Based in Berlin: how to make Berlin work for you

As last year’s mildly controversial show of the same name demonstrated, “based in Berlin” is an art-world cliché now appended to many an artist’s CV. Relatively cheap living costs and the presence of numerous galleries make Berlin an attractive place to relocate, but what’s the reality of living there, and how can you make moving there work for you? Berlin-based artist Dominique Hurth reports.

A queue of 20 people, perhaps more, waiting for some space to be made in front of the doorframe of an 18m² room. A former office, with a small window, fake ceilings and carpet on the floor that has been partially covered by a sheet of plastic. I finally made a step in, to sign on a form with the usual details, and picked up two sheets of paper. The first indicating the price and the surface of that space, the other being an application form listing the several papers to add to the portfolio. A quick move within the space, as much as allowed by the elbows of the other people waiting, to then reach the staircase, to meet other applicants, some familiar faces, some smiles possibly exchanged, before heading to another viewing appointment, with again between 10 and sometimes 50 people applying for it.

This describes the viewing process for studios funded by the city of Berlin, promising cheap rent, infrastructure (such as a lift, possible storage spaces, kitchens or bathrooms), and contact with other artists, as the studios are often parts of larger studio complex. This procedure is lengthy, the application process hard to pursue, the applicants numerous, and the eventual choice of the lucky person who gets to work in those studios is based on need and financial situation. Let’s say that it is very difficult to get access to one of those working spaces. 

One would perhaps prefer to look for studios on the free market. As you would expect, rents vary from studio to studio, the quality of the spaces differs wildly, and there’s a general tendency for increasing rents. So, word of mouth, internal listings, or sublets remain the best options, while shared studios are the most economical solution. The latter are usually informally advertised, through a friends of friends of friends. It is now rare to find studio space in the kind of areas you may end up living in, although the districts of Wedding and Neukölln are still offering possibilities of Zwischennutzung (use of a commercial space for a limited amount of time, for instance former shops that have been empty for a while) and the rental of bigger vacant spaces, making the community of artists in both areas rather vibrant and centred around events such as openings, festivals (48 Stunden Neukölln, open studios (Kolonie Wedding), and so on. But it is also common for artists to work in the areas of Pankow or Schöneweide, where the rents remain relatively low. 

The professional association of visual artists Berlin (BBK) offers great facilities such as printing facilities, sculpture workshops, A/V equipment rental and editing rooms at excellent rates, with assistance provided. They also run workshops and seminars on artists’ social insurance (KSK), taxes, networks, copyright and so on, that are open to non-members. Their website is very informative and lists jobs, stipends, studios on the free market, making this organisation one of the most valuable for Berlin’s artists or anyone arriving here.

Through recent economic developments and gentrification processes, the city of Berlin has branded itself as a city in which many artists live and produce, but at the same time basic provisions such as affordable studios have diminished. The financial situation of most artists is much the same as many other new Berliners: despite the branding, there are limited jobs and low wages, and many paid positions are freelance rather than on secure contracts. Anyone planning to move to Berlin should allow a certain settling-in time, a time in which several spaces should be viewed, using artists’ networks, their listings, and their modes of self-organisation. It’s also strongly advised that newcomers are aware of the economic situation here and plan in advance how to support themselves.