Exhibiting A New City: Representations of radical politics and activism within contemporary art exhibitions in post-unification Berlin

This project looks at different ways in which Berlin’s specific history of a radical spatial politics has been represented within contemporary art exhibitions in Berlin after its unification in 1990 until the present day. This research is situated at the intersection of exhibition histories, spatial theory and political history and looks to support those not represented within mainstream discourses.

Berlin has a longstanding history of activism relating to the space of the city, including having a long-established squatting movement, which had a second wave in the 1990s when the city was unified. As well as this there have been many grassroots campaigns seeking to protect space in Berlin from development, for example the 2014 campaign to save Tempelhöferfeld and the recent occupation of the Volksbühne. Many of these campaigns have been in protest against what is often perceived as a continued gentrification and depoliticisation of the city and particular efforts have been made to protect public and cultural spaces. After the fall of the wall east Berlin was quickly built up, with many significant buildings being quickly demolished as attempts were made to erase the problematic history of the east. The architecture of reunified Berlin has been western rather than a unification of the two halves and there has been many protests against this, with eastern Berliners feeling that their experiences and struggles have been erased as they have been pushed to adopt an increasingly Westernised identity.

Whilst the politics of these protests have remained largely within subcultures the aesthetics have become mainstream. In 2003 Klaus Wowereit, Mayor of Berlin, coined the term ‘poor, but sexy’ to describe the city, an image that arguably contrasts starkly with the presentation of the rest of Germany. This idea has been commodified and can be seen within the focus on alternative culture in tourist attractions in Berlin; walking tours of the city show visitors street art rather than historical landmarks; abandoned spaces such as Plänterwald and Teufelsberg have become go-to spots for ‘ruin lust’ and the walls in cafes and bars have been stripped bare in an attempt to fit in with this notion of the city.

Although these representations are far removed from their political roots similar references have also been made within exhibitions of contemporary art, which is often argued to be a platform that allows for more nuanced discussion of political thought and a close ally of alternative culture. Indeed many of the squats and activist spaces in Berlin were also undertaking arts activities, including setting up exhibitions and other events as part of their political actions. There are also crossovers with the individuals organising these activities and many of the established arts venues in Berlin have been born from DIY or independent spaces.

This project takes specific sites of exhibitions where references to Berlin’s history and spatial politics have been made, including both large-scale exhibitions such as the Berlin Biennale, a project which brings thousands of visitors to Berlin during each iteration and keeps the city as its focus point, as well as independently run project spaces, whose audiences are already situated in the city. Using these sites I will look at what the possibilities and limits of these representations are and what they can do for communities within contemporary Berlin. I will question whether it is possible that through acknowledging radical politics in exhibitions that an alternative collective identity can be offered or whether is it a case of political appropriation that only adds to the continued gentrification of Berlin.


Previously to undertaking my PhD I completed a Masters in Museum Cultures at Birkbeck, University of London (2016) and a BA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths (2012). As well as carrying out academic research I also have a curatorial practice and my professional experience includes roles at Nottingham Contemporary and Flat Time House. I also work independently on artists’ projects, publications and events. I am a member of the collectively run art and research platform, Archive, based in Berlin. Through this I have worked on exhibitions, events and publications exploring interests within contemporary labour conditions, histories of feminism and the politics of memory.


Catherine Baker, University of Hull and Julie Crawhaw, University of Northumbria.