Police Swarm the Volksbühne Theater in Berlin to Remove Anti-Gentrification Art Collective

The development marks the latest chapter in Chris Dercon's turbulent tenure.

MAURIZIO GAMBARINI/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions over the future of Berlin’s legendary Volksbühne theater came to a head today when police removed around 20 members of the art collective “From Dust to Glitter” from the building. The group had been occupying the theater since last Friday. Their goal, they said, was to recapture the venue’s freewheeling spirit and protect it from becoming increasingly corporate and exclusionary under its new director, Chris Dercon, the former director of Tate Modern in London.

The Department for Culture and Europe confirmed the occupation was over in a statement released late Thursday afternoon. “It is difficult to make such a decision,” Dercon said in a statement. “We have spoken with constantly changing representatives of the occupying group. We could not find a common path.”

He says the collective declined the culture department’s offer to search for an alternative space in the city to continue its protest and that regular rehearsals will resume at the Volksbühne tomorrow.

The protesters moved into the theater just under a week ago, unfurling a massive banner across the facade that read “DOCH KUNST” (loosely translated “art after all”). They said they planned to occupy the theater for three months and stage plays for the public free of charge. According to social media reports, the squatters have also spent time listening to music and making blueberry waffles. It was not immediately clear if they had any specific demands of Volksbühne leadership.

“In the 1990s, almost anarchic conditions prevailed in Berlin, but these did not diminish our quality of life. They were a condition for the development of cultural diversity,” the collective said in a statement last week.

On Saturday, more than 500 people swarmed the theater for the collective’s first “assembly,” bearing toilet paper, food, and drinks, the Local reported. (The building hit full capacity, and some visitors had to be turned away.)

Police taking position on the rooftop of the Volksbühne theater in Berlin. Photo courtesy Julieta Aranda.

In the days that followed, negotiations took place among the squatters, Dercon, and Cultural Senator Klaus Lederer, who hoped to de-escalate the protest and find a solution. The Volksbühne cheekily updated its website, saying, “We have visitors!” But the parties were unable to reach an agreement.

The situation took a dramatic turn this morning when the theater grounds were surrounded by around 200 police officers. They piled out of vans, approached the building, and took position on the roof, where the iconic “OST” (“east”) sign once glowed over former East Berlin.

Rumors flew over the next few hours before the police department and the Department of Culture and Europe held a joint press conference at noon. Officials confirmed that a complaint had been filed against the occupying group, resulting in their forced evacuation. Shortly after the press conference, bystanders observed and recorded police escorting people out of the theater’s back doors (away from the press that was standing out front). The evacuation was completed peacefully.

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, Chris Dercon and Berlin Culture Minister Tim Renner. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, Chris Dercon, and former Culture Secretary Tim Renner.
Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

The episode is the latest chapter in a tumultuous period for the so-called People’s Theater, which has become a flashpoint for debate over the gentrification and hyper-professionalization of the arts in Berlin. Founded in 1914, the venue has a long history of presenting radical, populist theater and is considered one of the city’s most significant cultural institutions.

Tensions began climbing when Dercon was appointed director of the theater over a year ago. Open letters and petitions in opposition to and in support of his appointment circulated. This summer, a petition asking officials to reopen the debate over the future of the theater garnered 40,000 signatures. The debate took an ugly turn when feces were anonymously left on Dercon’s door over two weeks in August. He told Deustche Welle that he was considering leaving Berlin as a result.

Nevertheless, the show must go on, and Dercon unveiled an art-inflected, star-filled program earlier this fall to relatively positive reviews from critics.

The main entrance to Berlin’s experimental Volksbühne theater is pictured on April 24, 2015. Its iconic monument was removed in June. Photo: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

This latest development promises to keep all eyes on the Volksbühne. Today, e-flux and the international artist coalition Hands Off Our Revolution published an open letter to Dercon encouraging him to engage with the protesters.

Dear Chris Dercon,

We understand that the situation around your appointment as the new Director of Volksbühne theater is complicated, and that the current atmosphere in regards to this matter makes rational discourse difficult. We are appalled that during the past months this situation escalated to the point of physical attacks against your person. Despite the fact that the occupation, which started last Friday, has so far been very peaceful, we are aware that many of the people who work at the theater do not support the occupation and have appealed to be allowed to continue their work.
But we are also extremely concerned that this morning, after your filing of a criminal complaint, the police was deployed to block the theater and to evict the artists, actors and others who were occupying it.
We would like to remind you that only a few years ago you were part of the jury of the European Cultural Foundation award which selected Teatro Valle Occupato as one of the laureates in 2013/14—an occupation that was precisely for the democratization of a cultural space.
We call on you as the Director of the theater to continue seeking a resolution of this conflict through dialogue and engagement with the cultural community.
Sincerely,

Hands Off Our Revolution & e-flux


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