On my train trip to Berlin, John Berger inadvertently warns me, via his essay The Moment of Cubism, to stay free of determinism. Unbeknownst to him, I am reading his essay on the way to research independently run art spaces and initiatives, with my main question being, “What motivated you to begin?” Which of course begs for answers starting with “Because…”
Luckily for me, the answers to this question either confess personal desire as the starting point, which steers it past being a result of external factors, or – and this was the most common – the question is entirely deflected: the reason for starting an independent space not seeming to be important at all.
Which brings me to one of the few common threads I found between the spaces I spoke to. While independently run spaces as a group are characterized by their diversity, those who I contacted over the last two weeks did have a few things in common. The first of these being attitude.
My request to meet was consistently responded to generously – even offering to show me around when the space was inactive, as in the case of Farbvision and HORSEANDPONY Fine Arts; or to meet even when there was no space even to be seen, as in the case of nomadic spaces Super and Sonntag. But the conversations themselves felt to be almost absurd, as if asking about running these spaces was a superfluous question: running a space appearing to be an almost default activity here in Berlin.
Berlin (too) has seen rent crawling steadily upwards in recent years, but pockets of unused space with relatively low rent can still be found and secured – and is done so - as in the case of Oracle and Stadium. In other cases, private homes are still expansive enough to dedicate a part of the house to exhibiting art, as with Farbvision and Open Forum. While Amsterdam’s double-focus spaces (studio turned exhibition spaces/apartment turned exhibition spaces) facilitate both uses within the same room, here spaces still are big enough to exist adjacently– each activity having a room for themselves.
This availability of space leads to shop front spaces, living room spaces, storage spaces. Even temporarily-secured unused spaces, such as CNTRM’s location in the DDR guardhouse (for Berlin’s Project Space Festival - I’ll get back to this later). The spaces are not necessarily easily to get, but can be done – either through self initiative (Stadium and Oracle) or through organizations (Gr_und and Tier.space).
Over time there have been several associations, such as Coopolis and Netzwerk Freier Berliner Projekteräume und –Initativen, who have acted as intermediaries between landowners and those looking to start cultural spaces. The Berlin Senate also states one of its responsibilities is to “protect and promote cultural life”. In the German version, it is phrased as “freiheitliches Kunstleben” (liberal artistic life), with specific mention made that it “does not in itself necessitate the preservation or establishment of any particular cultural institutions”, but rather mandates cultural policy worked out between the senate, the 12 Burroughs of Berlin, sponsors and stakeholders in civil society. This, along with the aforementioned organizations, paints a picture that the city of Berlin actively acknowledges the importance of art within the city – not just of the arts, but the spaces in which art can be made and shown. I find acknowledging this on a structural level to be refreshing – it presents itself as a supportive and generous system. But I have to remind myself that I am learning of this by speaking to those who have succeeded in acquiring space through these organizations – which perhaps does not accurately reflect the difficulty in attaining space through these structures may be. Perhaps the fact that Netzwerk Freier Berliner Projekteräume und –Initativen has only been able to find space for two initiatives (Gr_und and TIER.space) in the last 1.5 years gives a bit of an indication to how difficult this might be. Nonetheless, the fact that they are actively finding spaces gives me the feeling that they are helping to find grounded and long(er) term support – a sense of stability which seems crucial in these cities and times where artists and “cultural agents” feel to be constantly pushed towards being “flexible” and mobile.
But stability need not necessarily be grounded spatially. Sonntag, run by artists April Gertler and Adrian Schiesser, have managed to maintain a monthly exhibition program for seven years, jumping from living room to living room across Berlin (and occasional other cities), using the German tradition of (Sunday) afternoon coffee and cake as the skeleton of their project. Occurring every third Sunday of the month, always from 14.00 till 18.00, always serving coffee and cake, the regularity of their program has become a dependable fixture of Berlin. A simple but multifaceted event, it draws audiences from several angles - offering itself as an art exhibition, an (slow) architectural tour, or a pleasant Sunday activity one can bring their friends, children, and even grandparents, to. And you don’t even need to make an appointment, which brings me to my second point in things I found spaces in Berlin have in common.
Open by appointment’ is a common sentence found at the bottom of websites of independent spaces, but here for the first time I encounter it as the only way of engagement. Other than at openings and finissages, Open Forum, Oracle and Super –for example- can only be visited by contacting them personally. While various factors determine the use of this form, what I really enjoyed was what Bärbel Trautwein of Oracle said about the change of interaction caused by this framework. She said that one aspect she enjoyed of being open by appointment was that it led to much more engagement between her and those who visit. Arriving with the knowledge that the space has been opened especially for them provoked real conversations. The notion of the general public is gone, replaced by the specific public, and the mode of visiting changes accordingly.
Which finally brings me back to the Project Space Festival I promised to tell more of at the beginning. Coinciding with my trip to Berlin, the 4th Project Space Festival Berlin opened days after my arrival. Spanning across the month of August and including 27 project spaces, the festival proceeded to present one event each evening at a different space across the city.
The premise is great and I am genuinely excited to have an event each day to attend while investigating spaces in Berlin. But as I begin to attend these shows, I am confronted – time and time again – with disappointing experiences. So consistent is this experience that at some point I realize it cannot be the quality of the art or the spaces. And I realize that, of course, the most uniting element these events have is how I get there. Unlike the rest of the spaces I visit, these events invite me as a faceless spectator and because of this, I invest little energy beforehand into my experience. While with other spaces I actively search, find their websites, read about their programs and their mission statements before personally contacting the people behind it, these spaces I turn up just by knowing when and where to be. Of course no one is stopping me going through the same process as the other spaces, but I don’t. Perhaps the crucial difference being that I don’t have to.
Perhaps this is personal laziness, or perhaps this is fear of running out of time. Perhaps it is a perspective that knows that all the infrastructures that surround an exhibition affect it, but still forgets it. Including the affect of reading John Berger.
 Landscapes, John Berger p. 157