Berlin’s beating heart may be somewhere between Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, but its ears are in Schoeneberg. Crammed into an unlikely juncture on the side of Potsdamer Strasse lies the Pallasseum, a community housing complex almost entirely populated by migrants. Its most eye-catching feature – the dozens, if not hundreds, of satellite dishes strewn on balconies across the complex. Satellite dishes were a prominent feature of West Berlin and its reception of DDR culture, but today the greatest concentration survives here, where resident immigrants aim their antennas further east, to their homelands.
Television is not something people take for granted in Germany. A state agency collects a monthly fee called the Rundfunkbeitrag, ostensibly for the right to use a TV or radio (although it is charged regardless of actual use of a TV or radio), which is then channelled into public broadcasting services. The amount is more than most Netflix users would pay. There are a range of cable options, however few have the broad-ranging assortment of channels that users in other countries enjoy, and more specialised services can be expensive. Hence many households, especially poorer ones, make a one-off investment on these dishes to access these channels.
You could be forgiven for thinking that each of these devices was transmitting outwards, broadcasting the personal dramas of these families to satisfy the voyeuristic tastes of 21st-century consumers. For on most of these dishes are drawn covers, each with an individually designed picture printed on it. This is the legacy of art therapist Daniel Knipping, who between 2009 and 2010 collaborated with resident families to bring their satellite dishes to life in a project called “Inside Out”. Seven years on, and many of the dishes still proudly transmit their own images to passersby below.
Much of the colour comes from sources we might consider generic- pictures of flowers and interiors that we might find on a flamboyant tablecloth. Yet among a building marked by repetition and by harsh brutalist exteriors, they remain distinctive symbols of identity. The concave dishes behind each image lend them a somewhat surreal dimension. In their tether, the apartment itself becomes a nomadic satellite whose inhabitants are never far from their homeland.
The endurance of this project is perhaps a reflection of the resonance of Knipping’s vision with the residents. Some things quite clearly never change, like the ostentatious allegiance of some Turkish football fans to their club Galatasaray. The more touching images are the portraits of children and other family members staring into the streetscape. Seven years on, those children are now teenagers and perhaps a little apprehensive at seeing their past selves on display on the walk home.
Unlike the mural artworks in the blocks surrounding U-Bahn Bulowstrasse, the satellite dish covers cannot clearly be called public art. They stand on balconies alongside various household items. Yet their presence makes the balconies more visible. Like many other spaces in Berlin, they assert in the public gaze something that elsewhere might be further consigned to the private sphere: one’s culture. In analogue, their presence renders visible the hidden physical dimensions of these broadcasts received by each dish, and the fact that at any moment there are countless radio waves passing through any urban space.
And to the casual observer they also bring forth something that is less visible to the residents of the complex. Seen together, the different images all seem to bear an invisible relationship to each other, signifying the connectedness of the residents’ experiences. Whether by perception or imagination, a story unfolds.