e.V. Verein zur Förderung von Medienkulturen in Berlin
tel: 0177 225 37 97, fax: 030 44 34 18 12
mikro (extended version)
Berlin. Any Berliner, particularly if that Berliner shows any media junkie
tendencies, could be forgiven for admitting that by the time the German
government finally gets here, he or she will be sick to death of hearing
about Berlin. About the city of the future. About the crossroads of a new,
vibrant Europe blown wide open to market forces revitalized by a single
On nearly every street, tucked in between the Döner quick stops and the slot machine gaming centers, jutting up like islands in the U-Bahn stations, kiosks serve as cluttered mini-billboards advertising the schlocky thrill of a city on the move. As I write, these kiosks are fronting special issues on Berlin from both Geo and Merian, each featuring user-friendly pocket-size guides that can be whipped out for quick reference should you find yourself in an unfamiliar neighborhood with an urge for a caffeine fix or a quick jolt of culture.
Tip and Zitty trade off every other Wednesday, each claiming to be the most complete interface to 14 days of that wild, wild Berlin life. And while every city has its newspaper wars, few are as cutthroat as the one currently being waged between Der Tagesspiegel, the Berliner Morgenpost and the upstart Berliner Zeitung. The media companies behind each of them are well aware that even if their paper knocks out the other two, it'll still be an uphill battle to get the new government to choose a hometown paper over the FAZ or the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
Within the past year or so, Die Zeit has run a series pondering Die Berliner Republik, Die Woche has celebrated it with a special issue, Focus has added a tinge of noir excitement with a cover story on crime in Berlin and Der Spiegel has added another with its cover depicting the ghosts of Bismarck and Hitler hovering ominously over the Brandenburger Tor.
All this is hardly a fit of local or even national navelgazing. There's a buzz about the very word "Berlin" these days that magazines ranging from Wired to The New Yorker haven't been able to resist. As the city rips ist heart out to frantically rebuild it again, architects in particular look to Berlin as a sort of international laboratory where they dare each other to find the most unexpected overlapping of the radical and the functional. While not quite as bombastic as Wired's Potsdamer Platz centerfold, Architectural Record currently features a spread on Daniel Libeskind's controversial Jewish Museum.
The New York-based online publication FEED has interviewed Rem Koolhaas about his limited role in transforming the city, reported on the antics of Christoph Schlingensief and even run a column by Andrew Piper on the buzz itself: "Figuring out what Berlin stands for -- techno-utopia or postmodern metropole, to take just two examples -- is quickly turning into its own discipline."
Indeed, several historians have taken a shot at it in the past few years, and the bestselling of them all is a thousand-page tome bearing the one-two punch title _Faust's Metropolis_. Meanwhile, at the movies, an update of Wenders's sentimental and meditative "Himmel Über Berlin" had long been overdue by the time the appropriately titled "Das Leben ist eine Baustelle" came along -- with Lola and her shock of red hair fast on its heels.
Lola's frantic, somewhat geographically confused yet slickly realized run through the city probably best captures the mood in Berlin itself at the moment. In 1987, Berlin celebrated its 750th birthday as somberly and predictably as could be expected for a schizoid city. The tension of living on the faultline of a bipolar world had become an oddly comfortable background noise over the years, snapped off, of course, when the Wall fell two years later. With the superpower stalemate over, the future yawned wide open, and while the government rushed to reclaim its old capital, for years, it seemed there was still time.
Time for Christo to wrap the Reichstag before the old haunted building would be recapped with glass and steel, time for growing the Love Parade into a major tourist attraction, time for tearing up the map and redrawing it again. The future was, after all, the future; there was still time.
All of a sudden, though, it's 1999. The future is just about here, and like Lola, Berlin finds itself racing against the clock. The new chancellor drops in more and more frequently, scoping out his new digs, chomping at the bit, ready to get on with it. After a decade of promises and raised hopes, of ponderous reflection on Berlin's past and daydreaming about what will be, suddenly, it's put up or shut up time.
But a little over a year ago, a varied group of friends and acquaintances living and working in Berlin realized something was missing. What's the future of any city without a bustling new media scene? It's doubtful that this is the question they have been trying to answer for the past year with MIKRO e.V. And yet the absence of an identifiable scene with a center of gravity and a whiff of something uniquely Berlin about it did come up in early conversations as one of many motivations for founding and officially registering an organization all about seeing if just that might not be pulled together.
There's a vague shotgun approach to MIKRO's definition of itself: "MIKRO e.V. is a new Berlin organization founded to promote media cultures, an open platform for initiating and realizing projects, discussions, events, exhibitions, publications and other activities." What isn't said here is that MIKRO's aim is somewhat related to that of Berlin itself: the creation of an identity emerging from diverse elements. An identity with character, no less.
Just as Berlin is actually a conglomerate of several disparate villages that more or less happened to be in the same neighborhood, MIKRO a collection of diverse personalities who were certainly aware of each other but whose paths crossed only occasionally, often at conferences or events in other cities. And so, too, is the network MIKRO proposes to pull together.
With "old media" concentrated in Hamburg, finance in Frankfurt and technology in or around Munich -- more or less -- there is as yet no single center in Germany where all the elements of new media converge. Berlin would like to be that place, of course, along with a slew of other cities and states, but a survey of what scraps there already are to begin with finds them strewn across a wide field, geographically and otherwise.
Here a multimedia agency, there a design firm. An activist, a game company, a marketing manager, a Senate rep, an architect, a DJ... The past twelve monthly evenings, the mikro.lounges, have each been an experiment in their own unique way. Each has its theme, of course, but the idea is to cross-fertilize, introduce, make connections, network on a local level. The MIKRO founders, who have lived through the hype of virtual communities, who see the value in them but whose expectations of them have been lowered dramatically, understand perhaps more than any chamber of commerce or state senator the importance of getting people together face-to-face in a single physical space.
That space, the WMF, is an ideal launching pad in some ways for that elusive Berlin new media identity. It's a club, of course, so Berlin's reputation for hosting the liveliest nights in Germany is well represented. It's also outfitted with that flat tan woodworking that all but screams DDR retro chic, a reminder that when in Berlin, you are about as far east as the west gets. There are, strangely enough, acoustic problems and the layout of the main area isn't exactly perfect for showing videos or getting a clear view of guest speakers, but again, it's a start.
It may have been unplanned, but it was nevertheless appropriate that the Internationale Stadt was represented, however obscurely, at the first MIKRO evening in 1998. Armin Haase didn't officially attend as one of the co-founders of IS, but rather, to show the film he'd made with Sabine Helmers at the Hacking in Progress gathering the previous summer.
The circumstances of the dissolution of the Internationale Stadt aren't really important. By that first mikro.lounge, what counted was that IS had once been the standard bearer for the type of localized identity MIKRO was just beginning to attempt to discover and shape -- and that the essential idea behind IS, for all its "real life" events, the exhibitions, parties and so on, was a re-representation of Berlin as a city of bits swirling among the IS servers, whereas MIKRO's emphasis would be on a gathering of real people in real space who also happened to have a Web site.
The passing of the baton from IS to MIKRO, intentionally or not, represented the fundamental shift in the attitudes generally shared by online veterans concerning new media. Once the rhetoric had evaporated from a sort of proto-utopian cyberspace, what was left when all the steam and hot air cleared was a tool. An interesting one, yes, one that could be used for organizing, activism, art, entertainment and industry, but nonetheless an instrument and not a place -- and certainly no substitute for hobnobbing in real space.
Just as appropriate that first evening was the reading by Geert Lovink which turned out to be anything but a pep rally for new media. Riffing on the theme "Electronic Solitude", the selection from Adilkno's Media Archive conjured the wreckage left in the wake of a loss of faith in cyberspace. Whereas countless conferences held at the peak of the wave of Internet hype had seen speakers preach the gospel of the paradigm shift, here was a text that was such a downer the audience felt compelled to try to cheer Lovink up. MIKRO was off to a fine start.
Again, whether intended or not, Lovink's presence also represented another passing of another baton, this one geographical rather than temporal. After several long years of working at it, Lovink's hometown, Amsterdam, had achieved a precarious balance between its government, industry and artists, perpetually challenged but nevertheless a basis for one of the most vivacious new media scenes in Europe. The differences between Berlin and Amsterdam are too numerous to count, of course, but any precedent is an inspiration.
Further, Lovink was the first of a series of out-of-towners invited take part in MIKRO activities. A hermetically sealed scene isn't of much value, even to those inside the envelope, and crossroads are often the brightest spots on the map.
The most extravagant example of MIKRO's reaching out to the far corners of the earth was surely the net.radiodays, five of them in all, amounting to nothing less than a summer festival, complete with cook-outs, sponsors and an elaborate network of collaboration on both local and international levels. Net.radio broadcasters, producers and artists from Budapest to London, Sydney to Ljubljana, Riga to Tokyo converged on Berlin for workshops, lectures and parties. As Martin Conrads of Berlin's own net.radio group, convex tv, remarked, it was the "on site" aspect of it all that made it such a stimulating week for a vast network that had only previously met virtually on the Xchange mailing list dedicated to online broadcasting.
But the most ambitious MIKRO project is yet to come. If all goes as planned, before 1999 is out, computer scientists and media theorists, hackers, programmers and end users alike will gather in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt to discuss the technological and social implications of operating systems and the rise of the Open Source movement -- and perhaps attend a Linux installation party as well. The "Wizards of OS" conference isn't a sure thing yet, but there are now more signs that it'll happen than there are that it won't.
The variety of themes MIKRO has taken on since that first evening in March '98 is itself remarkable. As documented in the following pages, digital technologies present an onslaught of challenges not only to calcified media structures but also to preconceived notions of privacy, entertainment, gender, work, property, community, politics -- and of course, "Berlin".