How does an artist, critic or curator deal with the purported evil of gentrification? With great difficulty, of course, for each has long played an ambiguous yet no less instrumental role in this hotly contested process. This is especially true in Berlin, a city forever grappling with the lingering legacy of its past (as a hotbed of countercultural activity, particularly its squatting scene) and the unfulfilled promise of its future (as Europe’s premier new art capital and a global hub of the creative economy). ‘Black Sound White Cube’, an exhibition at Kunstquartier Bethanien / Studio 1, revolved in part around the issue of gentrification, with the added complication of its location in Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood in which anti-gentrification cultural initiatives have paradoxically contributed to the very process of gentrification. Contemporary art has long acted as a lubricant of sorts in this process, and the spectral figure of the white cube in particular plays an especially charged role in this dynamic, for the relationship of its pristine placelessness to the messy reality of art-making mirrors the relationship of the gentrifier’s dreams (which so often revolve around the building of cubes, white or not) to the messy reality of stratified urban life.
‘Black Sound White Cube’ was a joint curatorial effort by Berlin-based, Belgian philosopher Dieter Lesage and German artist Ina Wudtke, co-authors of an eponymous 2010 essay. The exhibition’s roots in a discursive enterprise were evident, as was the political bent of this discourse: ‘black sound’ covers the broad range of musical traditions that emerged from the Afro-Atlantic diaspora, while its insertion into the ‘white cube’ is evidently politically slanted. Wudtke, four of whose works were on view here (one, Parade für Carl Crack, [Parade for Carl Crack, 2011,] was a memorial to Crack, one of the founding members of Atari Teenage Riot; another, Parade, 2010, documents a recent anti-gentrification demonstration in Berlin), calls herself something of a hiphop romantic, meaning that the hiphop she is pining for is the politicized, awareness-raising variety, now close to extinct in mainstream pop culture. This may partially explain why a certain melancholy permeated much of the show: many art works that seek to celebrate the oppositional potential of a given cultural form end up deploring the loss of such potential rather than the promise of its imminent realization. (Indeed, it’s hard to imagine ‘black sound’ as a political force these days.)
That said, two of the exhibition’s lighter moments successfully tapped into the long history of this self-consciously romantic alignment of critical practice with the culture of the ‘Black Atlantic’. In the series ‘Breathless’ (2008–ongoing), artist Jennie C. Jones uses the tape torn out of Kenny G. cassettes to make beautiful, angular ‘tape’ drawings, thus exacting jazz’s symbolic revenge on the noodling titan of bleached-out (i.e. ‘white’) smooth jazz – an easy target to be sure, but worth targeting, if only for musical reasons. In a corner of the space, Can I Get an Amen (2004), a sound piece by Nate Harrison, recounted the story of the famed ‘Amen break’, a drum sample taken from a 1969 instrumental track by American funk band The Winstons that has appeared in countless breakbeat, jungle, drum & bass and breakcore records since, without its originators receiving much credit (let alone royalties) – something made all the more painful by the fact that it now also figures regularly in bland commercials for, say, SUVs. Beats too, apparently, can be subject to gentrification.
Comparable intersections between black street culture and the ghoulish spectre of lifestyle also recurred in Sanford Biggers’s fine Ghetto Bird Tunic (2003), a costume made up of thousands of feathers that looks positively Papuan – until we realize that ‘ghetto bird’ is inner-city slang for the police helicopters that patrol urban neighbourhoods in the US. From the vantage point of the LAPD’s choppers, the wearer of the Ghetto Bird Tunic must look like something of an exotic aviary specimen indeed. The most unsettling work, however, had to be Yvette Mattern’s Interview with my Mother: Mulatta/Mestizo (2008), in which the artist’s Puerto Rican mother expresses her hardly concealed regret at having been born to a mother who was attracted to black men, leading her to ponder the blessings of ‘pure’ white blood. A portrait that captures the demonic force of racism and racially determined self-hatred, Mattern’s video ultimately reminds us of the many dangers and absurdities of black and white thinking, ethnic or otherwise – something that this exhibition was keenly aware of, even if the juxtaposition of ‘black sounds’ and ‘white cubes’ is itself not without problems. Indeed, returning to the controversial phenomenon of gentrification, which informs much of Lesage and Wudtke’s activist stance, it is worth wondering why even the blackest of sounds regularly longs for the whitest of cubes.