The changing visual environment of formerly Communist countries, in flux under the pressures of capitalist enterprise and economic chaos, is so provisional, its elements apparently so unwarranted, that it raises many questions in the mind of any visitor from the West. This essay is about some of those questions and was stimulated by witnessing the rapid changes occurring in Berlin and Prague. It is about the role which tourism, the creation of images, and the writing of names play in the transformation. The East, now bearing the first marks of private commerce, can serve as a lens with which to examine the raw appearance of capital. It gives the lie to those who argued that the systems of the East and the West were essentially similar. While in some ways this analysis is subjective and visual, I shall argue that this is not in itself a fault. I should add that although this is an essay which calls out for illustration, there is a good—though extrinsic—reason why it is unillustrated, for half an hour before I was due to leave Berlin my camera bag was stolen. Apart from the cameras—in principle, at least, replaceable machines despite the occasional Heideggerian sense of presence they give on malfunctioning—was the loss of the thirty-or-so rolls of exposed film—images of Prague and Berlin. These are doubly irreplaceable, for in addition to all the unrepeatable contingencies which make a photograph (the atmospheric conditions, the combinations of figures, the dispositions of objects and shadows), the subject of these pictures was largely the transient aspect of cities in the process of vertiginous change. No doubt these latent images will finish on the city dump, and this is curiously fitting, since they will be joined there—eventually—by many of their subjects. The reader will, I hope, accept that what follows is to an extent an exercise in compensation. But it is not only that. The East, now a plane of intersection where the physical fabric of the old systems persists alongside the incursions of a shiny and self-confident West, throws difference into strong relief, and much of this contrast is based around the image and the signature, to which the practice of photography is intimately related.

Under Western eyes, the East has always been notable for a bareness against which any incident stands out more fully, giving the impression of a more palpable reality. This effect is readily apparent on Berlin’s Museum Island at dusk where broad, empty vistas and bulky neoclassical buildings, whose stones still bear the marks of shrapnel, the Bodesmuseum and the Pergamon Museum, are separated by a railway line which runs over the river. There is hardly a trace of writing or commerce. The area, with its wide open spaces and its mix of bare neoclassicism and archaic modernity, is reminiscent of some scene from De Chirico. Such an apparent excess of reality spills over into surreality: as in De Chirico, everything takes on a theatrical air, for culture (here an imperial architecture) is unmediated by the usual visual impedimenta (which provide it with the contrast and which situate it as antique) and the customary apparatus of labelling (which allows the identification and dismissal of the artefact).

Further clues to this sense of a tangible reality, a vision which echoes the unease aroused by high-resolution photography, can be found inside the galleries. A comparison of the former West German galleries at Dahlem and the former East German Nazionale Gallerie brings out some of the similarities and the differences. They are the fragmented parts of a larger national collection, the division of which reflected a wider separation. To look at these museums is like examining identical twins brought up in different families. Similar are the green wall coverings and the ugly mix of strip and daylight, similar the frequent lapses of taste perpetrated by the Prussian kings. Very different, though, is their general ambience. Dahlem is a large, modernist gallery, a place of bureaucratic but somehow modest perfection, its pictures well placed in even light, its decor sparse. The Nazionale Gallerie exudes a dusty and archaic presence, where through the gaps in its curtains there is an unwarranted (and curatorially inadvisable) incursion of sunlight into its dark rooms. Many paintings do not appear flush to the wall but stand a little away from it. Such imperfections bring home the reality of the works, which appear as objects, actual things which might be handled, which might themselves change, and which might appear different in changed circumstances. The ideal perfection striven for in Western display, where painting appears as a fixed and immaterial apparition, actually debases the works, for wonder often comes out of an impression of the aesthetic emerging from the material, from a simultaneous realization of beauty and matter. Contingency reveals beauty. In the West, the simultaneous grasp of this opposition is lost through the complete dominance of the visual in transcendental guise.

In Prague and old East Berlin, there is an unintentional privileging, through lack of control and through poverty, of incident, and a preparedness to let age manifest itself. The utopias of the East are less effective and comprehensive than those of the West, where (at least in showpiece areas) the past has been eradicated through the complete control of the environment. This is even the case when we are really in the presence of something old. An American friend once remarked on passing the Tower of London that, although it was of course in a sense genuine, it still felt like Disneyland. Incident and age are lost in the West, too quickly swamped in a comprehensive diversity or assimilated to commercial uses.

If it is the bareness of the East’s visual environment which allows us full appreciation of contingency, the incursion of the West has multiplied such incidents. For the moment, many parts of Berlin and its environs form a surreal world of collage in which the Trabi plays a starring role. At a major junction in Potsdam sits one Trabi, gutted, its bonnet still attached but folded up to form a sign proclaiming, ‘Glück ist was man braucht’ (Luck is what one needs). In Tucholskystrasse, another, parked in the street, has become a little garden, its boot and bonnet filled with earth and planted, its interior lined with pots. Everywhere there are abandoned cars filled with junk, everywhere graffiti and refuse.

An obdurate reality is found in the gaps between planned conceptions. This is well illustrated in Prague where the infrastructure of mass tourism is far from fully established. Information is still hard to come by and arrangements difficult to make. The politically necessary change of street names causes further chaos. Prague’s old streets were rhizomatic enough without this innovation. The city’s diverse, urban beauty brings home to Western tourists what they have lost: in the past it might have reminded us of what the processes of Hausmannization, rationalization, bombing and road building had done to our cities, for Prague retains much of its medieval street pattern and a fascinating mix of architectural styles. Now it is likely to remind us of more modern and immediately commercial pressures. Areas of the city are succumbing to the commercial apparatus of plate glass, spotlit displays and plastic signs, in addition to all the paraphernalia required to regulate mass transport. The fabric of old Prague now lies beneath an epidemic of graffiti and fly-posting. The arcades are covered in posters publicizing touristic events, already sometimes producing a palimpsest of images and text. Other areas, especially the walls bordering the Vltava, are covered with bright graffiti acting as coloured loci for the offended eye of the tourist who surveys the famous scene towards the Castle. A guardianship of all the accessible surfaces of the city was beyond the powers of any tyranny, and the loss of control over the visual and cultural environment is not so much a product of political freedom, as a consequence of the ubiquitous and unbridled exercise of capital. The greatest graffiti artists, from whom the spray-can practitioners take their genre and their métier, are the giant corporations which strive to make their ‘handles’ truly ubiquitous, perhaps most notoriously the Coca-Cola company, which boasts that the limits of the distribution of its logo mark those of human civilization. An apparent reality recedes before the weight of writing, representations, consumer objects, signs, and dynamic, absurd juxtapositions, and is at least banished to a region above first-floor level.

The bareness of the East not only shows us what we have lost but is a backdrop against which we can more clearly see what we are. Advertisements appear in ridiculous situations, provisionally placed on the side of tower blocks; trade names are plainly grafted onto system-built blocks which, in themselves, exhibit no individuation. Here such practices seem manifest, blatant and questionable. Adverts are no longer subjects (more or less offensive, banal or vulgar) but simply adverts: their medium becomes opaque and we see them as a genus. ‘Europe will be one’ says one poster for clothing, echoing in a parochial way the united colours of the Benetton campaign. This may, of course, be seen in many places, but seemed particularly poignant above a shallow scrap of enclosed land where the most diverse and unimaginable rubbish had been dumped. Berlin is most charming in its supposedly fenced-off areas, which in London would be quite impenetrable to the gaze (let alone the feet) but which here are almost as leaky and open as the Wall. Rusting cars, washing machines, cogs and other pieces of machinery, newspapers all mix in an ageing parody of consumerism. One or two people inevitably will be picking amongst this refuse. Disposability is, of course, the concomitant of consumerism, so advert and rubbish exist here not in opposition but in symbiosis.