Michael Schindhelm: “There’s an aspect of Dubai to be found all over the world”

St Petersburg | 04.07.2011
Writer, playwright, and director Michael Schindheim was invited by PROJECT BALTIA to give a lecture at the New Museum in St Petersburg on July 4th, 2011. Born in the German Democratic Republic, Schindhelm studied quantum chemistry at Voronezh, and has become one of the most eminent ‘cultural managers’ of today.  He was director of theatres in Nordhausen, Gera, Altenburg,Berlin, and Basel, before heading for several years the Ministry of Culture and Arts in Dubai. Schindhelm’s impressions of his time in this job are the subject of his recent book, Dubai High. At our lecture Michael talked of the culture and identity of Dubai and other developing cities. Following the lecture, he was kind enough to answer questions put by PROJECT BALTIA.

   

It’s an interesting coincidence that today is Independence Day in the US. So I’d like to start by asking you about independence in general. Do you think that in our globalized world we can still seriously discuss such things as the independence of cities or even countries? 

I think there is nothing absolute. The conditions of your independence definitely depend on what you are free from and what you are free to do. And in our conditions today it is extremely important to discuss what are you free to do. It is more important today than it used to be in the past, when such a high value was put on independence and being free from something was the most important thing and discussion of what this independence was actually for came afterwards. I think today it is very important for many societies to define their relationship to other societies, to develop something like a new form of sovereignty which is a kind of balance between dependence and independence.

  Due to globalization we are all, of course, interconnected. Last October I was in North Korea and travelled around for a week. In North Korea you find almost total independence because nobody is in touch with this country anymore. But total independence like that which exists in North Korea leads only to total failure. North Korea shows how important it actually is to be dependent today, to be a part of a global form of communication. But it is also important to be an equal partner in that communication. And that makes it crucial to find a role which maintains your independence but allows you to be globally dependent at the same time.

 

OK, let’s move from talking globally about nations and cities to the personal level of individual human beings. You yourself have become a kind of nomad, working in very different conditions doing different jobs, and travelling all the time around the world. Have you managed to keep your identity as a German, for example?

 

All of this became clear to me the first time when I came to Soviet Union in 1979. I was just 18, and that was the first time I had lived outside my own country. And I had to learn that outside of my home country I had to put my cards on the table and say who I am. When you are at home you do not have to tell everyone all the time that you are German. But when I came to the USSR I spoke almost no Russian, and when I was asked where I came from, I immediately felt my involvement in special relationships to my native country. I was studying in Voronezh, a city which had been almost completely destroyed by my grandfather’s generation. So I was a representative of Germany, and of course I was aware of that before I came, but they are, you know, very different things – to be aware of something and to feel it. We speak about our skin as something very close to our identity. In German we say ‘we take our skin to the market’, meaning that this is the identity that we show other people. Your skin is something you can not change. You can change your language, but you cannot change your skin (of course, I’m not talking about plastic surgery here). So when I came to Russia, I understood how much it matters to have a relationship to your identity and to the identity of your homeland if you intend to keep your bearings outside your home country.

  Later on, when I moved to Switzerland, I also learned that this small nation also has an ambivalent relationship to big Germany. And I was again representing a larger context than just my own individual relationships with Switzerland.   Then I lived in Dubai together with my companion, Aurore Belkin, who is half Canadian and half French… So I’ve lived more than two thirds of my adult life outside Germany. I no longer consider Germany my only home country. And I almost don’t use my native language except in writing. But paradoxically this is my most important tool as a writer…. However, while living outside Germany, I spend all the time explaining to people where I’m from. So in a way I have to be a representative of Germany.  

 

A person’s identity is a matter not just of nationality, but also of his or her occupation. How was it that you went from studying chemistry to working as a theatre director and then as a culture advisor to various famous architects and at Strelka Institute in Moscow?

 

I probably have to admit that I’m not a very good example of anything. Although to a certain extent maybe I am, in the sense that the way I’ve switched professions shows that today we are no longer supposed to do any one thing for all of our lives. Your generation, the generation of my kids – people 20-30 years old – have grown up with a notion of change, of a person’s CV being divided into distinct chapters. When you study today, you have to understand that it is not necessarily for all your life, and you always have to keep an eye on other opportunities. Your life does not only offer one option. You have to force yourself to consider several options.

    That was not the case when I started studying and afterwards. The main reason why this happened in my case – and I belong to a generation in which most people were used to the idea that they would work all their lives in a single profession – was that the taking down of the wall in Germany made it necessary for me to start my professional life all over again. After 1989 (at the time I was working as a translator and writer) I immediately realized that I could not keep on living the way I had lived before. I had to reinvent myself as a professional. I became a theatre director almost by coincidence. It is impossible to plan change in your life because so much depends on the environment you have to live in. The breaking of the East German political system was a totally unexpected thing. And once you accept this change and learn how to look at things from scratch again, you’re halfway to being able to change your profession.   I started running the theatre almost immediately after the tearing down of the wall, and I told everyone that this was a new thing for me and that I was having to learn it while on the job.

 

This sounds like Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game and the idea of a continuous overcoming of oneself. And the other change in your biography is that you have started working with architects. How did this happen?

 

My first encounter with architects was actually with Herzog and de Meuron. They have been good friends of mine for almost 15 years. We met when I moved to Switzerland and was running the theatre in Basel. It was 1994 or 1995. And later on, I shot a film on their work on the Beijing National Stadium. Over four and half years I had a chance to shoot the entire process of the making of that building, but not only the making. From the beginning I was interested in the whole context. When we talk about the Olympic Games inBeijing, we are talking about the most powerful emerging country, we are talking about politics, and also about the involvement of artists who are key figures in Western art and also in the intellectual opposition. The film was also about the position of the architect as global player.

  For H&M this was something new. Today, of course, this is a more familiar experience: travelling to different countries, opening offices and hiring people with different cultural backgrounds in a politically unstable environment where you don’t really know what you have to face in terms of decision-making or future political implications. All of this I was also trying to show in my movie, together with the complexity and difficulty of truly independent thinking. As you know, Switzerland tries to have a very special relationship with the rest of the world, and this is something that is very often represented by its citizens. Herzog and de Meuron are a good example: on one hand, they went to Beijing to develop this building, but at the same time they were extremely frustrated about many situations that they had to face during the process. And after it became clear that project was a success, they decided not to do further business withChina.   At the same time I met Rem Koolhaas and later on, when I was working in Dubai – which became a playground for new urban development and architecture – I invited him to collaborate. Over two and a half years I worked in Dubai in the government and was one of the initiators and conceptualists of what they now call the Culture and Arts Authority of Dubai, which today has several hundred employees. And one of the issues was the development of the physical infrastructure for culture. And for that purpose I invited architects; Rem was one of them. He was already working on some other projects in Dubai. And when we met, he immediately understood what I wanted. Dubai was a quite ambiguous place where everything was commercialized, but at the same time you could see the potential of something that goes beyond that. You could see that it is really a narrative for a new type of urban communication. And on top of that, there was a need for immediate action. It was not about building big-big things like Dubai always did, but trying to be maybe ridiculously modest but doing things fast to make them happen. Trying to be a catalyst. I would say that Rem is the only architect who is himself sometimes ridiculously modest. He thought it would be great to develop something that would not be what is called ‘iconic architecture’, but that would serve the immediate needs of the city.  Zaha Hadid was another story. She was supposed to design the opera house in Dubai. There is actually another movie you can find where Zaha and I spent a day together in Dubai talking about what we were doing there. As you know, she is from Iraq, an Arabian lady from a very specific family, and being with her in an Arabian city was a very interesting experience.

 

There has been a lot of criticism of the development of Dubai. For instance, there’s Mike Davis’s famous description of the city’s image as ‘Walt Disney meets Albert Speer on the shores of Araby’. After the crisis of 2008 Dubai was called ‘a lost opportunity’ for contemporary urban development. Do you think there is still hope that this megalopolis will grow into a better place?

 

A major part of the criticism on Dubai has certainly been proofed by reality. However, I think we need to give more time to such cities before we sentence them to death. Cities last longer than one generation and we should try to be a little bit more historical. We should understand, for example, that a crisis is almost inevitably important for the growth of a city. A city without a crisis will never become mature. Dubai growing, growing, growing, eating people, concrete and glass all the time would be a monster we would probably rather not see.  Of course, there was a bubble in Dubai, like in other cities too, but at the same time overspending capacities, making mistakes, neglect of market research are all part of becoming more mature. Looking at Dubai today, you can, of course, see that some things are not working out, but at the same time the city has become more mature. If you look at people who live there today, you find they are more aware of the risks of living in a place like Dubai. There was a time when people were just throwing away money in cities such as Dubai. The city’s population has been partly replaced and partly been educated by the harsh reality of the crisis. Social aspects have become more relevant, Today Dubai displays less frivolity and more fragility.

  As I said during the lecture, Dubai was and still is an alternative to most Arabian cities. Socially, people do better there than anywhere else in this part of the world. And at the same time, this is no longer just hype. It is post-hype – which means it is more a lasting reality. In fact, reality is sometimes harder to bear than dreams (which have until now been a glittering metaphor for Dubai).   However, of course, Dubai is close to Iran, Pakistan and other dangerous countries. You never know what will happen there. Personally, I believe that much that happens in Dubai deserves to be criticized. But it should be given a chance to evolve. I have travelled a lot throughout the entire region and wherever I’ve been – Morocco, Egypt, or Jordan, or wherever – when I told people that I come from Dubai, they would say: this is what we wish, this is what we would like to have in our country too.

 

Are you satisfied with the results of your activities as ‘an ideologist of architecture’, as you called yourself during the lecture, in Dubai – a place which initially seemed not to need any culture at all, being totally involved in quick moneymaking? Do the people who work at the Arts and Culture Authority of Dubai now follow your programme?

 

Well, I have to say that our major construction and development projects failed, mainly because of the financial crisis, but also because of too rapid development. I think culture needs more time. It doesn’t grow overnight. It is not like opening another shopping mall or even an airport. I was thinking that as long as the city was growing very fast, culture would inevitably grow very slowly. Now the city is growing slowly, and culture has more opportunities. As I said during the lecture, some of our projects were trying to make things easier and more affordable for artists. Because, as we know, the most expensive cities are not necessarily the most creative ones. Cities like Berlin, for example, are extremely cheap, but they are not doing at all well economically. I was the director general of its three opera houses with public funding of 120 million Euro annually. But Berlin has debts like no other city in Germany. At the same time, it is the most creative place in Central Europe and one of the most creative in the world. So you see that the relationship between money and creativity is often reciprocal. Dubai had lots of money and little creativity. To change that, I wouldn’t suggest throwing away all the money. But what happened is exactly this. The crisis wiped out vast amounts of capital. And the city became much more affordable for artists. That is not so much a result of my personal involvement, but I have to admit that today the conditions for arts and culture in Dubai are far better than they were 5 years ago.

  However, what we have achieved is that today there is an organization for culture in place and also there are many local initiatives. And the entire notion of culture has completely changed compared to the mid 2000s. And personally this has been a funny adventure. My book, Dubai High, recounts some crazy experiences that befall Westerners like me when they come to the city as a complete alien. There was a misunderstanding of what culture is for.

 

Do you mean other people from other countries who form the international mix that lives in Dubai?

 

No, I mean the locals. They thought that culture is another marketing tool to brand the city. And this is definitely not the case. Of course, culture can contribute to this. But you have to have another reason for developing it. You have to engage people and make it affordable for artists; otherwise culture will not work and you will have just another Las Vegas. And I’m pretty sure that even Las Vegashas some parts where creativity is affordable; and that’s why it works.

  I was going to ask you to compare Dubai and St Petersburg, but you did it yourself during the lecture. It is true that our Venice of the North can probably be called the Dubai of the 18th century. But we have to take into consideration that there is a certain paradigm of how a city can look, and Petersburg is of course a classical city; it took its inspiration from the past. Dubai with its skyscrapers is inspired by the future.   I think St Petersburg was not merely a repetition of existing models. It went beyond that. I think it was in many ways avant-garde, and in the context not just of Russia, but also of Europe. You could say that in the 18th century St Petersburg probably had a stronger urban quality than cities such as Berlin. But what is more important is that we should understand that the problem of the city is not something given. And it really is possible to import a paradigm and change it to something else. St Petersburg was not merely a citation of a Western city, but it provoked within the vast Russian context a reconsideration of Russia’s identity, and this was decisive for the country’s attempt to modernize. And how would it be in the case of Dubai is hard to predict. But what is already happening today is that the pretention of an urban place in the desert involves so many consequences. The political implications and new forms of cultural expression will somehow intangibly spread all over the world, even without speaking about Dubai. You can imagine that even in the 21st century there are still some leading urban formations representing somehow the whole thing. I would say that Dubaishows what will be the future of a city in completely different climatic conditions (and this is also important for St Petersburg: climate makes these cities distinctive). But apart from that it is important to understand that there is a part of Dubai that you can find almost everywhere today – a type of globalization. Foreigners overwhelming the local population, a completely different take on the question of identity, and artificiality of environment. So I think that Dubai is a kind of laboratory showing us what is happening in our own traditional cities today. You can find a piece of Dubai everywhere.

 

I believe we can speak of Dubai as a representation of the Global City. But there are also other representations: Astana, for example. So can we say that these territories function as a testing ground for the development of European cities?

 

For the city in general, and in particular for Western cities, which are always considered to be fully made and accomplished. And they are not. As we can see.

 

 

Interview by Vladimir Frolov, Photography by Alisa Gill 

  

  PROJECT BALTIA is grateful to Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design for help in organizing this lecture 

 

 

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