The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
As it prepares to reopen with a newly renovated building, Berlin's House of World Cultures is broadening its vision and role
So, will there be any events to celebrate the opening of the renewed HKW building in August 2007?
The renewal opening will be held on August 23. As a program to follow the reopening, we have put together an exhibition on the theme of “New York“ as a joint production with New York’s Queens Museum. Why New York at this time? There are several reasons.
In one of these, the context of globalization that I mentioned earlier is a very important point. I believe that the concept of the “local” plays an important role here, and I got the idea of examining the history of HKW, in particular the history of its building.
The HKW was actually built by Americans some 50 years ago. An international architecture exposition was held in Berlin in 1957 and the building built by the Americans as a venue for that expo was then donated to the city of Berlin. In short, this building was a symbol of the modernization of the West. At the time, in 1957, Berlin was an occupied city and there was little else in the area around the building. When you look at it from that perspective, this building suddenly appeared out of nowhere, like a UFO suddenly landing on “planet Berlin.” (Laughs)

I see your point. (Laughs)
In the early years of the 1950s, Stalin Avenue (stalinallee, present frankfurter allee) was the symbol of the Eastern (Soviet occupied) half of the city and our building became an opposing symbol of the democracy and freedom of America, or the Western nations. Here there was an ongoing political debate about East and West Germany. But it also became the subject of criticism as a form of Western propaganda against the East and a symbol of the Cold War.
In 1980 there was an incident in which part of the roof collapsed, and that was taken as an opportunity to undertake a renewal project for the building that created the present HKW building. In short, this is a building that directly reflects the last 50 years of world history. We thought of looking at these 50 years not from the perspective of globalization but from the perspective of the city we live in. In other words, by looking at Berlin and New York, as a city that symbolizes the West, and seeing them from the perspective of “transatlantic modern cities” that have affected each other across the Atlantic, we chose a practical theme of looking from the transatlantic symbol of Berlin at New York, as a symbol of globalization, we could bring to the surface a number of the issues that are facing the globalized world today.
From the standpoint of economics and cultural and also in terms of being the site of the 9.11 attacks, which is certainly one of the defining events in the world in recent years, New York is truly a symbol of the contemporary world.
The Queens Museum of Art that we are working in collaboration with on this exhibition is located in the Queens Borough of New York, which is a “peripheral” borough with regards to the “central” Manhattan and it is a “melting pot” with many immigrants from different cultures and with different religions. It is also in a historical section of the city that has been the site of two World’s Fairs, one before World War II and one after. In this sense, it can also be seen as a sort of “transmuseum” that is in a situation very similar to us at HKW.
Our specific [New York project] program will be officially announced in May, and it will be a large-scale comprehensive program including exhibitions, performances, music programs and conferences. After it is held in Berlin it will tour to The Queens Museum of Art, and we are also thinking of a joint program with Carnegie Hall.

What other kinds of programs do you have planned?
After this New York project we are thinking about a large-scale project dealing with the Middle East situation and how artists are and should be reacting to it. In short, this [New York] project is the start of an ongoing series through which we consider how to involve ourselves with the processes of changes we are seeing in today’s world.
In fact, we have had one project going on during the renewal. It is called “Meine Baustelle” (My Construction Site). Since we couldn’t use our building for a whole year from the start of the renovation work in the autumn of 2006 to the completion in the late summer of 2007, we decided to use the building as best we could during the period it was closed to think seriously about what new roles we ourselves could play and it the same time disseminate the thought process to the outside. Actually, in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been a good number of projects using construction sites. Recent examples include the numerous projects that took place at the Palast der Republik, which many people have probably heard of.
In our case we decided to hold project every weekend at the renovation site over a period of six weeks. The word “Baustelle” (construction site) has the meaning of a construction site where the structural framework of the building is exposed, and it can also be taken to mean a person’s “thinking process.” Furthermore, “Mein” (my) means that a personal (my) perspective is necessarily involved.
Based on this concept, we have been holding as series of projects titled “Meine Diplomatie” (my diplomacy), “Mein Haus” (my house) and “Mein Markt” (my market) as parts of our “Meine Baustelle” program. Meine Diplomatie approached the problem of dealing with the themes of culture and politics from the standpoint of the individual. Mein Haus approached the issue of what form the urban environment should take in the globalized world by looking at buildings themselves. With Mein Markt we plan to create a real market inside HKW. Originally, a market is a place where the value of things is converted into monetary value. In other words, it is a place where the process of conversion is played out. This doesn’t mean just a museum shop. For example, we will have a designer group from Sweden and boutiques like Prada and Gucci and young people from the Mitte district set up creative shops or portable kiosks and the prices of their goods will not be set, so people have to bargain to set the prices. The idea is to change the building into a market and create “Shops – Landscape in Berlin” map. This takes place in May.
If people become more conscious of participating in the world from their standpoint as individuals, many individual perspectives will gather in this building and we can make it function as a “meeting place” where people can work together. This is what we are trying to achieve here.

The role of culture and the arts in society has changed greatly in the last 20 years. It seems that Germany today is facing various issues like the high unemployment rate and the problems of the young. What are your expectations for the role of culture and the arts?
Of course I believe that these issues have to be addressed and I feel that politics is playing an increasingly important role in today’s culture. But, artists have the ability to feel what is likely to happen tomorrow and the day after tomorrow with a high degree of sensitivity. I believe that themes or questions should not simply be picked up from the political context but that they should be developed through the involvement of artists.
In this way, I don’t believe that a cultural institution should borrow its themes directly from the political context but, based on the question of how to develop things into a cultural or arts context, I believe that we should direct our efforts toward the search for ways to join in a dialog with government and society. My belief is that we cannot work together with government in the absence of a cultural or artistic perspective.
The HKW has engaged in a variety of programs over the past 20 years but I think that it is very difficult to judge the success or failure of these programs from a social standpoint. It is not something that can be reduced to numbers, and I believe that it will take a very long time before we know clearly what remained in people’s minds and what inspired people.
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