Interview with Dan Borden, Chief Curator

By Russell Birdwell

Amidst the blowing leaves and changing winds of fall, there’s a hot oasis of politics, culture and fun. The Save Berlin Fest arrives November 13, touting three days of art, music, film and performances (in a pool!), in an optimistic attempt to breathe some imagination and waft some brisk autumn air into the city’s drab urban and cultural policies. Recognized and lesser-known German and international artists like Reynold Reynolds, Jim Avignon, Thomas Eller, Madeleine Stillwell and David Beecroft will show their work, while local performers, musicians and fashion designers will hit the pool stage and architects (not all sporting square-rim spectacles) will exhibit and discuss their alternative visions for our city’s future. We sat down with Dan Borden, the architect and filmmaker at the artistic helm of SAVE BERLIN, to get a better idea of what to expect. 

The debates over the Palast der Republik and the Schloss are very emblematic of the Save Berlin Fest. Was this a driving force for you personally as a curator of the event?
This debate rages on, but for me it was something bigger, more about trying to encourage Berlin’s creative community to get actively involved in the city’s future. There are people planning the future of Berlin, and these are people interested in commerce and a solid tax base, security and stability – that’s their job, but that’s not what makes Berlin special. This city is a magnet for creative people. Why? There’s something intangible that keeps people here. Given the chance, the people in charge will destroy that. So, this is about defining what’s special about Berlin, and becoming advocates for that, for those neglected aspects of the city’s character that the bankers and the bureaucrats are not going to fight for.

Do you really believe an event like Save Berlin could shape the policy of the bureaucrats in power?
I like to think we can have some influence over bureaucrats. As a former bureaucrat myself - as an architect I worked with the New York subway for a while – I know the public’s voice can be heard. There were times when I would contact citizens’ groups and tell them what to say, because I couldn’t get my bosses to listen to me. Decisions are made by a tiny group of people, and then there are these very vocal, crazy advocates for this and that, who push through laws. Bureaucrats tend to lack imagination. You look at the schemes that are coming out in this city and they’re so bland. They’re lame. This is a city that’s been a canvas for brilliant schemes, for utopian schemes. After the Wall came down, that died.

Last spring you made a call for artists and “creative minds” to submit ideas. Some of the works you’ll show are pretty crazy. Isn’t it all a bit utopian?
We’ve asked people to suggest very bold, utopian, crazy schemes. Not so much because we think the city is going to say, “Yes, we’ll build that, we’ll build a mountain, dig a lake, or build Metropolis-city at Tempelhof.” It’s more about getting people who come to this show to think, “I can take an active role.” It’s lighting a fire under the ass of Berlin’s creative community, and turning people a little more proactive about the city’s future. The real creativity that’s coming up is in the small do-it-yourself things, which are more emblematic of Berlin. The city doesn’t know how to support that. We’re trying to shine a spotlight on these things and encourage them.

There’s a lot of expats involved in this event. Why should they have a say in saving Berlin?
People who come from elsewhere, and know the myth of the city, know it from its aura – in a way, they sort of understand the city better than people who have lived there their entire lives, like our mayor, Klaus Wowereit. You always see your hometown as small and provincial and ugly and it’s not New York, it’s not Paris, it’s not London. But if you see it from the outside, you understand what makes it special.

Is there a political agenda to the event?
It’s political in the sense that we would like the creative community and the rest of Berlin to be more conscious of these planning schemes. There are schemes that have been on the drawing boards for 10 or 15 years that no one will even notice until they're built. It’s like Alexanderplatz or Media Spree, O2 World – these were on the board. There was a model of Berlin on display 10 years ago that showed all of these things.

How is the event set up?
There are basically two components: there’s the exhibition - two large rooms with installation pieces, paintings, architecture, drawings, models. The other, in the swimming pool, is going to be performances, films, food, children’s events, and other special events. For me, the heart of it is the exhibition.  We’re also going to have a panel discussion, which will be interesting. We’re having our own flea market. It’s a souq. It’s going to be homemade things, local labels, handicrafts, vintage clothes; people will set up blankets in the pool and sell whatever they want. That's also very Berlin.