Berlin: precarious but not so sexy

The city has become a honey-pot for creatives, but a nightmare for many of the artists who live there.

Paul Walsh
9 September 2019, 11.49pm
Flickr/Michela Simoncini. CC BY 2.0.

Filmmaker Frances Calvert always refused handouts. “It ruins friendships,” she'd say. Never knowing if she’d have freelance teaching work from one semester to the next, like many artists in Berlin she developed a repertoire of techniques to manage earnings that could bounce up and down like a yo-yo.

She rented her flat out; she bought her clothes at charity shops; and she was always in the red, with an overdraft charging 18% interest that friends told her to pay off, but she never did. “The bank lived off her for years,” film producer Lindsey Merrison tells me over tea in a West Berlin cafe, a year from the final time she saw her best friend Frances and almost a year from Calvert’s untimely death at 68.

She put a brave face on her troubles too, her sister Judy tells me. “I knew life was tough for her, but she always had this underlying Aussie humour that said I’m a survivor. And that led me to believe that things weren’t too bad,” she says, talking to me over Skype from Melbourne, Australia. “But clearly that was wrong, when you put all the pieces together.”

Frances moved here in the early 80s, but she wasn’t the first artist drawn to Berlin’s creative spirit. Foreign artists have long beaten a path to the city that inspired David Bowie in the 70s, Nick Cave in the 80s, and gave refuge to conscientious objectors running from the West German military draft. Yet the romantic, gloomy images of divided Berlin we hold in our heads may not match how people felt at the time.

“Everyone was pretending to be depressed in the 80s, but that wasn’t the truth. Compared to now it was very hopeful. We believed in the future,” painter and native Berliner Carola Göllner tells me when I visit her studio, the floor stacked high with portraits that tip against the walls. “West Berlin was heavily subsidized. There was more support, and if you were hard up there was always the Soziale Künstlerförderung [social support for artists]. You had to prove you had no money, then apply for support, and make a piece of art specifically for them,” she says. I ask how much artists could expect to be paid. “I got 3000 DM for one picture, which really helped.”

The contrast with today couldn’t be starker. According to a recent study entitled “Studio Berlin lll: The situation of Berlin artists and the gender gap”, only 24% of men and 19% of women in 2017 were able to cover their living expenses from their art, and many were forced into debt. Most artists need to take on other work, with over 60% self-employed in some capacity: 27% of these other jobs are art-related, 28% are employed as teachers, and 6.5% have a ‘mini-job.’

Only 59% of those surveyed were in the Künstlersozialkasse or KSK (the Social Security Insurance Scheme for Artists, which gives professional artists access to cheap health insurance and helps with their pensions), and the study predicts that 90% of artists face poverty in old age. Hanne Schweitzer, journalist and founder of the Office against Age Discrimination, warned earlier this year that older female artists in particular will be “as poor as church mice.”

Research published in 2018 by the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung shows how precarity in Germany consists of two dimensions – insecure employment and insecure housing – and that anyone caught in their jaws is at risk. The researchers also found evidence of a “consolidated precariat:” a semi-permanent class of around 8% of the workforce who have little or no chance of improving their life conditions.

That helps to explain what happened to Frances. The full force of the labour market changes of the ‘Agenda 2010’ reform package – containing the Hartz welfare reforms as well as measures allowing employers to sack workers more easily and employ them on a short-term basis – fell squarely on her shoulders, and as she wasn’t in the KSK she had to pay all social insurance costs herself.

Freelancing at several Berlin institutions she never knew if she’d teach the same modules next semester, or if she’d have any work at all. She taught media and cultural studies at Potsdam, film production at Babelsberg, and English at Beuth Hochschule, where my wife, also a teacher, would chat with her before they rushed off to their classes, not knowing what a humane and talented filmmaker she was.

Her insecure work situation was suddenly compounded by insecure housing too. In 2016 an upstairs neighbour flooded her flat, damaging the walls, floor and ceiling. Her Hausverwaltung, or building managers, kept stalling on the repairs and she was forced to spend a year couch-surfing with friends. Travelling back and forth in the Berlin winter between different friends and her water-damaged flat, trying to keep her head above water and chasing a decreasing amount of freelance work all took their toll. She also took a cocktail of drugs, including cortisone, for various health problems which affected her mood.

Frances received some more bad news. She was seeking funding for her latest film project, Buena Vista Australia, a documentary about Luis Váez de Torres, the first European to sail the Torres Strait. Despite having half of the funding from Spanish backers, she was refused the rest by an indigenous Australian TV channel. That really broke her, and she wrote to a friend saying “It’s died in the water. There’s nothing more I can do.”

She returned to Australia to see family in late August 2018, and stayed in a monastery where she had friends and felt welcome. Sometime during the trip she got an email saying she wouldn’t have enough teaching work next semester to cover her expenses. She was found dead on Monday 3rd September by police in a disused room. She’d hanged herself, and the note she left said simply “I just want to opt out of the whole battle. I think I have fought enough.”

The story of Frances isn’t unique. “As far as Facebook is concerned I’m doing great,” says 56-year-old filmmaker Pamela Cohn when we talk in her fourth floor Prenzlauer Berg sublet, all wooden floors, muted colours, and tidy furniture. “But I can basically fit my life into four suitcases,” she says, and the increasing precarity of her situation gets to her. “I think there’s a certain point where you have to sit down with yourself and say OK, I feel like this is eventually gonna kill me.”

She talks about the energy of the Berlin scene she came across in 2010 when low rents and cost of living meant she could put down roots. “I felt I could live like a human being.” Yet now she’s disillusioned with the filmmaking community and her place in it. “I’m spending so much time and energy in something I don’t believe in anymore. It’s like I’m still showing up at church, pretending I’m still a believer when I’ve completely lost my faith.” Like Frances, she can’t make a living from her artistic practice, and the job market has little place for her. “A well-paid gig for me comes maybe two times a year, the rest is really scrounging,” she says, “I’m really grasping at straws....and it’s scary.”

What might have helped Frances, and what could help precarious workers today? For those in teaching, unions are organising the freelance sector. Martina Regulin, leader of the board of higher education and teacher education for the GEW union, tells me that “precariously employed workers have seen a pay rise but it is not enough. We want more permanent positions, and positions that precarious workers can apply for.” For freelancers in general, the public service union Ver.di has 30,000 Solo-Selbstständige members (freelancers with no employees) and they run a dedicated service giving advice on legal issues such as contracts.

But for artists, perhaps the problem lies in the way we see ourselves. “Art can bring us consolation as individuals, but it is powerless against reality,” the French writer Romain Rolland is quoted as saying. But maybe he’s wrong. Because the reality is we are not the first to be underpaid and exploited. We are not the first to be driven to despair by disappointment or to be replaced by technology or someone better looking. However, it seems to me that perhaps we’re the first generation to adopt, as an article of faith, the idea that force of personality and grit can overcome the economic structures imposed on us; that somehow individual will is stronger than collective voice.

Frances Calvert’s film Talking Broken shows the problems that a marginalised community has in articulating its concerns, because “the hidden language of those in power is the hardest one of all.” Perhaps it’s time precarious artists stopped believing in the dream of the lone individual and learnt that language of power, using their collective voice to demand an end to insecurity and a modicum of dignity for the people who have long struggled to give Berlin its cultural edge.

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