TO THE DOGS: BERLIN POET RUVI SIMMONS
For a decade Berlin has been the global mecca for artists of all disciplines. Flocking to fill big warehouse spaces with cheap rent is what attracts any artist to a disused or forgotten area; that’s how Shoreditch in East London began with its most famous inhabitants being artist Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers, stylist Katie Grand or Dazed & Confused magazine. Ten years after the word that Berlin was the place to be spread across international artistic communities, we ask visual performance artist and published poet, Ruvi Simmons, does Berlin still possess all the qualities it became famous for?
Hey Ruvi, when did you arrive in Berlin? – I’ve lived here for 6 years now. I came to watch England in the World Cup, but arrived on July 2nd, after England had already been knocked out.
Is it still true that all the underground musicians, poets and artists of the world are there? – The number of artists living and working here was definitely one of the attractions then but things have changed a bit since I first came here. There’s more money. Berlin’s incredibly irritating slogan ‘arm aber sexy’ (poor but sexy) is only partially true these days. Galleries, performance spaces and underground cinemas have either ceased to exist and grown more professional. When I came here there was a lot of amateurism, which was charming to a certain extent, but ultimately frustrating for people of careerist inclinations (hah!) as myself. Despite all of that, there are still plenty of people attracted here from all over the world by the cheap rent, the laissez-faire attitude to personal lives, the availability of spaces to work, etc. etc.
So there must be tons of gallery events and performances etc? – Yes, there are quite a lot of underground spaces and events but like other cities, you have to look to find them. When I came here, like frontier towns during a gold rush, everything was on the surface. Now you have to dig a little deeper. Also, the influx of people from elsewhere means that there is a kind of Eurovision Song Contest feel to some of the artistic activity…every place is best when it offers itself in its own way, not in the Esperanto of contemporary art. Streets like Auguststrasse or Linienstrasse in Mitte, or the newly-fashionable areas of Neuköln, sometimes resemble their equivalents in East London or the Lower East Side…in good ways and bad. But Berlin is still a city with historic scars and that is the aspect of it I like most of all.
Are there underground film-makers too? – There is still underground cinema and filmmakers, from one-off events to spaces like Brotfabrik in Weisensee and Casabaubou in Wedding, run by Wilhelm Hein and Annette Frick, two legendary underground German artists. He is one of the fathers of German underground film from the 1960s, she is a magnificent photographer and both continue to be committed to working with integrity, honesty and passion and not giving a shit about compromise or fame-seeking. Brotfabrik is a cinema run by underground filmmakers from the former GDR. These are the kind of spaces and individuals that still make Berlin a magical place for artists. I shudder to think how they would have fared living somewhere else.
Berlin is a 24 hour city.. – Yes, Berlin is a city where you can go, and go, and go. Clubs never shut. Bars only start to fill up after twelve or one in the morning. From legendary venues like Berghain to newer clubs like Chalet, if going out is your source of pleasure, then Berlin is the gift that keeps on giving.
If we were dropped into Berlin, name a bar or two where we’d find good indie rock, a beer and a friendly face… – 8mm on Schönhauser Allee was one of the first bars I came to when I first washed up in Berlin and remains somewhere that plays reliably brilliant music and offers a suitable number of darkened corners and haggard but attractive boys and girls propping up the bar. Neue Odessa Bar on Torstrasse is a good place to ponce about with trendy so-and-sos, as is Prince Charles on Moritzplatz. Pasternak in Friedrichshain is good. Dr Pong on Eberswalder Strasse offers ping pong and drinks and music all at more or less the same time, which is sportily titillating. Then there are some nices bars in Kreuzberg, but my favourite is a secret dump which plays good music and is reminiscent of the sort of dives where revolutionaries and avant-garde artists used to rub shoulders in Europe in the 1920s called Der Goldene Hahn (The Golden Chicken), on Oranienstrasse. Just don’t tell too many people.
What about if I was a big, gay, hairy bear looking to find my people? – Well, if you are a willowy, hip gay man, then Barbie Deinhoff on Schlesischestrasse in Kreuzberg is good. If you are a bigger, bearier man, there is a very active gay scene in Schoneberg, and also in the heart of Kreuzberg near Mehringdamm. Given, though, that I am yet to understand exactly what ‘top’, ‘bottom’, ‘twink’ and ‘bear’ mean, I can’t really give names and addresses – apart from a bar in the railway arches near Alexanderplatz train station. It is just a hole-in-the-wall, but was the first and probably only gar bar in the old East Berlin. Some of the characters in there look as if they have never been anywhere else, and you can pick someone up to take with you to the toilets as easily as offering a smile – or so I have been told.
Talk about the last art performance you did? – The last performance I did was in Brotfabrik – a poetry reading as part of a film screening of Materialfilme by Wilhelm Hein. A band had also played, so their equipment and a stand-up piano were onstage. I asked if there was anyone in the audience willing to accompany me, and a lady volunteered. It turned out that she played the silent film accompaniments at Arsenal, Berlin’s equivalent of the National Film Theatre. It was brilliant – her improvising while I performed.
When and where were you when you wrote your poem, To The Dogs? – I wrote To the Dogs, if I remember rightly, over the winter in Berlin, trapped indoors by the snow and sub-zero temperatures, feeling so disconnected from the world around me that I imagined catastrophes taking place all around of which I was at the time completely ignorant. And strangely, also, thinking of the sunnier climes of Greece, and the stray dogs who people used to kick for fun in the towns and cities, and what if they decided they’d had enough – a bit like the mushrooms in Sylvia Plath‘s poem, but with sharper teeth, and a more precise grievance against petit-bourgeois cruelty. The photos you see here accompany the poem because we think that they reflect its grittiness, they’re of Paris and Berlin.
What are you doing next? Next, I am filming a short piece with my partner, Shirin Barthel, about burning horses and broken glass. We are collaborating on photographic and film projects. We also work with Wilhelm Hein and Annette Frick. I am also continuing to write what will be my first novel. It is called The Nettle Fiasco, and a I like to think of it as being a bit like George Bataille, if he got drunk and spent the night learning the arts of slapstick with the Marx Brothers.