Why is a routine, everyday visit to a large housing estate—especially the East German variety known colloquially as a “Platte” [short for Plattenbau]—seen as so unappealing? Do these urban areas, dominated by industrially produced apartment blocks, really lack charm? What would happen if our nerve cells get bored?
Sensory deprivation is one of those torture methods that leave no obvious traces on their victims. By shielding a person’s sensory organs as much as possible, the effect is heightened. Unused nerve cells are at risk of wasting away and demand constant stimulation—in its absence, they will begin to stimulate themselves, producing unreal sensory impressions. We ordinarily do not notice the mental images that manifest themselves as hallucinations because we are constantly preoccupied with other things. Prolonged sensory deprivation through the denial of sensory input can lead to personality changes, psychological damage, or difficulties interacting with other people.
Deprivation of the senses is the state of stimulus depletion. According to the online medical handout “Deprivationsprophylaxe” (Deprivation prophylaxis), “a person is deprived if their objective personal situation (socio-economic status, social integration, state of health) and subjective personal situation (physical or psychological state, interpersonal relationships, job satisfaction, leisure activities) are poor.” Measures to prevent this deprivation should therefore include “creating an environment that is as stimulating as possible. Variety creates stimuli.”
Stimulus is less a matter of aesthetics than of appealing to the senses. The supposed “ugliness” of large housing projects—as shown by the cult popularity of the “Plattenbauquartett” card game or the renewed euphoria for the architectural style of the 1970s known as “Brutalism”—is subject to changing trends in taste and appraisal. But the sensuality, complexity, and charisma of an urban area depend on multiple factors.
While not wanting to reduce social issues to a pathology, the areas in Germany where the right-wing groups Pegida, AfD, and NSU predominate do not appear to be beneficial to sensory health. At least that is what was suggested by the exhibition Winzerla – Kunst als Spurensuche im Schatten des NSU by artist Sebastian Jung. The artist, who lives in Jena, grew up in the same large housing estate as the neo-Nazi NSU cadre of Mundlos, Böhnhardt, and Zschäpe. He encountered the now-convicted NSU supporter Ralf Wohlleben on a daily basis prior to his trial in 2012.
Sebastian Jung describes the commonplace “terror” of normative reductions as follows: “Since our apartment was on the ground floor, my parents were able to grow many plants in front of the balcony. Among them was a handsome lilac. One day we came home and found it had been cut down. ‘When I eat my honey roll on the balcony, I don’t want to be disturbed by any bees,’ said the neighbor who had cut it down.” About the homogenizing influence of school lessons, he writes: “In the first grade, the math teacher came to me and said cautiously, as I was adding numbers in the exercise book: ‘That’s very nice, but wouldn’t you like to try writing the numbers inside the boxes?’ That was indeed a new concept for me.” In his simple, childlike drawings and casual snapshots of childhood memories from Winzerla, such everyday impositions burst forth again in a combination of built and social patterns.
Jochen Becker (Berlin) works as author, curator and lecturer and is co-founder of metroZones | Center for Urban Affairs and the station urbaner kulturen/nGbK. Recently he curated Chinafrika. under construction and was developing the project City as Factory and Place Internationale (FFT Theater Düsseldorf, 2017-21) as well as the metroZones-exhibition Mapping Along (Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien, Berlin, 2021). He is active in Initiative Urbane Praxis and is preparing the second SITUATION BERLIN congress for this purpose.