historical images courtesy of the Berlin Archives
all contemporary images by S. Sherman and Kulturpark collaborators
In 1969, the GDR built Kulturpark Planterwald, an amusement fairgrounds in the sprawling Treptower Park in the center of East Berlin. Just minutes walk from the Soviet War Memorial, school children from Berlin and across the Eastern Bloc would visit the grand memorial to pledge allegiance to the Soviet state, and then were unleashed into the fairgrounds, where the highly unusual array of bright sights and sounds and smells helped to solidify their memory of this important day. Within the larger Treptower park forest, Kulturpark hosted rides, a market where fruits like bananas specially available, and exhibited socialist futures through architectural exhibitions and festivals. In the 80’s, Eastern punk bands, discouraged from Potsdammer Platz, were provided a place to perform on the outdoor stage. Once the tallest in Europe, the ferris wheel was one of the few sites of the East visible over the wall from the West, and from the top of the wheel–into the West from the East.
After the fall of the Wall, the whole of Treptower park was re-possessed by the city of Berlin, including the fairgrounds. The amusement park continued to be free and open to the public, with each ride owned by individual operators. The eastern Berliner ride operators struggled to maintain small operations as better capitalized Westerners pressured them to let go of their posts.
In 1995, the Berlin Senate sold the park grounds and surrounding forest to Norbert Witte, a budding fairground entrepreneur. The Witte family renamed the park Spreepark and fenced in the park grounds, establishing a one-ticket entry system. The Wittes developed the site, buying rides and attractions from other failed amusement parks, like Mirapolis in Paris, and eventually adding thrill rides and building new areas like Western World, the circus, tea cups, Cinema 2000, and the love boat ride–which was never complete. They imported plants and foliage foreign to the surrounding Treptow Forest, decorating the land with exotic species. It is rumored that the Wittes also organized an investment village providing homes for ride operators--who occupied their houses until the city eventually cut off water to the abandoned property.
Soon after the Witte family purchased the fairgrounds, the entire Treptower Park forest and landscape was designated a nature preserve, protecting it from further development. The Treptow district eliminated 3000 parking spaces, making it nearly impossible for Spreepark to make its attendance goals given its substantial walking distance from the Plänterwald and Treptower stations. Despite ongoing economic struggles, investment in new rides and attractions continued–the promise of a capital playground in Berlin’s midst.
In 2001, the park officially declared bankruptcy and shut its gates, with 15 million euros of debt on the land owed to the city and bank by the Witte family. Eager to escape their debt, the Wittes sent rides to Peru, with hopes of opening an amusement park in Lima. Complications with customs officials, deplenishing funds, and a Peruvian love affair caused the family to divide. Pia Witte, wife of Norbert Witte, returned to Germany with her daughters. Norbert remained in Peru with his son Marcel, and fell into accomplice with the Peruvian underworld after facing serious health issues. They shipped the rides back to Germany, and at port customs officials discovered 180 kg of cocaine tucked deep in the Magic Carpet Ride. Marcel was sentenced to 20 years in a Peruvian jail, while Norbert got away with a far lesser sentence. The Berlin newspaper der Spiegel helped to blemish the family name across Berlin and Germany.
Bankrupted, a separated Pia and Norbert Witte set up independent camps on the park property. Today, Norbert inhabits a trailer in the failed Western World, where he retains control over the rides and objects stored on the park lands. Pia, whose name was legally tied to land, remains infernally linked to the debt. Eventually the parkgrounds went under the security management of Gerde Emge, who, like many former Stasi prison guards of the East, established a security company that now manages myriad abandoned properties across Berlin. Together with Pia Witte, Gerd Emge now oversees the Spreepark property and its various evolutions, moving in uncertain legal terrain while trying to make money to buy favors that lessen Marcel’s difficulty in the Peruvian jail.
For many years after the Wittes returned to Berlin, the park remained inoperative. It became an overgrown jungle of foreign plants, nesting birds and forgotten rides. It became a destination for Berlin hipsters and punks and visitors, who hopped the fence cobbled together of wood and wire and barb and chain-link to write graffiti, capture treasures, and pass time amidst the ruins. Every now and then an article would come out in the Spiegel that a developer was proposing to transform the land into condos, or a rumor would circulate that the famous hipster Bar 25 was prospecting purchase of the park as its next locale. But despite growing interest and attention, the park just quietly waited, and was still waiting in 2009, while strange foliage grew amidst the amusement wreckage, and the Witte family struggled to realize the next course. The park lingers in the memory of Berliners, and every day the story passes from adventurer to voyeurs as fence jumpers confront modernity’s fate, and insert their ghost into the park’s future. Then the 2011 movie Hannah came out, and the park’s visual psychosis inhabited global imagination.
For many years the park was mostly collapsing and disappearing. For a long time, there was a sense that at any moment the bank might come and take the Wittes off the land. But finally enough time passed, the park began, slowly but surely, to reconnect with the world outside of its gates. It is right about that time, about ten years after the closing the Spreepark fence, that Kulturpark awoke from slumbers--and with it all of its predilections towards relativity, fate, and the deadlock of progress. The park wasn’t abandoned, only without the public for a while, as the family traversed this landscape while nature ran its course.
In 2007, George Scheer and I were visiting Berlin, and on the second to last day of our visit, we heard stories of park with the trees growing through the center of roller coasters. On Christmas eve, we took the S-bahn to the Treptower S-Bahn stop, walked along the Spree river and through the forest, and eventually hopped the fence to this park, taking photos and walking through fallen dinosaurs and on rides frozen in time. We were eventually kicked out by the lone security guard, who wished us a merry christmas in English on our way out.
Two years later, with a small grant for international artist research from the ArtMatters Foundation, we assembled a slightly larger team, and returned to the jungle of amusement ruins to investigate the poetics, politics, and possibilities of these captivating and contentious lands. We met with artists, curators, Treptow neighbors, architects, and planners to discuss the park’s past, presences, and future. We met with the security guarde Emge, who gave us a private tour of his gardens. He presented promise for a creative event--they were starting slowly to do public events at the park--with an upcoming techno party and theater production as trial runs for events. He also cautioned that the bank could repossess the park at any moment, so there was never any guarentee. The American team, dreaming with Berliners, imagined a project activating the still-working train ride traversing the park and storying the history through light, sound, projection, and music.
Back for a second year of research, to our surprise the gates to the park entrance were open, and the main assembly area populated by chairs and tables amidst rescued dinosaurs and some of the Sneaky rides. Cafe Mythos was open for business selling coffee beer and german snacks, with claw-arm games up and operating. For those Treptower park adventurers who followed the fence along the Spree around inside the forest, they found a hidden living wonderland with people sleepily leisuring in the summer sun at park tables. After so many conversations with Berlin architects, designers, philosophers, artists, neighbors, planners, and park security, we were convinced to host a public event throughout the entire park. We opened a call to Berlin-based creatives to propose projects activating the park, and assembled a vast network of Berlin-based artists and American institutions as collaborators. We began organizing for a large public event, and won a $25,000 kickstarter campaign to cover part of the project costs.
The project of hosting a public event in the park, however, was turning out to be more and more complicated at every single step. The interests of Berlin-based artists, neighbors, the district, park family, and security were changing incredible quickly, and mounting pressures of time, permits, economy, local and national politics. translations, and social dynamics amongst the group and team quickly become almost impossible to navigate. The team juggled the myriad interests of artists, with conflicting motivations of intervention, instigation, and insights into future possibilities. Meanwhile conversations with Emge and the family resulted in an ever-changing series of mounting requirements and changes to the costs and contracts. These constantly changing factors made it possible to plan the project properly, and time was ticking while family delays and mixed messages created a myriad miasma of interests and investments. Conversations with those who had previously rented the park who were now in legal litigations made the prospects of park rental seem incredibly risky for a team of five american individuals with no Berlin sponsor willing to put themselves on the line for such shady dealings.
The team ultimately decided not to rent the park, instead rallying artists and collaborators to perform research projects on the periphery and perimeter of the park, and in its already-open public plaza. These projects included a think tank at the city hall and within the park grounds, look out points across the fence, a 48 hour radio broadcast, dinner gatherings, an encampment in the nearby forest, love stations, energy studies, a spreeriver boat to a dj parties across the spree, and a lightening storm that only nature could realize. A class of elementary school students toured the park, an english tour was held with park historian Christopher Falade,
Originally prospected to culminate in a large public opening, the Kulturpark production process realized an encounter with entrenched political values, impossible coincidences, infrastructural poetics, and fiscal risks, but also highlighted the rises and falls of timing, relativity, miasmatics, the state of abandonment, and the inevitability of capital development. Spending countless hours with and in the park, the team lived first-hand the Soviet round and round and the capital up and down--a veritable roller coaster, both mechanized like industry and naturally cyclic, like the planetary alignments to be found at the nearby Archenhold Observatory, where Einstein first gave his speech on relativity using the example of moving trains.
Amusement is terrifying. Amusement parks are early childhood encounters with relativity, and they rely on the terror of the turn to persist. It is the glee of being freed from one’s body, the risk of death. In this way, after the sun goes down, amusement parks have always been haunted by echoes of the pleasure of the machine, of the light and energy of our nightmares. They have been places for escape out of culture and into aura. This particular site seems is haunted by the natural forces working against it, the political context in which it emerged and the bad luck of failed dreams associated again and again. It meanwhile remains a landscape of awareness--of the destiny of all systems. It reminds us of what might be possible if our cultural ruins became landscapes for social imagination instead of bulldozed for pleasure capital.
As our friend Daniel Sieple says, the fence is the new ride.
Originally prospected to culminate in a large public opening Kulturpark instead confronted the competing interests of Berlin-based artists, neighbors, the district, park family, and security. The stories therein not only reflect entrenched political values, impossible coincidences, infrastructural poetics, and fiscal risks, but the rises and falls of timing, relativity, miasmatics, the state of abandonment, and the inevitability of capital development. Spending countless ours with and in the park, we lived first-hand the Soviet round and round and the capital up and down--a veritable rollercoaster.
The park occupies not only a special interior on the inside of its gates, but is located in the center of an East Berlin forest with a strange history. It was a place for solidifying Soviet allegience for schoolchildren, Just down the road at the Archenhold Observatory, 50 years before Einstein gave his first lecture on relativity. Amusement parks indeed are early childhood encounters with relativity, this phenomenon.
The park is now almost completely woken, with train rides on the weekend, the operable Cafe Mythos, and more interest than ever in future development. Thanks to a large group of Kickstarter backers, the project is now being composed as a publication, movie, board game, and a series of intractable memories, glints on the Spree passing across the end of a century of leisure capital.
As our friend Daniel Sieple says, the fence is the new ride.