[the book above is The Future of Nostalgia, by Svetlana Boym]

A recent stay in Berlin found me at Ostel, a hostel renovated as an homage to ‘ostalgie’, in the style of the former DDR. (see this post) 

My expectations of the place were of course building it up for a fall, but even still, it seemed oddly, eerily empty. It lacked spirit. And as much as it pains me to say it, it lacked the elusive texture of authenticity, not even that I would know what that was.  

The rooms were furnished sparsely, mainly with what seemed like strips of imitation vintage wallpaper and IKEA furniture, peppered with some older items – in our room some beautiful books, a radio/ record player, and a fantastically ugly circular wicker-framed mirror. Builders were at work on scaffolding outside the window, which highlighted the grating, sparkly newness of the place, spotless tiled bathroom and all. 

Almost instantly, the experience of walking through the corridors recalled my experience of Hotel Ballymun, something I have not written about here. The parallels between the 2 places are fascinating – one a self-conscious recreation that walked a line between irony and sincerity, manufacturing the authenticity (or the knowing postmodern suspicion of any such experience) craved by tourists; the other an art project that served as some kind of memorial that implicitly traded on such modes of collective experience and cultural memory. 

The two places are/ were located in modernist tower blocks (Clark Tower in Ballymun, the top floor of which housed Hotel Ballymun, has since been demolished). While the Ballymun housing agenda had little to do with communism, its architectural form embodied similar ideas of aspiration, newness and social progress. Where Ostel was about building up new layers of absent memory, transposed from another location, Hotel Ballymun was involved with the excavation of such memories in the site of their creation.

There was a certain paucity of experience to the atmosphere at Ostel – books, mirrors and pieces of tat bought at one of the many charity or second hand shops at the city. By contrast, no matter how many layers of veneer were stripped away in Clark Tower, there were many more in evidence. Rather than fetishising the experience of the former residents – as would have been all too easy to do, lured in by cheesy wallpaper and the suddenly, retrospectively evident ‘bad taste’ and cloying domesticity of someone else’s private life – Hotel Ballymun systematically stripped away almost all such references. Floors and walls were concrete.  

In both of my visits to these places I was a tourist, and an artist, two deeply acquisitive and intertwined modes of experience. Both places stimulated unique experiences of comfort, discomfort, absence and a certain luxurious deficiency.