Berlin – A City of Give and Take

As with most things in life, you probably shouldn’t just take, take, take. Unfortunately, expats in Berlin have developed quite the reputation as taking it all, but not putting anything back in. With an abundance of writing centred on the damaging effects of the expatriate, maybe it is time that more focus was placed on the positives of outsiders arriving in this eclectic place that they now call home.

Recently, a new and exciting project called “Give Something Back to Berlin” (www.givesomethingbacktoberlin.com) has emerged, actively encouraging and helping new Berliners to become socially involved in the city that they love. Whether you are helping your neighbour, building, or renovating buildings or simply putting on an exhibition, every action that gives back, no matter how big or small, is an integral part of living in a city; not just Berlin and not just as a non-native.

Here, spread out over a number of interviews, we look at how some of this city’s expats, how they feel the city has inspired  and influenced them and why they feel it is important to give something back (and yes, some of them can speak German too).

Photo © Amy Binding_2

First up is Benjamin Spalding. Born in New York, raisied in Maine and now based in Berlin. Benjamin is a mixed media artist, who focuses on themes such as sexuality, personal history, and identity. With his open studio days, relentless exhibiting throughout Berlin, and his public drawing days, Spalding is all too aware that to get something out, you have to be putting something in.

When did you move to Berlin?
I moved to Berlin in September 2007, initially on a three month basis, I thought I would stay here for a couple of months to escape America, then those couple of months turned into six-plus-years.

What was it that drew you to Berlin?
It was the pace of life, the cost of living and the fact that people in Berlin really enjoy their free time and use it well. This idea of a Sunday with nothing being open, compared to New York or London, where space and time are a commodity, is what drew me here. But of course, the famously social aspect of the city; going out, partying meeting people, socialising, can also be incredibly distracting if you let it be.

Were you an artist before moving to Germany?
Weirdly, I went to school in the US for marketing and mass media studies, and I was working at fashion magazines the entire time, so when I came to Berlin I actually thought I was mostly going to be working with fashion, not art. I’d taken art classes throughout university, and I was constantly drawing and creating. It was around that time that I got completely disillusioned by fashion, when the “pre-fall” and “Cruise Collections” started popping up!

tensionstudy2argyleSo you hold Berlin responsible for your shift in career?
Yeah, of course. To go from my New York City fashion world to Berlin, a city where you can go out wearing whatever the fuck you want and nobody says a damn thing, as long as you wear it with enough attitude, was so refreshing. In terms of my art practice though, it was also the luxury idea of having free time and space, that instead of buying clothes, I could go to my own studio. The fact that I could simply afford a studio, that was a huge transition for me.

I remember the first few months I was here, I didn’t have a job and spent all my money on asking myself “Hey Benjaming, what are you doing? Who are you?”, maybe I’m a glutton for self-reflection, but that really helped. Just asking that question: “What do you want to do?”

And do you think being here made you ask yourself that question?
Oh absolutely, yes. I don’t think if I was anywhere else I would have asked myself those questions. I’m pretty certain that if I was in a major city that had a lot of money (such as London or New York), then there would be no way. In Berlin, you are left to figure it all out on your own.

Do you think Berlin has had an impact on your art?
Yes, in the sense that, in Berlin, you can’t avoid the city’s history. No matter what you do, wherever you go, you are continually faced with the past. I think that is how Berlin has had a direct impact on my work. In all of my work, some part of my past, my childhood and my biography is inherent in it.

What also really influences my work, as I said before, is just having the time. Also the people that are here, the people that moved here, the people that reside here, I think it takes a certain weird person to do that.


Speaking about the people that move to Berlin, why do you think the expat scene is seen in such a negative light?
People everyone in this city is jogging for ownership, and we live in a world of competition. I think it’s a lot to do with the element of showing off, especially between ex-pats: “Oh, you’ve only been here for two months? I have been here for three years” type of thing. Yes, there are problems that we can’t not notice and be aware of such as gentrification, but as a whole, I think this city is incredibly transient and exciting.

I mean, yes, it is annoying when you meet people who move here and don’t do anything, who don’t give anything back. You have to give something back.

Is giving something back to the place you reside in something you are conscious of?
Yes! Of course! You have to be, or should be involved, and more importantly at least be switched on to this idea of giving something back to the city and people around you. You have to be.

You have been here for quite a while now, do you still think you and Berlin have anything left to offer each other?
I have been here for six years and I still feel like I can give more. I want to give more. Push push push! I don’t want to leave…Saying that though, those that leave here, always come back {laughs}.


Text and portraits by Amy Binding