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Kevin Clarke is the author of The Art of Looking, Beards: An Unshaved History, and Glitter and Be Gay: Homosexuality and Operetta. He is a journalist, researcher, and board member at the Schwules Museum* in Berlin, and recently co-curated the blockbuster show “Porn That Way.”
Where are you from originally?
I’m actually from Berlin, which is rare enough these days. Born and raised here. My father was a Royal Air Force man, my mother is German. They met in the 1960s while Berlin was occupied by the allied forces.
Have you lived elsewhere since?
I threw in a few years in London, Munich, Bremen and a longer stretch in Amsterdam. Now I am back home, so to speak.
How does Berlin compare to the other cities you've lived in?
When I was a teenager — in walled-in Berlin — I thought this was the most boring and provincial place on earth. For me, London and New York were “big” and “exciting” places. Berlin was a stagnant and almost forgotten town at the edge of the Western world. I could see the wall and the guards on the other side from my bedroom window back then, and thought East Germany was this spooky uninhabited place. That’s when I moved away and explored the UK.
But then the wall came down, and a whole exciting world opened up. Those were adventurous times, with new stuff to explore almost nightly: all those underground parties and events. They attracted a wild young crowd from all over the world, which made it even more exciting and cosmopolitan. Berlin is still somewhat small compared to other metropolises, but its eclectic mix of inhabitants make it a one-of-a-kind location. And let’s not forget the LGBT crowds who come here because Berlin is supposed to be so “kinky.”
What new projects are you working on?
I am a board member of the Schwules Museum* in Berlin, the first gay museum in the world. I curated an operetta exhibition there in 2010, and was invited to do a new show on gay, lesbian and trans porn. It was the first combined exhibition on the histories of these different pornographies, ever. We did it in a team of four. And it turned out to be a massive success. There have never been more visitors to the museum in its 30 year history. It was a highly mixed crowd, in terms of gender, age, and sexual orientation. It would be great if this exhibition could be shown somewhere else as well, e.g. in the US. I’m now working on an exhibit about queer comics and Turkish LGBT communities in Germany and Turkey.
Obviously you’re heavily involved in the arts and culture scene in Germany. What are some of your favorite museums or cultural centers in Berlin?
Apart from the Schwule Museum*? I actually love the Deutsche Historische Museum (DHM) because it shows you over a thousand years of German history — that’s quite something; even though it’s somewhat overwhelming at first. They will also be showing “Homosexualität_en” from now until December 2015. It’s the first LGBT show, ever, at that institution.
Architecturally, I love the Neues Museum, right next to DHM. It was bombed out in WWII and recently reopened. The main staircase takes your breath away, as does the display of the famous Nefertiti. You might also want to give the Berlinische Galerie a try, ultra-modern, very stylish, and full of Weimar Republic art.
Would you consider Berlin an arts and culture mecca?
Absolutely yes. Where else in the world will you find three fully functional opera houses (run by two gay directors), five world-class symphony orchestras, a unique theater scene, and all those museums?
Any favorite places to eat or drink?
I love the Grill Royal because of the James Bond type interior and the view of the river and boats. Also Neni in the newly refurbished Bikini Haus. On a summer day, any of the restaurants in the Alte Weinmeisterstraße (e.g. Monsieur Vuong). For bars and cafes, Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg is dazzling. It’s wild, crazy, picturesque. It’s not explicitly “gay,” but close enough. Great for early evening cocktails at sunset!
Where’s the gay district in Berlin and what’s the vibe?
The West Berlin gay scene is traditionally located around Nollendorfplatz (where Isherwood also lived). It’s somewhat rough and down-to-business. And the area looks accordingly. If you go at Easter, Gay Pride, or on Folsom weekends you think you’ve landed on another planet. It makes you forget the 1970s ugliness of some of the buildings and enjoy the no-nonsense attitude of the men running around in full armor or less.
What’s the LGBT community like in Berlin? Do you feel accepted and comfortable?
As a city, Berlin is divided into many different neighborhoods, the so called “Kietze.” Sometimes people never leave their Kietz. In terms of the LGBT community, there are just as many neighborhoods that hardly ever get into contact with each other – instead they fight over who is politically right or wrong in blogs and demonstrations. As a result, we had three competing Gay Pride marches last year. (The fourth was cancelled at the last minute.) But this battling and arguing is great; it shows that there is movement. We had a gay mayor for 13 years, Klaus Wowereit, and we had a gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, whose offices were in Berlin.
Describe your perfect day in Berlin.
At the height of summer, I love going for a morning swim in the Flughafen See, which is the lake next to Tegel airport. It’s great before noon because it’s not too crowded, full of nude bathers, and lately filled with noticeable groups of gays, too. You don’t have to pay to get in either. Afterwards, a lunch meeting anywhere in Mitte is grand, watching the crowds walk by. It’s always fun to stroll around in the Hackischer Markt neighborhood, sip coffee on Gendarmenmarkt, walk through Tiergarten (our Central Park), visit the government quarters and all those new buildings there that look so majestic. Then spend the evening at the Philharmonie. It looks like the set for Mad Men inside, a 1960s design dream, and it is the home of the greatest orchestra in the world: the Berlin Philharmonic.