Anyone venturing into the atrium of the Filmhaus during the Berlinale would have found him or herself part of a giant art installation. As part of the experimental Forum Expanded strand of the festival, the art collective known as Cheap had turned the space into their Cheap Gossip Studio, adding some light relief to the heavy duty A-R-T going on elsewhere.
Cheap's latest production, with US drag artist Vaginal Davis, is the German fairy tale Max und Moritz, which will premiere in Berlin on 19 April.
The Cheap Gossip Studio, hosted by Davis [see photo above], became the place to be seen for the Berlinale, featuring a circular bar offering Kaffee and Kuchen, various art installations, films and live "Beauty Moments" every evening. Newly arrived in Berlin from Los Angeles and revelling in the atmosphere, Davis offered me a "grand tourina" of the space as well as a helping of his tongue-in-cheek philosophy. The beauty moments, he explained, were key "because we can always look more beautiful. That's very important--beauty. Who cares what you're like on the inside? It's about the outside. That's what counts 'cause that's all anyone sees anyway." A self-proclaimed Sex Repulsive, he made numerous claims for public sex occurring pretty much everywhere in the Studio but I saw no evidence of this.
Though the promised Isabella Rossellini beauty moment failed to appear, others included Miss Pascal offering makeovers and "The Whoracle at Delphi" providing misinformation.
Short films in the space's Rooftop Gallery included Shannon Plumb's lengthy one featuring drag queens attending a fashion show, Marie Losier's of aliens emerging from pots of pasta and Davis's of his friends dancing on a roof. In the Red Gallery Davis had another film featuring him and Cheapie Marc Siegel shrieking over photos taken by the latter's grandfather Sam of various celebs in the '60s and '70s, with Davis suggesting various libelous explanations for their expressions.
Cheap began in 2001 with a co-production performance piece. Its members include Tim Blue; driving force Susanne Sachsse, formerly an actress with the Berliner Ensemble; and Daniel Hendrickson, both of whom are personally involved with Siegel. All very post-modern. They invited Davis and others to collaborate on what the latter describes as a "funky, performancey piece that had these cheap aesthetics, an incorporation of availabism."
Availabism, coined by Kimber Fowler, refers to using what is available to create art and is something Davis has always embraced. "All you need is creativity. I take trash and make sculptures and costumes." The group also shares an admiration for queer experimental filmmaker Jack Smith.
Interestingly, according to Davis, the queer community was a bit suspicious of the group, especially those who knew of Siegel as a gay man. Davis observed, "German sexuality to me is so bizarre. Germans either like to get fisted or cuddling. It's either fisting or cuddling but nothing between that. It's extremes."
He is quite pleased that Sachsse has emerged as a leader within the group. "She puts the projects together. It's so great to have an art collective where it's female-driven... A feminine presence is the main spark to igniting the work and that's really, really rare. Because usually, whether it's straight men or gay men, everything is all about the men. It all becomes about them. The females become kind of tagalong." Sadly, I never got to interview the formidable Frau Sachsse because she was always busy, but I can say she has a crushing handshake.
A lifelong resident of Los Angeles before his recent move to Berlin, Davis sees the German capital emerging as a destination for artists. He has already seen an influx from New York. His own move was prompted by spiralling rents in his hometown. As he explains, "If you don't have cheap rent if you're an artist, you can't do your work 'cause all your time is being spent trying to have a roof over your head. Berlin has got a tradition of [being] bohemian and funkiness." He expects to stay in Berlin for the foreseeable future and travel around Europe to do installations and spread his message of "trying to motivate others to be as comfortable as possible within themselves".
Cheap's version of Max und Moritz transforms it into a girl gang with one boy. Davis, who plays Witwe Bolte, cackles and exclaims that "the boy is their bitch!" Cheap's production of Max und Moritz premieres in Berlin on April 19th at Theater an der Parkaue. It will also play in Hamburg and Graz.