Berlin Bodies – published by Reaktion Books in April 2017



The human body as an entity in city space forms an intensively contested presence. Contemporary megalopolises comprise arenas in which bodies project gestures and obsessions into urban terrains while undergoing city-generated processes of transformation, disintegration and vanishing. Berlin – from its abrupt acceleration as a megalopolis at the twentieth century’s origins to its contemporary form as an amalgam of historical scars and digital environments – is the perfect immersive site in which to explore the imperatives and excesses of ongoing rapports between corporeality and urban space. New anatomical forms and unprecedented urban visions had to be repeatedly created – and destroyed – in Berlin, across the twentieth century, to enable the dynamic interplay between corporeal and city space to take on its extraordinary manifestations. Berlin Bodies draws extensive, previously neglected and original material from the city’s archives of vision and sound to interrogate the uniquely body-instilled streets of Berlin and their strata, in such cultures as those of riots, ruins, nightclubs, crowds, architectural experiments, subjugations, city-traversing spectacles, film, art, performance, skin-inscriptions, and ‘extremophile’ existences. It also examines the ways in which the forms of fragments and constellations have been deployed as seminal means to trace the interzones between bodies and cities. Berlin Bodies is the first cultural history of the body in Berlin, across the twentieth century and into the contemporary moment with its newly urgent corporeal demands and re-envisionings. Based on a quarter-century of close observations of Berlin, this book will be compelling interdisciplinary reading for those engaged with cities, space, visual and digital media, and those for whom Berlin and its multiple histories present an infinite source of insights for contemporary urban cultures.


the city-dead

Caught in the present moment, Berlin bodies now hold, project and perform the accumulated city-dead. The entirety of Berlin’s city-dead – permeated to the bones by the city which also often destroyed or subjugated them – are intimately layered into its contemporary anatomies, so that those present bodies compulsively disgorge and gesture-out the city-dead, in a unique manifestation of the conjunction between corporeal space and city space, between corporeal time and city time, which exists in no other amassing of bodies, in no other city.

The dead are more living than the living, in Berlin. The living are not really deeply there yet, until they are dead. The conjunction of the human body and the city invariably forms a zone of dense interconnections, of subterranean conduits and ligamental musculatures, moving in near-simultaneous oscillation in one direction and then its reverse, and projected through performances, images, textual traces and histories. Often, the body cannot be disentangled from the city, or the city from the body, except at the moment of death. The body may always direct and conduct any city, in the way that, in the Soviet Union in 1922-23, in an extreme instance, the sound-artist Arseny Avraamov, displayed on a raised platform, used flaming torches held overhead in both hands to conduct the factory sirens and accumulated weaponry of Baku and Moscow for his Symphony of Sirens; generals or dictators in warfare may also order the comprehensive razings of cities, as Hitler did for Paris in 1944. The city itself, in an infinity of historical instances, can also choreograph and conduct the human body, individually and in its amassings, in complicity or against its will, and impel it, as in the contemporary moment, via digital devices and screens, to move through urban arteries and dimensions. But in Berlin, above all cities, the city-dead form the vital anatomical conductors and manipulators of urban transformations and bodies’ manoeuvres.

When urban cinematographers first entered the body-packed open spaces and avenues of Berlin, from 1896, and positioned their devices within those sites, along Unter den Linden, at the Hallesches Tor, and in the Alexanderplatz, they recorded faces and figures instantaneously cognisant, as they looked at the film-camera lens, of their own deaths. Film animates the city-dead, in the very moment of their bodies’ seizing via celluloid, through sequences of images. Faces never ignore the film-camera, in such sequences. Instead, they eye the film-camera, directly or askance, in puzzlement and amusement, and thereby counter or intensify that device’s capacity. With gestures of recognition, and with nuances of delight and joy, those figures and faces perform their own status as the imminently city-dead, soon to be projected on screens, or archived-away in image vaults. In such visualisations, history embodies the city-dead.

Bodies may be dispatched in massive consignments from the city for their erasure, as in the sending of much of Berlin’s young male population of the First World War years for their slaughter, and in the transportation of stigmatised populations corralled, three decades later, in freight-train carriages, from the platforms of the Grunewald railway station, and other Berlin stations, to destinations at Nazi work-camps and death-camps. Every such transported body is precipitated elsewhere, towards whatever site its expulsion towards death took it, and simultaneously remains still there for all time in the city. But such bodies were also often fixed in stasis, for their mass-rendering into the city-dead, as in the immense aerial incinerations of 1943-44, and the killings of those who either would not or could not flee from the Soviet army’s invasion of April 1945, and thereby became engulfed by it. Berlin bodies may also become the city-dead through an act (or arrested act) of momentary traversal, as in the figures attempting to cross the walled ‘death-strips’ or equally lethal waterways between East and West Berlin, in the decades of the city’s division. Berlin bodies’ riotous crossings of the city in protest may also transmutate them into the city-dead, at the hands of police or security agents, in the arena of demonstrations, from the 1950s to the present moment. The generation of the city-dead is not always a spectacular process; it may also occur with maximal mundanity, but still leave unprecedented residues.

The city itself can appear to be living, but may really be dead, or be carrying its deaths within itself, as in the East Berlin half-city that existed, with its gestures, languages and images, and its urban rituals, from the end of the 1940s to the end of the 1980s, and then abruptly became a dead-body city, both in the remembering of its bodies, and also in that lost city’s ineradicable projection via the contemporary city. The more that the pasts of a dead-body city are actively forgotten, the more they carry the potential imminently to infiltrate and resurge through the phantasmatic fabric of the contemporary city’s apparitions.

Berlin remains inhabited by its infinite dead, and by the multiple media of their deaths. Envisioning the history of that city invariably forms an evocation of corporealities – momentarily enclosed within edifices and subterraneas, or exposed on plazas, and always in place for an instant that is already changed, blurred, or gone – in which the city-dead remain the initial and finally-enduring presences, the primary and terminal components, the first and last to speak, the first to appear and the last to leave, through the cracked-open mouth of the city. This book forms an exploratory history of Berlin bodies that incorporates the city-dead as well as – and embedded within – the city’s contemporary sensations and visions: fragments around urban anatomies, torn from the streets of Berlin. It proposes that the cultural history of a city, exemplified above all by Berlin, is always primarily one of human bodies and their projections, visions and archivings – in incessant transit between memory and oblivion – and only secondarily one of architecture, media and power.

Berlin, Lenin-Denkmal am Leninplatz