When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, it fell quickly. Joyful Berliners reduced most of the structure to rubble within months, and 20 years later, little evidence remains.
After watching a generation come of age in a united city, American-born engineer and virtual-reality artist Tamiko Thiel of Munich and German architect/artist Teresa Reuter of Berlin (collectively, the T+T artist group) set out to recreate the walled experience. The result was a work titled Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall (2008), an interactive, three-dimensional virtual-reality simulation of the partitioned German capital, which opens next week at Boston's Goethe-Institut in conjunction with the Boston CyberArts Festival.
Visitors use a joystick to navigate from a first-person perspective through simulations of adjacent 1980s neighborhoods — Mitte in East Berlin and bohemian Kreuzberg in the West — projected life-size on a nine-by-12-foot screen. Along the way, they encounter typical characters, such as a woman with a Kreuzberg accent wearing tiger-print pants and a green pixie cut, whose nondescript American companion keeps tossing in phrases like "Pretty wild!" The characters describe the city's transformation in German and English. Otherwise, the streets are eerily deserted — as they would have been near the wall, recalls Goethe-Institut program coordinator Annette Klein.
Thiel, a Stanford and MIT–trained engineer who moved to Munich in the mid 1980s for art school, remembers the wall from visits to East Berlin with her friend Reuter. When she proposed the project to Reuter in 2004, her goal was to "give people an experience that in some ways comes close to interacting with the site."
To accomplish this, T+T emphasized the looming military threat and limited opportunity to escape. Apart from a truck crashing through the crude 1960s wall in a flashback vignette, border crossings are thwarted by stoic guards.
After the fall, says Thiel, "Very soon it became difficult to explain the experience of being in divided Berlin." But the T+T team hope that their visual details, including reproductions of the wall's original graffiti, will do just that. The exhibition travels to Italy, India, and Spain later this year.
Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall will be at the Goethe-Institut Boston, 170 Beacon Street, in Boston, from April 24 to May 6. Opening, with artists' talk, is on April 23 at 6 pm.
Editor's Note: In a previous edition of this article the German architect/artist Teresa Reuter was incorrectly identified as Tamiko Thiel. The correction has been made above.