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Made in America, Based in Berlin

 (Cheryl-Anne Millsap / Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
(Cheryl-Anne Millsap / Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    It’s always a bit of a jolt when we see ourselves through another’s lens. Suddenly things we’d never noticed stand out.
    I was in Berlin recently. What has happened there since the wall fell is interesting. At the  time of the reunification West Berlin was the place to be. East Berlin, not so much.
    As one young man I met told me, “I used to walk to the wall and look across to the East and ask. “Who lives in that gray city?”
    Obviously, a great many people lived there. But freedom was on the other side. And when the wall fell they poured out and into West Berlin and across the country. But now, 25 years later, the pendulum has swung the other way. What used to be East Berlin is now hip and edgy. Artists flock there and that movement has changed more than the landscape.
    While exploring the Mitte area of former East Berlin, I stopped to take in a temporary contemporary art exhibition in Monbijoupark.
    “Based in Berlin” filled an abandoned atelier. Inside, in empty rooms, a range of art installations were set up. All were edgy, avant-garde, but one caught my eye immediately

    In the first-floor hallway a wide flat-screen television was mounted on the wall. On the screen was a montage of video clips of well-known performers.  In the official description on the Based in Berlin website, Asaf Koriat’s work “The Brave” is described as “a single channel split-screen video, which simultaneously shows nine TV recordings of celebrities (Celine Dion, Justin Timberlake, Jessica Simpson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige and Cher), each singing the American national anthem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ at the opening of the Super Bowl.”
    It was not what you would expect to see and hear in a German park.
    Individually, the voices were easy to listen to. Some even appealing - depending on which artists you like and which you don’t. But superimposed on one another, the combined voices were discordant. Jarring. Unpleasant.

    While I stood there, a group of young German women stopped in front of the screen.  I stole an occasional glance at them. Finally, one shook her head.
    “Why are they all screaming? “ she asked the others. They all shrugged and shook their heads. The girls moved on but I stayed and watched the videio all the way through again. She had a point.
    Koriat, who studied in New York, describes the installation this way in his official release: “This dissonant national anthem presents both a powerful critique and a celebration of mass culture. The singers embody the democratic system’s complexity. They at the same time propagate the myth of a collective national identity and the ceaseless insistence on the idea of individuality—both pillars of the “American Dream.” The video’s presentation on a large flat-screen TV underscores the function of media events as the form in which a nation exists and perceives itself as a united entity.”

    Like any work of art should, Koriat’s “The Brave” stayed with me even after I flew home. And, at this time of year, when Sousa marches, The Star-Spangled Banner and even Lee Greenwood singing “Proud to be an American” accompany annual fireworks extravaganzas, he left me with something to think about.  As Americans, we’re free to make a little noise when we feel like it. But it never hurts to stop and think about the way we might sound to the rest of the world.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country.