Don't Worry, Be Happy

Report on BerlinBeta 2001, the Festival for Digital Media, Business and Culture.
August 31 - September 5, 2001

From the point of view of a Londoner in Berlin, the first week of September 2001 was littered with curious events: the German football team lost 5-1 to England, at home! Chancellor Gerhard Schröder responded to comments on his country's "lack of dynamism" by Andrew Gowers, the outgoing editor of Financial Times Deutschland (FT, international edition, September 2, 2001). And BerlinBeta, a festival celebrating the union of business and culture, was in full swing.

According to its own publicity, BerlinBeta version 2001: Festival for Digital Media, Business and Culture provided politicians, economists and creatives with "a collective platform on which to build and.... look optimistically towards the future." (Convergence and Content, foreward to BerlinBeta programme, 2001).

The future was laid out in four zones: Digital Business & Finance (covering investment and venture capital; curated by Stephan Balzer), Digital Entertainment (music, film and the internet, curated by Andreas Dohler, Gregor Sedlag, Uli M. Schuppel, Marc Wohlrabe), Urban Drift (architecture and interdisciplinary practice, curated by Francesac Ferguson) and Design Upgrade (covering cultural and creative entrepreneurship; curated by Francesca Ferguson and David Linderman).

In addition to the conference, 'participants' could take in a BerlinBeta film, check out the BerlinBeta club scene and, as the organisers claimed, be integrated "more strongly into the cultural and economic affairs of the city."

Interestingly, we've not seen anything quite like this in London (which, let's face it, has been a test-site for some of these ideas), and certainly nothing approaching the ideological cohesion and evangelical zeal of BerlinBeta. Of course, we've heard the rhetoric - even been given a catastrophic glimpse of a future in which market forces have been unleashed at all levels and on all fronts - but never in the shape of a grand scheme for culture. For those of us who have witnessed the subtle, hidden, and often chaotic course of neoliberalism through UK institutions, BerlinBeta offered a rare opportunity to see some of its main exponents in action.

Philip Dodd, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, opened the conference with his keynote for the Design-Upgrade section, a sermon on cultural entrepreneurship: 'Beyond Culture and Commerce, the New Cultural Economy.' As the principle architect of The Club, an invite only networking organisation for representatives from the creative industries and business sector, Dodd's presentation was of great interest. According to its members, The Club has been at the forefront of the culture-commerce revolution, while to many others it remains one of the most insidious, undemocratic and politically suspect cultural organisations in London. This debate was largely sidelined as Dodd summed up his glorious revolution as "the moment that some of us wished for" and a "genuine paradigm shift" that had collapsed the distinctions between culture-commerce, public-private and liberated creativity and cultural production from the chains of state funding.

An interesting question (answered in part, by the very existence of BerlinBeta) might be - who or what will be the ultimate guarantor and custodian of this new 'freedom' and 'autonomy' from the state? On this point Dodd's emphatic comments left little doubt: "Corporations have always been close to culture.... Business has always defined culture.... And now business is having to think culturally."

The difficulty here is that it's not simply a case of identifying the interests and motivation of business (this is relatively straightforward) but monitoring the levels, degrees and procedures of state withdrawal from the public sector. The present conjuncture of culture, commerce and the state has contributed to a crisis of authority and sovereignty in all institutions - particularly in the public sector where, until only very recently, a degree of state protection from market forces was guaranteed. We can, for example, see this process unfolding in Denmark, where the Ministries of Culture and Trade recently announced the establishment of the NyK network to co-ordinate cultural-corporate projects. With an initial budget of 3m Kroner, the network will support "creativity through the meeting of culture and business" under the expert guidance of Copenhagen Eventures and the professional services firm Deloitte & Touche. In the Nordic region this initiative signals the end of the freedom and autonony of other publicly funded bodies like Danish Contemporary Arts and the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Arts. It certainly indicates that Business interests (and expertise) are now being brought into the cultural equation - with potentially disastrous consequences for public culture. For those looking to test-bed London for inspiration, the steady infiltration of the Arts Council of England by the theory and practices of PricewaterhouseCoopers should provide a good illustration of the one way street that this expert guidance constructs. Rather than the exchange of values which Dodd's model infers, we can see the conspicuous dependence of an agency responsible for supporting public culture on a business consultancy whose professional and ethical values are shaped first and foremost by the market.

The ideological framework for corporate entry into the public sector was laid out in the 1999 Blair/Schröder manifesto, "Europe: The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte". This formed the basis of a co-ordinated UK/German drive to introduce market forces into all levels of society and significantly transform the role of the state - "the essential function of markets must be complemented and improved by political action, not hampered by it". (The Third Way/Die Neue Mitte, delivered by Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Labour Party in London on June 8, 1999). It goes on to describe entrepreneurs as key players in the essential transition from 'old' to 'new' economy and hilariously states that "we want a society which celebrates successful entrepreneurs just as it does artists and footballers." The organisers of BerlinBeta (Stephan Balzer, Marc Wohlrabe and Tom Werner) would concur and even Siemens is now in on the act with their 2002 Kulturprogram exhibition, "Art & Economy", where participating artists have been asked to focus on issues such as economy, entrepreneurship and commercialism. (

It's difficult to work out why a debate that has been hard to locate in London has become transparent elsewhere in Europe. Ultimately, BerlinBeta only starts to make sense after a crash course in economics and German government policy. What appears to be going on is a blatant attempt to set up a venture capitalist and entrepreneurial staging-post within the very fabric of Berlin cultural life. This can be seen in the introduction to the club events, where the venues begin to sound like business incubators: "This ability to innovate is a central part of these small unconventional spaces. Spaces in which new tendencies can be produced, tested and developed further." (Marc Wohlrabe and Mark McGuire, foreward to BerlinBeta Club Events, 2001).

But is there really a direct correlation between the interests of venture capitalism and, for example, the club scene in Berlin? Can we imagine 3i, the global venture capital company (represented at BerlinBeta), buying into the Roter Salon and its 'friendly capitalism lounge'? After 3i's recent purchase of a large stake in London' s Ministry of Sound, why would this be such a big surprise?

In the case of Berlin we may need to look elsewhere to pinpoint the movement and destination of capital. Interestingly, Germany has only recently become a target for venture capitalists, due in part to the establishment of the technology stock exchange, the Neue Markt in 1997. Although the current number of venture capital companies operating in the "VC desert of Europe" has risen dramatically from 20 in 1997 to more than 250 in 2001, the market reality for many is bleak. A recent article in the Financial Times suggested that over the next two years, up to one third of current players will exit the market as a direct result of the collapse of the internet sector and fears over the introduction of new taxes (John Blau. FT, October 3, 2001). For those companies and entrepreneurs that remain, the question must be - where next?

Goodbye to Berlin

Anthony Davies, October 2001.

First published in Text zur Kunste, December 2001