PRESS / taz

“Dealer as Person”
by Raphael Piotrowski

original title: Der Dealer als Mensch
appeared in the taz, November 21, 2017

In Berlin-Kreuzberg comes a new exhibition about dealers in Görlitzer park. Even before the opening there is already controversy. Will drug dealing be glorified in the show?

caption: Photos of the homelands of the dealers try to open up new perspectives to the visitors.

Upon entering the exhibition space the view is immediately of brown cardboard figures, that split up the room, and look like human silhouettes. On the left, a series of installation boards are strung together, saturated with innumerable printed out magazine articles. With a closer look, it becomes clear what these have to do with the exhibition: every article is concerned with the notorious center of Berlin’s drug trafficking scene – Görlitzer Park in Kreuzberg. Hotly contested both ideologically and morally, it has commanded the headlines of the press for the last few years, and not only in the capital.

The exhibition of French-American artist Scott Holmquist, Other Homelands – Origins and Migration Routes of Berlin Park Drug Sellers, which opens Tuesday 11/21/2017, has set the goal of offering another perspective on the controversial topic – and started doing so before the opening. An announcement of the exhibition from the museum caused uproar.

Before the backdrop of the eternal contradictions surrounding local drug politics and strong opposition, “drug sellers work fearlessly and bravely in public space”, the announcement said. At the end of October, when the artist was still in the middle of preparations, Bild reported in characteristically sensational fashion, “It could only happen in Berlin: Museum celebrates drug dealers”. In that same article the politician Burkhard Dregger, spokesperson of internal affairs for the parliamentary fraction of the CDU, castigated the exhibition – which of course, he hadn’t seen – as “an expression of complete depravity”.

And that wasn’t all: at the beginning of November the CDU fraction of the district assembly of FriedrichshainKreuzberg also brought up the exhibition. Considering that the Kreuzberg Museum is a district-owned space, they demanded the complete cancellation of the exhibition. And when that proposal was denied, the AfD jumped on to the outrage train.

The Dealer – a societally-shared hate figure?

Thus far it hasn’t really been about the exhibition itself, lamented Stéphane Bauer, director of the district’s culture department, at the press conference a few days before the exhibition opening. Because the museum received a deluge of press questions, and in order to ease the pressure brought on by the Springer-Press, they had decided to have this press event in advance.

In the never-ending discussion on Görlitzer Park there is often a sole focus on the “dealing Africans”, Bauer continued – they have become a societally-shared hate figure. The exhibition creators, Berlin-based artist Scott Holmquist and his studio, recognize postcolonial abstractions that manifest themselves in racist hostilities within this – so claims the controversial text.

An glaring example? Underneath the approximately 400 newspaper articles posted, which take up seven presentation binders, there is statement from a right-wing populist internet site with the headline “The N* in his natural habitat: Görlitzer Park”. Holmquist vaguely explains the criticized sentence, which comes from a text composed by him: for him, drug dealers embody a societal function. “It depends on how the society interacts with them.”

As the conflict around Görli intensified in 2015, Holmquist began leading interviews there and in the equally notorious dealer paradise of Hasenheide. Often accompanied by the Gambian journalist and refugee activist, Moro Yapha, he spoke to barely 160 people, who were obviously selling drugs. Many kept their distance, but nevertheless many interviews were conducted.

The other side of the silhouette

Thus developed the concept of the cardboard figures standing in the center of the exhibition, which each anonymously tell the story of one of these people, who, here in Berlin, are perceived only as drug dealers. Information about their places of origin illustrate the material circumstances of their hometowns. A third component of the exhibition is a simulated travel portal, in which visitors can see how simple migration routes for Europeans in the reverse direction can be – often via a direct flight, and frequently with a stopover in Paris.

When one walks around to the other side of the silhouettes – which present an empty surface to the room’s entrance, thus provoking interest in the other side of these anonymous people – a series of colorful photos meet the eye. They show street scenes of African cities and villages, as well as satellite images. A text written in the mother tongue of the interviewee describes the pictured environment and its translations are available on the floor and can be taken away by the visitor.

Also pictured on each exhibition panel is a map showing the migration route of the person. Here too, Holmquist plays with his intended perspective shift, and in doing so surprises the viewer: Instead of from south to north, the route here goes from west to east – the map is rotated by 90 degrees. Because the exhibition is already a political issue, politics are also present at the press conference.

“Art lives from freedom. It should provoke.”

The Green Party culture city councilwoman Clara Herrmann makes it clear from the start, “the exhibition is neither about the glorification of drugs nor their selling”. She strongly backs the show: “The district needs art that addresses subjects that will get the neighborhood moving and encourage thought. Art lives from freedom, it should provoke, and sometimes even irritate.”

While the exhibition only partially lives up to the lofty demands of its title, it has at least met this one artistic goal: it irritates, it provokes – not only politicians, but also many journalists, for whom the press conference centered once again on this single easy target sentence about the “fearless and brave” dealers.

When the exhibition celebrates its opening on Tuesday 11/21/2017, it will widen the discussion around the topic of drug dealing in and around Görlitzer Park. However it also remains in a gray area, as the visitors will learn very little about the anonymous dealers. This may be due to potential professional risks for the artists, and their anticipatory caution not to intrude too deeply into their privacy. However, the title creates expectations that visitors would learn more about the dealers as people.

Original in GERMAN