Saturday, January 08, 2005

Hipster Ground Zero

Dec. 14, 2004, 7:59PM
Berlin becomes powerful artistic magnet for Americans
City lures those disenchanted by U.S. creative scene
Los Angeles Times

BERLIN - The tea comes, the waitress smiles and Jason Forrest, an unquiet and happily offbeat American, tells you (oh yes, he tells you) how his life leaped off the tracks and found rebirth in this winter dark city he calls "hipster ground zero."

His artistic spirit "rudely" treated in New York, Forrest said he sought sanctuary in Berlin. He rented an apartment, bought a bed and two tables at Ikea, found a bohemian cafe (how hard could it be?) and started touring Europe with electronica concerts his Web site boasts "have garnered him a huge international audience, and involve much bad dancing, some blood and a few shattered laptops."

This is not Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s, unless Papa was a balding musician with a mischievous desire to rummage cyberspace for inspiration.This is not Paris, although there is a stubby replica of the Eiffel Tower out near the train tracks.

This is Berlin in a new century.

'Antidote to New York'
In the midst of a jigsaw architectural revival, Germany's capital is the destination for a growing number of American expats, musicians, painters, writers, performance artists and directors seeking the enrichment and creative experimentation they say is withering in the United States.

Many are young and newly arrived. Others have been here for years, witnessing the collapse of communism and the merging of east and west. They came on a whim. They came for cheaper meals and better gigs in a city whose night life is a miasma of galleries, art deco bars and underground clubs.

"Berlin is like the antidote to New York. It's all the things you want — the culture, the music scene — but none of the stress," Forrest said. "We live in a completely renovated apartment for 500 euros (about $650) a month, heat included. ... The hip areas of Berlin will be flooded soon with New Yorkers. Three of my friends are moving here in January. They see it as a place of lower rents and better politics."

In 1999, Berlin was home to 8,044 Americans, excluding those in the military, according to the city's Statistical Office. The number jumped to 10,000 in 1999 to nearly 12,000 today, including tech workers, lawyers, accountants and businesspeople. The figures don't account for expats who live here a few months, leave for a while and return. All told, about 4.1 million Americans not affiliated with the U.S. government or military live around the world, according to American Citizens Abroad, a nonprofit organization, but to many expats, Berlin is one of the places full of verve.

"There's this feeling in Berlin that something is happening," said Marc Siegel, a UCLA doctorate film student who has been writing his dissertation and teaching here for the last five years. "There's a history of gunshot holes written on these streets and in these buildings. There are illegal taverns, and the spaces in the city are alive. You feel you are part of some exciting thing and there's something precarious about it too."

Wanted: New acts
Berlin has a buzz, but it's more of a pleasant drone than a cacophony. With public funding for culture much higher than in America, it coddles more than it exacts. A reverence for alternative art keeps nightclubs hungry for new acts, so musicians such as saxophonist and singer Jessica Eva, who moved from San Francisco four months ago, can concentrate full-time on her band, Vanishing, rather than on waiting tables and looking for borrowed couches to sleep on.

Eva sat the other day with her drummer, Brian Hock, in the morning light of an apartment carved out of an old Berlin industrial building. Their music as described by Hock (with immediate subtext by Eva) is a "hypnotic noisy darker-side dancing music that also goes in tropical marching band directions."

The two have been performing together for six years and were tired of struggling with finances and a California music industry more enamored with packaged stars than with alternative zeitgeist and pungent lyrics.

"San Francisco started feeling really oppressive," said Eva, a woman with ripped stockings and a penchant for black clothes.

Lindy Annis moved to west Berlin in 1985. U.S. soldiers patrolled the streets and a wall divided the city. Ronald Reagan was president; the dollar was strong. The galleries and clubs that would eventually expand like an exotic mosaic through the Mitte district were nonexistent and the bohemians were part of an outcast scene, a buttress against the Cold War.

"I was living in New York and doing art was not financially feasible," said Annis, a performance artist who also works in experimental theater. "I visited Berlin and I stayed. There's an environment to accept exploration of new forms. ... It's culturally a new frontier. There's Russians, Chinese, French, Italians and British."

In some of her earlier material, Annis used satire and agitprop to decipher the United States. One of her most recent projects, An American Tragedy, taken from the title of the Theodore Dreiser novel, asked artists to create their vision of the American dream. Much of Annis' work tries to elucidate the world's chaos since Sept. 11, which altered the shape of the New York she knew.

"To me, going to New York and not seeing the towers is a scar," said Annis, a mother of two. "The people living in the U.S. worked through the grief and loss. But somehow it's harder for me. I don't get used to it. The towers were my compass. When I'd get out of the subway, I'd look to them to find south. When I visit New York, I still expect to see the towers."


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