Eis Eis Baby

Meditations on the Emergence of a Virtual Urban Commons

Dividing the footprint of two large wastelands on the river Spree in Berlin-Kreuzburg stands a large abandoned ice factory (Eisfabrik). Visitors to the Eisfabrik are neither permitted nor actively restricted as they arrive by the hundred each week. They may know the building as the oldest Eisfabrik in Germany, a spectre of late industrial production and/or as a touristic destination for the consumption of an 'authentic' urban ruin.

The Eisfabrik was established in 1896 by the North Germany Ice Company AG and stood in working condition until as late as 1991. The building has seen and survived both World Wars and lay to the east of Berlin during its partition thereafter1. Nowadays, in a manner coherent with the social ecology of tweets, feeds and trends, the Eisfabrik is very much 'back in business'. Numerous voices2 have sought to bring attention to the plight of an occupying group of up to fifty Bulgarian economic migrants here, yet other less explicit forms of animation and production pervade throughout the space too. These can be measured within the multiple ways the site has been determined - as relic, home and urban jungle. Alternative processes of naming are reflected in tourist websites that describe her as a "cheap hotel" populated by "Graffiti Guys" in contrast to those with a more historic bent aiming to protect a piece of "industrial history".

As we enter the building a number of contradictory uses begin to fall against one-another as fashionistas, photographers and musicians exploit an untamed environment of spraycan experimentalism and broken glass.

The fascination with 'authentic urban ruins' seems to be built as much around a nostalgia for the architecture of industrial production as it is around the imaginary of a bohemian 'free space'. It is an imaginary that has coined the phrase 'disasterbation'. Clashing however with photographers flashbulbs, another imaginary of what this space might mean is found in the domestic needs expressed by the Bulgarian migrants. We might even conceive the situation as a form of demographic violence par-excellence in the manner of the robust, gentrification-whiplash visited upon Berlin-Neukölln throughout the last five years. 

Eisfabrik_Alex Head 2013.jpg


Aside from the very real cooking, washing and recreational activities that unfold onto the former factory floor, the Eisfabrik exists imaginatively within the conceptual scope of some members of the Bulgarian community too. During a group interview I held with members of the community living there, one man proposed an intriguing plan for the buildings re-development. He envisioned a formalisation of the Eisfabrik into an official tourist destination that would accommodate the current Bulgarian community in situ. Such dark tourism is not inconceivable. The hip shoulder to shoulder with those on the hop. To my mind both these projections of what the site means rely on only partially acknowledging the fact of the other. Both are spaces of the incomplete, of the almost, the virtual. Yet these contradictory uses and their meanings - concurrently as a photographic backdrop and radically impoverished dwelling - require us to take this particular web of fictions seriously. How else but through the imaginary are we to cross the fog of digitalised immateriality in order to enter the space of other possible societies?

The Eisfabrik is indeed very cool. It was designed that way. This is partly in order to ensure that the storage rooms maintained a constantly low temperature. Interestingly, it was also designed as a residential building for labourers. Today little distinction is made between the original function of the various spaces and how they are used. That the Eisfabrik can be thought of as a cultural space (a site of personal expression, one that is worn as a particular statement of selfhood) is of course directly tied to a post-Fordist conception of capitalist production itself. Here, immaterial labour, defined by Maurizio Lazzarato3 as the cultural and informational content of the commodity (most explicit perhaps in the form of social relations and knowledge), arguably extends the reach of capital into every aspect of our daily lives. At the fall of one means of (material) production emerges the 'creative' who often seeks to extract any possible symbolic value from the skeletal ruin of the former system.

It is worth noting then, that within an age of post industrial, immaterial production, capital also strives to permanently re-enthuse the collective mind of the information economy. Processes of coding and decoding information - of cognitively engaging with the tasks determined by a given position, have become the norm. The modern construction of the labourer is therefore a complex contradiction of one liberated by decision making within the workplace provided that the parameters of work are limitlessly expanded and collapsed into the private sphere. (I would like to discuss the construction of 'creative selves' at another opportunity. Save to say however, that highly educated artists, intellectuals and 'creatives' are uniquely positioned to develop and use both their artistic and political imaginations. These skills could indeed be directed towards encouraging forms of subjectivity that are enriched by a capacity for knowledge of self rather than endlessly consuming the self as knowledge. Or as Maurizio Lazzarato would have it, facilitating a radical autonomy of the productive synergies of immaterial labour.)

And it is at this juncture that the argument around intellectual work and its organisation in law enters my brief case study of the concrete world. Intellectual property concerns the safe guarding of 'all inventions in the field of human endeavour'4. Which sounds clear enough. Yet the view from our current digital horizon illuminates a state of permanent flux in the debate over how to establish the parameters of cultural property law. The approach I am sympathetic toward aims to ensure a wide and accessible debate around the formulation of cultural commons while protecting the endeavours of those by whom such commons are enacted. It is a framework that evokes the idea of civic as opposed to commercial republicanism developed by Lewis Hyde. It is therefore one that pursues a legal system of intellectual property that would serve the public interest best by determining the relationship between an idea’s overall utility, and humanity’s needs during a given period of time. As ideas and inventions become frozen within law (one thinks of innovations within the auto industry for example), their overall worth, conceived of as the best way to improve the lives of the most people, runs the risk of depletion5. For those inhabiting the makeshift domestic environment of the Eisfabrik the process of stagnation is also problematic. The more established they become serves to act against finding a better solution at the event of their final eviction. The problem is simply postponed, ignored and as such prolonged.

Observing the historical arc of physical property, and its monopolisation, tells us that the information freely available online (no matter your ethics of usage) may well be about to shrink in quality, availability and scope. Which outcomes - from what would have been the golden age of the internet - are flexible and sensitive enough to navigate its transformation, should this be the case? And, if we approach the problem against the backdrop of increasing hostility towards Bulgarian and many other ethnic migrants within Germany and Europe, how ought such powers of innovation and creativity engender alternatives to the brutality inflicted upon the world by the insatiable greed of capital?  


Virtual Urban Commons as Euler Diagram_Alex Head 2013.jpg

Eis Fabrik as Euler Diagram 



1. http://www.berlin-eisfabrik.de/Geschichte/Schmelich.html

2. TAZ, Deutsche Welle, Recreation Ground Berlin - Wasteland Twinning Network

3. Immaterial Labour, Maurizio Lazzarato 1996, University of Minnesota Press

4. WIPO - World Intellectual Property Organisation  

5. That the utility of ideas have a kind of shelf-life is a concept sympathetic to the theory of Morphic Resonance developed by biologist and author Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. Here species draw on a collective memory as a means to innovate new forms of life and behaviour.

The Anxious Prop Case 5: The Intellectual Property Issue

Alex Head, 2013