Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Free Alternative Tour of Berlin

To the East of the city, by the banks of River Spree, runs a daily 'Alternative Tour' of the city. A reasonably sized group of us gathered at noon for a three-hour walk through the sites of Berlin's counter-culture. This tour is another so-called free tour, which is to say, it is one that is done for tips. Unlike the Amsterdam 'free' tour I recently took, this one was not pushy and did not try to pump us to give money, it was much more low-key. Our guide, a young Australian woman, introduced herself to us and it turned out she was relatively new to Berlin having lived in the city just one year. Her main qualifications for the job were her command of the language, an outgoing personality and her enthusiasm for street art.  

After having a chat with another one of the company's guides, who runs their ever popular pub crawl in the evenings, we stopped to admire our first piece of street art. We learnt a bit about the artist, an Italian woman, how the work was made and what it might mean. We then took photos and filed off to the next artwork.

We were given an interpretation of this work that both started and stopped at the blatantly obvious: it is a political piece of street art about the euro crisis. I'm not so used to this blunt form of art criticism and if I try to imagine it in a museum tour it can be almost funny. Here, however, it more or less worked as it was in keeping with the directness of the art itself. Indeed, I had the feeling that the majority of the street art we came across was raw expression, though there were some refined works too, and this got me wondering, what is the attraction in looking at miserable art? When I thought about it further I came to see that these sorts of pictures are to art what teenage grunge bands are to music. They rarely have the skill or subtlety of expression of gallery artists and they are working to a much more immediate, easy to grasp, aesthetic. They are still expressive, some maybe even more so than the professional art, and some people (mostly younger) will feel more connected to this sort of art than to what they'd find in museums. There are exceptions too; crossover street artists who branch into advertising, gallery shows and coffee table books, which we'll come to later. 

She talked a lot about the different techniques employed by street artists, such as, attaching wheat paste posters to the wall. I found it surprising she did not acknowledge the man standing to the side of her sticking an advertisement, piece by A3 piece, onto the wall. The technique is very similar and I was struck that the advert was not printed on a large sheet of paper but was rather home-made and assembled from many smaller pieces. She said that street art being used for advertising was frowned upon yet I also see that it's rife. The NSDM wharf in Amsterdam, where I will open another tour in a little over a week, is full of street art advertisements for trainers. It is also, not co-incidentally, where MTV have their offices and studio.

The pivotal moment of the tour for me came when we were walking in Kreuzberg. We came upon a large and very direct piece of street art: a hand giving the finger with the words 'FUCK YOU' above it, just in case you didn't get the message. On the side is another piece of text reading "TRAVELLERS WELCOME FUCK GHETTO TOURISTS". I guess that would mean us. She said it was a new piece that was 'brutal' and she couldn't find a neat way to incorporate the message back into the tour, as it was a direct challenge to our tour's legitimacy. 

We instead talked about a large squat that once occupied the land in front of the wall that was so spectacularly showing us the finger. The place had been cleared by the city authorities fairly recently amid speculation that a fire which precipitated its clearance, on public health grounds, was not accidental. My impression was that the whole area was cleaning up and while it still had the self-identity of being grungy and alternative, the reality was something else. The cafes we passed were actually not so cheap and the punks were outnumbered by the hipsters and Turks going about their business. The conditions that had created Berlin's counter culture were no longer in place and, block by block, the city seems to be returning to the mainstream German fold.

While we were talking about a street artist who was fined a hefty sum by the city authorities, decorators on the other side of the road were painting the front of a building an elegant shade of cream. It must be an unrewarding job painting a building like that in the full knowledge that within 48 hours it would be tagged but, on the other hand, that does also mean that as a painter you have a steady stream of work. Indeed, even the street artists have this problem of their pictures getting plastered in tags and we learnt that some return to touch up their art.

We came to the work of some successful street artists, a pair of twins who make large-scale paintings such as this one on the side of the building. There must be a system for the promotion of artists like these and it might be interesting to learn how the street and money collide and interact with one another. The Banksy film Exit Through The Gift Shop covers some of this terrain quite entertainingly but does so from a self-serving position. A cooler more analytic documentary would make for myth-busting viewing.

The last stop on the tour was a park with some street art. Some alcoholics were drinking beside the art we were looking for so we did not interrupt their reverie and instead concluded next to this statue. There was nothing said about the statue, however, it was to all effects invisible. I found this a pity as it too is art that is found on the street. By focussing so exclusively on contemporary street art a great deal of art that is also found alongside it was missed and I would have found the comparisons very interesting. Perhaps that is just me reimagining the tour with a broader visual field that would bring into focus some interesting questions around who makes art, for whom, and how. Those sorts of questions which open up a discussion of society, politics and aesthetics were outside the scope of this tour, however, which stuck to simply showing some examples of one type of art. Finally, it is a tourist walking tour after all.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial Tour

The rain finally eased off last night and permitted me to take a tour of the Holocaust Memorial also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I had called earlier in the day and was confronted with a sizeable queue snaking up to the information centre that seemed to be shuffling painfully slowly through the rain. When I learnt that the audio tour awaiting me at the end of this soggy rainbow did not even cover the memorial itself, only the underground centre, I rather more quickly shuffled off. The foundation that runs the memorial does, however, also have a short audio tour of the site, and additionally, audio tours of the nearby gay and lesbian and gypsy memorials too, all of which can be found online. When the rain stopped and with one of these recordings downloaded onto my phone, I set out into the night.

The audio guide is narrated by a British man in a rather matter of fact tone without any of the Schindler's List treatment. By that I mean it did not make an emotional or sentimental play upon the listener, but allowed the site and the facts to speak for themselves. 

The recording made no effort to navigate the listener around the space, indeed it was not really necessary to listen to the recording on site, it was a short audio recording about the memorial that could just as easily be listened to remotely. I walked though the dark passages between the concrete slabs and, every now and again, came upon a feature such as this stairway leading down to the underground centre.

I learnt about the site's history and the memorial's construction and not much else. I would have liked something more but I understand that the site is meant to function as an artwork in its own right and, therefore, speak for itself. I also noticed that I was not alone: there were people jumping along the tops of the columns and others playing hide and seek, one the cat and the other the mouse darting in and out of them. It really is a very particular sort of physical space that does lend itself to these games.

As I walked around listening to the rationale for the memorial's construction, I started thinking about the differences between people's perceptions of it and how these must be somewhat dependent on their relationship to the history. German school groups will probably experience this place in one way while American pensioners will most likely have an entirely different take on it. I saw a Jewish group with a Yiddish speaking guide making their way around a related site (Topography of Terror) and later saw a group of three, young Korean women getting a tour of it with a German guide and a German-English translator. While people will have their personal responses, I have to guess these larger distinctions will also frame the experience very distinctly.

The memorial and information centre is open free of charge to the visitor and is clearly run for political and educational purposes. This is in contrast to the rather trashy Checkpoint Charlie attractions which are simpler businesses making a profit by playing on the cold war / Berlin wall history. While the atmosphere and nature of the operations is very different, the tourists visiting these two sites are often the exact same people: souvenir shops and restaurants line the monument and I saw a good few people taking selfies on it. The tourist floats through everything collecting fun and interesting experiences and processing them within the context of their trip. They will rarely treat the monument with the same seriousness that its creators might have ascribed to it, but there is no way of getting around this. It is better that it exists than it doesn't and the memorial foundation does give educational tours to groups to help fix the meaning more firmly. These educational tours need to be pre-booked and, like a typical tourist, I did not do this so have no idea what they are like. This game of ascribing meaning is fluid, another sort of game of cat and mouse, and I suspect this is a site that will age in an interesting way.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

All Berlin's Tourist Buses Go to Checkpoint Charlie

I've just arrived in Berlin and started to assemble a Tour of All Tours of the city for this weekend's B-Tour Festival. I'll be making my tour in the city-centre and talking about the city as a whole. My starting point, Checkpoint Charlie, is so much worse than I remember it. It really is quite ideal! There is not just one Checkpoint Charlie museum but three separate, competing attractions all vying for the tourist's euros. That's to say nothing of the tours that pass by here, such as this Segway tour. This place is pure tourism whereas my endpoint, Brandenburger Tor, does at least combines tourism with something else: politics.

Something that has immediately struck me is the large number of bus tours that operate in Berlin and come this way. 

I took a short walk around my tour area and started looking out for the competition. The reason for this abundance of buses, I can only imagine, is the distribution of the tourist attractions across the city. If they were all within walking distance or, if there were enough packed together, then walking tours would be more popular. 

Some of these buses offer live commentary and some of them simply play recordings, in multiple languages, over headphones.

I saw City Sightseeing are running a bus operation here. I am familiar with them from having taken and reviewed their Bath bus tour. This has got me thinking that I will be drawing heavily on previous tours, such as that one, in order to describe the tours that take place here in Berlin. I will add a few unique to city too; I'm heading over to the Holocaust Memorial to take their audio tour as soon as the rain lets up today. Together, they should comprise a full-length hybrid tour of Berlin and the tourist imagination more widely. I have 3 days to put this tour together so it will be fast and furious stuff!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Harry Slinger's North Amsterdam Tour

This video, shot from the window of a car travelling around Amsterdam North, features the song Mijn Amsterdam Noord by Harry Slinger. It is made from the car driver's point of view, which I find very interesting to take, as it totally changes my impression of the area. I have been getting around on a bike for the last week and consequently, have mostly been using different routes. I have also noticed, however, that several locations on this car's route intersect with the route of my bike tour, which has now been fixed. Unfortunately, this video does not trace a consequent route from A to B but is instead an edited video of the highlights of Amsterdam North. All the same, it is the closest I have got yet to a tour of this forgotten side of the city. 

Rick Steves' Red Light District audio-tour

The Rick Steves audio-tour is a free download which, like so many other Amsterdam walking tours, starts at the foot of the national monument on Dam Square. It begins with narrator Steves, advising against taking pictures, particularly photos of the women in the windows, advice I duly followed. The images here are therefore few in number. If you want to see what the place looks like, however, there are videos of walks online. The tour is basically a very simple 50-minute continuous narration given by Steves and co-guide Lisa.  Whilst Steves did say there was always the pause button, for those who want to get more personally acquainted with what the area has to offer, I just kept on walking and listening, lapping it up like a National Geographic documentary.

The two narrators play a bit of a good cop/bad cop routine with the woman staying on the straight and narrow, while the man is interested in the sex, drugs and sleaze. The way they do this is, Steves relates mostly positive information about the coffee shops, prostitutes and smart shops, explaining what you can find, how much it costs, and finishing off with a line he repeats again and again, "and it is all perfectly legal!" Lisa, however, sticks mostly to giving directions to keep the audio-tour moving. She interjects, from time to time, "that's enough, we have to keep moving." 

The tour is really very simple and that is one of its strengths: it tells the most obvious story clearly and it is easy to follow and not get lost. Steves has positioned himself as the American expert on European travel, and I can see how he can have some appeal. His audio tour has enough humour to make it feel relaxed, but he still does the bread and butter work of the tour guide of explaining the history and the life today. He sounds like a slightly risqué uncle who is basically very respectable, and knowledgeable too, but likes to joke around now and then. I am guessing that he probably represents the progressive side of middle America, as there are a number of times he talks very positively about Dutch pragmatism and the country's social security system. In this sense, he holds up Amsterdam as an example that America could learn from.

I took the tour around 8-9 PM, which seemed like a good moment; the streets were growing busy, there were women in most of the windows, and I saw several tour groups being led around. There was a Spanish group, a rather random mixed group of tourists getting a guided tour in English, and an older group of Chinese tourists with their own Cantonese guide. I can only guess they were all getting slightly different takes on the same basic story. Actually, as well as this audio-tour, I myself have also taken a walking tour which also passed through the Red Light District, and both that one and this related many of the same stories. Of these, the most particular is the peeing men falling into the canals story. On the walking tour I was told 10 dead bodies a year are pulled out of the canals, the corpses usually being men with their fly unzipped. Curiously, on this audio tour the number of men succumbing  to this ignoble death swelled to 12. What the two tours seemed to agree upon, however, is that those in greatest danger of coming to this pitiful end are British men. With that in mind, it was time for me to heed their warning and leave the Red Light District, lest I should join their number. 

Safely back home, I watched this Youtube video of the Ultimate Amsterdam Coffeeshop Tour. It is a record of another American visiting Amsterdam and taking a tour, but a somewhat less respectable one than Mr Steves. Call it age, if you will, but I think this is a tour I can best enjoy from the comfort of home watching it on my laptop. This guy smokes an astonishing amount of weed. It is painful to watch but, as Rick Steves says, "it's all perfectly legal!"

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Amsterdam 'Free' Walking Tour: there's money to be made in free tours

The Amsterdam Free Walking Tour is one that is heavily promoted online to the extent that it will probably be the first one you'll see displayed if you search for Amsterdam tours. That's because it's run by a big player in the guided tour business, that's to say, by a company that is running tours right across Europe. There was such a large crowd assembled on the morning I arrived, we were divided into no fewer than eight separate groups with some of the groups for English speakers and some Spanish. It was an impressive operation, but a tour is still only as good as the individual guide, so how is their walking tour?

The tour is a three-hour walk around the city-centre with a focus on history. Our guide was a Dutch man with a loud voice.

He took us to the Red Light District and here he explained its history before heading onto the Dutch East India Company, birthplace of modern capitalism, or so he said. He seemed to keep on saying 'fuck' a lot. This was not a family tour. 

As the tour went on there was a subtle shift in the way he gave it. At first he played the part of the loud, funny, Dutch young man. With time, however, he became slightly less funny and slightly quieter. The shift was not huge but it was noticeable. It felt as if he were playing a character at the beginning that was not precisely him but which was instead what the tourists wanted to see or, more to the point, the role that the company told him to play.

I also had the feeling he had been giving the tour just a bit too frequently. Every now and then he would forget what he was saying mid-sentence and go into auto-pilot. This is the nightmare moment for a guide: when you start waffling. He would usually catch himself quite quickly and we'd see just a second of him searching for his words. That second, when his guard was down, when he was not in character but really just himself, was something I started to quite enjoy watching out for. I had the feeling that this was when the tour was hitting against something solid.  

The tour was advertised as a free walking tour but it was not free in the sense of the free walking tours of Bath, which the guides refuse to take money for. This was free in the sense that you are meant to pay as much for it as you feel it is worth. What's more, I also spent 3 euros reserving my place online which I discovered, when I arrived at the start point, was unnecessary since most people just showed up without reserving. While it is still a popular and appreciated service, it might be better not to call it 'free'. Indeed during the interval in the tour, taken a city-centre cafe, there is some concentrated business with the selling of other tours and tickets onto the tourists. You can say this is all a part of the service of guiding people; they do need tips and advice on what to do and see after all. The thing is, this is not disinterested advice, the tips invariably gravitate towards companies and services with which the guides company has a business relation with. At one point in the tour the guide says the most important reason behind Amsterdam's tolerance was an almost exclusive focus on one question, "does it make money?" This tour company has a strategy in place that does indeed make money and it does so by drawing people in, particularly young people, with the label of 'free', and to then use the trust that is generated through the tour and turn that trust into euros. I also heard, from a different source, that the company works by charging the guides 2 or 3 euros for each of the tourists who start their tour. In this way the guide is under pressure to maximise the tips they get from the tourists and this shows in the way he is constantly pumping us and building up to the collection at the end. For a 'free' tour there was a conspicuously large amount of talk amount money.