You could say that for writer and Berlin Art Prize co-founder Alicia Reuter, it’s all about form. The form of an artwork, the form of words, the form the prize takes, the form of her Guards red Porsche 924S.
Hailing from the US, she, like many in Berlin, came here to see what the art scene was all about. Nine years later she’s still here, with no plans to leave on the horizon. Her Kreuzberg home is a reflection of her interests – shelves lined with art catalogs and theory books, works of art from friends, pictures of her family dating back to the early 1900’s. After our visit, she took us to some of her favorite Berlin places – from the neoclassical architecture of the former Tempelhof Airport to a secret spot in Schöneberg, where those in the know park their vintage cars.
Alicia, you’re from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But one wouldn’t necessarily know this from your last name.
True, some of my ancestors were originally from Saarland. This German ancestry is the reason my older brother was named Otto and my younger is Erich, which are unusual names in the US.
And how is it that you live in Berlin now?
Before I moved here I worked and studied art history in Florence for two years. But I was never sure if I wanted to stay there. There’s very little contemporary art, everything is focused on the Renaissance, of course, and it’s hard to find jobs. A friend told me a bit about Berlin’s great contemporary art scene. I came, thinking I would stay for three months on a tourist visa – that was nine years ago, almost to the day.
What do you like about Berlin?
For me it’s a city where you can live out your ideas. A friend once told me, “In Berlin you’re allowed to fail, what people recognized is that you tried.” It’s not as expensive as London or New York, where with one failed project you’ve lost all your money. I started by working in galleries, then I had the opportunity to write an exhibition critique, even though journalism isn’t something I studied.
How do you approach art criticism? Some art critics seem to only want to describe works and others want to tell the world what the artist actually meant with their work. “This tree is a metaphor for my childhood…”
“And the colors mean…” Sure, there are different approaches. I think I might be able to best explain my process by explaining how I ended up in Europe. I was on vacation in Italy, my first time there, and doing the typical American Rome-Florence-Venice trip, a week in each. But then in Florence, I was standing in the Piazza della Signoria looking at Giambologna’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” I was overwhelmed, completely stopped in my tracks, fascinated by the movement of the torsos, the intertwined bodies, the facial expressions – it was when I realized that although I was active in the arts in the US, most of what I had seen had been in books. I think this moment is representative of my view towards art: I see colors, movement, the way the brush or pencil is used – hurried or heavy? How thick is the paint? How are objects placed in a sculpture, how carefully are they crafted? Is it about the objects themselves, their relationship to each other, or their relationship to me?
So, pretty down to earth?
Sure, I always want to know what the artist says about their work and what their history is, but I prefer to do that later. I like to look at the work before reading the press release or essay. Just to understand the thing on its own before additional information changes my perception. I’m quite interested in theory and I read a lot of it, but there’s nothing worse than trying to show people all the theory you’ve read with every sentence.
Where does your passion for cars come from?
I come from a car family. When I was a child my father had an MGB, a British roadster from the 60s. It only ran half the time, it was like a lifelong project for him. I spent a lot of time with him in the garage as he worked on the car. Then I have my two brothers, who both have real American dude cars – both former police cars – a Chevy Caprice and a Chevy Monte Carlo. They both installed hydraulics on them.
The Monte Carlo is, most definitely. With the hydraulics the Monte can jump in every direction. (laughs)
You decided to get a Porsche. Why a Porsche? Why the 924S?
For a few reasons. I love the timeless form of the car. And if you look at the interior, you realize just how much effort and research went into the design. There are details that you don’t see showing up on other cars until ten years later. It’s just a beautiful car.
But also I’ve always worked a bit on my cars when possible. The Porsche 924s is from 1988 – it’s the last generation where you can really do a lot of the work yourself, where you don’t have to hook it up to a computer for diagnostics. I’m sure my neighbors think I’m a bit strange when I’m out there tinkering.
You work on it on the street?
I do, I haven’t found a garage for it yet. But really, I got the car in great shape, so far there hasn’t been much to do. The electric windows were really slow, so I fixed those. I have to fix the handbrake, which will be a great project to do with my brother when he visits.
When the 924 was manufactured, it was sometimes mocked as the “Housewife Porsche.”
I know, it was a cooperation between Porsche, VW and Audi. It’s actually a pretty great story, and I’m glad that I still have all of the original documentation. Mine is an “S,” so it has a lot of parts from one of its successors, the 944. Because of this cooperation, some people say it’s not a real Porsche at all and others say it’s a 944! The mechanics where I bought it kept calling it an “beginner’s Porsche.” But for me it really was – I’m sure this will make some people cringe, but it’s how I learned to drive stick shift. In the US, there are really only automatics. The gearshift is so exact – I think it’s ruined any other car for me. Even driving on the Autobahn, you can feel the car wants more.
Cars from the 80s are considered to be extremely reliable.
Definitely. My last car in the US was a Volvo station wagon from the 80s, I loved that car. It also had an amazing form. I know if I take care of the Porsche, I could get half a million kilometers out of it, the motor is indestructible. You can see the quality of the car when you look under the hood. You can see the attention to detail, that people who love cars designed them.
What kind of repairs have you done?
In general? I once had an Oldsmobile, it was a total piece of junk. I had to change the radiator halfway through a road trip. I suppose the most exciting thing that ever happened was when I was 12. I learned how to change a tire from my parents, and three weeks later I was with my aunt on Chicago’s Skyway. Her tire went flat and I showed her how to change it – this 12-year old girl on the side of the highway!
How long did you look for the car?
For about a year. I took a long time deciding what I really wanted, I thought about an old Mercedes, a SEC, but they’re way too big.
What comes next for the car?
I have to find a garage for it, at the moment it’s parked on a side street. And the emblem is constantly being stolen. Right now there’s a really cheap one from China on there – which I hope will keep it from being stolen again.
Where do you want to go?
First to the Harz Mountains, but definitely a road trip to Italy. Over the Alps – I’ve done the drive before and those curving roads were made to be driven on with a car like this.
Tell us about the Berlin Art Prize that you launched with your friends in 2013.
Yes! With Zoë Claire Miller, Sophie Jung and Ulrich Wulff, and in 2014 with Attila Saygel and Lorenz Schreiber as a part of the team. The Berlin Art Prize is definitely our baby. Even if we have no budget and have to pay for almost everything out of pocket, with the hope that we’ll get the money back somehow. We don’t make any money ourselves, which can be a little rough after a few 50 or 60-hour work weeks during the build-up to the prize. We’ve only survived because of the support of our friends and champions: the graphic designer Till Wiedeck, the PR firm Bureau N, all of the volunteers and bartenders that work at the event because they like the idea. It’s all worked out through our personal relationships. I’m always amazed when I’m at an exhibition opening and the wine is flowing like water. I have to ask myself, “How can they afford it?”
So, do the winners get money?
Yes, absolutely. It’s not much though, there are three winners and each gets 1,000 Euros. We wish it was more, but it’s really thought of as a way for them to cover their rent in Berlin and living expenses while they’re on the residency, which is also a part of the prize. This year it’s a month in Tbilisi, Georgia. We all hope that now that we’ve shown that it’s a serious, professionally executed process and exhibition that it will become easier to find sponsors. In the beginning no one really knew us, they didn’t know that 2,000 people would show up for the opening, or that 1,300 artists would apply.
It sounds like a lot of work for no money. What do you like about it?
Ah, I thrive on the pace. Meeting people and seeing new perspectives is great, but I have to say that my favorite part of the prize is seeing how people involved have built their own networks outside of our sphere. Jury members have had exhibitions with nominees, sponsors have worked with winners, nominees have curated exhibitions with other nominees, and curators come to us asking about one artist or another. This was exactly what the Berlin Art Prize set out to do!
You got a lot of publicity fast.
Yes, I think that was due to many, many e-mails and countless meetings over coffee to explain the concept and why Berlin needed a new art prize.
But why the Berlin Art Prize at all? There were already prizes.
But the others – and this bothered us – the other prizes in Berlin were being awarded to artists who were already on their way. With us, any one can apply, from someone who’s never had an exhibition to well-known artists – and they do – but we wanted to create a level playing field. That’s why there’s no application fee, which we hope we can continue, but also the reason why work is looked at completely anonymously. We don’t look at CVs, exhibition history, gender, education, we only look at the artwork.
And how do you choose the winners?
This year we had around 1,300 applicants, we estimated that almost a fifth of the Berlin arts scene applied. We invite the jury to join us, and narrow this down to about 100 applications, which becomes incredibly difficult once you get down to 300 – 400. Then, we remove ourselves from the process and the jury looks at these 100 applications, at this point still on paper or the computer screen. They, like us, don’t get any information about the artists, other than an optional short description written by the artist. It’s very flexible, but we ask them to choose around 30 artists from that pool. Then we ask the artists to bring their works and we do another jury sitting with just the artworks to choose the three winners, but all of those 30 artists are shown in the exhibition and catalog.