Haaretz – Arts section

8 September 2016

“The Man Who Seeks to Erect a Monument to Drug Dealers in Berlin”

By Shachar Atwan

For the past five years the American artist Scott Holmquist has been observing African drug dealers in Berlin with great care. Now he wants to honor these “last heroes” with a monument in a city park. Just before his proposal may come up for a vote in Berlin, with support of the Pirate Party, he spoke about the storm it has unleashed in his adopted city.

At noon on a summer’s day in Görlitzer Park in the Kreuzberg district, two people are strolling along, each carrying a recording device. All around, on park benches, near a multileveled fountain, between wide lawns and a kids’ “petting zoo”, but particularly at the park main entrances and exits, groups of young Africans move about working their trade. “Hashish? Marijuana? Coke?” The vendors offer passersby, in a targeted marketing strategy that would be difficult to describe as subtle. If they don’t get a response, they often don’t give up: “What do you need? What do you need?” In between deals, they gather and relax on park benches, converse or listen to music. They may also be seen dining together from aluminum trays.

African drug dealers have been active in Berlin for more than a decade, almost without interference. An unverified rumor has it that their enterprise is so well-oiled, that it includes women whose job is to supply male venders with hot food. Admittedly, on occasions, the police make arrests, but anyone who happens to visit Görlitzer Park, or Hasenheide Park in Neukölln, would wonder how they manage to deal drugs in broad daylight. Scott Holmquist, one of the two persons strolling in the park with a recorder, and an artist living in Kreuzberg, is not among those who express astonishment. Holmquist is not only familiar with this open illegal activity, he has formerly proposed the city memorialize it – with a monument, no less. He submitted his proposal the end of July, and the media attention that ensued did indeed surprise this project’s creator. So too did the public reaction that soon followed.

First there was the daily, Berliner Zeitung, which announced Holmquist’s initiative and described how the artist approached the Pirate Party – which values political transparency, internet piracy, and freedom of information – to submit his monument proposal to the Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain City District. The Pirate Party response was favorable and further stories followed in the media, including one on the art website Artnet.com. The news site Deutsche Welle went a bit deeper, spelling out differences between the artist and his new political sponsors. At that point, an avalanche of comments roared. “How stoned do you have to be to make a proposal like that? Should we also put up a monument for looting Georgian gangs?” wrote one Berliner, for example. “The Pirate Party is looking more and more like a pseudo-party of crazies. Please come back to reality. The future of our entire society needs to be in steady hands, not dependent on your insane ideas.”

One month later, Holmquist is still astounded by the intensity of certain responses, by their violence and anger. “I’ve read death threats; some even suggested that I run a drug dealing gang, and that’s why I’m doing this project,” he says. “Everything that’s happened after the proposal submission and its online posting was a complete surprise; all this media attention is not something I’ve planned. It’s disturbing and regrettable, in some ways, but it’s also good. It’s just not at all the right time.” He pauses for a moment, then brings out his voice recorder and asks to tape our conversation. “I’m still doing research for this project, and our conversation might help.” He becomes serious, pointing out that planning the monument is only a part of a larger body of works that explore the activities and experiences of the Berlin African drug dealers – both in the present and the past.

To remember and not to forget.

As one might deduce from his name, Scott Holmquist is not a native of Berlin. He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (“Let’s say in the 60s. I’d rather not be precise. Germans tend to use age as shackles, assigning your identity by birth year.”). He has practiced art since he was a child – whether drawing, sculpting, or writing spy stories. But his full-time engagement in art began only in the late 1980s. Prior to that he studied literature and economics, first at the University of Minnesota and then at Gothenberg University in Sweden. In the 1990s he worked with Swedish ethnographer Annette Rosengren, then studied geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His main art education came the old-fashioned way through practice. He worked as a professional videographer, editor and director, employed by a company making documentaries. Among other projects, he worked on pieces for Voice of America.

In the late 90’s, he turned to conceptual work with the blind eye media project, which included the videos “Blind Heat” and “Exoptic Fields,” the latter reveals a brick wall with gradually changing colors. One conceit of the blind eye project was that it could cure the American public of its addiction to staring at screens (TV or computer) and encourage more intimate domestic activity. (The 45-minute time loop for “Blind Heat” was deliberately set at ten times the average duration of lovemaking, according to a study quoted by the filmmaker.) He created these works under the name of willy mal. More than a pseudonym, it represented a persona with a distinct biography – somewhat overlapping his own. For example, mal “lost an eye while covering the Pope’s visit to Chile,” and “joined a media-art collective of pirates and anarchists in Amsterdam.” He says: “the name willy was inspired by the nickname a friend gave me, derived from my middle name, and I chose ‘mal,’ because it looks like an distortion of ‘Wil,’ from Willy, and because it has a variety of other potential meanings – ‘bad’ in French, ‘time’ or ‘instance’ in German. In English it sounds like ‘mall,’ as in shopping mall.”

He came to Berlin five years ago following his life partner, a biochemist, who moved there for work. He subsequently relocated his studio from New York, setting up a new base for his art activities in Europe and in the U.S. In 2014, he showed the first version of the monument in question at the Kreuzberg Museum in Berlin, in an exhibit called “The Third Wall and Last Hero.” We will return to this below.

Among other activities over the years, he carried out his “research,” coming back again and again to the parks, interviewing drug dealers. He calls them “The Last Heroes,” partly to recognize the heroism in their readiness to take on this widely despised social role and its inherent dangers.

Aren’t you idealizing or romanticizing them?

“I don’t idealize them, but I see something heroic in their activities. Helping people gain more control over their minds – or less control, depending on your point of view – is a noble endeavor. But admiration isn’t the point here, and it’s certainly not about the dealers as individuals. I’m interested in examining this societal institution of public drug dealing.”

And what do you have to say about it?

“Let us say that drug dealers often take on the role of scapegoats in our societies. They have become figures that either excite pity – people say things like ‘they’re powerless… they can’t do anything else… that’s all they can do to support themselves...’ – or scorn, by personifying wicked and depraved characters who seek to ‘kill our children.’” He laughs: “Think about it – is there anyone else in our societies whose activities support behavior, like smoking cannabis, that are entirely acceptable to many reasonable people, yet at the same time are the focus of such venomous hostility?”

Have you had a chance to speak to actual dealers about the monument?

“Yes, several times over the years. I’ve gone to the parks at night, when things are calmer. It’s easier to hide our interaction and talk. There are usually no police around. It’s not easy to communicate, because I am not a customer. I simply want to talk. But I’m not a reporter either, though that’s how they sometimes treat me, delivering what appear to be canned stories made for the press, sometimes in hostile tones, about how if they had a choice, they would rather do something else.”

Do you personally think that they do this because they in fact have no choice, being forced by their status as immigrants?

“I don’t accept that. It may be true in a certain way, but there are many other things that they could do, even without legal permission to work. I believe that it’s their choice, and I say that out of respect for them. Actually, I think that there are worse things they could be doing. For example, illegally washing dishes at the back of a restaurant for a few euros an hour. That’s much worse than selling drugs in the park, walking around in the sunshine, being with friends and listening to music, don’t you agree?”

Have you shared your concept with them? And if so, how did they respond?

“I start by saying that in my opinion their work is heroic in many ways. I ask if they agree, and I ask who a hero would be for them, what heroism means. Their answers, the few I’ve got, range from apathy to confusion. Nothing concrete. Till now that’s as far as I’ve been able to get. The next phase will involve further interviews and other, more extensive research on these heroes.”

Holmquist is determined to keep interviewing the drug dealers, even though, from the outside, it appears he and the Pirate Party are not entirely on the same wavelength. He intends to continue researching the dealers in order to come up with a final design for the monument. But his purpose in erecting the monument is not only to memorialize an existing controversial social institution. Holmquist also wants it to stand as a memorial to the park drug dealers because he thinks that they will soon disappear completely. “One reason to erect a monument is to remember them and their activities after they’re gone. And I’m convinced that eventually they will be wiped out. No one really talks about this much now, but what is clear to me about Berlin is that the relationships between power, government and public spaces are becoming increasingly less flexible. In the few years I’ve been living here, the sharp increase in the business-value of public spaces and demand for private property has gone along with an increased desire for quiet and conventional public order. I feel that, in some ways, this city will become a less pleasant place for me.”

Meanwhile, it appears that the volume of drug dealing in the city is increasing. Lately, this business has expanded outside the parks. African drug dealers are now visible near the subway entrances and residences in the parks’ vicinity. Holmquist himself has also noticed this, but is not sure why. “During the five years that I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed changes in their distribution and rhythms of work, but I cannot explain these. Certainly, dealing appears to be increasing, perhaps for the simple reason that there are more people now visiting and moving to live in Berlin.”

There is no doubt that the dealers’ distribution habits are influenced by the city’s changes. With the rising popularity of the German capital as a place allowing one to live relatively inexpensively, it has become a bustling metropolis, an attractive hub for creative young people from all over the world. With time, the city has begun to be more alike other European capitals, like London or Paris, with regard to their capitalist norms and practices. In the debate that followed Holmquist’s proposal, it was argued, among other things, that the city is losing its well-known laid-back character, and is becoming like just any other European metropolis. In an article in “Deutsche Welle” last year, for example, under the headline “Is Berlin losing its toughness?” a journalist enumerated various lifestyle changes taking place in the city – from the need to make restaurant reservations to the restrictions on bringing pets to the city’s numerous swimming pools – including the fact that the large numbers of young people living in the city who used to “work on projects” on their laptops in coffeehouses, now have to find real jobs with decent wages.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that Berlin is following in the footsteps of Manhattan, which in the 1970s was a bubbling center of creative youth. In a few years, Berlin too will become clean, bourgeois and expensive. Will this ultimately mean that the city will be cleansed of its drug dealers? In the “Deutsche Welle” article, referred to above, it was pointed out that the increasing volume of the drug trade has forced the authorities to change their longstanding policies of ignoring the problem. Holmquist, for his part, feels that the direction of these policy changes is clear, making his wish to immortalize these “Last Heroes” of former Berlin more urgent.

Assuming that drugs will not disappear from the world, why will the dealers be forgotten?

“My guess is that their role will change. Right now, recreational drugs are becoming legal in one way or other, or in one place or another. I believe that with changes in the law regarding the use or distribution of drugs, the role of dealers will change too. They’ll be left to trade in increasingly dangerous drugs, inciting universal agreement that they should be wiped out.”

Bronze is preferable.

Although seemingly in rebellion against convention, Holmquist is actually acting in keeping with Berlin’s tradition of passion for monuments. “In Germany, and particularly in Berlin, monuments hold great importance, and huge amounts of interest and resources are invested in the idea of monumental recognition and memorial – how it should be done, and who is worthy of it,” he says. He makes it clear, however, that this process is surprising, full of opportunities – and that it embodies real battles. “For example, in 2014, I became aware of one such struggle initiated by the Pirate Party with the Mercedes Benz Company. The company headquarters had been moved to Berlin, and their new building’s construction required opening a new street; the company directors sought to name it after the wife of one of the company’s founders, or someone like that. A charming sort of tribute,” he laughs. “Opposing this, the Pirate Party submitted the name of a Jewish-Hungarian artist, Edith Kiss, who, during the Nazi regime, was a forced laborer in one of the Mercedes-Benz affiliates in Brandenburg. Finally, the Pirate Party’s proposal succeeded and the street was named after Kiss. Now, every day, directors of the company must pass her name on their way to work. That’s Berlin.”

Actually, this is not the first time that Holmquist proposed the idea of a monument to the African drug dealers. He staged the monument, or to be more precise, the empty pedestal of the monument, in 2014 in his show at the Kreuzberg Museum. There, Holmquist conceived a historic installation about Berlin in the year 2968, in the form of an archive constructed from newspapers cuttings and fragments of magazines, common items, architectural drawings and maps, urban posters and personal photographs. At some point in the history of Berlin, as he related it from a future perspective, the African-German population acquired great political power in Berlin, and erected a monument in memory of their forefathers, the African drug dealers. But the monument was destroyed during violent turmoil, and all that was left of it, 500 years later, was the empty pedestal. “That pedestal represented the monument to the last heroes,” says the artist.

The 2014 pedestal was the basis of the present monument proposal, but it appears that its true precursor is found even earlier in Holmquist’s work, in a series of five books created by hand in the years 2009–2014. The books, which also comprise photographs, fragments of newspapers, posters, documents, etc., suggest a historical record of a certain community – the cannabis growers in the hills around Garberville, California, about 200 miles north of San Francisco; and according to his definition, “the only location of successful insurgency – and incidentally a peaceful one – against the government of the United States in the 20th century.”

“Every insurgency against the reigning power is always described in terms of its differences with the prevailing ideas, and never in terms of its own ideas. This seems unavoidable. In order to get closer to the subjects’ soul, I set out to construct a monumental tribute on the terms of the insurgents’ own points of view,” he explains, giving the rationale for the creation of the books, and by extension a rationale for the Berlin monument.

Is there a line between art and activism?

“The answer is yes. In my view, activists organize, protest, and advocate to achieve specific political and social ends. Art works like mine, whose subjects touch high profile political and social topics are not ‘activist’ because, in my case anyway, even as I take sides, I am not engaging in organizing or protest. My work does not advocate one public policy or another.”

Let’s go back to the monument. What will it look like?

“It will be very traditional, in the sense that it will be figurative. That is to say, it will represent a group and not an individual, following the tradition of social realism.”

So nothing abstract?

“No, it has to be very literal. It will probably be cast in bronze.”

And what location do you envision for it?

“The most desirable spot for me would be in Victoria Park, where there is currently a monument, because of its geographical advantage.” He is referring to the Prussian war memorial dedicated to the victory of King Friedrich Wilhelm III in the Liberation Wars fought against France in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. Because of its prominent vantage over the city, it has become a magnet for tourists, and citizens who want to spend a sunny afternoon drinking beer with an expansive view, or for romantic couples dreaming over the urban landscape. “I have nothing against the existing monument. I really like it. It looks like an out-of-commission spaceship. Maybe the monument to the last heroes should be balanced on the spike at the top of its spire,” he adds with a smile.

Meanwhile it seems more reasonable to assume that the monument will have to clear the “spire” of a vote at the district council (The BVV. Berlin is divided into districts, each of which has its own town hall and council). Next month (October) the Pirate Party is supposed to bring this project to a vote, but even if everything goes well, it’s a long road from deliberation to Holmquist’s memorial. “If we succeed, it will go to the Department of Culture, which will put out requests for bids from designers and artists, and get their recommendations about the monument. After a juried selection process, a single proposal will emerge.”

Wait a second, why wouldn’t you be chosen? This is your idea.

“That’s the procedure, and it’s carried out with transparency. For at least the past hundred years in Berlin, it can’t be guaranteed that the artist or any other citizen proposing a monument will be the one carrying it out. I would regret not being selected, but that’s how it works here. In any case, even if my proposal is not accepted, I will install a monument as an exhibit in a park, and likely elsewhere, in late 2017. Maybe, in the end, there will be two monuments.”

What are the criteria for authorizing a monument – aesthetic, functional, or other?

“I suppose that the first criterion is political. The aesthetic or functional aspect contribute only secondarily. I wish I had a more precise answer,” he laughs.

And a look at Obama.

At this point in our conversation we passed by a young white man, fashionably dressed, smiling at a black man, who a moment earlier had gotten up from his bench and had gone over to him. They approached each other, exchanged what needed to be exchanged, and parted with a handshake. Then, the dealer rejoined his comrades and the white man walked away down the park path. “Look at that young man, he looks like such a normal person, a nice guy. That’s exactly my point: the men who do this ‘black work’ are those who absorb all the fear and shame. But we have no problem with the nice young man who purchased from them. This happens all over the West. Does this happen in Israel?”

In Israel, they wouldn’t allow such visibility. The fact that these young men are standing here, and it’s obvious to everyone what they’re doing – it wouldn’t happen in Israel.

“One thing is clear to me: if all the inhabitants near the park wanted the drug dealers out, they would disappear.” And after a moment, his voice expresses astonishment: “Actually, what did that guy (the dealer) do to harm society? Is he really a criminal? Or is he branded a criminal because of his position in the transaction, usually lower social class and minority race? All in a clumsy effort by society to exert undue control over individual behavior?”

As an American, he chooses to illustrate his argument with examples of his country’s most distinguished citizens, no less. “The fact that the last three presidents of the United States came in contact with drug dealers at some point in their lives (he bases this argument on the fact that Obama, W. Bush and Clinton admitted that they had smoked marijuana in their younger days, and Bush was known to have a predilection for cocaine) did not prevent them from being elected to the presidency. But if any one of them had acknowledged dealing drugs, he would never have had a chance. He would have been ruled out.”

What role do you designate for your monument?

“What is a monument, after all? For me it’s a ritual location. And in this case – the ritual of drug dealing, which is both sacred and profane; it also involves a kind of dance. In fact dance and musical performance, based on my research among dealers, from their recommendations, will also be staged for their entertainment and out of respect for them and their culture.”

But the ritual already exists. So who needs this monument?

“Ummmm….” He thinks for a moment, and answers: “If you’re asking me who needs any work of art, my answer is: nobody. We need water.” He smiles and waves the bottle in his hand.

Translated by Mark Perl

Edited by Catherine Adamidi

English Version

Original Hebrew