Fellows Friday TED Fellows

An overgrown asylum, an abandoned power plant and a handmade village on a river: TED Fellows create popup experiences in Berlin’s secret spaces

Posted by: Karen Eng

A crumbling former asylum, a massive brick power station, and an alternative community built by hand by a river. In the hours before TEDBerlin Salon kicked off, three TED Fellows led conference attendees on a treasure hunt through the sprawling streets of sunny Berlin to these locations. Guided by the mobility app Moovel — which recommends the most effective modes of transport and route through the urban landscape — participants departed from the Admiralspalast theater with just an address, and were led into hidden spaces all over the city. There, they were treated by their hosts to performances and discussions around questions that the space inspired for them. We asked the Fellows to tell us more about why they chose these particular spots and what they did there.

Anita conducts an experiment of memory TK. Photo: Anna Kostuk

Anita Doron conducts an experiment in memory at Wiesenburg, an abandoned asylum that’s been overgrown with greenery. Photo: Anna Kostuk

Anita Doron: Noli Timere
Not far from the modern bustle of Berlin’s city center in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Wedding, a quiet secret garden grows among the ruins of a former asylum. Filmmaker and storyteller Anita Doron chose Wiesenburg — which once served as the set for The Tin Drum — to create an experiential installation about memory, dislocation, and the fuzziness of one’s defined inner borders. Here, Doron on why she chose this space:

“I love abandoned and decaying spaces. Wiesenburg was once a place where people — teenagers, escapees, refugees — were protected from the outside world. It’s been abandoned and taken over by nature. This building isn’t really a building, it really isn’t a forest, and it isn’t really an asylum. It’s a bunch of things coexisting at the same time.

To me, Wiesenburg beautifully evoked the world of the sci-fi graphic novel, Noli Timere, that I’m working on with TED Fellow Jessica Green, who studies microbiomes and their effect on us. If we’re 90% bacteria, and we’re all just overlapping clouds of bacteria, then what is it that makes us human? In Noli Timere, we tell the story of a bacteria that infects five strangers in a Parisian building. The symptom they experience is that they start remembering each others’ memories as though they had happened to themselves, removing the boundaries of what they had once considered ‘self.’ We are not really separate individuals, but organisms belonging to something greater.

So Wiesenburg was the perfect space for a sojourn into a question: Is there such a thing as pure individuality? One proposition is that we’re all made up of our experiences and memories. So I asked participants to share a certain memory that formed who they are now – something that shaped them. Unbeknownst to them, actors listened to and memorized their stories. Then, in the back garden of Wiesenburg, the actors surprised the visitors by retelling their stories as if they were their own, mixing them with snippets of their own memories, then weaving them all together to form one memory. A sound engineer mixed all the memories into an aural art piece — a single soundscape of memories. The idea was to shift perspective: what happens if you’re suddenly not sure, even for a moment, whether your memory is yours?”

Check out the aural art piece, created by sound engineer Wilard:

Somi performs music at TK. Photo: Neda Navalee

Somi performs her music at Savvy Contemporary, an art space in a former power station. Photo: Neda Navalee

Somi: Giving Contours to Shadows
An imposing red-brick building overlooks a sleepy neighborhood. Within this former power station, a spiral staircase opens onto cavernous spaces within spaces, filled with sculpture, books, handcrafted furniture and film. This is Savvy Contemporary, an artspace that fosters dialogue between Western and non-Western narratives. East African singer-songwriter Somi chose this spot in Berlin to perform work from her recently released major-label debut, Lagos Music Salon, investigating the meaning of “home” to a global citizen. Here, what Somi says of this location:

“I wanted to find home in Berlin, to find a space that represents African identity here. Friends told me about Savvy Contemporary, founded by Cameroonian gallerist Bonaventure Ndikung. Savvy’s current exhibition, called ‘Giving Contours to Shadows,’ starts from a specifically African context, and celebrates African voices and their alternative narratives and histories, as African people engaging with the West. I love this concept about the voicelessness of shadows. It’s not to say that the African experience is in the dark, but it’s often overlooked because there’s not much light being given to those stories. As an artist and vocalist, I’m also trying to counter that in a very visceral and physical way.

I feel a lot of parallels between this space and my own work as an African woman — born to Rwandan and Ugandan parents — who’s mostly come of age in the Western world. In my music, I always find it’s a constant negotiation between ‘here’ and ‘there’ – carving out a cultural space of belonging in this very liminal transnational narrative and experience.

So Savvy is the perfect Berlin space to perform pieces from Lagos Music Salon, written during an 18-month creative sabbatical I took in Lagos, Nigeria. In Lagos, I incubated and wrote songs about my experience in the city, while also producing a salon in a physical space, inviting local performers and artists to join me. I’ve also been thinking a lot about global citizenship implicit in the life, work and perspective of a musician, something my dear mentor [South African trumpeter] Hugh Masekela often talks to me about. He says we should always be able to find our home—a part of ourselves and our audience, wherever we might be.”

The TK where Adital TK took TK. Photo: Karen Eng

Designer Adital Ela brought attendees to Holzmarkt for a discussion of how a community can build the experience they want. Photo: Karen Eng

Adital Ela: Designing Holzmarkt
On a breezy stretch of land on Berlin’s River Spree is a hand-built village of rickety and charming timber structures, including an open-air amphitheater and a riverside patio with comfy seating and a sign that suggests “kissing is fun.” Adital Ela, a designer from Israel whose work envisions sustainability in the urban context, chose the citizen-led community of Holzmarkt as a launchpad for a tour, during which she posed the question: How might we create a world that’s the way we want it to be? Here, what Ela says of this location:

“Berlin is the place for alternative housing initiatives. People here allow themselves to think freely about how to create their lives — how to create sustainable possibilities. Holzmarkt used to be the site of successful bar, Bar 25. When the city wanted to erect a glass-palace corporate building on this site, citizens demonstrated against it, calling for a different Berlin and a different connection to its natural resources. They won, and now Holzmarkt is being planned and built as a neighborhood where around 500 people will work and live together. This collaborative, sustainable cooperative already includes a small theater, a barbershop, a sauna and a café. Homes for residents are in the process of being built.

We also visited an unofficial teepee settlement right across the Spree — unofficial because teepees are the only building construction that aren’t an officially acknowledged structure in Berlin. Right next door, we stopped by the Spreefeld project, a co-housing project where people came together to build their own homes with communal kitchens and living spaces, art workshops, woodwork shops. All three spaces gave a fascinating perspective of how people create their own reality in an urban context. It was about considering the question: ‘What can I do in my own little village to shape my world the way I believe it should be?'”