April 25th, 2009


Overseas Courier Service

At lunchtime I fly to Frankfurt, a city I don't know at all well. I suppose my stereotype of it is "the German city that does the money stuff". There's a reason Germany is still in the top four richest nations (it recently slipped from three to four, displaced, of course, by China), and that reason is not Berlin, a city about as good at making money as I am. Frankfurt and Munich are the really rich, business-savvy cities. Frankfurt even has a business district, with skyscrapers!

I'm in Frankfurt for three days to make with the art stuff at an event called Playing the City. No doubt the city will make an impression on me when I get there, but the first things that occur to me in advance -- being a person who loves Japan and the internet -- are:

1. Frankfurt, being a business-oriented city, has a significant population of Japanese people. I wonder what Japanese businesses there are?

2. Will my five star hotel make it easy or difficult for me to use wifi?

You might think that being booked into an expensive hotel by generous hosts would mean the near-certainty of excellent free wifi in every room, but my experience has indicated otherwise. In fact, expensive hotels tend to assume their guests are rich corporate travellers, and therefore scalp you for anything and everything, adding essentials like internet as extras. So even if your room is paid for, you get a hefty peripherals charge when you check out. Such is the price you pay for moving in the same circles as businessmen (it's a problem we Berliners don't have so much; we're all poor here).

Bearing in mind that wifi may be prohibitive in Frankfurt, I've done my research about Japanese infrastructure in advance. Though it doesn't have a whole Japanese district, like Dusseldorf, Frankfurt has a pink Japanese skyscraper and, nearby, a branch of department store Mitsukoshi, specialised, apparently, in Meissen porcelain. That doesn't interest me in the slightest, but I'd be happy if the store has -- like its London equivalent -- a Japanese bookstore with a good stock of Japanese magazines. There's nowhere in Berlin like that, and Hisae wants copies of Kurashi No Techo and Mayonaka. I'll be happy to find (either at Mitsukoshi or Japanese bookstore OCS) copies of Ku:nel, Studio Voice, Art It.

But really, isn't this whole thing absurd? Shopping for physical embodiments of culture expensively shipped around the world (OCS stands for "Overseas Courier Service") is so 1990s, but it means so much less now than it did ten years ago. The internet now streams live Japanese TV into our house (Hisae was just saying to me what a huge difference those digital streams -- illegal, by the way -- make to the experience of exile), iTunes app Nakatree Viewer lets me see the covers of new Japanese magazines the moment they hit the stands.

With all this stuff coming in over wifi, Berlin's lack of a Japanese bookstore with magazines is suddenly pretty irrelevant. And anyway, magazines are pretty much over; Art It recently announced that the current issue will be the last, and that the publication will be web-only from now on. I keep expecting to hear that Studio Voice will finish, too. A recent edition was about YouTube, but do I really need an expensive exported paper magazine in Japanese to tell me about YouTube? How am I supposed to click the URLs?

Culture is fulfilling its destiny, which is to become immaterial. Scarce cultural items -- as any businessman will tell you -- still command some cachet, so Japanese magazines in Germany seem like an exciting thing to track down. But increasingly these things have little to recommend them but their scarcity itself. The diminishing thrill of tracking them down is a throwback to how globalisation felt in the 90s, when we hoped to containerise everything and send it everywhere, believed that we could make microcosms of one place in another, and thought we could express ourselves through shopping.

The internet now does the work container globalisation used to do in the 90s, and the recession has put paid to our belief that shopping is a mode of self-expression. Some things still make travel worthwhile, though -- things that can't be funneled into the digital rush of the internet. Art performances, for instance.

You had to be there. I'd better get going, I have to containerise.