Between lifestyle and plight – how the cultural scenes in Berlin and Bucharest deal with precarity

Looking for something to do on a weekend in Berlin can be overwhelming – there is always a substantial amount of cultural events going on simultaneously, and even after living in the city for almost five years, I can’t say that I have gotten to know all cultural institutions – not even close to it. After the change, many artists and especially musicians took up residence in town because they found an abundance of empty spaces there, particularly along the former border strip. The emergence of the now infamous techno music scene, for example, was only possible due to the unique spatial and political situation of Post-Wall Berlin. Felix Denk, a journalist who did extensive research on the history of techno in the city, illustrates this very well in this interview. In subsequent years, Berlin began to capitalize on its image as a ‚creative city‘; something that many locals and activists are now weary of because it is deeply entangled with dynamics on the capitalist housing market, specifically gentrification. Today, many alternative cultural scenes that once shaped the city’s identity are being threatened by rent increases and a hostile administration. Or, as Denk put it in said interview, “the people who started the scene were eventually excluded from it.”

This is apparently different in Bucharest, where I also can’t claim I know everything after only one month, but I do think I have a hunch about what the main venues in the cultural scene are by now. In other ways, I still feel like I’m peeking through the door viewer trying to piece together an understanding of what is happening on the other side. But the more I talk to people, the more I come to the conclusion that here, infrastructure, or rather – the lack of it, is one of the most important issues, especially for the contemporary arts. Support seems to go primarily to established institutions – the opera, public museums and the like, while freelance curators and artists are struggling to get their projects realized. A flaw in thinking on the part of the Ministry of Culture apparently contributes to the problem – funding tends to go to single projects without attention to infrastructure. An institution that I have been told might provide more sustainability is the Kunsthalle – a middle-sized arts institution that is staffed, has a permanent source of funding and can support artists by providing them with space and assistance for their projects. Without this, you can have the best concepts for performances, exhibitions etc., but not necessarily the resources to see them through. But what good is a brilliant idea if you don’t have the means to actually make it happen on a very practical level?

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University Square in Bucharest with the National Theatre to the right

As a result, free lance operators in culture are often confronted with the Herculian task of juggling a variety of tasks on their own or with minimal staff support, often not knowing whether they will be successful with their plans or whether they will still be making a living a few months or a year from now. This amounts to a constant state of precarity quite different from the one I experienced in Berlin, not only concerning the available resources but also the handling of precarity. I will try to reflect on that a little bit here – but note that I am not claiming to have a definite judgement on the matter, if that is even possible.

Precarity is deeply embedded in Berlin’s cultural scene, too. Only two percent of arts graduates manage to make a living off their art. This is a situation that is of course enforced by neoliberal capitalism, but as Isabell Lorey suggests, it is also a choice for many cultural operators in Germany who would rather choose a project-based job with limited or no social security than compromising their “freedom” or “autonomy”. Material conditions and compulsion become conflated with self-actualization and “choice”. In the case of those artists and curators who are still quite privileged – who have parents able to chip in if need-be or who don’t belong to a minority and therefore have a better standing in society in the first place – one might even argue that capitalizing on real or perceived precarity has become a lifestyle. Berlin’s former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has given this notion a slogan in the early 2000s when he declared Berlin “poor, but sexy”. The arts are a typical meritocracy – you work hard, you overcome the obstacles, and as a result you earn prestige and career opportunities. Has it become a rite-de-passage for emerging artists, then, to go through a phase of precarity?

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Advertizement covering up a run-down building on Strada Berzei in Bucharest

I haven’t witnessed cultural operators in Bucharest promoting such a notion quite to this extent (yet?). Of course, many have stressed the importance of being dedicated to one’s projects and thus investing time and commitment, but they didn’t romanticize this. Those I have spoken to were well aware of how important support structures are, not only for the overall sustainability of the cultural sphere, but also for the ability of individual artists to make a living with their work. There’s nothing “sexy” about operating in precarious financial conditions.

In Berlin, I tended to avoid contemporary art exhibitions that weren’t part of a politically conscious scene – mostly because the atmosphere was too elitist and unaware of privilege for my taste. Here, I didn’t pick up anything like that. Could a different understanding and handling of precarity be the reason?

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