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Virtual Berlin Wall in New Exhibition

By Maggie Barrett

Image from Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall

An image from Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall.

Imagine living in a city split all the way through by a wall. On the West side, you enjoy freedom. On the East side, you live in a world dominated by Communism.  People who attempt to escape from the East to the West do so with the knowledge they might die trying. 

This was reality for those who lived in Berlin between August 13, 1961 and November 9, 1989—the 28 years of the Berlin Wall. Although most of the Wall was torn down, visitors to the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center will have the rare opportunity to experience it through Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall, a virtual reality work of art on display from Saturday, November 7, through Sunday, December 20.

November 9 marks the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s fall and the end of the Cold War—an event that many remember witnessing through television news and an event that today’s college students first learned about in history books.     

The exhibition is an interactive 3D computer graphics environment that allows users to experience a section of the Wall and its surrounding neighborhoods. Through their movements with a simple joy stick, users walk along the Berlin Wall at street level, encountering it as a disorienting, arbitrary barrier to freedom. The installation is set primarily in the mid-1980s, but in certain locations takes users to the 1960s or the present. 

Creators Tamiko Thiel and Teresa Reuter focused on the area between the West Berlin district Kreuzberg and the East Berlin district Mitte, stretching from the former border crossing at Heinrich-Heine-Strasse to the Engelbecken Park. Thiel and Reuter researched the historical, sociological, and urban conditions and to understand how the Wall’s presence and the constant possibility of escape attempts influenced everyday life, they interviewed people who lived in the area during the time of the Wall.

“So, until the mid-60s, the Wall here was actually the walls of the houses, with the windows and doors bricked up so you couldn’t escape,” recalled a woman they interviewed. “In 1964, a family broke open the window of the corner house and climbed out the window with a rope. After that, they (the German Democratic Republic) tore down the buildings, but left the ground floor sides as part of the wall. Pretty wild!”

Art Analyzes Human Rights Issues

While Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall celebrates the triumph of human rights in contemporary history, a second exhibition also opening November 7 calls attention to the numerous human rights issues still plaguing the world.

The exhibition and those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music features works that layer text, watercolors, spray paint, and oil by renowned Los Angeles-based artist Cole Sternberg, a graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law. 

“Cole Sternberg’s exhibition originates from a lawyer, a passionate lawyer, whose views you may or may not share, but whose work engages and impresses not through legal language and precedent, but through the language of art,” wrote Claudio Grossman, dean of American University’s Washington College of Law and chair of the U.N. Commission on Torture, for the exhibition catalogue’s preface.

Pulling text from the Geneva Convention and Amnesty International, Sternberg uses his legal background to research his works and offer a critical analysis of international human rights.  

“Issues like genocide, slavery, and torture shouldn’t occur in a modern society, yet they happen worldwide every day,” Sternberg said. “The inaction of governmental bodies has resulted in a world that doesn’t seem to care. My attempt is to bring some of these issues to a new audience and make people really think about what is going on out there.”

American University is well-known for its commitment to social responsibility, diversity, and issues impacting all citizens of the world.  AU’s Washington College of Law is lauded for its programs in international and humanitarian law.

Both exhibitions open to the public starting Saturday, November 7 and close Sunday, December 20.

The Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors, the largest exhibition of contemporary Indigenous Australian art to visit the United States, is also on display at the American University museum until Sunday, December 6. John Dreyfuss: Inventions will be in the museum’s sculpture garden through Sunday, January 17, 2010.