were just fantastic, people from around the world, and from Germany and Berlin who were doing residencies were doing really amazing new productions in a place that isn’t really even a lab in itself. It has zero infrastructure, but offers the freedom to do stuff that was … spectacular. And it really wasn’t a big budget thing, it wasn’t the ZKM (Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe) or anything but the output and productions there were pretty much on a par with what ZKM is doing for millions and millions and millions of euros.”

How did they do it when similar centers like V2 (the Institute for Unstable Media) in Rotterdam, an organization that functions at crossroads very much like TESLA’s, need astronomical budgets?

Broeckmann explains further, Artists can come here and they can just ask for help. They can say, 'look, I have this project, and I need a programmer, I need a sound designer, I need somebody who’s done stuff with network connections in public spaces, and even though we are a relatively small team, over time we've worked with so many artists and people who are doing creative stuff with technology here in Berlin, we can help many of these people.

Some of the most interesting events have been the ‘Salon’ sessions. During Claudia Märzendorfer’s residency, for example, she invited the public into the studio where she was making records from ice. People were able to listen to the frozen records played, talk to the artist about how they were made, and watch them melt onto the floor after just one spin on the turntables. That session, and others like it, were always free.

It’s taken many people a long time to understand what it is that we want to do, continues Broeckmann. The formula is a bit unusual. Many people expected that we are another place for cultural events so they would look at visitor numbers, so, how many paying visitors do you have, and those numbers were relatively low because for many of our events you don't buy a ticket. All the salon events were always free because these were supposed to be informal meetings between the artist and their audience. If you charge people to participate in those salons, then the character of the conversation changes because then suddenly somebody, quite rightfully, expects to be entertained or to be amazed.

Sadly, the people looking at those visitor numbers have decided TESLA is no longer viable. It’s to become another victim of Berlin’s state of flux, and will close at the end of the year. The 21st of December, everybody’s welcome, will be our closing night, says Broeckmann. It’s tragic that a city such as Berlin, with its reputation as a hotbed for electronic music and media art, will lose such a valuable venue, the kind of place that many cities in Europe take for granted. The building, currently host to several residency studios, a club/bar, an exhibition space and a concert venue, is to be taken over by a puppet theatre company in the name of ‘cultural education’.

But with typical Berlin resiliency, Broeckmann is already dreaming of TESLA’s rebirth. I’m fantasizing about TESLA 2010 (though there’s no grounds for it) which will have two million euros every year instead of 500,000. A building that is really appropriate to what we want to do. And I hope that we will be able to do some lobbying work and research about what is possible and what is desirable, so, I want to spend some time talking to artists, to curators, and colleagues, both here in Berlin and internationally to see in how far the formula that we’ve developed for TESLA actually works best and what might be changed, and with that I hope that we can convince somebody with enough money to establish something new that will be more long lasting.