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Cover of “This in Berlin Not New York” DVD

I joined Hyperallergic editor and fellow street art enthusiast, Hrag Vartanian, to discuss the recent film about the Antagonist Art Movement titled “This is Berlin Not New York.” This very indie film is directed by Ethan H. Minsker and follows the adventures of the New York-based art group as they travel to Berlin to participate in an exhibition and explore one of the world’s hot spots of contemporary art.

An edited transcript of our conversation is below but make up your own mind this Saturday night (Oct. 17) as the film is being screened at Anthology Film Archives.

Check out the the trailer on YouTube (01:25).

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Hrag Vartanian: I have to admit that I watched the Antagonist Art Movement’s DVD twice and I was somewhat confused by its point…what do you think it was?

Elizabeth Spier: One of the group members explains at the end of the movie that they documented their time in Berlin “to express the poetry of what [they’re] doing in a non-traditional way.” Well, if we are to take that literally I think most viewers will be pretty disappointed. While their organization may be non-traditional, there wasn’t very much about the movie that seemed very challenging or unconventional to me.

HV: But I was kind of surprised that it would be in a DVD format. I mean there’s nothing unconventional about that and to be honest I don’t even own a DVD player other than my computer. Did you find the characters engaging?

ES: A few of the artists bring up some good points — Ted Riederer in particular raised questions about the social usefulness of street art. For me, he was the person who made parts of the movie accessible to a wide audience. Who did you find compelling?

A still from “This is Berlin Not New York” from one of the many animated sequences.

HV: I found the people generally interesting, I can’t say one person stood out, but I don’t know if I liked their art much with the exception of the animation which I found wonderful. My favorite parts of the movie were the ones which integrated animation; that was engaging for me.

ES: Yes — that was the closest it got to “non-traditional.”

HV: My least favorite part was the generalizations about German or European and American culture. I thought those comments were trite and I think they knew that too but they included them anyway. I really wanted to like the film but I found it rife with hypocrisy. They had a disdain for corporatism but embraced one of its most distinctive features, branding. The Antagonists are branded up the wazoo, jackets, stickers, publications, etc. That seemed strange for such an “unconventional” group.

ES: Those sections did seem to undermine their attempts to connect to similar art movements in Berlin. Especially the part where one member stands on the street and tries to sell T-shirts! It seemed to drag on and on without any point at all.

HV: What was your favorite part?

A still from the film depicting an artistic intervention at an abandoned building in Berlin.

ES: Probably when they take over the abandoned building and fill it with their work. That section of the movie featured each artist and his/her work individually, so I finally got a sense of why these artists are producing work and what their creative processes look like. You also get a break from the dynamics of the group which got to be a bit annoying after a while.

HV: I agree. I preferred when each artist was allowed to sing individually. I also wished they identified some of the work they shot. I didn’t even know who made what. It seemed to be a disservice to the art.

ES: It’s unfortunate, too, that this is a movie about a movement but the individual artists came through the best. That aspect left me feeling a little unsettled by the end…I wanted so much more from the movie. What do you think about the title?

HV: I thought it was cute but I didn’t understand how Berlin was that much different. It was a tourism film that could have easily been shot in a part of Brooklyn or the Bronx where street artists aren’t hounded the way they are in lower Manhattan. Did you find Berlin so compelling as a result of seeing the film?

ES: No. I have no better understanding of Berlin now. I wish they had featured more engagement with the city and its artists.

HV: I really found that Berlin collective/squatters, “World Vacation,” interesting but the art didn’t seem all that interesting.

ES: That point is briefly mentioned at the end of the movie: Ted remarks that the work of the Antagonist Art Movement isn’t all that visually compelling, but rather that the mission of the movement and the process behind the work are what’s beautiful. This, for me, is the most striking problem with the movie: those ideas of mission and process are sorely lacking.

HV: Did you read their manifesto online?

ES: I did and I was surprised that they strongly deny being a political group in the movie. The manifesto certainly seems political to me. What do you think: are they political?

An endorsement that is used in the film’s trailer.

HV: They aren’t commercial but they brand themselves. They want to battle the forces of “commercialists” but they act like some type of corporate entity. I thought they should’ve ditched the DVD idea and created a podcast or online video to be honest. They are definitely utopian but I didn’t quite get what they were striving for.

ES: It seems like they’re advocating creative expression from anyone and everyone, but in that case I’d expect more outreach to others outside of their small art community.

The art events they hold in New York, like one night exhibitions and writers’ nights, seem to do this more effectively than the movie. And the idea of a podcast or online video also squares better with this “mission.”

HV: That’s true. How can they argue that art should be everywhere and then only be an “art” group. In this regard the ideals of William Morris in the late 19th C. seem more on the mark. He engaged a whole class of Anglo-American society to create. And yes, their New York events are more in line with what they profess to represent.

* * *

This is Berlin, Not New York (March 2009) is being screened this Saturday, October 17 at 9:30pm at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue at 2nd Street) as part of the Royal Flush Festival. You can also buy a copy on Amazon here.

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Elizabeth Spier

Elizabeth Spier, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, moved to Brooklyn after spending several years in Minneapolis where she studied art history and philosophy at Macalester College. She is now finishing her graduate work at the Institute of Fine...