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Arts

Berlin's iconic subculture art house faces uncertain future

Tacheles is a fixture in every guidebook of Berlin, but the iconic art house which became a symbol of Berlin's creativity after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, is now in danger of being shut down.

A man sits in the court at Tacheles surrounded by graffiti art

Tacheles is a unique hub for artists from the alternative scene

One of Berlin's most symbolic landmarks, Tacheles sprawls across a very expensive plot of land. Its prime location has put it at the center of a complex and ongoing ownership battle involving investors, banks, artists and Berlin's federal authorities.

The plot was due to go under the hammer along with 16 neighboring lots at the beginning of April but HSH Nordbank, the Hamburg-based bank that owned Tacheles at the time, canceled the auction at the last minute. The reasons behind the move remain unclear, but Tacheles received an anonymous offer of over one million euros ($1.4 million) via a law firm the following day.

Half of the licensees, represented by the so-called Tacheles Group, which ran a café, pub, metal workshop and cinema, packed up and left the same day. The other group of licensees - who have had a hostile relationship with the Tacheles Group and run 30 art studios in addition to the theater - stayed put and want to continue their cultural activities at the disputed site.

The greyish-brown front of Tacheles and a side wall on which a black and white head is painted with the words how long is now

The former department store was a ruin when artists occupied it in 1990

A sign of reunification

The story of Tacheles began in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A group of artists from East Berlin wanted to create a place where they could engage in "tacheles" - the Yiddish word for "straight talking" - and create art. They wanted to enjoy their freedom from the restrictions which the East German regime had imposed on them during the communist period.

They came across the ruins of an impressive old Jewish department store in the historic center of Berlin which the East Germany government had let go to rack and ruin without regard for the area's Jewish, literary and political traditions.

An colorful bus in the rear court at Tacheles

A bus in the rear court at Tacheles

The rear of the building was crumbling and its stone, cement and steel structure was exposed but the imposing doorway and grand staircase at the front of the building were still largely intact. The artists occupied the empty, dilapidated building and so, like many other pioneers after 1990, they created a free space for themselves amongst the ruins of East Berlin.

"Tacheles stood for the most exciting and significant period in the more joyful chapters of Berlin's 20th-century history," said Berlin's government spokesman Torsten Wöhlert. "That is to say, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the time after that, when the city opened up both inwardly - via the free spaces which were not there before - and outwardly."

Success spanning decades

Visual artists are not the only ones who have used its facilities - musicians like Nick Cave, Peaches and even an entire symphony orchestra have played at the art house. There was never a shortage of spce.

Photo of Tacheles organizers Linda Cerna and Martin Reiter

Tacheles organizers Linda Cerna and Martin Reiter aren't giving up

Word about the unique haven for subculture got around quickly in the 1990s, especially on the international stage. Tacheles organizer Martin Reiter said many Japanese, Belarusians, Russians and Italians have worked in its studios. Over the years, they have transformed the ruins into a unique and colorful art location which became the poster child of Berlin's creativity.

Berlin's federal authorities were quick to place Tacheles under a preservation order. A bar, theater, cinema, café and meadow for bonfires or raves sprung up around the artists' squat and turned the subculture magnet into a tourist attraction. Some 400,000 visitors flocked to Tacheles every year.

Tacheles' greatest asset was its authenticity. It was repaired from time to time, but never renovated. Martin Reiter believes there is a great need for authenticity nowadays.

"Because everything is so interchangeable," he said. "Everywhere you go you see the same jeans, the same coffee, the same fashion stores. But Tacheles breaks out of that mould."

Artists considering hunger strike

1998 marked the beginning of the end. The whole site, including the Tacheles plot, was sold. It had become a very attractive development site for investors. Nonetheless, Tacheles managed to keep going and got a 10-year tenancy agreement with very favorable conditions. Then, in 2008, it was supposed to close to make way for luxury apartments, but the financial crisis put an end to these plans.

The future has remained uncertain ever since.

Rear view of Tacheles

Tacheles' backyard is now used for events

The area surrounding Tacheles has undergone gentrification in recent years and has become trendy, making the art house look even more like a relic. The artists say they will not bank on politics to solve their problems because they have been disappointed too often in the past, but Berlin's federal authorities should give them hope.

"If there is a change of ownership, we will want to talk to the owner about the future of Tacheles and about the possibility of opening the house again," said Torsten Wöhlert.

Linda Cerna, a spokeswoman for the artists based at Tacheles, said they were hoping for another solution. "A public trust should take over the house to get Berlin's federal authorities and the art colleges on board so that the art house can continue to develop," she said.

She added that other methods like hunger strikes and artistic protest campaigns would be considered if the dispute escalated.

Whatever may become of Tacheles, the art house serves as an epitome of the fraught relationship between art and commerce, as well as telling us a lot about the transformation which the German capital has undergone since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Author: Kay-Alexander Scholz / mm

Editor: Kate Bowen

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