An interview with Chris Dercon, the controversial new director of the Berlin Volksbühne, about the future of theatre, how to deal with criticism, and what constitutes a good place to live. And about Berlin, of course.
This interview was conducted for Monocle in June 2017 and appeared in an edited form under the title “In betweener” in the September 2017 issue of the magazine. To mark the 10 November opening of the Volksbühne under Dercon and the accompanying brouhaha in the media, I’m publishing a lightly edited transcript of our conversation that sheds more light on Dercon’s character and approach to theatre.
How did you come by all the art in your home?
“It’s mostly souvenirs. As the director of a museum I wasn’t allowed to buy art. It’s a conflict of interest. So I focussed completely on textiles and furniture. But many of the things I bought very very early, before my time as a museum director in Rotterdam. And now that I’m allowed to buy again, the art costs so much that I can’t afford it anymore. So everything here is 40 years old. I bought a lot when I was 18. I worked in an onion factory over the summer and with the money I earned I bought art. The times were different, art was very cheap. Today, everything costs thousands of euros.”
Why did you choose to move to Zehlendorf? It seems rather bourgeois.
“Zehlendorf is not bourgeois! It’s very, very calm. And I don’t have to see people here. I mean, Mitte is awful.”
I live in Mitte.
“It is horrible. I mean, all the cheap shops and souvenir shops. That’s the reason I keep reading Tyler. When he writes about Bolzano in the FT, that is for me a little bit like that. I can cut off and I don’t have to say hello to everybody in the street. I don’t have to chat. Nobody chats me up here. And I like to take care of plants and see green. And we live three minutes from the Schlachtensee. After you go, we go and swim. And in the morning at 6:30 we swim also. That has nothing to do with bourgeois. I consider Mitte bourgeois. Petit bourgeois. I mean, all these Korean restaurants. And the Mitte cocktails. That’s bourgeois.”
But there are rather few cultural institutions here…
“Oh come on, we have many! Haus am Waldsee? It’s amazing! And the former studio of Arno Breker, which is Kunsthaus Dahlem. When I go out, I go to the Goethestrasse and I go to all these villas from the 1920s. We have a villa of Martin Gropius next door almost. Haus am Waldsee is a very active place. It’s fantastic.”
“The most awful thing are all the trolleys. The decibels they make! I need my peace, I need my books, I need space for the furniture and the art.”
Did you even consider moving anywhere else?
“No. This was it. Because of the Schlachtensee, because we like swimming. Because we like biking. And the markets here are absolutely amazing. Also, a lot of plant shops. So for me Mitte is the ultimate bourgeois. If you look at all these tourists! And the most awful thing are all the trolleys which you keep hearing. The decibels they make! I’m so glad that Barcelona and Venice are trying to curb these trolleys. They make so much noise. I need my peace, I need my books, I need space for the furniture and the art, and we love cooking, we have a huge kitchen. So why would I do that, Berlin Mitte? My God! And all these cafés where you can’t even order in German, you have to speak English. And the English they speak is awful.”
Do you go into town every day?
“Yes. It takes me 38 minutes door to door. I take the S-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz. Then at Potsdamer Platz there’s a café where they have the Frankfurter Allgemeine and I make a stop and read the feuilleton of the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Sometimes I steal it. And then I know I can just catch the U-Bahn to Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and be at the office. 38 minutes, door to door.
“Are you disturbed by my calling Mitte bourgeois? I mean, did you ever look at the B&Ts? I used to live in New York so we call them B&Ts. Bridges and tunnels. The people who come from Queens and New Jersey to Manhattan. So I see a lot of B&Ts in Mitte. And trolleys. And the shops! I mean, the turnover of shops in Mitte is gigantic! The turnover of shops is a typical Soho effect. And the second thing is, when there’s a turnover, you bet that you’ll have a coffee shop or a Korean restaurant. Not even a Korean deli. I don’t have anything against it. But it’s fascinating that sections of cities in London and Paris, that they are loaded with these kinds of shops. And you know they will be turned over very soon.
For instance, when I asked Patti Smith once at a conference with Christoph Schlingensief if they both had an image of what hell could be, Patti Smith said: Starbucks. So for me, Berlin Mitte is a kind of hell. No, it’s purgatory. And that’s the reason why I’m very happy to work at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz because it’s not gentrified yet. It’s still very clean and that’s thanks to the owner of most of the places over there. She decides who lives there and she makes sure that this place doesn’t turn into a new hipster place. Linienstrasse! That’s Soho.”
Where did you live in London?
“First I lived near Highgate and then I had to take the train to London Bridge. And Highgate is fantastic because there’s all parks. It was a long ride but Highgate is really amazing. It’s green, it’s calm, and again you can lead you own life. But imagine that you have to get out in the morning and get a cup of coffee and you have to speak to people. I don’t like it. I’m the director of my own time. I want to be capable of deciding about my own time. Between 5:30 and 8:30 every morning, my own time is reading and writing. And I have to be alone for that. And this place is the perfect place for concentration. And at 8:30 I take the S-Bahn and get to the office at 9:30. I get home at 6:30 or 7:30pm. I don’t do evening meetings. In London I had to do the dinners every night and there was a joke about me: whatever the dinner was, where ever it was, whatever stage we were at, I left at 10:40pm and went home. Because otherwise I cannot wake up at 5:30. It’s a fantastically planned life, isn’t it? The setup is fantastic and we like to invite people and cook. And I still travel a lot, because it takes a while to leave all the boards of trustees etc. I’m lucky to be in certain cities where there’s very good food. I love buying food.”
“I accept that theatre is different from the arts. Theatre since the 20th century is all about antagonism and protagonism. And now I have to be a protagonist.”
How does one stop being the director of the Tate Modern?
“July 13 was my last day in London. And before that, my successor got into place, Frances Morris, who took up the job in April. So in a way the transition was incredibly smooth because I had a successor who came from inside the house. And we worked together for a long time. She used to be Head of Collections. Because Frances was chosen the succession was very, very easy, because we knew each other and she knew everybody else as well. So that’s the reason why I could easily concentrate full-speed on the Wolfgang Tillmanns show. That was ideal because Wolfgang also spends most of his time in Berlin. It was amazingly advantageous for everybody.
“Transitions are always very, very peculiar. Because when you’re asked to go somewhere, it’s not like in the media business or in the fashion business. That you get fired and have to give your keys and phone and everything else. I have all these horror stories from people in the fashion industry. But anyway, I didn’t have to do that because we are in the culture business which is much more civic and civilised. And it’s to guarantee continuity. You decide to go and most of the time the people who ask you, they know you need another six months or another year to finish something. And then slowly you build up a relationship with the other place. And that happened between Rotterdam and Munich, between Munich and London and now between London and Berlin.
“But the system of the theatre is very different from the system of a museum and that’s not easy. But I’m used to quite a lot of conflict because one of my major conflicts was in Rotterdam, where my boss was the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn. So I’m used to a lot.”
After everything that happened, would you still call the Volksbühne’s handling of the transition “civilised”?
“Yes and no. Yes, because theatre and art and culture is not politically free. It’s very much about politics. And politics is often about conflict and negotiation. Because that’s what culture is all about. We negotiate, we transform, we change, and good culture is a way to make progress. No, because I didn’t expect… the hostilities were incredibly grave. It was very difficult for us to have a chance to prepare well. So yes and no. But I accept that theatre is different from the arts. Theatre since the 20th century is all about antagonism and protagonism. And now I have to be a protagonist.
“What I’m not getting used to, and I’ve said that in several interviews, is to the fact that Berliners are so loud. One of my catchphrases is, ‘Wenn die Berliner nicht mehr brüllen kommen die Touristen nicht mehr’ (When the Berliners stop shouting the tourists stop coming). In Berlin Mitte, every morning when I take a coffee at Kaffee Sauers, I have to get used to people who shout on the street. ‘Du Vollidiot!’ And they’re so loud. And I don’t like loud people. I don’t understand why people are so loud. Rude is one thing, but loud is… I think it has to do with the history of the place. It might have to do with immigration, a lot of people came here from Bohemia. There’s a whole history of Russians in Berlin. I think it has to do about language as well, you know, not being able to communicate. That’s the reason why New York is so loud. Because of all the immigrants. You have to be able to communicate and I do think that’s part of it. It’s maybe a flawed theory but I think it has to do with the fact that Berlin was always a gathering place of many different people and many different classes. And especially the corner of Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, is kind of rogue. Very loud.”
So there’s something political to the loudness?
“Yes, but it’s people trying to communicate with each other. ‘Listen, you don’t understand me, so I’m going to tell you how it is.’ ‘Do you have a ticket?’ That’s typical Berlin. I don’t bother about it as long as I don’t have to hear it. As long as I have this place, nothing can happen to me.”
“I see so much stuff in the art world which is so weak, which is also kind of naive, a kind of Moralrealismus, that the art world think they can solve all the problems in the world. I mean, they cannot.”
Why did you leave the Tate Modern?
“Because I was kind of fed up with the art world. I’ve seen too much. Too much of riches. I wanted to change, I wanted to go back to where I come from. I started with theatre and with dance, in Brussels. I was very much part of the performance and theatre and dance world. And I produced a lot, I made films about dance for Belgian TV. And completely by accident I became a curator because I was asked to come to PS1 in New York by Alanna Heiss, who was a visionary. She said, I need a European because they’re good at fundraising, and second I need somebody who is not part of the art world but really considers him or herself as a producer. And because I was more into production than curating Alanna gave me the job at PS1 as a programme director, and PS1 is now MoMA. And I stayed in the art world. The city of Rotterdam literally bought me like a football player from PS1. They even offered PS1 money. So then I went from New York to Rotterdam, from Witte de Witt to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, my first museum job. I was very young to be a director of such an important museum, I didn’t have enough experience. Then I went to the Haus der Kunst in Munich and then to Tate Modern.
“I’ve seen the art world in the last 30 or 40 years become a bit whacko. There are amazing artists around, especially living and working in Berlin. Kader Attia, who is a good friend. Also of course Wolfgang Tillmanns and Hito Steyerl. But I see so much stuff in the art world which is so weak, which the art world is also kind of naive, kind of Moralrealismus, that the art world think they can solve all the problems in the world. I mean they cannot. At the same time, the art world is becoming almost like a IKEA! Many products are the same. In order to sell, maybe out of a lack of imagination… I’ve seen of course the art world growing, growing, growing, being globalised, and with that came more and more money, the market became stronger and stronger, and things became for me a little bit too commercial. So I said to myself, the last thing I want to do is continue to be part of this until the end of my career. I want to do something else. And then by accident came a phone call from the city. If they’d said, Do you want to come to the theatre, I would have said no. But they asked to come to the Volksbühne. And for me the Volksbühne is much more than a theatre. It’s the Volksbühne.”
In career terms, you’ve left one of the most famous museums in the world to come to a theatre that may be more than a theatre but is still very German…
“It’s one of the most famous theatres in the world! I mean the Volksbühne was in the past months in Shanghai, it was also in Avignon, it is one of the most respected theatres in the world. And the fact that this whole thing that happened to us, and the transition, that it was covered by the FT two weeks ago, front page, last week by Corriere della Serra, that the NYT covered this whole thing, yesterday I had Rolling Stone, I mean, this has nothing to do with me, it has to do with the Volksbühne! The Volksbühne is rock’n’roll! It’s quite amazing. So you could say it was quite a shock to go from the museum, one of the best museums in the world, to one of the best theatres in the world. And you know what they wrote. The art world is suspect because of the money situation. London is hell. And in a way, what I said in the FT, I’m responsible for everything. Gentrification, Donald Trump, climate change…”
Who makes you responsible for that?
“Read the newspapers here! The funny thing was that two days ago was so amazing because Germans are not well-informed, they wrote that my main sponsor at Tate Modern was Louis Vuitton. So I apologised to my friends at Louis Vuitton. I said, I cannot help for the mistakes of German journalists. They don’t have the money to do their homework, fact-checking. I know it’s expensive!”
“People here are badly informed. They don’t check things! It’s not only a media problem. It’s like, we in Berlin are the centre of the world.”
The most widespread criticism has been that Volksbühne is a ‘Sprechtheater’ and that you have no background in that particular field and you want to change it into a different kind of theatre. Do you?
“Again, I did a lot with theatre in the 70s and 80s. I was very much part of the Belgian avantgarde, which was dance, performance and Sprechtheater. And when I was offered the Volksbühne, the Volksbühne is for me an amazing place. A place where it’s not just Sprechtheater. I mean, Kressnick, Schlingensief, so many different things have been happening there! It’s a place for experimentation. Since the very beginning. We only speak about the last 25 years, but what you forget is that the Volksbühne had other people as well.”
I agree, people really do seem to only remember the last 25 years right now.
“And that’s typical because people here are I would say badly informed. In one piece, because of my friendship with Muccia Prada, they wrote about my connection with Gucci. They don’t check things! It’s not only a media problem. It’s like, ‘we in Berlin are the centre of the world.’ We know everything. We are setting the parameters. If you compare that to Frankfurt, Hamburg or Munich, it’s always like, We in Berlin, we know best.”
Do you mean people in culture, or everyone?
“In many cases, yes. For me it was a typical example: here I get associated with Gucci, now suddenly in Avignon in the same journals I get associated with Louis Vuitton. People are suspicious that I will bring the so-called art world even more into Berlin Mitte. People are suspicious that we are abolishing a theatre tradition. Which is absolutely not true. When you look at our programme, we do more dance because I think dance today is incredibly important. But even dance is suspect! So whatever I do, it will be suspect. So the only thing I can do is to stay calm. And just do our programme because we have an amazing programme. We’re starting at Tempelhof, we’re going to the Volksbühne in November, we have major artists on board. … We have fantastic names and we’re coproducing with Francis Manchester and if you read the Guardian you’ll see that one of the names we’re working with is Boris Charmatz, he produced himself in Manchester and was incredibly applauded. We have big names, we have amazing performances and it’s all planned and we’re going for it. We’re also working with Anna Cronberg of Vestoj before the scandal broke out last week in the German press and in the NYT. So I think we have a good nose for difficult people.”
“The worst is not to read the critique, the worst is pity. People who say, how did you get over it?”
The hostility felt a little staged sometimes. How personal was it? How much did you hear about it in person?
“I read a lot of fake news in the media, that we fired 57 people. But I don’t read it anymore. The worst is not to read the critique, the worst is pity. People who say, how did you get over it? How did you deal with it? And now I know how to deal with it. I respond the following, which is very mean: I say, Watch out! I’m a Scientologist. So I got the main editor of a major newspaper saying, You’ve got to stop fucking over my journalists. Now they are researching it. I like to do these kinds of games. I have to take it with humour, right?
“Of course it hurts, especially when it’s really fake news. It hurt me to be associated with Louis Vuitton. I respect these people too much. I worked with them. But to say such a thing! Why don’t you do research? You guys get paid!”
So the fear is private sponsors?
“Oh yes, private sponsors! High treason! Of course, Berlin! There were are again! We know better, we are the best. But it will change. As soon as we start, the lamentations will be gone. Maybe they still want to occupy the Volksbühne, I don’t know, because Berliners are well organised. Everybody is curious what we’re going to do. I’m curious if they’re going to occupy the Volksbühne.”
“I think the big thing for tomorrow is that people will not be capable anymore to say, I’m this artist or I’m that artist, no. I’m an in-between artist.”
How do you describe what you’re going to do?
“We are going to do one of the most exciting theatre programmes you can do at this moment in time. Because there are so many Berlin artists who are in between things. They are in between dance, theatre, art, music, performance, media. They all live here, they all work here, but they have rarely a place to produce themselves. If you think about all these famous artists living here, where do you see them? They have the new ideas. The best artists in the world are living here. I meet them regularly. But we want to give them a place to also produce themselves. So they don’t have to go abroad to Biennials to make something new and something special. We’re going to invent with them new formats. We’re going to invent with them new forms of repertory theatre, which is based in between things, which is based on alliances. And I think the big thing for tomorrow is that people will not be capable anymore to say, I’m this artist or I’m that artist, no. I’m an in-between artist. And something new will come. Something new will happen.
“And something new is already happening. Because I think the best show in Europe right now is the show at Fondazione Prada in Venezia, which is Anna Viebrock with Alexander Kluge and Thomas Demand. Is it an art show? No. Is it theatre? No. Is it a media show? No. What is it? We don’t know yet. And there are many artists like when Wolfgang Tillmanns does a transition to music, what is it? Is it visual art? No, it’s Wolfgang Tillmanns trying to do something else. Boris Charmatz is saying that he’s a dancer but he’s creating human architecture in the first place. I’m interested in all these in-between forms.
“Second, we’re going to do something that is very un-Berlin. In Berlin, we all dream to show and to work abroad. We all want to be in the festival d’Avignon, we all want to be in Manchester. But oh je! When you want to invite back people, coming from somewhere else, no! It’s really amazing. It’s the Berlin-Mitte effect. The strange things is that I think that the Berliners in Mitte feel more like Ur-Berliners than the real Berliners. Everybody is defending their turf. For instance, Berlin is the only city in the world where when you have a chat with people at a party or a reception or a club, always it comes down to the following: ‘Do you know that place?’ ‘Yes, I know it.’ ‘I was there first! I lived there before!’ When I say that, people get angry, but it’s true. ‘I was there before!’ ‘You know, I discovered this place 15 years ago.’ I love anthropology, I use the structuralism of Claude-Lévi Strauss to listen to you.”
Berlin is a place that people want to freeze in time at the moment they arrive.
“It’s the Prenzlauer Berg effect, the Mitte effect. The same stuff is going on about Wedding and Neukölln. I would say that the Urberliners are the ones who occupied first these places. They feel like it’s their turf. Maybe in one year I’ll say about Zehlendorf, ‘I was here before you.’ Because you know this new trend of all these people is to have a place in Mitte but also a place on that little island in the Tegeler See. Or they go to Brandenburg. What I think is interesting is that it’s not anymore about divisions, about East-West. The new axis which is going to be created is North-South.
“The main political issue in the future is how is the state of Brandenburg going to deal with the state of Berlin, and the connection — or the disconnection — between Potsdam and Berlin. And I think that’s an amazing urbanistic issue. Because we have to expand Berlin. We have to. And we have to do it in a very smart way. We have to go beyond the borders which are set right now. So it’ll be very interesting to plan a greater Berlin for the future. And I think this whole discussion about the BER airport and Tegel closing or not and the whole Tempelhof discussion is part of a macro discussion which we have to introduce and which we have to confront. Because we have to grow. We can grow in a silly way or we can grow in a smart way.
“Berlin can learn a lot from the mistakes which Barcelona, London, Paris made. Think about the confrontation in Paris between the heigelems… and Paris is a very boring city of sheer luxury. London, which is since centuries the capital of finance and also people are getting pushed out there. And if you think about building laws in London, I mean we have seen a drama happening, a structural drama. And then of course you have the Plebisierung of tourism in Barcelona. Luckily, the mayor of Barcelona, who I know quite well, she’s doing something against Airbnb and all these… I mean, that’s really an amazing infection, the new plague of the 21st century: Airbnb. I know that a lot of people can afford a second house in the Uckermark because they do Airbnb. It’s again a holy cow which I’m not supposed to say because Berlin doesn’t address these kinds of issues.”
Airbnb criticism is actually quite mainstream.
“In Berlin we’re in a position to still learn from the mistakes of these cities. Whether it be tourism, gentrification, sheer luxury… I mean for me, one of the most fascinating things is that the Friedrichstrasse was a kind of street of promises. Galeries Lafayettes, Louis Vuitton… and right now it’s coming down completely. So we have to learn from the mistakes of other cities. And I think Berlin has an amazing future because we have all these people living here who are capable of coming up with a new form of civic-ness, a new form of a civic city. It has still this chances.”
But a lot of that has to do with interfering in market forces. And that’s a question of power.
“It’s a question of rules and regulations and a political will and political smartness, and saying, we know we have to cooperate but let’s do it in a smart way. And I think that’s something we still have to invent and learn. The way Berlin is going to live, if you want it or not, of tourism. But there are many ways to deal with tourism. The cheap hostels and Airbnb aren’t the solution. We have to do some deep thinking of what urbanism is for the future.”
“That’s the reason I wanted to be part of Berlin, because I believe that Berlin can learn from the mistakes of other cities. It’s not too late yet.”
How do you interfere in business being replaced? Milieuschutz?
“You can do that by creating laws. Milieuschutz in Berlin is one thing. The huge turnover of shops in Berlin Mitte is something I’m really afraid about. Because that’s not building a community. Often after six months one shop turns into another shop. And I think you can do that with zoning laws, allowing certain activities or saying that a shop has to stay there for at least two years. You create these very, very strict laws and people will take less risks. I think that’s important: to teach people to take less risks and to take it a little bit more slowly.
“I mean, Berlin is now getting into the paper cup problem. If you look at the paper cup problem, it’s one big purgatory, hell. What I find absolutely exceptional is the way people are now using cafés, which is not a place to sit but to buy something. Is that a form of freedom, the paper cup? I don’t think so. It’s about constant mobility. And I want to be part of a city, and that’s the reason I wanted to be part of Berlin because I believe that Berlin can learn from the mistakes of these other cities and it’s not too late yet. It’s like the finish line in sports, we’re just before everybody else in terms of learning.”
Do you see a role for the Volksbühne in shaping urbanism?
“Yes, when we work with dancers, we’re dancing in the street, we’re dancing on Tempelhof. When we work with artists who’re addressing these kinds of issues then we are part of the dialogue and we do that. We have a programme which is addressing these kinds of cities. It’s political. It’s not ideological. Politics is a form of negotiation. Ideology is a form of standstill, stasis. The word stasis is fantastic. In Greek it means immobility but also civil war. Thats where ideology leads to.”