Pia-Marie Remmers: You came to Berlin for a Research Fellowship and live not far from Alexanderplatz. How would you describe living in the center of this city?
Devin Kenny: There seem to be many centers in this city, depending on what you are looking for. My landlord told me that life here, on the eastern side of Alexanderplatz, is probably most similar to Union Square in New York City. Given the connotations that place has for me - the political spectacle on one side and the big shopping mall with its lounges, restaurants, bars and all the commercialism on the other - it seems to me there's some truth to that. Originally, I thought the Alex had been mainly a place of political action, meetings, discourse, and information exchange. I was not aware that it was primarily a marketplace before that. Nevertheless, I do not understand its current form as a simple rebirth. Capitalism has not completely erased the traces of the GDR era, but has assimilated them to turn the square into a hip shopping district.
PMR: Yes, Berlin has this image of a rough city, marked by its checkered history, but also by alternative and queer scenes, which is gladly used by tourism and city marketing to attract young people in particular.
DK: I ride the U8 a lot, and I notice the ads that are visually signaling certain subcultures, like techno or graffiti or hip hop. But there is also a particular kind of diversity in them in terms of people of different ethnicities and body types, seemingly meant to reflect a city that wants to show itself as progressive and open to change. At first, I thought this was just a cheesy attempt at lifestyle marketing, but perhaps the presence of these identities have actually become so much a part of the social fabric of Berlin that not acknowledging them would result in a very surface level advertising, and fail to connect to people.
PMR: And to what extent is the historical past visible to you in the cityscape?
DK: When I walk through the city which used to be two cities, it does feel different depending on the zone. That's mainly because of the architecture and the different aesthetic principles. They allow us to draw conclusions about the social programming of each era and the way people moved through public space.
My apartment building dates back to the GDR era and is now located in an area that is highly-charged historically and commercially. I like it because I live here with a lot of old people who have experienced the history of the place from several eras. They have a different cultural memory, which I find to be very enriching, even if we may not necessarily be like-minded politically.
PMR: Central places of remembrance in cities are often spaces of commercial interests.
DK: Yes, these places are often part of city tours, are in guides and so on. Snack stalls, stores for T-shirts and other memorabilia, or photo booths then grow almost organically with them. While I sometimes cringe at such ham-fisted consumerism, I'm also aware that people connect with different places and stories in different ways. If that means they buy a souvenir that can spark memories or discussion at a later date, so be it. In general, I would say that there are definitely connections between tourist attractions and places of remembrance. Especially in a city like Berlin, the two types of site, the connection between tourism and memory-culture, have to come into contact with each other in many different places, simply because of the unique history of this city and its symbolic meaning within the history of 20th century capitalism.
PMR: Popular places of remembrance are usually connected with the historiography of a majority. In a multicultural and migrant capital, I ask myself who can or should find themselves in these memories and who cannot?
DK: This is also an important and topical issue in New York, where I usually live. Although, of course, the dynamics there are different, as there is not the same idea of a unified culture of memory. I think of the African Burial Ground, for example, which is not far from Wall Street. It was a long struggle until at least plaques as well as a monument were created indicating that at least 419 enslaved persons and thousands of free African-Americans were buried at this site. The monument is less than ⅓ of an acre, but the original burial ground was about 6 acres (24,281 sq. meters) in area. At the same time, since the late 1990s, there have been archaeologists, artists, activists, and researchers working to draw attention to the fact that what is now Central Park was one of the first free Black communities in New York City called Seneca Village that was essentially wiped out as an example of eminent domain: the power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use, facilitated by the 5th Amendment. Seneca Village’s residents* which also included Irish and German immigrant neighbors, were displaced to create a park that was "for the good of the city" at the expense of a marginalized population. I think there's a dominant culture of active forgetting in America, and with that comes the idea that you can empower yourself through historical erasure. We see examples of this in the "fake it 'til you make it" ethos, but also The Great Gatsby, and many other forms of historical revisionism including recent attacks against 'critical race theory' in schools.
In both places, in New York and in Berlin, there’s the question of who can actively participate in the writing of history and the culture of memory and who must simply comply. Regardless of your proximity to historical wrongdoing, the history of the city is a cultural inheritance and it must be acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean that there is only one way to engage with that history. Institutions that act as though there is run the risk of reproducing the violence they are trying to get away from.
PMR: Do you think there is a connection between the invisibility of certain histories in urban space and gentrification?
DK: Gentrification serves to make certain areas "safe" for commercial interests. Public spaces are thus destroyed or at least reprogrammed. This can be - besides displacing people who live, work, and love there - a catalyst for a kind of cultural erasure or overlay.
I think that people's collective cultural memory is strongly influenced by the structural and physical changes in the areas they live in. However, I didn't really understand these processes on an emotional level until I heard "My My Metrocard" by Le Tigre. In the song, they refer to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had the strip clubs in Times Square closed down to make the place what it is today: the genteel tourist center of the city. It seems a similar process took place with Alexanderplatz, and the Red Light District in Amsterdam too. The many different ways in which people are resisting this form of gentrification, as well as housing shortages, interest me a lot and led me to come to Berlin and do research here.
PMR: As an artist, musician, writer and curator, how do you approach these issues? What does art have to do with them?
DK: Art can spark productive dialogue or present proposals of alternative ways of living that are not yet part of the status quo. It can provide insights or make questions stick and feel urgent. Writing, music, visual art, booking concerts, organizing exhibitions and publications - these are all sites of possibility where the many different aspects of a feeling or phenomenon can be articulated. In doing so, my own approach to cultural production is informed by direct or indirect experiences of racism in urban space. The dynamics of major U.S. cities such as NYC, LA, Chicago or Houston are an important factor in the emergence of subcultures in which I invest a great deal of time and energy: punk, hip-hop, street skateboarding, and electronic music, and these in turn are directly or indirectly related to gentrification and its aftermath.