Category: berlin

  • a journey through time

    a journey through time

    Lightfast for 100 years. Failing some DNA-rejuvenating nanotechnology or interstellar round trip at lightspeed, the strip of photos would outlive us by several decades.

    “Imagine if, in 2121, one of our great grandchildren inherits an old box of our possessions and finds this photostrip inside. And their parents tell them, “this was your great grandfather, or grandmother, one hundred years ago in Berlin.”

    I heard a giant screech and a huge red train swept across the railway bridge over the street we were currently on.

    “I’ve always thought that would be weird. I mean, we’re living in the past right now, from their perspective at least. Imagine them in the future talking about us. Like, “I can’t believe people used to travel by train.” That kind of thing.

    Susana laughed. “How do you think people will get around a hundred years from now?”

    “I don’t know, flying cars I guess? It just seems crazy to think about this futuristic city seeming outdated and old. You know?”

    I tried to really visualise what it would be like looking back at this era. It was of course way beyond my comprehension.

    “Anyway, time to send ourselves to the future! Do you have two fifties?”

    Susana rummaged around her purse and dropped two fifties into my hand, joining the 2-euro coin that was already waiting patiently in my palm.

    “We need a concept,” I said, quoting the wisdom of one of my photographic accomplices the first time I set foot in a Photoautomat six lightyears ago. I wonder where those photos are now.

    “A concept?”

    “Yeah, you know, like… ‘happy, sad, surprised, angry’ or ‘awake, bored, yawning, asleep’. That kind of thing.”

    “I see! Well I have some accessories. This hair thing. Some sunglasses. What do you have?”

    “I have sunglasses too. And a mask obviously.”

    “Nooo… you can’t wear that. We don’t want people in the future being reminded of the pandemic.”

    “Hmm… good point. Hey, we could use my reading tablet.”

    I unlocked the screen and adjusted the font size to 99. Swiping through, I found a suitably cryptic phrase: MACHINE. HOW CAN ANYONE KNOW SUCH AN IDENTIFICATION?

    It didn’t really mean anything, but it fit the retrofuturistic aesthetic.

    “Ok, great! Let’s go in!”

    We crammed into the booth and set the worn metal stool spinning around and around, unsure after thirty turns whether it had adjusted the height or not. Whatever.

    Close the curtain. Coins in. Sit down. Adjust hair.

    FLASH!

    “Fuck I wasn’t ready!”

    “Oh god, me neither—quick put the sunglasses on!!”

    I threw them onto my nose and even had a second to spare to touch the reading tablet in case it fell asleep mid-exposure.

    FLASH!

    Hold up the tablet. Wait, shit – Susana has removed her sunglasses this time. I can’t have sunglasses on in two photos in a row. In a flash of improvisation, I slid them down my nose a few centimetres to create intrigue.

    FLASH!

    “What’s our concept again?”

    “We forgot to come up with one!”

    Shock horror. Susana screamed. I placed my hands on her face from behind and screamed too. That ought to do it.

    FLASH!

    Relief washed over us; our minute of stress was fixed in time forever. Already on its journey to 100 years in the future at the precise speed of one hour per hour. We pulled back the curtain, and light and air streamed into the booth. Now for the boring part. Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. It was a famous quote about what it was like being in a World War One trench – one hundred years ago. It applied equally to this photographic experience, albeit to a much lesser degree.

    There was a small engraving beside the slot: Photo development in five minutes.

    Five minutes was a long time when you were waiting. I crouched down and made myself comfortable on a breeze block, taking in the tangle of bikes and Sunday passersby at eye level. It was getting to the part of the year where you could reasonably describe it as cold. All the leaves were orange, but whether it was autumn or already just winter was more a matter of semantics. The sun was just readying itself for its dramatic and disgustingly early disappearance after the clocks went back for daylight wasting time. It’s just the sun’s way of making sure we appreciate her in summer. She does it because she loves us, I tell myself every year.

    “Did we look at the time?”

    “Hmm… no. I think it’s been about two minutes so far,” I answered.

    “Time really crawls when you count every second,” noted Susana.

    “Hmm… yeah. It’s like being a child again.”

    “Exactly. Remember all those endless school days? A school year felt like an entire lifetime! It kinda makes sense though. I mean, imagine you’re seven. Another seven years brings you to fourteen. That represents a doubling of your lifetime. Whereas it would take over a quarter of a century to double our lives.”

    A quarter of a century. So a seven-year-old’s school experience from seven to fourteen seems like what twenty-five years seem like to me. Sounds about right, if a little terrifying.

    My gaze returned to the slot.

    “It’s definitely been five minutes. I hope it’s not broken.”

    “Well… there were some people here before us and their photos still haven’t appeared yet,” said Susana.

    “I’m sure they’ll be there any moment now,” I answered, trying to reassure myself more than her. “I was thinking the other day. You know when you’re on the right street but at the wrong house number? You have to walk in a big straight line along the street. Well, waiting is kind of like that, except instead of being in the wrong place in one of the spatial dimensions, you’ve got all the coordinates correct. It’s the time dimension that’s wrong. So the act of waiting is like moving in a straight line through time. Just like walking up a long street to get to the right number.”

    “Wow… That’s really cool! I’ve never thought of it like that before.”

    “If you want to meet up with someone in the world, both things have to be correct – space and time. Otherwise you’ll miss each other. Perhaps by metres, perhaps by minutes.”

    “Do you think the photos are in the wrong space or the wrong time?” Susana asked.

    “Hmm… good question!” I said, pressing my ear against the machine. There was a definite hum. “I’d say a bit of both. Although, the machine is definitely doing something.”

    “It might just be like, the background workings. The lights and stuff. Maybe it’s run out of paper. I can’t imagine they check them very often.”

    “Hmm yeah… maybe,” I said. “Hey look, there’s a service number here! Should I call it?”

    “Yeah, why not?”

    “Do you have German minutes?”

    “Nope.”

    “Ha. Me neither. Their plans are so expensive. Ok never mind, I’ll dial it anyway. Oh, one, six, five…” I dialed the number with very low expectations. “It’s Sunday at 17:00, though. I can’t imagine anyone’s just sitting there waiting for our call––Oh! It’s ringing!” The phone rang. I turned on the speakerphone.

    “Hallo?”

    Oh, I thought. It must be the wrong number.

    “Err… Hi. We’re trying to use the photobooth on Holzmarktstraße. We’ve waited ages and the photos haven’t appeared. It’s eaten our money.”

    “Ah… sorry about that,” he replied.

    I could hear people talking and laughing in the background. Not a huge number of people – probably around four to seven. It sounded like a casual Sunday gathering in somebody’s flat.

    “I had a few people call earlier but then the calls stopped.”


    Ok, so that means the machine might be working intermittently. Still, surely this was a joke and the other guy was just going along with what I was saying. I mean, fair enough. What else are you going to do on a Sunday afternoon?

    “Listen, just email me your IBAN number and I’ll refund the money, okay?”

    No way, I thought. He’d really do that?

    “Wow! I mean… yeah… that would be great! Maybe you could put a sign up too so people know this one’s out of order? Or replace the film roll, or whatever.”

    “Yeah, I’ll do that too. Thanks for letting me know.”

    “No worries. Thanks for your help! Bye.” I hung up the phone, unsure whether to believe the brief exchange that had just taken place.

    I didn’t feel as bad about losing the coins now. At least we had a funny story, and there was now a real chance we would get the money back. We left the scene, finally accepting that our pictures had been lost forever. It didn’t really matter though; we are losing moments all the time. Every second is one you will never see again. But they get replaced by new moments almost immediately, so it’s okay in the end.

    Just as the experience had escaped our realm of immediate concern, something captured Susana’s attention while we were crossing the street.

    “There’s another Photoautomat over there!”

    Was this our lucky day, or merely another chapter of our misfortune?

    “Hmm look, the sample pictures on this one are different. The people are different,” she said. “Maybe one day our lost photos will appear on the other one.”

    “Maybe it’s even intentional,” I said. “Perhaps the machine holds back every hundredth strip. That might be where they get the sample images from. It would make them look more authentic. In fact they wouldn’t just look more authentic – they would actually be authentic.”

    “Ok, let’s do it. I’ll get the tablet ready again. Do you have any coins?”

    “I still have a few, yeah.”

    I sat down on the stool and looked at the instructions. “It takes tens, twenties… anything really.”

    “Perfect!”

    Susana joined me and closed the curtain. This time we felt slightly more prepared. What’s more, we had a concept – recreating the lost photos. The inside of the booth was identical to the other one. That’s the thing about photo booths. You can never be quite sure where you will be when you open the curtain and return to the real world.

    We put the coins into the machine and immediately noticed a red digital display indicating how much we had put in. This was missing from the previous one, and gave us confidence that it would work this time.

    Ok. We wouldn’t be caught by surprise this time.

    Normal and serious.

    FLASH!

    Sunglasses on.

    FLASH!

    Hold up the tablet. Oh no! I’ve done it again. The sunglasses are still on. Better quickly slide them down my nose. Just like last time. Perfect.

    FLASH!

    Now time for the scream. Hands over face. It was something like this I think?

    FLASH!

    Thank god. All the poses were a fair simulacrum of the originals. Except for the first one of course: When the very first flash went off, we had no idea what position we were in due to our total lack of readiness.

    “Ok now start the timer!”

    I started the timer on my digital watch, checking back from time to time as it counted forwards in a straight line. This time, the five minutes went by quickly. Even waiting twenty minutes to get those pictures would have seemed like a good deal after being deprived of them the first time.

    A few groups of people passed us on the way out of the club area in front of which the photobooth was located.

    “You know, time travel is actually possible, but only forwards.”

    “Go on…”

    “Well, if you could travel in a spaceship at close to the speed of light, and you traveled five light years away from the Earth, and then five light years back, you’d be right back here again. For you, the trip would only take a few hours, but when you got back, it would be 2031. You wouldn’t even have to eat. Imagine that. You could be back here in ten years’ time, having not eaten the entire time, yet be totally healthy and not a day older. And it’s not even science fiction. It’s not even debated anymore in the scientific community.”

    “I can’t get my head around that.”

    “No one can,” I replied, “but we know that’s what happens.”

    Susana started unlocking her bike.

    “I’ll get my bike ready to save time,” she said.

    That’s a funny phrase, ‘save time’. What would happen to the saved time exactly. Where would it go?

    I looked at my watch as the final few seconds counted down.

    Six, five, four, three, two, one.

    Almost as if by magic, the strip of photos dropped down into the slot, dead on time.

    “Oh my god, it’s so punctual!” exclaimed Susana.

    It really was. It must be on a timer; there’s no way developing these photos just happens to take exactly five minutes.

    We looked at the photos.

    And they were magnificent.

    Worth every second of turmoil.

    “I’m reading this book at the moment. It talks about our emotional reaction to things:

    “We find a Photoautomat – excited.

    “It takes ages to develop the photos – impatient.

    “We find out it ate our money – angry.

    “We realise the photos are gone forever – disappointed.

    “We have a phone call with a stranger – amused.

    “He tells us the money can be refunded – relieved.

    “We find another one – hopeful.

    “It works this time – grateful.”

    “Exactly. It’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? We actually have more to show for our efforts than we would have had, had it worked properly the first time.”

    “Indeed. You can never tell whether something is truly good or bad until you have all the information. Sometimes the reference frame changes. You might miss a train and meet the love of your life, or leave something behind and have to go back for it, only to narrowly avoid getting hit by a bus. So we shouldn’t take those moments too seriously. There is no such thing as loss. It’s just a story we tell ourselves.”

    When I got home, I wrote an email to the stranger on the phone:

    Dear Photoautomat Guy,

    We spoke earlier on the phone when the Photoautomat on Holzmarktstraße gobbled our money. I would be most grateful to receive the promised refund. We later found the booth around the corner and the photos turned out superrrr.

    My IBAN is: XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX.

    Black and white regards,

    Richard

    Five minutes later, my phone pinged, and almost as if by magic, the three euros dropped into my account.

  • concrete & cellulose

    concrete & cellulose

    A photography project from 2015.

    Concrete and cellulose describes nature’s confrontation with a man-made environment. An environment for which nature has no plan. It is a plant pressing against glass. It is a tendril grasping at steel. It is a tree growing from a crevice in a wall. A root cracking a paving slab.

    After millions of years, mankind is nature’s first true opponent. We manipulate physics and chemistry, enslaving its laws to effect our own will. Steel, glass and concrete collide to trounce nature, shaping our ideal urban environment. Maximising space and silencing the natural order.

    Plants are too unpredictable for our perfect world. We suffocate all traces of unwanted verdure, layers of black tarmac and grids of concrete slabs entombing them below. But biology knows no enemy. It does not discriminate. Whilst mankind must consider its every move, agonising over each action, biology continues unfalteringly. Simple rules resulting in complexity. A primordial pattern, unconscious and automatic, repeating the same abstraction in endless instantiations.

    Nanometre by nanometre, second by second, it creeps onward. It is relenting. Blind. It has no plan for glass and concrete. But it does not need one. Glass cracks and concrete crumbles, but verdure is immutable. Mankind will waver. Cellulose will always triumph over concrete.

  • alexanderplatz

    alexanderplatz

    This is a translation of an extract from German author Annett Gröschner’s novel Walpurgistag which I did in 2015, and which was awarded first place in a translation competition organised by the DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst).

    It’s the translation I enjoyed doing the most and am most happy with.

    Original

    Der Alexanderplatz ist ein Kältepol. Nur Herumlaufen wärmt. Schon zehnmal habe ich den Weg vom Brunnen bis zur Weltzeituhr zurückgelegt. Ich weiß jetzt, wie spät es in Phnom Penh ist und welche Zeit die Armbanduhren der Moskauer anzeigen.

    Mich befällt der Wunsch, in das Zeitgefüge der Welt einzugreifen. Mit großer Geste die Planeten anzuhalten oder die Uhren um einen Tag vorzustellen. Vielleicht würde ich mich daran aufwärmen können. Den ganzen Winter über habe ich nicht so gefroren wie heute Nacht. Also wieder von vorn. Der Weg ist das Ziel, der Weg ist ein Spiel. Ich achte dieses Mal streng darauf, beim Gehen nicht auf die Ritzen der Gehwegplatten zu treten. Und suche dabei nach Sätzen, die rhythmisch zu meinen Schritten passen. Lie-ber A-lex-an-der-platz, schenk mir ei-nen gu-ten Satz. Der Alexanderplatz schweigt. Ich blicke mich um und finde »Richtig leben. Ab jetzt können Sie es!« am Schaufenster der Sparkasse. Richtig leben. Ausgerechnet die müssen mir das sagen. Dieser Satz lässt sich nicht gut erlaufen. Zwischen »Leben« und »Jetzt« stockt der Schritt. Wahrscheinlich sehe ich bei diesem Satz aus wie ein Storch, der durch den Salat stakst.

    Ich probiere es mit: Mo-na-den ha-ben kei-ne Fens-ter. Ich weiß nicht, warum ich beim Wort Monade automatisch den Alexanderplatz sehe, egal, wo ich bin. Und zwar den von 1986. Blick von der Selbstbedienungsgaststätte im Sockelgeschoss des Interhotels Stadt Berlin in Richtung Alexanderhaus, noch mit den gestreiften Markisen über den Fenstern des Berliner Kaffeehauses, das schon lange nicht mehr existiert.

    Kurz vor der Weltzeituhr machen die Gehwegplatten schwarzen Basaltkatzenköpfen Platz. Der gepflasterte Kreis um die Uhr ist drei Männerschritte breit und beim besten Willen nicht mit einem Satz zu überspringen, nicht einmal mit Anlauf. Ich bräuchte jemanden, der mich durch das Basaltmeer bis zum kreisrunden Mosaikboden unter der Weltzeituhr trägt. Aber es ist kein Mensch in der Nähe, nur hinten am Eingang des Kaufhauses am anderen Ende des Platzes sitzen ein paar Punks mit ihren Hunden. Aber auch wenn sie in meiner Nähe wären, würden sie mir wohl den Vogel zeigen.

    Translation

    Alexanderplatz is a centre of cold. Wandering around is the only thing that will keep you warm. I’ve covered the route from the fountain to the Weltzeituhr clock ten times already. I now know what time it is in Phnom Penh and the time displayed on the wristwatches of the citizens of Moscow.

    I am overcome with a desire to interfere with the fabric of the world’s time. Bringing the planets to a standstill with one grand gesture and setting the clocks forward by a day. Maybe that would warm me up. I haven’t felt cold like tonight all winter. Back to the beginning, then. The goal is the way, a journey to play. This time I make a concerted effort not to step on the gaps between the paving slabs. I try to come up with phrases with syllables that match my paces. Dear-est A-lex-an-der-platz, give me a phrase my footsteps match. Alexanderplatz remains silent. I look around and see ‘Live right! From now on, you can achieve anything!’ on the window of the Sparkasse bank. Live right. Trust them to be the ones to tell me that. This is not a good phrase to walk to. My paces get out of sync between ‘can’ and ‘achieve.’ I probably look like a stork wading through pond weed when I try this one.

    I try ‘mo-nads have no win-dows.’ I don’t know why, but the word monad always makes me think of Alexanderplatz. Specifically, how it was in 1986. The view from the self-service restaurant at the base of the Stadt Berlin Interhotel towards the Alexanderhaus, with the striped awnings still shielding the windows of the Berliner Kaffeehaus, which ceased to exist long ago.

    Just in front of the Weltzeituhr clock, the paving slabs make way for black basalt cobblestones. The paved circle at the base of the clock would take a man three strides to cross. You wouldn’t be able to jump over it in one go no matter how hard you tried, not even with a run-up. I’d need somebody to carry me across the sea of basalt to the circular moasic underneath the Weltzeituhr. But there’s nobody around, save for a few punks at the entrance of the shopping centre on the other side of the square, sitting with their dogs. Even if they were nearby, I’m sure they wouldn’t even give me the time of day.

  • berlin

    berlin

    Berlin is a city which covers far too large an area for its population. It is nested in forest and surrounded by irregularly shaped lakes in unusually boring and desolate surroundings. There is nothing of note for hundreds of kilometres in every direction.

    Berlin follows a roughly concentric pattern cut by huge, tree-lined boulevards. Its side streets form small, grid-based sectors of a mostly residential nature. Since the city was indiscriminately obliterated, there is a random mix of old, Soviet and modern architecture.

    The television tower in the centre of the city is its blinking heart and soul. It is a concrete spire crowned by a sphere of glass which looks down on the city like an omnipotent eye. It can be used as an aid to estimate distance from the central district, but not orientation, as it appears the same from every direction. It is visible from millions of places in the city. From rooms, streets, parks and trains. It characterises every view and reminds the viewer where he is. Berlin would be incomplete without it.

    Almost every apartment window in the city is the same size and shape. Each one is divided into four parts, with the bottom two sections making up two thirds of the window’s total area. One almost gets the impression it was an intentional ode to the Christian cross. In Berlin, the buildings look dilapidated and are often covered in graffiti. You might be mistaken and think certain areas are dangerous, but they are not. In Berlin there is no correlation of any statistical significance between graffiti density and safety. The insides of the buildings are renovated and everything works properly. The ceilings are high and the rooms airy. In fact, the whole city runs smoothly despite being dirty. In Berlin the streets are dirty in a clean way. Controlled chaos, is the overall impression.

    The sidewalks are much wider than necessary and most of them have trees. They are paved with large concrete slabs, except for at the base of buildings, where they are paved with small cuboid stones, called setts, and at the entranceway to internal courtyards (which every building has), where they are paved with normal-sized cobblestones. This is significant, for this pattern repeats across almost the entire city, especially in the Eastern districts.

    Journeys by foot are usually languid. Rushing would be futile, since the distances covered are vast. This is compounded by the buildings and sidewalks being slightly larger than usual, giving the impression of very slow urban movement, even when travelling by bike. This effect is most noticeable in Soviet-influenced areas. Public transport serves longer journeys, and consists of various modes of transport depending on the transit distance required – bus, tram, underground trains, overground trains and regional trains. Each is balanced in terms of distance and speed in such a way that almost every door-to-door journey seems to take the same amount of time – around 30 minutes.

    In summer, people sit with their friends and drink in parks on patchy grass under sun that’s unusually blaring for a city so far north. People frequent openair techno parties and gaze across the Spree until the light returns after its brief nocturnal absence. Summer is short and sweet and therefore lends itself to outdoor hedonism. Once the last person has begun to take the hot days for granted, they come to an end, and winter draws in. In winter, the city’s inhabitants hide indoors, occasionally venturing outside if there is a pressing need to do so. Thick coats barely hold back the frost which seems to originate from the icy concrete itself. In spring, just as they are forgetting why they live there, the warmth returns, the trees shoot their first buds, and the city awakens from its arctic slumber. Colour returns, facial expressions relax, and people voluntarily while away their time outside once more.