empathy

Bringing Down The House

Berlin is a city in which activism and art go hand in hand – a city where stickers that read “du bist kein Berliner” pop up as frequently as urban art shows and a simple walk down the street can often inadvertently land you in the middle of a protest. As an artist and cultural producer, I am keenly aware of the gentrification debate and my role in the changing face of this city; so, when I heard that an artist and a social scientist had teamed up to explore the issue with a group show to take place during 48-Stunden-Neukölln, I had to learn more. 

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My conversation with Urusla Moffitt and Zara Verity Morris touched on the inspiration for such a controversial show, the prevalence of dog-shit in Neukölln, and the nitty-gritty of making a giant pop-up book from scratch. Whether you’re a local or an expat, our conversation, like Neukölln itself, has a little something for everyone.

Home Is Where The Art Is

BAPs: How did you come with the idea for “ja, ich wohne hier”?

UM: When one is surrounded with like-minded people, it is common to assume that the opinions shared within that group are also shared outside the group, and this is the basic assumption I wanted to dig into. I recognize that I fit the profile of an expat/tourist/hipster/gentrifier in the eyes of many people, but I wanted to go a bit deeper and ask some pressing questions about other people’s personal experiences within Neukölln and their interpretations of those around them.

BAPs: How do you two work together? What was the process of developing this installation like? 

ZVM: This is actually the first time we have worked together. First we developed the idea for the show. That was at the end of last year, at Christmas time. Ursula was in the States and I was in the UK, so there were lots of emails going back and forth and a few Skype conversations. Putting together an exhibition alone can be hard as there are so many different elements involved. Unless you're lucky enough to have a team of people behind you (that doesn't apply to us, unfortunately!) you have to do everything yourself – not just actually making the art, but funding applications, material research, flyer design and press, for example.

BAPs: Of all the insights you gained throughout this project, what was the most interesting? The strangest? The most valuable? 

ZVM: I think visiting people's homes and having a look around their personal space was one of the most interesting aspects for me. It's especially interesting when you don't know the person, so you get an insight into what kind of a person they might be from maybe something they have lying around, how they have decorated their flat, a poster on the wall, or which books they have on the shelf. 

UM: During each interview I found myself surprised by at least one or two of the answers given. This fact really reiterated for me the underlying motivation for the project: we should not assume that we know precisely what any given person might think, feel or have experienced based solely on appearance and limited information. The two perspectives that surprised me the most were one person who didn’t seem to have any sense of what gentrification is or what I even meant by “changes in the neighborhood,” while another seemed to have a lot of anger towards the Turkish population in her part of Neukölln and verged on being openly racist. Both of these points of view went against my assumption that most people around my age and with a somewhat similar background would be pretty open-minded and socially aware of their surroundings and their interaction with them.​

Ursula Moffitt and Zara Verity Morris. Photo: Chris Phillips

BAPs: Ursula, being a social scientist, can you tell me a little about the differences between working on qualitative research as an artist and as a scientist?

UM: For me the biggest difference between artistic and social scientific research right off the bat was the lack of any strict framework in the artistic realm. I did a certain level of research about Neukölln out of personal interest and my educational background certainly informed my approach, but unlike any scientific research, I enjoyed being able to just jump in wherever I wanted with this project. I did not follow the scientific method, I did not write out any anticipated results or set parameters on my methodology beforehand. And yet, because that is the world I’m used to operating in, I definitely felt nervous when I realized that I’d deviated slightly from one interview to the next.  

BAPs: Zara, I have to say I’m fascinated by the idea to create a pop-up book, can you tell me a little bit about the process of working this out? How exactly did you achieve this?

ZVM: Well, I have to say I am a bit fascinated by them too! I liked them as a child – the fact that something actually jumps up and folds back down inside the book enthralled me. For the project, I got a book out of the library and gave myself a crash course in the world of pop-ups. I also did online research to see if any one was as crazy enough as me and had tried to make an over-sized one already! I decided to make the book out of cardboard, because this was one of the few materials I could find that was large enough but also sturdy enough, and not too heavy to lift. Budget also was a factor here too – luckily cardboard is pretty good value for money! Using cardboard reminded Ursula and me of moving and the feeling you have seeing all your possessions in moving boxes, which fits nicely with the idea of saying “Yes, I live here!”

BAPs: What have you learned about Neukölln in the course of this project? Can you give me the inside scoop?

UM: One thing that I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised about, but really was, were the vast differences between the various areas within northern Neukölln. These differences really highlighted for me the importance of location in a person’s perception of their surroundings and the people around them, even if they themselves aren’t fully aware of how much impact such surroundings can have. I also definitely learned that the folks I interviewed who live in Schillerkiez seem to have the most pride in their neighborhood, and the most fear that it will be “ruined” by gentrification.

ZVM: There is a really interesting range of architecture in Neukölln, which hints at its diverse past too. Some parts were quite posh at the beginning of the 20th Century (like the Schillerkiez). Then there are other parts with more modern flats that show where the bombs hit or where the city declared that the old houses should be torn down after World War Two because the poorer people in the area lived in squalid conditions. So, I think the inside scoop can be found by just talking a stroll round the neighborhood!

Zara Verity Morris. Photo: Chris Phillips

BAPs: I noticed in your research that eight out of ten participants mentioned their dislike for all the dog shit, and I have to ask: how does dog shit factor into your perception of Neukolln? 

UM: Ha, I have to say that I honestly hadn’t really thought much about the fact that there’s more dog shit in Neukölln than in other areas of Berlin until so many people brought it up. I’m an avid dog lover, so I think I tend to see the dogs and overlook the shit.

ZVM: I must be more of a cat person then! I was quite shocked by the amount of dog shit on the street in Neukölln when I first moved here. Where I am from in London, in the 80s and 90s, the local council introduced a zero tolerance policy with on the spot fines for dog owners who didn't clean up after their beloved pooches! I think that just highlights the fact though that London has more money to invest in staff to not only to impose those fines, but also to clear up the mess. I guess it's similar to the supposed “smoking ban” in Berlin! 

BAPs: Have your ideas or opinions about gentrification changed?

UMThat’s a good question. I think that my opinions about gentrification itself have not changed much (that it’s a complicated process that can have both positive and very negative effects on an area and its people) but my ideas concerning what other people might think about it have certainly changed. 

ZVM: I am quite interested in the role of artists in the gentrification debate. I have been reflecting on what contribution my work adds to that debate and how I should position myself with it. The project has sparked an even deeper interest in that direction, which follows on from the interest I have in the ideas of “right to the city” and the implications of gentrification for local residents.

BAPs: What are your hopes for the public reception of this project?

UM: I know that gentrification and the demographic changes in Neukölln are a hot topic right now, but I really hope that this project can be viewed as something beyond just “gentrifiers talking about gentrification.” I would love it if it could actually make people talk to each other or think more deeply about how they see the people around them and how we view each other. 

BAPs: What’s next for you both? 

UM: I would really like to continue on the path of exploring the people and area around me, potentially as an extension of this project or in a new form. I will also be doing some writing for girlgoneinternational.com, which I hope will allow me another outlet for delving into issues of identity and perception specifically related to being a female living abroad.

ZVM: I have just completed an edition of 50 comics called The Mezuzah for the Jewish Museum, Berlin. The comic is a scroll inside a small paper shell, and looks a bit like a real mezuzah, which is a prayer written on a scroll sealed inside a case. The scroll in my comic can be slowly pulled out though to reveal a story showing what happens when a young girl discovers a bunch of open mezuzahs. Visitors to the Jewish Museum will be able to purchase the comic from July onwards for 4 Euros from an art vending machine in the permanent exhibition. 

Article by Hannah Nelson-Teutsch