Representing the creative future

Why Central Saint Martins artists leave London for Berlin

Why are so many young creatives leaving London? And what do they find in Berlin? Other than cheap kebabs, techno music and Berghain, where you get lost in a darkroom surrounded by sweaty men in leather pants, there must be a better reason. London is one of the hardest cities to survive in, especially when you have just graduated from art school. Max, Sorcha and Tarryn are “the young creatives”; coming from different backgrounds, they all ended up in Berlin at some point. They share with us what drew them to the city, and how it has influenced their work.

Max Wilkinson is an artist who moved to Berlin shortly after graduating from Central Saint Martins (Fine Art) two years ago. He recently wrote and directed a play, which revolves all around this contemporary subject matter, the big migration.

What made you decide to move to Berlin after graduating?

Not for romantic reasons, really, just for very practical ones. I wanted to be able to focus, for a time, solely on writing while being able to afford the rent. I was able to be do this solidly for three months while only working a few shifts in a bar each week. This would be impossible in London.

What did you find in Berlin that London didn’t or can’t offer you? 

Berlin, because I didn’t know it, was a very nice city to write in alone. I could spend weeks on working in the same room while retaining a decent level of sanity. London, for whatever reason, makes you feel very peculiar spending so much time by yourself. Maybe because I know it so well or, because of the incredibly high cost of living, you have to spend a lot of time justifying the creative thing you’re doing, to everyone around you and to yourself.

“BERLIN, BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW IT, WAS A VERY NICE CITY TO WRITE IN ALONE. I COULD SPEND WEEKS ON WORKING IN THE SAME ROOM WHILE RETAINING A DECENT LEVEL OF SANITY. LONDON, FOR WHATEVER REASON, MAKES YOU FEEL VERY PECULIAR SPENDING SO MUCH TIME BY YOURSELF.”

How has Berlin inspired your work?

On a personal level, Berlin made me a lot happier, able to breathe and write more easily. In terms of inspiration though, it presented me with a very contemporary (almost comic) issue: an acute self-awareness of place and history. Berlin, Prague, Paris – we visit these places, and to an extent become a character which we know well, too well, from books and films.

People like Kafka, Auden and Christopher Isherwood spent time in Berlin, but when they were young and in a sort of ‘gap year’ capacity. Their work was influenced by the city, but it appeared in their writing much later on, in fragments and very naturally. In my play Wannsee, which I wrote in and about Berlin, one of the characters Woods, a writer, moves to the city to write something monumental. With every situation or character he finds, he attempts to force literary magic from the encounter, and of course is disappointed again and again.

What happened to the play?

I came back to London last January basically to put the play on here in London. It ran from Wednesday the 11th to the 14th of May at the Bridewell Theatre.

Where will the play go next?

Berlin! I’m curious as to what the Berlin audience will respond to, or find funny compared with the London audience. There’s a lot of absurd criticism of London, which the Bridewell audience responded to well; while being nostalgic of the setting if they had visited Berlin, or nostalgic in a more general way of traveling in Europe. I’m interested to see Berlin’s response.

Will you move back to Berlin?

For the time being I will be staying in London, but mostly for practical reasons. Writing and performing comfortably in German would be a life-long struggle. London, if you want to do theatre in English, is the most obvious choice. But I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time in Berlin over the next few years. I really do love it, and for lots of reasons. Away from the stereotypes that it’s normally associated with — the Berghain and speed — there are so many wonderful things to discover: a daring and un-snobbish art-scene, the lakes and parks, the incredibly warm welcome you receive from nearly everyone you meet there. Wannsee comments on the decadence and frivolity of expat living, but it is mostly a love letter to a great, important and unique city.

“BERLIN IS NOT GOING TO MAKE YOU RICH AND IT’S NOT GOING TO MAKE YOU FAMOUS, THAT YOU CAN PRETTY MUCH GUARANTEE, UNLESS YOU ARE A TECH-HEAD SMART ENOUGH TO HAVE RIDDEN THAT START-UP WAVE A FEW YEARS AGO.”

Sorcha Kennedy plays the character Jack in Max’s production, and moved to Berlin fresh out of school, with no money, job or German language abilities. 

“Looking back, I really couldn’t say exactly why I took that step, but the main impetus was to leave my hometown, where the arts are virtually non-existent and people tend to get stuck — my biggest fear. Berlin is not going to make you rich and it’s not going to make you famous, that you can pretty much guarantee, unless you are a tech-head smart enough to have ridden that start-up wave a few years ago. But in shedding those expectations, a more experimental and diverse art scene emerges. Art happens for the sake of expression; spaces are repurposed to suit whatever’s taking place that day, friends call in favours, strangers are welcome to participate.

So all of this personal experience between these two cities massively contributed to my understanding of the character I played in Wannsee, Jack. She’s bright, vaguely creative, definitely directionless – totally disillusioned with all the hype and grandstanding surrounding cultural hotspots in London. Very much aware of the encroachment of gentrification and big money property dealings. It’s a force that’s alien and too big to comprehend, so she’s running away. She has opted for, or been forced into, apathy, because what the hell can she do about it? But she’s disappointed by Berlin to some extent. She craves some sort of traditionally “wholesome” existence, but everyone around her is in constant flux. There’s nothing and nobody solid to hold onto. She’s also deeply depressed, but everyone is turning a blind eye in favour of a good time.”

“I EXPECTED THE IMMEDIATE URBAN ENVIRONMENT TO IMPACT MY WORK, AND THE QUALITY OF TEACHING I’D HEARD ABOUT AT THE UNIVERSITÄT DER KÜNSTE (PROFESSORS INCLUDE OLAFUR ELIASSON, JOSEPHINE PRYDE, HITO STEYERL AND AI WEI WEI) — IF I WAS GOING TO GIVE UP MY TIME AT CSM, I WANTED IT TO BE SPENT SOMEWHERE REALLY CHALLENGING AND WORTHWHILE.”

Tarryn Williams is a Fine Art student at Central Saint Martins, currently on a semester out to continue her studies at the Universität der Künste.

Why did you decide to leave London for Berlin?

Personally I was drawn to Berlin, simply because I felt being there would be a useful resource for research and making, given that my artistic practice revolves around exploring cities. I admit I was growing a bit tired in London, to the point where I wasn’t seeing things there clearly anymore. There was definitely an irony in trying to create work about or as a result of engaging with the urban environment in a way that was meant to challenge it, when I found myself stuck with the regularity of my days. So I needed to break that routine, if only for a short amount of time. Berlin turned out to be the perfect place for that. In some ways it’s the small details like the wide streets, lots of green spaces, and not being crammed into other people’s sweaty armpits on the U-Bahn every morning, and in other ways it’s simply being immersed in the amazing culture, artistic and otherwise, that exists here.

What do you find in Berlin that London can’t offer you?

It’s important for me to reiterate that I love living in London, and it’s one of the only places I can imagine living long term and sustaining my artistic practice. For me coming to Berlin was about experiencing a different place, way of learning and lifestyle for a while, which I have since really grown to love, and could see myself returning here after I graduate, most definitely. The only motivations I really had for choosing here over other options in Europe, were the ways I expected the immediate urban environment to impact my work, and the quality of teaching I’d heard about at the Universität der Künste (professors include Olafur Eliasson, Josephine Pryde, Hito Steyerl and Ai Wei Wei) — if I was going to give up my time at CSM, I wanted it to be spent somewhere really challenging and worthwhile. Otherwise, I had absolutely no expectations for my trip. Any time I tried to imagine what I might be doing, where I would go or what it would all look and feel like, I came up completely empty. I wasn’t in any way motivated by a lot of the common reasons you hear for people moving to Berlin. Yes, it’s much cheaper than London, and yes there are great places to go out, but I honestly didn’t care about any of that when I moved. That being said, I live in a beautiful big apartment in Kreuzberg for half the price of my flat in the London Docklands. In London it’s so rare to have the means to live right in the heart of everything anymore, but here I have the galleries, fashion shows, concept stores and cultural festivals within walking distance. Maybe it won’t always be like this, but that’s certainly the situation now. Also, a lot of my favourite artists either come from here or have worked here, which means I see a lot more of their work in person— a real privilege —and the rest of Europe is easily accessible, which means you can travel to other cities, or you see more work from all over the continent here in the city.

There Where I Am Absent, Four layer silkscreen print on paper

How different is the art scene over there?

When you’re just getting started, it feels a little more hidden away. There are fewer sites dedicated to sharing details of contemporary shows. However, once you make a couple of friends, naturally things start to appear on Facebook, which is the best way to hear about openings and events, just as it is in London. From what I have seen so far, there seems to be a lot more space in the scene for photography, including but also, crucially, outside of commercial spaces. My main studio class here at UdK (Universität der Künste) is in contemporary photography with the artist Josephine Pryde, and it’s a medium which fundamentally underpins my practice, even when it manifests as drawing, sculpture or video, so I love that there is so much of it here. Most large galleries and museums aren’t free here. I really wish I could just wander into Hamburger Bahnhof the way I can at Tate Modern or the British Museum. When you’re paying, it feels like you have to consciously make a day of it, whereas sometimes it’s enough for me to just lose myself for an hour, even if I’m not giving it my full attention.

I think it’s worth talking about the educational backgrounds of many artists here, because the system is so different to the UK. I’ve found myself being the youngest person in my classes by a good four or five years, with only one year left of my studies. Many people here study for six years, often even longer. While that can include a Masters qualification, or some have more than one BA, it’s still a lot longer than we usually end up studying in the UK, and people can afford to here, because university is free. I think that makes such a difference to how you use your time and energy on your degree; there’s so much more room to pick up technical skills, read a lot, hit walls and work through them (which is more important than you’re ever told in a fast-paced environment) and just to grow as an artist.

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