Friendship, generosity and hospitality are essential human impulses and welcome aspects, hopefully, of all our lives. There is a lot of all three in the New Life Berlin festival. There needs to be, there isn’t much of anything else to make art with here. A cheery gift economy replaces finance and is used to construct the art works within it as well as the very event itself. The festival invites our generosity and in return gives us friendly support and a showcase for what we do as artists and writers. It is an open and fair trade, a form of alternative giving, and one that successfully refutes the commodification of art as product or business. This amiable exchange makes things happen and exists in place of materials where lack of budget does not allow for them. It makes for a committed and inventive approach to everything, and one where all participating feel on a level with each other.

One of the projects that most embodies the exchange and reciprocity that drives the New Life Berlin festival, is Old Berliners to New Berliners. It is run by the Berlin collaboration, Laboratorio Berlin who are Silvina der Meguerditchian , Chus Lopez Vidal and Concha Argueso. All Spanish or Armenian Argentinian in origin, they settled in Berlin over a decade ago, which I expect would not seem long enough to be called an ‘old’ Berliner by those who are born here. When newly arrived they lived in poorer parts of the city, studying and jobbing to get by but now live in more settled homes in the leafy Charlottenberg district.

They haven’t forgotten their experience as migrants and their need to replace the emotionally supportive traditional family with a network of friends and colleagues. Ideas about the structure and value of this recycled family inform their project for the New Life Berlin festival. They are eager to extend the hand of friendship to other new arrivals, especially the new wave of artists and creatives who have been attracted to Berlin as a cultural centre, and who tend to live over in the shabbier and cheaper, districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain and Mitte in former East Berlin.

An open invitation was posted on the festival website to come over to one of their apartments last Sunday evening. The door to the airy and elegant apartment with spacious studios close by, was opened to welcome in the recently arrived population, other friends and some of the writers from Open Dialogues. We writer ‘tourists’ did seem to outnumber the New Berliners as not as many came as had been hoped for. Perhaps the EM game that night or the childrens’ bedtime kept some away, or maybe more targeted invitations were needed ?

Laboratorio Berlin worked closely together in planning this event which was creative and fun as well as very welcoming. Besides hosting and explaining their project to us, they invited their guests to contribute their thoughts or photos or objects to a growing tree on the apartment wall that represents the connections being made and the idea of “new family”. There are plans for an ongoing art collaboration between participants that uses the model of the traditional travelling Spanish wooden box, the Santa Familia. People are already signing up to have this in their homes and then will travel to meet with others as they hand it on. Lewis Hyde in his book ‘The Gift’ speaks of how the action of giving can develop a chain of offerings, passing on values from one person to the next. Laboratorio Berlin understand that it is through such exchanges that human bonds are created and enable social systems to function and thrive.

There are so many positive aspects to this heartfelt and well-conceived project, so much to be gained, and it is a shame that more did not come to enjoy it. Despite having travelled from across the world to be in Berlin, it seems that the journey across the city from arrival into this affluent area was just a little too far, too soon, for some New Berliners. Perhaps this new artist population, the New Berliners, will remain disconnected from the old one a little longer. But if the Old Berliners who are Laboratorio Berlin have anything to do with it, not for too much longer.

As addendum, a discreet but significant exchange took place this week within the embrace of this project. I met to interview Silvina a second time, to hear her thoughts on how the evening had gone. We sat and talked over coffee at a street café. The weather was changing and as the sun went in I became cold. I had no sweater with me and was more than an hour away from my lodgings to collect one. I was warmed by her generosity in taking me to her home and lending me a vibrant red and black poncho to wear. I do feel as though I am rather sailing under false colours, but for the remainder of my time in Berlin am enjoying wearing this exotic and snug token of hospitality. It was a small act of kindness to a stranger, and one that emanated from the same core of generosity and friendship that in this project were just the right materials for art production.

This text was developed as part of the Open Dialogues: New Life Berlin critical writing initiative