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May we suggest

Features / April 23, 2014

Notes on a Toronto/Berlin State of Mind

In 2010, three years before I left Toronto for Berlin, my neighbourhood of Queen West was suddenly overtaken with rows and rows of the same poster, stark white save for a hastily sketched line drawing of a face, and the word “Andrew” scrawled underneath it.

I was never sure what to make of this poster—while it didn’t refer to anything apart from itself, I had at this point become used to “urban guerilla” advertising tactics from the new condo developments that were choking the neighbourhood. Abstract images made to look like grainy Xeroxes that, upon closer inspection, acted as tacky ambassadors for behemoths like the Bohemian Embassy, were par for the visual course on an amble down and around Queen Street West. But the image of Andrew was different: it was softer, quieter, hesitant and uncertain in its indirect gaze and scribbled hatch-marks.

The omnipresence of Andrew became less and less novel as the months went by, and he soon disappeared into the general visual noise of the neighbourhood. Other wheatpasters and drunken hipsters and graffiti taggers soon descended on the multitude of Andrews, ripping chunks away, giving him a monobrow or a moustache or makeup, or branding his head with a swastika, putting words in his mouth or juxtaposing him with slogans.

I’d never bothered to find out for myself where the posters came from (much less who might have made them, or what they might have meant) until I was situated in Berlin. A casual conversation with artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay revealed that he had contributed to an artist’s book for something called The Andrew Project, and all of a sudden, like a flashback in an Agatha Christie TV adaptation, all the missing pieces were revealed.

The posters—more than 1,000 in total—were part of the project by artist Shaan Syed. The eponymous Andrew (last name Hull) was a partner of Syed’s who died in a bicycle accident in 2010, and The Andrew Project was his commemoration, which spanned three cities: Toronto, where the pair had lived; Berlin, which Syed frequently visits and where Andrew had resided; and London, where the pair had once lived together, and where Syed is currently based.

In Toronto and Berlin, Syed’s process was more or less the same: the artist, sometimes accompanied by friends, would go out into the city on foot, by bike or by truck and put up as many posters in as many places as possible. In London, Syed hired someone to poster for him.

On April 5, I attended the launch of the Andrew Project publication at Galerie Michael Janssen in Berlin. The book catalogues Andrew posters in various states of destruction and dereliction. It is accompanied by a series of essays, each by a different contributor (not all of them artists). None of the texts address the project directly; rather, they glace off the project in thematic obliqueness (think: essays on memory, on vandalism, on loss, on speech bubbles).

Syed gave a brief artist’s talk, which was followed by The Sex Was Over, a Ramsay piece for sound, video and dancer—this evening featuring dancer/choreographer Jeremy Wade. The room went dark, and a video began to play as Wade danced to a throbbing techno beat: a disembodied voice pitched downward read the text onscreen. It narrated the drug trip of a man named Hugo at Berghain, the infamous Berlin nightclub. Hugo is gripped by loss and nostalgia, and in his chemical reverie, imagines himself rewinding time via his dancing.

Hugo as narrator, and The Sex Was Over in general, iterates a series of undoings, and undoings of undoings: the spontaneous reappearance of the Storkower Strasse bridge and the Palast der Republik; the erasing of the glaring concrete glitz of Potsdamerplatz; the evaporation of the tacky Alexa shopping mall at Alexanderplatz, the de-yuppifying of Prenzlauerberg; a reversal of the development of Berlin to “when the city was still an open wound,” a place where “the air felt thick with ghosts”; ghosts that were still actively haunting, rather than merely being a charming feature that continues to attract scores of international itinerants (myself included).

Both aspects of the evening were intensely personal—the gruelling process of memorialization, exhumation and desecration implied in The Andrew Project, and the aching nostalgia of Ramsay’s video—and it is impossible for me to react to either in any other manner. Syed’s project, in its mass-produced reiterations, defined the visual landscape of my life in Toronto and ended the year I moved to Berlin. And Ramsay’s work poignantly encapsulates the spiritual landscape of the city I now call home.

I myself was haunted by many things when I moved here, including the sense that I was trying to gain entry to a club just when the line-up was at its longest, so to speak. Generations of artists have moved and continue to move here precisely to enmesh themselves in the messy tangle of improvised life that the city promises, and we have each found a different version of it.

I never knew the Berlin that Ramsay’s artwork speaks of, and I never will (although the echo of its legend is one of the things that pulled me here). And Ramsay’s vanished Berlin is wildly different than, say, Attila Richard Lukacs’s Berlin, still segmented by the wall and the Cold War. What will the city be, and what promise will it hold for artists ten years hence, when gentrification, embodied by people exactly like myself, has had its way with it?

Both The Andrew Project and The Sex Was Over ruminate on haunting and loss—an effect heightened when experienced in a single evening. The memento mori of Andrew presents a dead partner irrupting into the present and simultaneously succumbing to the entropic erasure of vandalism. Ramsay’s longing for the ghosts of yore offers a catalogue of memories whose locales have succumbed to the entropic erasure of progress.

While both artworks demonstrate the importance of moving on, neither do so with ease or comfort.

Sholem Krishtalka is a Canadian artist and critic based in Berlin.

Sholem Krishtalka

Sholem Krishtalka is an artist currently living in Berlin. His work has been shown in Canada, the US and Europe. Recent exhibitions include “Them” (Perrotin Gallery, New York) and “Sex Life” (SAW Gallery, Ottawa). Upcoming exhibitions include “Intimacy: Queer Art from Berlin and Beyond” (Schwules Museum, Berlin).