Siraj Izhar

Lichtenberg Diary
December 2019, January 2020

In 2016 I stayed on the 10th floor of a housing block at Ruschestrasse Lichtenberg with views looking straight into the old Stasi Headquarters then temporarily housing Syrian refugees. It was like having a ringside seat to their privacy. However different our circumstances, to live in these complexes to live at the mercy of the system – to directly experience our dependency on mass bureaucracy and an impersonal scale of planning.
A bit further north to Ruschestrasse were the vast enclaves of ex-GDR housing at Hohenschonhausen, Wartenburg, Ahrensfelde at Lichtenberg and on the other side of the train tracks at Marzahn, Hellersdorf. And that’s where I came back to.

Familiar as I am with the paradoxes of living in modern industrial housing, they began with ideas about modernist utopias and socialist dreams. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s in the banlieues of Paris, or in the Stalinist estate in the former Soviet bloc, the more humans are packed into modern housing, the more atomised they become. According to urban sociologist Henri Lefevbre this lies in the failure of modern planners to understand the link between everyday life and social space – and to build a socialist space. So in time, the ideology that was behind these spaces slowly disappeared.

But in first week back in Lichtenberg, on a disused bit of green space, I visited another notion of home – a self-made home, a half-constructed shed with throwaway wood about 3 meters by 1 meter. It was partly hidden from view from the repetitive windows of modern 70s slabs but it symbolised a home free from all bureaucracy: the independent life of the “homeless”. I found an immaculately laid out table, duvets, cutlery but no one. I visited this self-made home day after day, photographed it but it was always empty, even over the Christmas week.

My exploration was split from the beginning. To bridge them at Neu Hohenschonhausen I tried to make a direct intervention on the question of memory and ideology but these are spaces are homes. In the process other questions began to emerge from the background. They came as much on commuter journeys on the S-bahn and tram in between the large estates. It has to do with meaningless journey times through suburbia that passes and disappears – what we learn to forget. But for me the commuter window became reflecting looking glasses. The landscapes of industrial housing are seen from the outside, from car windows or from trains; for people who don’t live there, they are seen as monotonous monumentality or mass anonymity. Forgettable. Between the blur and the reflections, there were questions about just how lost they were, to their own memory.

My Lichtenberg diary was becoming a journey between notions of forgetting and memory. This continued on the housing estates as things from the background became visible and conflicted. The relationships between a folsky vernacular, ideas of heimat and tradition, escapism and on them the marks of street taggers. I began to recognise them. They play a double game, to be seen and also to be hidden. They belong to a social imagination outside any institutional space. There was a language, recognition and discovery. TRN, VZM, Fie2….
Once I found something in some street in I would mark it with my phone to googlemap. This way I could find it again, in Arendsfelde, or Wartenburg and so on. There was no other way. They are meant to be hidden transcripts; maybe I was harvesting them but it was a transient imaginary space, a parallel reality I had entered.

A visual diary is something that records in a passage of time – it has a beginning and an end.

On my last day on the 31st January 2020 I went to the self-made shed where I started but the State bureaucracy had caught up with it after two months. It had been removed without a trace. Perfectly, in a way that it had never existed at all.
But everywhere I went in Lichtenberg I left my mark – a little red star. You could say it was the only thing I did in my residency.

November, 2020