Close to Home – Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! The Sounds of Abandoned Berlin

Living on campus on the first floor of Treskowstrasse 25 (or in affectionate shorthand, T25) is an exercise in constant human interaction, in which the concept of privacy does not really exist. The bathroom is usually the only unoccupied space in the apartment, and my flatmates have found me more than once sitting on the floor there, chatting on the phone. There is of course my bedroom, but my window faces the courtyard almost exactly at eye level, so that the world—or at the least the world of BCB—has a front row seat into my life. Anyone who cares to can contact me by knocking at the window. Anybody in need of a key or a lighter, anybody trying to hangout, anybody just passing by who triggers the motion light outside. I think it’s wonderful – sometimes. There’s nothing quite like chatting with a friend from the comfort of one’s own bed, just by opening and leaning out of the window. When the time comes to say goodbye, there’s no having to trek home or walk someone to the door, no time before that heaven that is getting home. I’m already there, comfortable and out of the rain which, I’ve gotta say, better stop soon. Berlin, please

But comfort isn’t everything. Adventure calls. Across the courtyard, down a flight of stairs and into the damp and only intermittently illuminated basement, the buzz of people and birds, fresh air and even, miraculously, the rain, all disappears. Replaced only by the droning of the washing machines, the pitter patter of water droplets on metal, and the echoing of one’s own footsteps within the brick mazes, othing speaks, nothing moves, nothing breathes. Except, somehow, the building itself. Today, I visit for something more than the usual laundry excursion. I’ve been tasked with collecting sounds. Outfitted with a Zoom recorder, I tap metal pipes, crawl behind the washing machines, play with a lonesome bike left in the corner, and generally get up to shenanigans. All this will be mixed together into a soundscape for a class called Practice-Based Sound Studies, taught by Jeremy Woodruff. In capturing environmental sounds and placing them into unexpected combinations, a new and potentially impossible scene can be constructed. For example, the sounds of birdsong can be combined with the creaking of pipes in a way that would rarely occur ‘naturally.’ I was very interested in the idea of decaying and forgotten places, spaces where a kind of rewilding can occur. The mechanical and metallic compositions of the T25 basement seemed to me a human creation which was also rarely visited and barely curated, in the sense that no one person has selected or given much conscious thought to the things which inhabit this space, other than the washing machines. Even though those of us who live in the building do go there regularly, we spend little time in the space; the T25 laundry room is, in some sense, abandoned.

My original plan for urban exploration had been much grander. I had dreams of jumping fences, climbing through windows, and breaking open locks among the truly abandoned haunts of Berlin. Maybe the old Iraqi embassy to the DDR in Pankow, left behind at a moment’s notice with government paperwork scattered in the halls, or the Spreepark where the amusement rides have taken on a bit of rust and extra thrill. Even the straight-out-of-a-nightmare Stasi hotel hiding in the woods with who knows what inside. There’s a lot to see if you’re willing to jump through some hoops (and windows) to get there.

But this is not an adventure story. It’s a story of my aversion to guard dogs and broken windows and sitting with ghosts in long corridors of dubious structural integrity. The days were too cold and too busy, and I never found the right moment for urban trespassing. I originally set out to write about the left behind locales of Berlin and never made it to a single one of them, except for the basement so close to home. Some of my reluctance came from a perspective of deep practicality. Who likes to be somewhere without a roof while it’s pouring rain? Not me, at least. Who enjoys climbing a compromised staircase in the dark? Nein, danke. Other fears were connected to something more difficult to explain, a feeling that buildings and abandoned sites have a character of their own, which needs to be approached with care and caution.

I attended a workshop last November at the Art Laboratory Berlin called “The Materiality of Ghosts.” Around ten ghost-intrigued souls spent a couple hours sitting by a creek, reading and trading stories. One guest talked about her most recent artistic exploration, in which she would visit empty places and practice ‘sounding,’ or the creation of sound with its interactive property in mind. In other words, she would not speak but scream and hum and move around while attending to the interaction of these sounds with the space. She would record these sessions and regarded them as a way of communing with the ghosts of buildings via the distortion of her voice in the collapsing architecture. I was fascinated. When we speak of ghosts, do we mean something which we ourselves have created or enabled within a space, by means of our voice or movements? Why do we find this so unnerving?

Months later, I was introduced to the concept of aural architecture in my class Introduction to Architecture and Urbanism (taught by Caroline Wolf and Julian Meisen) as a meeting point between material space and sound creation. The sound artist returns to my mind, this woman I met for only a few hours and never again, like a ghost. 

Her practice was an architectural one in its engagement with constructed space, but in an unusual context. It struck me as a deeply private method of connecting with a building, in contrast to the way I find myself and others moving through public space, usually surrounded by other people and focussed on my interactions with them. I don’t sit all that much with the echoes of the building, speaking alongside us. While riding the tram with a couple of friends earlier this week, a baby began screaming like the world was ending. Whatever conversation we’d been having before was cut short, and once we were able to begin talking again we were curious about when and where an adult person is able to scream like that. There’s nothing stopping a person from screaming on the tram except for empathy for fellow passengers, but for socially acceptable screams one has to go a little farther afield. There really aren’t spaces, except maybe among some of Berlin’s more experimental performance artists, where someone can scream the way a baby can on the tram. It’s only possible in solitude—and this is what abandoned places offer in spades.

In contrast to the taboos against an individual being too loud in the noisiness of public, ‘empty’ space invites both loudness and silence. This is maybe the great power of abandoned sites—though once public and full of the remnants of so many visitors, they are now echoingly, unnervingly empty and open for private conversation. Indeed, they demand attention to their aurality. Better for listening as well as for screaming.

The next week I am on my way back to my apartment late at night, jogging to keep warm in the chill winds coming down the avenues, and I find myself alone in an U-Bahn station. It is a place of temporary abandonment but abandonment nonetheless. Feeling very strange and hoping that there was really nobody around, I start to vocalize down the hall and dance my way around in a way I never usually would in such a public space. A metro is a liminal place—always going somewhere, not having quite arrived. It is a passageway. When the idea of liminal space was first articulated by folklorist Arnold van Gennep, his questions were about rites of passage. Which occasions and rituals help humans move from one stage of life to another? Rites of passage are sometimes culturally and historically ingrained. Sometimes they need to be self created or better, created together. Most people I know are in a liminal state in their lives (though honestly, is there ever a non-liminal time in life?) and I wonder what rites of passage we may need to honor these transitions. What spaces are needed for this to occur?

Later on in our foray into the materiality of ghosts, all of us were asked to write for a couple minutes. Then our paper was passed around the circle, until everybody had contributed a line to it. Then we stood up and started singing lines from these collective poems, all at once and in no particular order. But it wasn’t chaos. Once everybody became more comfortable, it was a beautiful creation and a little ghostly as well. It was a liminal poem, not quite belonging to anybody but existing in between all of us. By belonging to all of the participants, something completely unexpected was able to arise. I find that a similarly novel character exists in places that are not heavily tended by humans—plants, lichens, and gravity are able to have a say in the composition of the building, changing it into a new form. Abandoned spaces are liminal as buildings in motion, changing and decaying and growing just like humans do.

Decay is not usually welcome within human spaces. It is often something to be afraid of, associated with disease and dirtiness. In Andreas Weber’s Animism class which I’m taking this semester, the topic of sanitation came up in regards to ecology and the control of an ecosystem. Sanitation is not something that is inherent within our homes, but is instead maintained through our labor. This is important—sanitation can keep us healthy, and hygienic. But when a culture of sanitation becomes overzealous, it can also make an environment sterile. Take for instance the phenomenon of the lawn, an energy intensive and time consuming practice which many people nevertheless dedicate themselves to. A lawn supports neither insects nor birds, no plants other than grass, and little creativity. A building which receives no human attention is the antithesis of this phenomenon—it is a place constructed by time and chance, with more effort from moss than from humans. However, since the original structure was provided by people, there remains a human element. It’s fascinating to see a once static structure be allowed to decay because it reminds us of the unusual possibilities which may arise. Such as the echoes of ghosts – both human, and distinctly not. The house where I grew up is inhabited, but in a constant state of disrepair. As such, it embodies this kind of decay. It was once the hospital of our small town and we were warned when we moved there that it was very haunted. It is, though I’ve always felt that this was less the doing of human spirits than it is the movements of raccoons in the walls and a massive colony of ants which live alongside my family. Their presence can be ghostly–strange sounds emanate from the walls, and certain superstitions help us keep the peace. I never leave clothes on a bench by my window, lest the ants turn it into a nest. I never open the door to the attic, lest the raccoons come into the house. These are the concessions we make to our ghosts.

We rarely see ghosts, but more often hear them. Therefore, attending to the aurality of a space in the way the sound artist did in abandoned buildings, can be an exercise in communicating with what is not human, as well as with the past. Though aural architecture tends to focus on the way that buildings are built to create and propagate sound, within abandoned buildings, what is more interesting are their changes as a result of gravity and time into sites which create unusual sonic spaces. Left to their own devices, buildings will produce different auralities than are possible with undamaged and newly constructed spaces. The ability of the voice to echo, an ability which is often more noticeable in the caverns and mazes of older places, makes the speaker themself into a kind of ghost. As the voice bounces off the wall and returns it creates a second persona which is interpreted by the original noise-maker as an other. When the woman practiced sounding in the old buildings, the ghostly voices which she recorded were co-created by the interaction between her body making sound and the surrounding architecture. An invisible presence arising from two physical bodies. A little of my fear surrounding urban exploration, and my insistence that somebody go with me, is tied to this phenomenon. It is a shock to become aware of one’s own ghostly presence.

In the Introduction to Architecture and Urbanism course, students are tasked with re-envisioning the ruins of the old Bauakadie on Museum Island. The class is focused on collective urbanism as an alternative to the often intimidating facades and inaccessible spaces produced in urban spaces. In Berlin, one of the clearest manifestations of collective urbanism are the housing collectives, where groups of people co-manage the space in which they live and build communal areas for all to enjoy. They are in part the descendants of the infamous squats which still exist in this city and are part of what makes Berlin dear to me. However, with more people come more challenges in arranging the urban landscape so that it meets the needs of all who use it. With the renewal or reimagination of old buildings, the balance between serving the needs of the current moment and honoring the history of the space become particularly delicate. The ghosts of the building reside with the new inhabitants (hopefully not in a Beetlejuicey way). When I imagine the changes which can be made in a house in order to increase human comfort, when I remember the house I used to live in, I’m reminded that there are better things than being simply comfortable. I want spaces which are a little wild, where raccoons shuffle within the walls and plants grow on windowsills. I take comfort in the chaos of such places.

Luckily, as it turns out, one need not go far to find a liminal and unoccupied space. Even the basement of the building in which I live escapes the human in its insistent lack of comfort. Here, the nooks and crannies of a space which I usually notice only briefly while putting on or collecting clothes or else snooping around for a vacuum cleaner, are an exploration close to home. It is a liminal location, where people pass through but tend not to stay. It’s not comfortable, but dark and dusty with low ceilings and small separate rooms along a corridor in the back. A solitary chair sits in a damp room facing whoever dares walk in. A discarded mattress with a lifesize advertisement cut-out of two people lays on top. Somebody’s placed a printout of the red hammer and sickle in their hands. And it is haunted by all the people who have left their mark on the place, many of whom no longer live here. And so in the spirit of the housing collective, I hope to get to know all of my neighbors, even the ghostly ones.

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