Berlin's lively art scene rivals its notorious party scene - and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the two. DW's Susan Stone checks out one Berlin hot spot that's a strange brew of culture and cocktails.
Souvenir book from the event "MADE: Bureau of public weightlessness" in Berlin: http://made-blog.com/, Copyright: DW / Susan Stone
I remember well my first time at MADE. The invitation, gifted to me by a colleague with a previous engagement, teased with a clever word salad of tantalizing possibilities that name checked high art and trash pop - Tyra Banksy, Beastie Beuys, Siegfried & Roy Lichtenstein. This heady mix-up of cultural references also boasted a real legend - Lee "Scratch" Perry, the sexagenarian reggae and dub innovator who seems to have come from a planet of his own invention.
Along with edgy art, über-cool guests and excellent music, the high-rise gallery space had something no party-goer says no to: free drinks. In this case, copious clever cocktails composed of flavored vodka from one particular brand, Absolut.
Now, drinks sponsors at fashion soirees, art openings, or other cultural events are nothing new. Somebody has to pay the pourer in our so-called "poor but sexy" city. But as I stood at the bar with a friend, clutching my drink token in my hand, something slowly dawned on me - and it wasn't intoxication.
I noticed a distinct similarity between the MADE logo and the familiar font spelling out the name of the Swedish vodka. In fact, it was exactly the same - Absolut-ly no difference.
Andy Warhol redux
I wanted to find out more. The link is more clear on MADE's website, but there were no obvious hints on the invitation or in the gallery space. That's not happenstance, however, since the subtlety of the sponsorship is key, says MADE co-founder Nico Zeh. Zeh, a marketing strategist, and his co-founder, contemporary pop artist Tadi Rock, dreamed of organizing a place where artists from different disciplines could come together and push the boundaries.
"We thought, ok, let's found a place for creativity in Berlin and create this island, or platform, for others to come. We were kind of inspired by what Andy Warhol was doing in New York with the Silver Factory," he recalls.
That Warhol connection is no coincidence. Known for exalting soup cans, Brillo pads and other mundane supermarket goods to the level of fine art, Andy Warhol was also an early innovator in the realm of commercial collaboration.
Though he himself did not partake of the hard stuff, Warhol, ever a connoisseur of consumer goods, preferred Absolut Vodka for his parties. With its painted label and unusual, almost pharmaceutical shape, the bottle was strikingly different than those housing the average tipple of its day, eventually making it iconic in its own right.
Legend has it Andy Warhol did use Absolut himself - but only as an aftershave. The brand's distributor was equally captivated by Warhol's Factory crowd of artists, hangers-on and wild party people, and provided them with copious stocks of Absolut. Eventually, Warhol painted an image of the bottle in his signature colorful style, the brand used it in its advertising, and a trend was born. Absolut continued to use original, bottle-shaped art in its ads for over 30 years.
Getting over yourself
These days, says Zeh, many companies are working with creatives, so new methods are needed. "Everyone is using art, but not creating art," he explains. To get the right kind of attention, says Zeh, a brand has to transcend its natural desire to see its logo everywhere. And that's what he insisted on when building a relationship with MADE and its corporate partner.
"It's not about this being an Absolut space. Just celebrate and see us as a creative brand. Have a drink!" Zeh insists.
Each exhibition kicks off with an opening event with a carefully curated guest list. Then, the show is opened to the public like a regular gallery.
MADE has hosted well-known musicians like Erykah Badu and Aloe Blacc, award-winning composer Max Richter, media artist Joachim Sauter, photographer Jonathan Mannion and a range of names-you-should-know from the worlds of dance, film and design. But despite the desirable lineups, socializing and swilling are often top on visitors' to-do lists.
Zeh concedes it is "super frustrating" when people can't look beyond the free drinks to see the artists. "It's sad when you see that people are not seeing the beauty. They are blinded by…whatever it is." In MADE's case, probably too much vodka. Or perhaps the vapors of corporate sponsorship.
A capitalist shadow?
Some Berlin artists and hipsters have been wary or sneery about the project because of its commercial ties, although Zeh thinks jealousy also plays a part. It's somewhat unusual for this particular city's art fixtures to have a capitalist shadow. Those that do are often protested - witness last summer's BMW Guggenheim debacle.
The well-intentioned temporary urban design lab was drummed out of the Kreuzberg neighborhood before it could eventually open its doors in Prenzlauer Berg - to angry cries against "capitalism" and "gentrification."
Whereas in the United States, big art exhibitions often have a bank or consumer goods company footing the bill, their names plastered readily on banners and programs, this less often the case in Germany. For museums run by regional and state governments, outside funding cancels out rather than supplements official funding, so sponsors don't turn out to be very profitable.
Still, it's important to note that, historically speaking, a great patron has been behind many a great artist. Creative visionaries have always had to figure out a way to make some cash, whether it meant painting glorified pictures of rich people in order to pay their rent.
And in our Twitter-fied, Facebooked world, where we are encouraged to be friends with brands and Instagram ourselves into their marketing campaigns, I'd rather have a car company or drinks giant supporting artists than just glorifying themselves and their products.