Is Berlin really an artists' Shangri-La? Canadians open up about the city's challenges — and rewards
Ex-pat artists give us an inside look at making it work in the German capital
Berlin has been an artist magnet for nearly a century. But since the art scene exploded in the mid-1990s when its famous wall came down and the country was reunited, Canadians have flocked to the German capital.
East Berliners hightailed it out, causing a sharp uptick in vacancy. The result was a city made for artists — all the accoutrements of a major centre, but with abundant studios and dirt-cheap accommodations.
This ease of living has meant an influx of creative types. Recent MFA grads arrive monthly, their bank accounts padded by waiting tables and dreams of stardom shining brightly in their eyes.
But while certain things about the Berlin scene make life easier for artists, it's not the Shangri-La some imagine it to be.
Sholem Krishtalka landed in Berlin three and a half years ago. An artist, curator and critic hailing from Montreal, he'd spent most of his adult life in Toronto. He found an immediate affinity for Berlin during periodic sojourns leading up to his departure. But the impetus to move came largely from the breakup of a decade-long relationship.
It's not a place where you can rely on existing structures — you just have to make things happen.- Sholem Krishtalka
"I'd had a couple of points in life where I could have taken a big risk and didn't," Krishtalka says. "So when everything went down, I thought, 'OK, I'm 33 and the opportunity to make a big change like this may never come again.' It was a leap into the dark. But miraculously, within six months, my life sort of sprung up around me."
Krishtalka's book Berlin Diary launched late last year. As the title suggests, the combination of drawings and texts documents his life since his arrival. Along with the requisite parties and hook-ups, much of what's captured is simple day-to-day existence. Actions like riding the subway, staring out the window, or lying in bed are imbued with meaning simply because they're happening in a new context.
"I knew this would be this very particular, unrepeatable moment and I wanted to have a document of it that was mine," he says. "I didn't want a series of digital photos that would disappear into the ether of my hard drive. I wanted something concrete that didn't just record events, but also captured the very particular and pungent feeling that went with them."
Like his approach to the project, navigating a career in the city has been largely instinctive. Despite the size of the art scene, Berlin is still a "make it up as you go along" kind of place.
"It's something in the fabric of the city," Krishtalka says. "It's been broken apart and recreated three times in one century, and that's led to this improvisatory way of living. It's not a place where you can rely on existing structures — you just have to make things happen."
Shannon Cooney also left the Great White North for Berlin. The dancer/choreographer first encountered the city in 1994 while touring with Toronto's Dancemakers.
"It was like anarchy meets lovemaking," she says of Berlin in that era. "You could try to describe it, but it was really like entering another world."
She continued to visit for several years. But it wasn't until 2006 that she finally packed up her life and bought a one-way ticket. The move was intended to be temporary. She'd planned to give herself three years to explore the scene and reinvigorate her practice. But to her surprise, she's still there a decade later.
It was like anarchy meets lovemaking. You could try to describe it, but it was really like entering another world.- Shannon Cooney
She doesn't regret the decision, but does caution other artists to consider what they're getting into before making a leap into the unknown.
"People have some misconceptions about the way things work here," she says. "You can start meeting people and just make work. But no one has enough funding, so you'll probably work for free, at least at first."
Despite these challenges, she sees definite perks to Berlin's scene — not the least of which, for her, is the massive interest in dance from the public.
"In Toronto, it was tough because the dance audience was so small," she says. "At the same time, the [Berlin] scene is less refined than Toronto and there's not as much structure. There's a mad wish for a lot of people to come here, be on the big stage and do big things. It's quite naive and that can mean a lot of naive work. But it also produces some pretty radical, unconventional things."
Ottawa native Darsha Hewitt arrived under different circumstances than most. Two years ago, the new media artist scored a teaching position with Bauhaus University in nearby Weimar. With a mainly-student population of only 65,000, the city quickly proved too small. After a year, she relocated to Berlin, commuting to work a few days a week.
She's planning to remain for the long haul and is intent on fully integrating (she's married to a German and undergoing intensive language courses). But she observes that a lot of ex-pats end up limiting their chances of a long-term career by intentionally remaining cultural outsiders.
There are lots of opportunities to show in Berlin, but it's not the richest city, so if you want to make a living you have to be looking at what else is out there.- Darsha Hewitt
"There's a huge community who've come from elsewhere living on the surface of the city, rather than really sinking in," she says. "People also forget that Berlin is in Germany and there's a whole other country with opportunities and a public that's highly knowledgeable and curious about art. There are lots of opportunities to show in Berlin, but it's not the richest city, so if you want to make a living you have to be looking at what else is out there."
Hewitt's job has made her immigration easier. But for non-EU citizens, their legal status is often in question.
Unlike most countries that require ex-pats to secure stable employment prior to arrival, Germany allows artists to come without guaranteed work, providing they have a solid professional track record.
The downside is that those like Cooney and Krishtalka without fixed employment normally need to do annual battle with Germany's legendary bureaucracy to extend their stay.
The city is still relatively cheap, which means a certain ease of living. But relocating to Berlin doesn't automatically mean dispensing with the basic conundrum artists face everywhere else: how to make money and still find time for their creative practice.
"I wouldn't advise anyone with stable funding to give that up and come without really thinking about it," Cooney says. "I've seen a lot of young people come for a few years and then give up and leave because they can't find a way to support themselves"
Since art doesn't always pay the bills, that means taking on all sorts of odd jobs. Cooney teaches extensively and does cranial sacral therapy. Krishtalka works as an assistant to a big-name artist. But casual jobs in restaurants or bars (a substitute system of arts funding in many places) are normally only open German speakers.
People roll their eyes at the cliché of the ex-pat artist moving to Berlin. But there's still the idea of being an artist as a legitimate profession here that I never experienced in Canada.- Sholem Krishtalka
Despite this, the richness of possibility that Berlin offers is reason enough for a lot of artists to find ways to overcome these challenges.
"There's a real seriousness about art, a genuine investment in culture and a willingness to engage that's unlike a lot of other places," Krishtalka says. "People roll their eyes at the cliché of the ex-pat artist moving to Berlin. But there's still the idea of being an artist as a legitimate profession here that I never experienced in Canada."