February 13th, 2007


Shabby snobbery amidst the rubble

It's my birthday, and it's a Sunday, and I'm showing a friend around Berlin. The plan is to head to Treptower Market, a huge warehouse full of junk. But on the way we'll eat lunch. The good Vietnamese restaurant near our house is open, but Hisae and I agree that Suzy will get a better taste of Berlin at Cafe Schmuck on Skalitzer Strasse. They do all-day breakfast in there, and it's shabby and comfortable.

So we go, tramping through the light, crunchy snow, and as we enter I immediately feel at home. It's shabby. Now that's what I call high class!

We find a corner with a comfy sofa, a little the worse for wear, and a plastic-covered swivel chair with the foam showing through at the arms, and a low table with a plastic faux-mosaic surface. We peel off our layers of winter clothes and know that we can camp out here for as long as we like. A guy in the corner is surfing on a MacBook. He looks like an English speaker, and he's almost certainly an artist of some sort. It goes without saying that he uses the same computer we all do.

I choose a couple of magazines from the rack, free German electronica magazine Groove and art magazine Art Papers. Both magazines cover the kind of music and visual culture people like me enjoy. I open the magazine pretty much at random and start reading about an American artist whose work looks a bit like Simon Starling's:

"Rob Fisher is interested in the things people leave behind," the article begins. "Abandoned houses, furniture, books, wood flooring, and metal pipes are treasures to this artist, who transforms discarded materials into evocative, poignant works that reflect today's mobile society." The article is titled "Amidst the rubble".

What it describes is -- at least in my world -- the rule rather than the exception. After all, I'm reading it sitting on "ruined" furniture in a shabby and run-down cafe in Berlin. The furniture is all mismatched and secondhand, the back room sells used clothes that smell a bit -- pretty similar to the kind of thrift treasures I'm wearing, in fact -- and there are old lamps lying around, stuff your granny might earmark for throwing out.

The food, though, is very good. Fresh eggs, salmon, toast soldiers, lots of greens. And, although our mothers would no doubt be horrified at how "dirty" this place is, in fact it's only run-down to those who can't sense all the expensive cultural capital there is at hand here. The food gives it away, the choice of magazines on their rack, the faint, well-chosen music, the young, artsy clientele.

Rather pompously, I take it on myself to explain the whole thing to Suzy, make it explicit, and perhaps, by stating the obvious, find some hidden truths:

"In a way there's a new class divide emerging," I say, "and you can see it here. Whereas once higher class people would have shiny new things and lower class people would have shabby old ones, now it's totally the other way around. The people slumming elegantly in this cafe are making a conscious statement about how they've opted out of the consumer society. They're ecologically conscious post-materialists, they're post-Protestants who enjoy thrift, who've trained themselves only to consume junk so they don't waste the earth's resources, but also so that they don't have to spend money, and therefore don't have to earn it, and therefore can concentrate on what's really important in life: being rather than having."

The girls are nodding, indulging me. Nick's got one of his theories going, he's doing a dry run for one of his blog entries. Let him waffle.

"It connects to so many other things -- the Slow Life movement, the kind of deliberately shabby patina you could see in the venues chosen for the Berlin Biennial last year, the joys of thrifting at Humana... And Berlin is a city where you can do it longterm. Because if this cafe were in London or New York, there'd only be a brief period where it could get away with being this shabby. Pretty soon they'd revamp it, make it chic and expensive, because the rents would go up in the arty district, and the owners would have to think about money whether they wanted to or not. They'd have to clean it up and hike the prices, or leave. But here in Berlin that won't happen, because things just chug along at the same level, the prices stay low, the boom never comes. It won't be like Pink Pony in the Lower East Side, which used to be a shabby cafe just like this but then became this yuppie bistro with French-style waiters and stiffer prices. It'll still be this shabby place in ten years time. That's why I love Berlin."

Soon we head off to inspect the shabby secondhand junk at the Treptower Market, cosmopolitan arty types who love nothing more than mingling with the Muslim and Polish stall holders who are just as cosmopolitan and just as poor as we are. All they lack is our cultural capital.

It's the people in between we can't deal with, the bling people, the people who work all day and then go to shops and buy things new. The money rich, time and idea poor people who can't be bothered to comb through junk markets for their clothes, housewares, and art projects, and who'd rather die than sit on a sofa with foam coming through at the arm, or wear a dead man's clothes. How wasteful, how irresponsible, how impossibly vulgar those people are! But I suppose we need them to consume now, so that our children have something to recycle, something to make ruined art from. Wait, what am I talking about -- what children? We can't afford them.