Martin Reiter of Art House Tacheles interviewed by Rory MacLean
Early in 1990 – less than three months after the fall of the Wall – a group of artists called Künstlerinitiative Tacheles occupied a war-damaged building on Oranienburger Strasse in old East Berlin. The five-story ruin, which had served in its time as a department store, an SS headquarters and a propaganda cinema, was within weeks of demolition. But the artists proved that the building was structurally sound and demanded its preservation as an historical landmark.
Since then, over the last twenty years, the site has been occupied by the vibrant, noisy, defiant and innovative Tacheles co-operative (Tacheles is a Yiddish word meaning ‘plain, honest, straightforward talk’ and refers to the limited freedom of expression in former East Germany). At any one time as many as 60 artists from around the world are at work in its 30 studios: painting canvas, moulding clay, developing images, composing music, interpreting and distilling life.
Martin Reiter is an artist and activist who came to Tacheles in 1993. He had trained as a mechanical engineer but, growing up at the birth of the electronic age, he became fascinated by the relationship between man and machines, both mechanical and electronic. He began to build robots and then, under the influence of the Anarchism movement of the 1970s, destructive devices.
‘I took old, heavy machines from building sites. I turned them into something different, and in the process made the workers’ lives a little freer, forcing their bosses to buy them new, better machines.’
His first success came with The Uncontrollable Robot, a 350 kilogram, petrol-powered, plate tamper used to flatten newly-laid asphalt. Reiter added tripod legs to the machine, planning to send it on a road-surface-destroying journey across Bavaria.
‘But I loved the machine too much to set it free,’ he told me, pulling open his shirt to reveal a blue, spider-like tattoo of The Uncontrollable Robot on his shoulder. ‘Instead I travelled with it around Europe’s arts centres, giving performances.’
Then, like a belligerent Jean Tinguely, Reiter built the Coolant Hunter, a roaring, 400 kilo, industrial bore drill designed to jump off the ground and pierce car radiators.
‘The Berlin police were particularly intrigued by that one,’ he admitted with a smile.
Later, as nearby Friedrichstrasse was transformed by tourist hotels and offices blocks, he built a one-room, bunker-like, concrete shelter in Tacheles’ courtyard ‘to protect art and resist the march of development’.
Reiter shook back his long, wavy hair and laughed, revealing a large gap between his front teeth. Sown onto his sleeve was a fabric bomb-with-burning-fuse patch.
‘I can’t say I’m an artist, although that’s the label the press gives me. Intervention is what I do – nothing more, nothing less. It’s self-expression, and also a political act. That’s why I now spend much of my time fighting for Tacheles. I write letters in a so-called arty way, trying to influence our political and economic situation. My letters are like theatre pieces, which I perform on Berlin’s big stage.’
‘We are all caught in the machine,’ he went on. ‘Most people live their lives in a two-dimensional soap opera, sitting in front of TV, not asking questions. My role is to be a polemic weird-head, telling the world that there are different ways of living. For example, the less money I have, the freer I am.’
‘Remember: life is analogue because humans are too wet to be digital,’ Reiter concluded with feeling. ‘This is not a polemic. This is true. If we were digital we’d short-circuit.’
Tacheles is part war ruin, part artists’ colony, part anarchic wonderland, and wholly Berlin. Huge murals decorate its blitzed exterior walls. Steel sculptures advance from its doorways onto the street. Its stairwells are layered with two decades of graffiti. It’s home to a mellow, late night whisky bar, a café and a good cinema. Above all it is a seedbed of radical creativity, which can help to galvanise and shape tomorrow’s Berlin. But its future is under threat.
In 1998 the Fundus Gruppe – a large property developer which also owns Berlin’s exclusive Adlon Hotel – bought the Oranienburger Strasse site and won approval to build a €400 million luxury development. The economic crisis scuttled its plans, HSH Nordbank forced the project into receivership and the art house’s lease expired. Now despite the support of mayor Klaus Wowereit and 70,000 petitioners, and Tacheles’ importance for both Berlin’s cultural development and its image, the bank wants the building to be demolished. The monthly rent has been raised from 50 cents to €17,000 and HSH Nordbank refuse to discuss their decision in public.
‘I would like Tacheles to be a guerrilla movement,’ Reiter told me. ‘But it’s a bastion. We’re under siege. Only the rules have been flipped here. The rebels are on the inside. I look forward to the day when bankers and lawyers stand on the pavement, waving placards and shouting “Artists out!”’
He laughed and added, ‘The bank operates as if there’s only one set of rules in the world. They can’t handle the idea that Tacheles is not interested in making a profit. We simply want to remain an independent, public art house, providing working space for artists. We don’t work according to their rules. We’ll force them to play by our rules.’