für bildende Kunst
Conversation with Eylem Sengezer on January 18, 2022, via Zoom
Anna-Lena Wenzel: When and how did you come to the nGbK? Do you recall your first impressions?
Eylem Sengezer: I realized my first project at the nGbK in 2012. Anna Bromley and Michael Fesca asked me to join a project group that organized the exhibition The Irregulars. Economies of Deviation. The people in the group didn’t know each other before and it was their first time working at the nGbK, so our knowledge of the society’s structures was limited. We knew there was a general assembly where projects are presented, but we didn’t know about the structures and grassroots decision-making processes, the role of project groups and the coordination committee, or the responsibilities involved in realizing a project. So it was a learning process on various levels—with respect to collective work, and because it was our first experience of curating on a large scale. On average, nGbK projects have a budget of 50,000 euros, which is quite a lot if you’re doing something like that for the first time.
ALW: In addition to the exhibition, you also published a glossary …
ES: Yes, our application included an exhibition and a glossary, and at the general assembly we ended up taking first place. This was a huge surprise, because unlike other projects we had no contacts or networks within the nGbK. Which, admittedly, is often helpful. The theme of the exhibition—the relationship between art and work with a focus on post-Fordist discourse—was clearly popular. We also organized a symposium in cooperation with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung—in the end it was quite a program.
ALW: Was it an advantage not to know in advance just how much work it would be to realize all of this?
ES: Fortunately, we all had a relatively large amount of prior experience working in other institutional contexts, but we still underestimated the workload. At the time, my life situation allowed for this extra unpaid work, which is not the case today. There is a major discrepancy between time spent and payment received. As in many other project groups, this led to conflicts. But even if I had know beforehand how much work it was going to be, I would still have applied, because it was an important experience I wouldn’t want to be without. I learned a great deal for my curatorial practice and for myself personally.
ALW: In the ten years you’ve been associated with the nGbK, has this relationship between time invested and remuneration changed for the better?
ES: You mean regarding the way I deal with it, or in institutional terms?
ES: After that first project, I realized three more. What certainly did change is the way I dealt with it. The more experience of working at the nGbK you have, the easier it is to understand certain processes and to make careful use of your own resources. Looking back at the first project, we were very ambitious and we realized a great deal, of high quality, in a short time. The subsequent projects were easier to organize because I had a better knowledge of the institution and its procedures. Right after The Irregulars I did the metabolism project The Ultimate Capital is the Sun, followed by Wissensspeicher and the anniversary project 50 Jahre neue Gesellschaft. In thematic terms, then, I focused more on the institution itself. That was partly due to an interest in engaging more intensely with its history. I had always understood the nGbK as a political place, not least because it was founded in the spirit of 1968. But what exactly did this political quality mean and how has it changed in recent years?
Studying the history of the nGbK in the process of digitizing and structuring its archives for the Wissensspeicher changed my view of the institution. It gave me a better understanding of the different phases in its history, with their contradictory notions of the political, and of the fact that the way its structures, responsibilities, and roles are understood is and always has been subject to negotiation.
In recent years, the question of structures has been especially present, due among others to the upheavals caused by multiple changes of management. Looking back, the period around 2014/15 sticks in my mind as especially full of discussions, not least due to the vacuum created by the departure of the management. At this time, the coordination committee had to step up, and I perceived it as very active and committed, including with regard to the relationship between paid and unpaid work. There was even talk of completely getting rid of the office team.
ES: Yes, it was discussed by a minority of members, and it was not a new discussion. My view of the institution also changed with the various positions I occupied: after my time as a member of project groups, also attending the coordination committee, I was a directly elected member for a short period. Last year I was elected to the steering committee. In the past, I saw the steering committee primarily as a representative body, but it also addresses many structural issues for which the coordination committee has no time or capacity. Thanks to my new role, I now have a better understanding of certain necessities. Because the nGbK is currently making the transition from Lottery funding to being funded by Berlin’s Senate—something was never certain and that took fifty years to achieve—the institutional issues take on a new form because the transition brings new constraints. There is also the question of how the nGbK can redefine its structures to make the grassroots model work better. How do we translate these structures into a different context? I see a disconnect here between structural transformation on the one hand and, on the other, the interests of project groups which, understandably, are often focused on their projects. Sometimes there’s a lack of communication about exactly what the individual committees do. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s also important.
ALW: You’re currently on the steering committee with Ingrid Wagner and Ingo Arend who, like yourself, have known the institution for a long time and, crucially, from the inside. That strikes me as good for the interplay of the various committees.
ES: In recent years, steering committee members were often chosen for their representative qualities. It makes a difference whether or not you’re familiar with the work of project groups and their interactions with the office team. As a member of the steering committee, I’m active in various working groups—on diversity/anti-discrimination and on location—and I think it’s important for the steering committee to keep in touch with the other committees and working groups, because they initiate important debates about the society. Personally, I see myself more as a supporter and facilitator than as a representative, among others because I think the project groups themselves are best able to represent and present their work outside the nGbK. In terms of politics the situation is slightly different; there, the steering committee is needed as an intermediary, especially in the current transformation phase. Also, it very much depends on each individual how they define their role. There’s the structure as defined by the nGbK statutes—but how this structure is brought to life, how things are realized and organized, that’s something different.
ALW: You’ve already mentioned that the specific content of these tasks is subject to negotiation. Would you say that this structural adaptability and this openness to new actors is what makes the nGbK special?
ES: Yes, many things can be discussed and negotiated, but it depends on having a knowledge of structures and a certain amount of experience within the organization. When you’re new, it’s hard to engage with these structures, but there’s an understanding that criticism is allowed and that once criticisms have been expressed, negotiation is necessary. That makes the nGbK special. In other institutions, structures and individuals are not criticized with the same openness due to the existence of dependencies. Such dependencies and hierarchies of power don’t take the same form at the nGbK, being organized more horizontally, for example between longer-standing members and those who are relatively new. Sometimes it can also depend on the level of linguistic access.
ALW: You work for Diversity Arts Culture (DAC) and you have an extensive knowledge of how cultural institutions deal with discrimination.
ES: An institution must always reckon with criticism. It must deal with discrimination and exclusion, whether it wants to or not. Discrimination also takes place in the cultural sector, with a number of cases becoming public in Berlin in recent years. At Diversity Arts Culture, our impression is that the response to discrimination or criticism is often silence. In a few cases, there are designated contact persons or structures like a works council or equality officer, but complaints are often dropped out of fear or ignorance, or a response is delayed “until the air has cleared.” For this reason, DAC founded an independent complaints office for Berlin’s cultural sector last year. It offers psychosocial counselling to those affected, plus a preliminary legal assessment. To date, the cases reported to us have most often involved racism and sexism.
ALW: Can you describe what you do in the Diversity Working Group?
ES: Following an accusation of discrimination at the nGbK in 2021, there was a discussion in the coordination committee, an event was cancelled, and all members were informed by email. We discussed the fact that there was no complaints procedure and that discrimination and abuses of power were not being adequately dealt with. Among other things, we organized a training program and sought advice on how to set up a complaints procedure for those affected by discrimination and abuses of power. It was relatively easy to found the working group, but not to find members willing to do this work on a voluntary basis. But precisely on this subject, the members play a crucial role. The success of the Diversity Working Group depends on whether and how all of the bodies within the nGbK make this issue their own.
ALW: Although the structure of the nGbK is based on grassroots democracy, there are still power relations, working not directly through specific posts but via knowledge. In my view, working out how to discuss and tackle this fact is the challenge posed by this process of engaging with discrimination. This is not a simple task, because it depends on fostering an understanding of what is perceived as discrimination in the first place.
ES: Interestingly, since we’ve been working on this, several instances of discrimination have been reported to me, including racism and sexism. So I would say the nGbK is now in a learning process, understanding how abuses of power and discrimination manifest in its own structures. These are important first steps—recognizing things and naming them ...
ALW: ... and developing an awareness of the issues ...
ES: Exactly, and that calls for an ongoing engagement. The issue is named by individuals, but not viewed as a structural problem. Highlighting this structural dimension is the task of the working group. At the nGbK there is no director who could unilaterally determine what form a complaints procedure should take and how it should be implemented in structural terms. The Coordination Committee makes it easier to raise the matter within the institution, but all of the committees and groups have to engage—and that’s not so easy. In this respect, the decentralization of power poses a challenge.
ALW: Because responsibilities are not always clear and the decentral communications structure sometimes makes it feel like one is speaking into a void?
ES: Yes. Now it’s a matter of getting as many people on board as possible. This issue may not spark waves of enthusiasm, but it’s part and parcel of any art society that considers itself political.
ALW: How do you see the nGbK today with regard to diversity?
ES: The nGbK is still a relatively white institution. In the ten years I’ve been working there, far too little has changed in that respect, for example among the office staff, but also in the project groups. Relations with the neighborhood on Oranienstrasse have also often been discussed, but the nGbK hasn’t managed to create lasting links with migrant communities there—or just in isolated cases, not on an institutional level. There are still various gaps to be filled.
ALW: In our conversation, Christiane Zieseke said that issues are addressed at the nGbK before they enter the mainstream. She also spoke of the nGbK not really being taken seriously within Berlin’s cultural sector. You’ve worked at different cultural institutions in the city, so you know the outside viewpoint. What’s your impression?
ES: I have a similar view. The nGbK is perceived as an art venue with a plurality of voices. But instead of charismatic curators, its discourse is shaped by individual projects and artists. Politically speaking, things are different—the nGbK is an important institution and is perceived as such. I think the nGbK is pioneering in the way art institutions generate access and participation—the nGbK is both an important place of learning for young curators and artists, and a place where things can be tried out. Larger institutions with their ossified structures and hierarchies are lagging behind. In this respect, the nGbK could be a model for other cultural institutions.
ALW: For me, the collective aspect is very important. The fact of being obliged to work as a group of five people, which automatically leads to a more decentral approach based on the need to negotiate. I see a general trend here—with ruangrupa, the curatorial collective for the documenta, or the Turner Prize being awarded to a collective in 2021. On this point, the nGbK is ahead of its time.
ES: Alternative directorship concepts is a big topic in the cultural sector at the moment, it’s even mentioned in the recent coalition agreement, although in most cases it doesn’t go beyond two co-directors. The nGbK is a good example of how an institution can be organized democratically, with the collective as a central aspect. This has the effect that power is not concentrated in a single person, which in turn influences the way people work together and the way themes are chosen and developed.
The collective aspect is also the reason why I stayed at the nGbK. When I’ve worked for hierarchical cultural institutions that leave little or no scope for participation in decision-making, the nGbK was always a welcome alternative. Which doesn’t mean I have no criticisms of the nGbK. But being able to play such a shaping role is something special, for example being involved in deciding to distribute fees fairly on the basis of solidarity.
ALW: But that also means friction, it means sharing responsibility for the organization and being able to deal with shifting boundaries between paid and voluntary work.
Interview with Jula Dech at her studio in Charlottenburg on December 7, 2021
Entering Jula Dech’s studio, one is immediately in the midst of her artistic universe: several posters hang in the lobby, some of which she designed and printed herself. One, from her first exhibition at the nGbK in 1974, features Honoré Daumier. There are also posters of Hannah Höch and Käthe Kollwitz, and one calling for the abolition of the paragraph 218 abortion law. The artist explains:
Jula Dech: I was at art school in the 1960s, in the atmosphere of the student movement. These posters of Honoré Daumier and Käthe Kollwitz point to critiques of society stemming from this mood of revolt that impacted on our art studies.
On the table we sit down at, she has spread out slides from her exhibition Unbeachtete Produktionsformen (1982), the nGbK anniversary publication 21 – was nun? (1990) open at her essay “Blinder Fleck – Die neue Gesell(en)schaft und die Frauenkunst,” the catalogue of the exhibition Künstlerinnen international 1877–1977, and an art historical volume on women artists. In the course of our conversation, these are joined by her book on Hannah Höch, published to coincide with a conference on the artist in 1991.
Anna-Lena Wenzel: Jula, how did you become a member of the nGbK?
Jula Dech: Through my sister Barbara. She worked at the nGbK in the office as a secretary with Bernd Weyergraf, when I was still living in Stuttgart. So I became one of the early members of this recently founded society. It was art and politics in equal measure that brought me from Stuttgart to West Berlin in the early 1980s.
ALW: What was your view of the nGbK at the time?
JD: The stated aim of the nGbK was to exert an influence on society, not to exhibit pictures. Which is why painters joined the n.b.k. instead. That suited me because I wanted to make posters, not paint pictures. At the nGbK, everyone and everything came together: critical minds, criticism of society, critical engagement with art. The nGbK was not a conventional art society with members, annuals fees, and curators selecting artists considered deserving of an exhibition. Instead, most members of the nGbK were artists interested in working together to publically explore their new, critical views of art and society. And, like many of them, as an artist I was marked by having studied a history of art that required us to seek out the neglected critical painters, especially unrecognized and suppressed women. The first project I worked on was aggressively titled Honoré Daumier and the Unsolved Problems of Bourgeois Society, that was in 1974. Our project group worked hard on the show for two or three years before presenting it to the public—in the grand setting of the orangery at Schloss Charlottenburg. It went without saying that we would receive no money.
ALW: What was your role?
JD: Working in the group inspired me to conduct a close analysis of the graphic works of the politically engaged journalist Daumier, resulting in my catalog essay “Die Herstellung von Freiheit durch Druck.” But I also wanted to expand reception of the show by offering a direct experience of printing. In a covert operation, we brought a heavy cast-iron lithography press to the exhibition venue, where we then gave practical demonstrations of this difficult technique to interested visitors. Via a complex process, I transferred engravings by Daumier to lithography plates, so that the astonished visitors could even print their own “original” Daumier. Of course, this exhibition got a great response from the public. But it was a lot of work—we even printed at night!
ALW: Printing techniques, especially etching and lithography, are usually considered more traditional. But for you, posters are a political medium?
JD: It was 1968. There were many political activists at the universities, protests against the emergency laws, against paragraph 218, demonstrations against the dictators in Turkey, Greece, and Iran. Students were constantly coming to my print workshop, which they soon named the “Ohnesorg Workshop” [after Benno Ohnesorg, a student shot by police at a demonstration in Berlin on June 26, 1967] to print posters. And of course, screen printing was the medium of choice.
ALW: You were also one of the initiators of the project group for the exhibition §218 – Bilder gegen ein K(l)assengesetz, that took place in 1977 at Galerie Franz Mehring, with support from Künstlerhaus Bethanien. How did this exhibition come about?
JD: We—by no means all women—had built up a network that reached from Switzerland to the Netherlands. Artists from West Berlin and West Germany, as well as from neighboring countries, sent us their works against this law. This resulted in a large exhibition at Galerie Franz Mehring in Kreuzberg, whose extraordinarily committed director, Dieter Ruckhaberle, helped us to push the project through in the face of fierce ideological attacks. It even became a travelling exhibition that was shown in many places in West Germany.
ALW: Did you also sit on the Coordination Committee at the nGbK?
JD: That was one center of the discussions. There were often heated arguments over the “right” worldview, something that had long since been coopted by political (splinter) groups. All of this served to develop my own critical positions and inspired my work. For a while I produced mainly art posters that also appeared in many publications.
ALW: Then there was the last nGbK exhibition you were involved in as part of the project group, titled Unbeachtete Produktionsformen, in cooperation with Künstlerhaus Bethanien. What was that about?
JD: It was about the everyday work of women that was traditionally disdained, overlooked, even denied by male, patriarchal society: housework, looking after the family, childcare … And of course it was also about the subordinate role assigned to these women. We shouldn’t forget that until the end of the 1950s, wives in West Germany were legally required to do housework, could only do paid work outside the home with their husband’s permission, also requiring his signature if they wished to open a bank account. Mediaeval conditions—not long ago.
ALW: And where did this exhibition take place?
JD: At Künstlerhaus Bethanien, a well-known venue for events within the so-called “scene.” In an overnight action, leftwing activists occupied this former hospital in Kreuzberg, that was scheduled to be demolished for redevelopment in 1974, and then saved it by a sustained campaign of resistance. Finally, following negotiations with Berlin’s Senate, the hospital was converted into an arts center, including, among other things, a printing workshop.
ALW: Beatrice E. Stammer talked about how difficult it could sometimes be to push through projects with a feminist focus at general assemblies. What was it like for Unbeachtete Produktionsformen?
JD: There were heated disputes at the general assembly because the men—mostly leftwing, critical men—thought such a show superfluous! But we women pushed the project through.
ALW: And what kind of material was in the exhibition?
JD: I can give you the example of my own work, consisting of a three-part installation titled Gewalt und Widerstand. I had set up a children’s playpen, a bathtub, and a traditional conjugal bed. The bed stood for crude patriarchal notions of marriage, the bath for deeply rooted restrictive standards of hygiene and—a link to the Nazi period—cleansing, and the playpen for the usual training and conditioning of children. Onto this German holy trinity, it was then possible, via comments and actions, to project the family role model, articulating the tensions in the position of women between conforming and rebelling. One interesting anecdote was that the man who loaned the bed—who we later found out was a former Nazi judge—angrily demanded its return when he visited the exhibition and saw two young women “frolicking” in “his” bed.
ALW: I remember photographs of the opening, where you opened boxes sent to you by women from Europe and America.
JD: Yes, the project was international from the outset—with contacts to France, the Netherlands, the United States, and Mexico. We soon began receiving countless letters, boxes full of art objects. I myself had brought shocking photographs of gravestones in a village in Tuscany, discovered by accident, that related to our Nazi past: in 1944, the German army had killed all 150 inhabitants, from children to old men, a revenge killing in response to a partisan attack. Slides of these images became part of the exhibition.
ALW: It was hard to live off the fees paid by the nGbK. How did you support yourself financially?
JD: I travelled around a lot for lectures and events, sometimes teaching in several places at once: alongside my work at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Berlin, that also extended to the Free University, I would also teach in Braunschweig, Hamburg, or Trier. Sometimes it was about photography or screen printing, and then increasingly the then-unknown history of women artists. The need to take on these and other jobs—including supervising women artists in an old people’s home—did me no harm.
ALW: How did things continue after that, with your own art, with teaching, with other activities?
JD: In the 1980s, many projects that had previously been spontaneous and temporary took on more "orderly" forms—perhaps reflecting what Rudi Dutschke once promulgated as the aim of a “march through the institutions.” In 1986, I successfully applied for a job at the Senate-funded Kulturpädagogischen Arbeitsstelle—since renamed Institute for Art in Context. Initially limited to Berlin-based artists, its courses of further training soon attracted an international clientele. The focus was on all the possibilities beyond producing artworks in the privacy of a studio: working with children, old people, migrants or so-called marginal groups, therapeutic or biographical work, etc.
ALW: At the same time, you devoted yourself to Hannah Höch …
JD: Yes, the long-forgotten Dadaist, I published many pieces about her. In November 1989, just as the Wall was coming down, I organized a three-day symposium with our students at the Akademie der Künste, dedicated exclusively to her and her work. Speakers came from all over the world. The results can be seen and read in the our extensive proceedings entitled Da-da-Zwischenreden. Due to the response it received, I think this event can be claimed to have significantly changed the way art by women is viewed. And the Senate-funded book series launched at the time, Der andere Blick – Frauenstudien in Wissenschaft und Kunst, shows how political thinking about women’s studies gradually began to shift. But of course, much remains to be done, even today.
ALW: What did you learn at the nGbK?
JD: What I found very positive was that it offered a new way of looking at art. It was about bringing art to people. We learned a great deal together, above all to question taboos.
ALW: Are you still a member of the nGbK?
JD: Yes, because I still think it’s a good idea.
Conversation between Beatrice E. Stammer and Anna Voswinckel on October 27, 2021, in the exhibition … oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende. Transcription: Anna-Lena Wenzel
Anna Voswinckel: Beatrice, you’re an independent curator, artist, and writer, and you were a member of the nGbK from 1979 through 1993. You curated numerous exhibitions at the nGbK: Unbeachtete Produktionsformen (1982), Zwischenspiele with 43 young artists from East Germany (1989), and a solo show by Via Lewandowsky (1990), an East German artist whose work you showed early on. In 1991 you curated Außerhalb von Mittendrin, whose catalog features in the current exhibition. With Bettina Knaup, you also curated the performance project re-act feminism#1/#2 – a performing archive for several years, and in 2009 you co-curated und jetzt – Künstlerinnen aus der DDR at Künstlerhaus Bethanien with Angelika Richter, who curated the Left Performance Histories show at the nGbK a few years back, focusing on practices of performance in East Germany and Eastern Europe. Let’s start with the nGbK. How did you end up here? What motivated you to work here?
Beatrice E. Stammer: I’d like to begin by saying something about my background. I grew up in the 1950s, so I’m a true West Berliner. I was active in the women’s movement, and in 1973 we founded Germany’s first women’s center. At this time, there was no Internet and no cheap travel; if one of us flew to America it was exorbitant. In spite of this, we did practice much of what US feminism brought us, including consciousness-raising groups, and we conducted self-examinations. There were many working groups, including a Red Aid group that supported women in prison. I was quite militant in all this, and I organized illegal trips to the Netherlands. We would spray paint the doors of rapists, or set off stink bombs in sexist films. So my path to art was through an anarchist women’s movement. It was quite spontaneous. I had worked two or three years teaching at a comprehensive school, but I left the education sector in 1980 because I found it so gruesome. Then I was approached by Jula Dech, who was at the nGbK at the time and who realized the first exhibition with women artists from Mexico, a very successful show. We wanted to do something on unacknowledged forms of production by women, on care work, on kitchens that aren’t designed for women, women’s economy, etc. We tried for a very long time to push this project through in the general assembly, I think it was the same for all women’s groups at the time. Then, over a short period, many women joined the society and voted for the project, otherwise we wouldn’t have got it approved. The situation was similar in 1977 for Künstlerinnen International, the first really major women’s project with very well-known artists. This was one of the most important feminist exhibitions at the nGbK, but it took two or three years of preparation to get the votes in the general assembly!
AV: Could you give a bit more background about the Unbeachtete Produktionsformen show?
BS: We wanted to do this exhibition to shed light on a different aspect of women’s work, because at the time there was no focus on unpaid care work, although the issue was addressed within the women’s movement by wages-for-housework groups. This project took place in the old Künstlerhaus Bethanien, in the nave of the church. There was a big program of accompanying events with performances and theater. We cooperated with the Berliner women’s group “Schwarze Schokolade” [Black Chocolate] who initiated the Berliner Frauensommer, including a “fog walk” with swords and sheets. At this time, as you can see, it was pure feminism.
AV: That’s interesting because many projects and exhibitions on care work have been realized at the nGbK since then, most recently Networks of Care. Under the PiS government in neighboring Poland, women are once more having to fight for the right to abortions. Feminist demands are continually being made visible. Today we want to speak mainly about the links between East and West Germany, about meetings between the women, what they had in common and what was different in terms of conditions and struggles against the patriarchy. How did you come to visit East Germany?
BS: In 1987, together with the then managing director Christiane Zieseke, I received an invitation from the Protestant Church to present the nGbK in East Berlin. I was part of RealismusStudio with Frank Wagner, we had just done the exhibition endart. Aus der Produktion 1980–86, and we thought it would be a good opportunity to become better acquainted with the art scene in East Berlin. At the meeting, Christoph Tannert gave a talk that blew me away because I knew absolutely nothing about East German art, or, more specifically, about the underground scene. At this time, I was working at the Staatliche Kunsthalle, and because our director was relatively friendly towards East Germany we hosted exhibitions by “state artists” like Willi Sitte or Volker Stelzmann – although the latter was not really sanctioned by the East German state. Christoph’s talk dealt with the GDR underground and its many aspects—from rock music, punk, and literature through to fashion shows and exhibitions. After we decided to do the project, it was also Christoph who advised me where to go. Among others, he told me to visit Künstlerinnengruppe Erfurt—which is how I met Gabriele Stötzer in 1987. Sadly, she wasn’t allowed to be part of Zwischenspiele because she wasn’t in the East German Association of Fine Artists (VBK). But I was able to include pictures of her work in the catalogue.
AV: How was the cooperation with the East German institutions?
BS: The exhibition came about after we contacted the VBK. There were two project groups, one at the nGbK and the other at the VBK. We would always meet in East Berlin. I did the exhibition with Christiane Zieseke. There were some disagreements, but we were able to push many things through. This was in 1988 and 1989, when the East German authorities were unable to behave in such a totally backward manner. They had to make concessions to the West. Among other things, there was an Inter-German Cultural Accord that allowed the West to make requests, and after several rounds of negotiations these were often granted. The West German institutions made sure they were able to push through certain things. But it was also clear that there would probably be an informer at these meetings, and that was indeed the case. In spite of the concessions, some East German artists were not granted an exit visa to attend the opening on October 20, 1989, including the “Auto-Perforation Artistes.” The West Berlin artists were really angry! We negotiated back and forth, in vain, and when the Berlin Wall fell two weeks later, the “Auto-Perforation Artistes” group was able to do its first performance in the West. That was very gratifying.
AV: But there was a dispute over your text?
BS: Yes, the text “Sie macht Ihr’s,” which I wrote for the catalogue from a feminist perspective, was censored by the East German authorities. Berlin’s Senator for Culture at the time, Ulrich Roloff-Momin, then intervened to ensure it would be allowed to be printed after all. Because things were already coming unstuck in East Germany by the summer of 1989, quite a few concessions were made.
AV: Apart from this, how was your feminist approach received?
BS: It was the usual male-dominated discussions about the quality of work by women. I had to fight for each artist. Of the forty-three participants, there were eleven women, which was not bad. If I hadn’t resisted, things would have been different. I was proud that we succeeded in getting the word “Künstlerinnen” [women artists] onto the cover of the catalog.
AV: Two years later, you realized the exhibition Außerhalb von Mittendrin.
BS: Yes, that was a very large-scale project with 200 women artists from East Germany under the auspices of the Inter-German Cultural Accord, which had been in planning since 1988. The exhibition was at a relatively unknown venue, the “Neues Kunstquartier im TIB” in Wedding, that no longer exists. We also set up a tent for events, which hosted theater, music, and readings, and there was a program of films at the Arsenal cinema. The project was supposed to feature only East German women artists. Then the Wall fell and I decided quite spontaneously to invite well-known feminists like Valie Export and Rosemarie Trockel, Renate Bertlmann and Ingeborg Strobl. So in the end I organized an exhibition with East and West German and Austrian feminist artists. Which led to some very controversial discussions. People asked me why I hadn’t included just East German artists, but I wanted to bring the artists out of the “GDR reserve” and give them a boost—I think it was quite good for their CVs.
AV: It was about foregrounding feminist art, rather than essentializing the East German women artists?
AV: What were working relationships like inside the project groups?
BS: Like all groups, we argued (laughs). The good thing about the nGbK is that although you hardly earn any money, because work on projects is more or less voluntary, you do become more professional. You learn to network, and you’re supported by an institution based on grassroots democracy where you can count on being backed up. I often organized exhibitions that crossed certain lines, but the nGbK said: we’ve got your back, go for it. That’s the nGbK. Of course, I was annoyed every time I got paid just 3000 deutschmarks for a project that took two and a half years to realize, but that wasn’t the point. It was about a community of like-minded people, it was about professionalization and communication, about the institution giving exposure and visibility to projects that weren’t mainstream. That was incredibly important for me, and I’m grateful for it.
Conversation with Christiane Zieseke on November 12, 2021, at Café Sibylle
Anna-Lena Wenzel: In the nGbK archive, I saw that the first exhibition you were involved in was about the Italian realists, in 1974. Is that when you joined the nGbK?
Christiane Zieseke: No. The nGbK was founded as a political art society, against the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein—or rather, it was a schism. But within the new society, too, disputes soon broke out between different factions—Stamocap, Maoists, Communist League of West Germany (KBW), and all the rest. I knew about the nGbK, but I didn’t properly understand what was at stake, added to which I was new in Berlin. At the Technical University someone spoke to me after a lecture and recruited me to help with voting problems. That was around 1972 or 1973. So I joined the nGbK. You could become a member and vote immediately. Which was problematic, because majorities would often shift without a discussion of the matter in hand. But we learned many political mechanisms that came in very useful later, like the specific difficulties inherent in different legal forms of organization. The nGbK took some getting used to with its internal debates, some of which dragged on over years. I found that hard to deal with, and I think others increasingly felt the same way.
The great thing, however, was that the nGbK offered a way into the art world that was otherwise not so easy to access. The nGbK opened up a whole new universe to me. Beginning with very simple things: I studied art history, but at no time during the course did I touch a painting, I had no idea how that worked. At the nGbK, I was able to learn this because we prepared the exhibitions ourselves. It was possible to try things out. Thanks to the resulting contacts, it was possible to gain access to the art world and there are several people who later occupied important positions in the sector. In any case, there were lots of interesting project on themes that were just not being addressed at the time, dealing with entirely new fields and information. In many cases, what is now mainstream began at the nGbK. The openness to new content was remarkable. The nGbK was respected in certain circles because it picked up on issues that could not be worked on by the major institutions, either for political reasons or due to lack of knowledge. The exhibitions on the 1920s, for example, were not on the radar of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).
ALW: That reminds me of the exhibition Fighting for Visibility at the Alte Nationalgalerie a few years ago. In 1986 the nGbK hosted an exhibition on the same theme under the title Das Verborgene Museum, conducting extensive research into women artists in the collections.
CZ: Yes, and the theme of colonialism was also addressed early on. That should be more widely known. Many people believe this issue has not been dealt with before, but that’s not true. However, it is true that certain people didn’t deal with it or didn’t it to be dealt with. The same applies to the presence of former Nazis in postwar structures. I recently visited the exhibition on documenta at the German Historical Museum, which “reveals” that Werner Haftmann had been a Nazi. I knew that within six months of arriving in Berlin. But I was warned not to speak about it in public.
I really must say: I owe the nGbK a huge debt of gratitude! Beginning with the fact that it issued a kind of certificate of employment that could be used to persuade landlords one had a regular income. In the 1970s, the housing shortage in West-Berlin was extreme. Rents were capped and cheap, but without proof of income there was no chance. The letter from the nGbK helped me get several apartments.
ALW: You mentioned that you learned things at the nGbK that were useful in the cultural sector. What were these things exactly?
CZ: When you work in the cultural sector, you’re often very close to politics, so you have to understand what to communicate, how to communicate, how people think. The nGbK was a good place to learn such things because the discussions were conducted so directly. The individual groups were interested only in themselves. That’s a structural problem: people join with a specific project and they want to realize it—by all means necessary. And the office team was always working to keep things running, which is also why there were directly elected members on the Coordination Committee. The Steering Committee only came into play at moments of serious existential conflict or dire financial difficulty. The Steering Committee has a protective function. Most members were well-known figures whose main function was to defend the nGbK in political terms.
ALW: Even today, the principle role of the Steering Committee is to represent the nGbK in the political arena.
CZ: Yes, it’s always been like that. There was a need for people who had a slightly higher public profile and who were better able to occasionally push something through.
ALW: When you talk about discussions, do you mean the general assemblies?
CZ: Yes, they could be terrible. These discussions, which sadly were not about the content of the projects, blocked the running of the nGbK as a whole. General assemblies always went on and on forever.
ALW: You became managing director in 1987, meaning you worked on the last exhibition you were involved in, on Renate Herter in 1990, in this function?
CZ: Yes, I continued working on exhibition projects when I was managing director. But I was never mentioned. That would have been impossible. On the GDR projects like Zwischenspiele in 1989, it was the only way. They would never have accepted it! There had to be someone whose signature was legally binding. These were official state contacts. Otherwise, the projects could not have been realized, they didn’t want to speak to some arbitrary member of a project group. But these East German and Eastern European projects were very interesting. At the time, there was a constant dispute between East and West about whether or not West Berlin was part of the Federal Republic, and about how this entity should be referred to. As a result, state institutions had serious problems and were unable to do a great deal. We were a bit more flexible, able to make certain things happen.
ALW: It’s news to me that managing directors have also realized projects.
CZ: It was already the case before my time for projects with Socialist countries like East Germany, Lithuania, or the Soviet Union. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. I mean, one shouldn’t get involved, although it’s sometimes hard. Which is also why I couldn’t have done the job for an extended period. At some point you feel the need to tell project groups what they’re doing wrong. Which is stupid. They have to experience things for themselves and try out their ideas. They don’t need someone to tell them how it works. But if one is totally unable to work on project content, it becomes unbearable.
ALW: You were managing director until 1991? What came next?
CZ: Ulrich Roloff-Momin, who was president of the University of the Arts and a member of the nGbK Steering Committee, was made Berlin’s Senator for Culture. When a planning job came free in his department, he asked me if I wanted to do it. It was interesting because you could make so much happen.
ALW: I can’t really imagine what that means ...
CZ: No one else could either, which is what made the job so interesting.
ALW: Are you still a member of the nGbK?
CZ: Yes, it’s the only one. When I joined the Senate Office for Culture, I withdrew my membership of all other art societies, otherwise conflicts of interest can quickly arise.
ALW: Beatrice E. Stammer spoke about the problems faced by feminist projects. How did you experience the relationship between women and men at the nGbK?
CZ: Oh, there were all kinds of different groups. The feminists, who were one of the groups with political interests, really had problems with the others because people said it was just a secondary social conflict and what were they talking about. But it was possible to assert oneself as a woman. Put it like this: it wasn’t as bad as in other areas of society. For a while, I was in charge of public art at the Professional Association of Visual Artists (bbk) where I often had to deal with the building authorities. That was hardcore. I never experienced anything like that again later. Of course there were also machos in the nGbK who thought they were in charge and that women should do the work. Such expectations did exist. But feminism wasn’t my main focus, I was interested in many different things and I worked a lot on fascism. The project groups were always mixed. And I think it wasn’t the most attractive option for men—if you can become curator at the Nationalgalerie, you’re not going to join a project group at the nGbK. So the proportion of women was quite high.
ALW: The proportion of women in the low-pay cultural sector is still very high!
CZ: I think this has been going wrong for a long time. Promoting diversity should start at the top of cultural institutions, for example by hiring women or members of other marginalized groups for all senior posts. Starting with the opera houses! As an initiative from below, it has no chance. It’s wrong to link calls for diversity solely to funding for artists, because that’s always the sector where the most progress has already been made.
ALW: With its ever-changing project groups, the nGbK is a very dynamic institution. How did you find that?
CZ: The nGbK had both: there were constants, people who worked there over periods of many years—in some cases because they couldn’t get a permanent job elsewhere. And then there were the new arrivals. I actually think this is quite a good mixture. If there are a few people who can be relied on or who one can go to with questions, then that’s good. Other people in the office team would sometimes get annoyed with certain very demanding project groups who always wanted full service, but then two days before the opening they’d be standing around helplessly, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, saying they couldn’t take it any more (laughs). I found all this perfectly human and offered words of encouragement.
ALW: Well, you were far more experienced.
CZ: Yes, which is why I was relatively relaxed. In management you can see early on when a project starts to lose its grip, then you can try to add a safety net or something.
ALW: Earlier on you mentioned heated discussions—were they mostly about content?
CZ: To be honest, these heated discussions were mostly proxy conflicts, in reality it was about money or competition, and not about project content—that was discussed mainly in the Coordination Committee. There was constant criticism of this lack of discussion, but nothing changed, just as the principle of the five-person project group was repeatedly called into question, but never modified. No one had a different idea that was capable of functioning. In the recurring discussions about structures, we ultimately kept everything as the initiators devised it. Looking back, I think it was right to stick with the project group model. It’s a strange model, it functions poorly, but it’s innovative. For so many years it has offered an ever-changing open channel. People can realize projects they have thought up and that could not be realized anywhere else. That’s a great treasure, it should be preserved.
ALW: With its structure based on grassroots democracy, the nGbK stands alone in Berlin. Has it also been perceived that way?
CZ: No, not really. Those at the Senate Office for Culture knew little about the nGbK as it was Lottery funded. Their only contact with it was through writing assessments. This will change when the nGbK starts receiving Senate funds. Previously, no one was interested in the structure of cultural institutions. From outside, the nGbK looked very messy (laughs). Those in charge at the Lottery were mainly interested in the question of whether the nGbK is financially competent and reliable. Once, during celebrations for Berlin’s 750th anniversary, there was a serious deficit, but the nGbK was not the only one. No idea who paid in the end.
It’s important to explain the way the nGbK operates. People often don’t understand it and it isn’t really visible from outside. I always had to explain its structures to the people I came into contact with. Many of them were appalled by so much grassroots democracy (laughs). People often don’t realize how much work it involves. From outside it looks chaotic but people underestimate the level of professionalism. It’s important to be very confident and stand up for this.
At the moment there is a broad-based discussion within cultural institutions about how we might move away from the model of directorship. On this issue, the nGbK has one of the longest periods of experience. It’s good to know where the pitfalls are and where it works well. If the institution were much larger, it wouldn’t be possible.
ALW: Can you say something about the Staatliche Kunsthalle Berlin, with which there were many cooperations and members of staff in common?
CZ: That had to do with Dieter Ruckhaberle. He was one of the founding members of the nGbK and then he became director of the Staatliche Kunsthalle. Because the Kunsthalle was quite large, he had quite a lot of space, but the budget was small, he wasn’t able to put on major exhibitions several times a year, but the nGbK and the nbk each had the right to organize one exhibition there per year. When setting up the Kunsthalle this had been established to prevent a dominance of the Kunsthalle over other art institutions. The advantage of the state institution was that it could secure valuable works on loan that would not have been granted to art societies lacking suitable exhibition spaces. These factors led to frequent cooperations. I did an internship there myself, it much have been 1978/79.
ALW: Where was the Kunsthalle located?
CZ: In the Bikinihaus, close to Bahnhof Zoo.
ALW: Why was it closed?
CZ: Because after the fall of the Wall, cultural institutions in Berlin had to be closed. At the time, the situation was more than bleak, mainly because 50 percent of West Berlin’s budget was supplied by the West German state. After the Wall fell, the federal authorities said: Berlin is now a normal city again. So funding shortfalls were inevitable. It was devastating, because at the same time there were these huge cultural institutions in East Berlin, some of them in very bad repair architecturally. Overnight, the senate decided to close cultural institutions. At the time, I was on the staff of the Senate Office for Culture and we had a discussion about it not being permissible to close institutions in East Berlin. If any were to be closed, they would have to be West Berlin institutions that were not really working. The options were the Schiller Theater and the Kunsthalle, because we didn’t want the cuts to affect only the theatre. There were big discussions.
ALW: All of this was under Roloff-Momin as senator?
CZ: Yes, he had to take responsibility. It tore him apart, it was a terrible situation.
ALW: Why the reluctance to close East German institutions?
CZ: Because the achievements of the citizens of the former East Germany had been ignored and dismissed in all areas of society. Many institutions were closed without serious checks. We experienced this firsthand, because we had long-standing contacts in East Germany, and we said: We’re not going to go along with this!
ALW: That’s interesting because the nGbK exhibition … oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende focusses on precisely this phenomenon.
CZ: With very few exceptions, those in senior positions and university professors were removed. What happened was a disaster and I think it’s also the reason why these tensions still exist today and why few people from the East occupy senior positions.
ALW: For the exhibition Zwischenspiele, was it very unusual that you were able to cross the border and gain an inside view?
CZ: In terms of the depth of contact, yes. It was relatively easy to establish links to the East German Association of Fine Artists (VBK), but one didn’t come into contact with anything beyond the official cultural sector. That only changed when an invitation through the Protestant Church brought us together with Christoph Tannert. This was very interesting for us—and also for the East German artists. That’s also how I met Thomas Flierl. As liaison officer for West Berlin, he looked after us and helped us a great deal. I remember when we were trying to bring over a photo exhibition from East Berlin, Schicksal einer Sammlung, about works of contemporary art lost in the Nazi period. Politically, things were at a standstill for months. I knew that the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation [West] and the State Museums [East] had no contact and were not allowed to communicate. But in my view there was no reason why the nGbK, as a non-state organization, should not talk to the East German museums. So Thomas Flierl went with me to the Director General of the State Museums and said that he expected this to work out now, and it did. He was absolutely fearless, unlike many others. We invited the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to the exhibition opening—and they actually came, which they would usually never have done! And we introduced the two sides to each other. It was good, and at the same time it was ridiculous, but politics is like that sometimes.
ALW: Beatrice E. Stammer has mentioned the poor fees paid for realizing exhibitions. What was your view on that?
CZ: When I started at the nGbK, I earned nothing at first, then a little more, but never enough to live off. At the time that wasn’t so bad because West Berlin was relatively cheap. I received the usual salary for the managing director of a small institution. But for those who, like Beatrice E. Stammer, were mainly freelancing, it was difficult. The level of pay was a ongoing issue.
ALW: Are you still active in the cultural field?
CZ: In terms of politics, I now do practically nothing. The trappings get on my nerves too much. In other contexts, like Alte Münze or Haus der Statistik, I’m still involved.
I have a question, too: does debate still take place at the nGbK? I find it worrying that there is so little discussion about social issues, but so many banned topics. Taboos instead of debate—I find that shocking. Please raise this subject at the nGbK, it would the right place!
 Werner Haftmann worked on the documenta in 1955, 1959 and 1964. From 1967 through 1974, he was the first director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which is part of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).
Interview with Paz Ponce Pérez-Bustamante on January 14, 2022, via Zoom
Anna-Lena Wenzel: Paz, how did you come to the nGbK?
Paz Ponce Pérez-Bustamante: In 2018, I founded the activist platform ¡n[s]urgênc!as, meaning insurgencies, uprisings. It’s a platform for at-risk artists from Latin America in Berlin. In 2018, for the portfolio reviews I organize for this platform, I invited Valeria Fahrenkrog, Teobaldo Lagos Preller, and Daniela Labra as advisors. Two years later, Valeria contacted us and Marcela Moraga to found a project group. Together we devised museo de la democracia, an exhibition and program of events in response to the wave of solidarity in the form of protests and national strikes in Latin America. Apart from myself, everyone was from Chile, which led to productive discussions about how one can speak about a territory from which one does not come. There’s one other link to the nGbK: for my first show in Berlin, Pflegeanweisungen – The Art of Living Together at Galerie Wedding in 2014, I researched the city’s self-organized art spaces. What kind of groups existed? Who was concerned with what? And among others I did an interview with the nGbK and got to know the institution.
ALW: Why did you choose the nGbK?
PPPB: The nGbK is the best place to realize political exhibitions. I like the program; there’s a contextual approach and an interest in politics in the city. The broad range of themes is also good; there are often surprises. I’m proud that we’re part of the program with our project.
ALW: Were you also a member of the Coordination Committee?
PPPB: Yes, together with Teobaldo Lagos Preller, we took turns, finally Valeria took my place.
ALW: What do you remember about the meetings?
PPPB: Sometimes it was very tedious and old-school. But is was also very interesting—if you have the time it’s a good crash course in Berlin politics. When we were realizing the project, there was much talk of the transformation of the society and the new location on Karl-Marx-Allee where the nGbK will move in a few years. I learnt a great deal. One problem was that I didn’t always understand everything—in terms of language, but also because the issues are so complex.
ALW: Your project took place in the middle of the COVID19 pandemic. To what extent did that influence you?
PPPB: We had to rearrange and rethink everything—especially the program of accompanying events. Contingency planning was very challenging and complicated. All the different rules and regulations meant we had to constantly adapt our ideas, and Annette Maechtel, the managing director, had to coordinate everything with the Lotto Foundation. That restricted the options for the art, which wasn’t cool. I also though it was a pity that there were so few links to other projects and activities, in spite of the overlaps in terms of content. It would have been good to have someone keep an eye on that. The audience often can’t tell who does what. It was a shame we weren’t more in touch, although that probably had to do with Coordination Committee meetings being held online.
ALW: Did your view of the nGbK change over the course of the project?
PPPB: At the start I was very impressed by the way the office team supervised the project. There are great tools, including advice during the application phase and the supervisory meeting with helpful feedback. It was supportive to be dealing with different experts who spoke to us about how to approach outreach or how to raise the project’s public profile. We felt well looked after.
At the same time, it became clear that the nGbK is more Berlin-style than I thought. It felt more like a self-organized art space than a well-equipped institution. I may have had different expectations because of my past work for various institutions in countries like Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Kosovo. The question is whether it’s better to have more material means, or more freedom. Unfortunately, the feeling of freedom we had at the beginning changed while we were preparing the exhibition because there was so much pressure. One might say that the nGbK is professional—but more than that, it’s political.
ALW: I know of many groups that fell out during the process. What was it like for you?
PPPB: That happened to us, too (laughs)—but only at the end, and that was partly because for a long time we were only able to meet online. It was just such a lot of work, especially due to the adjustments made necessary by the pandemic. Because we were worried about going over budget, we tried to work as frugally as possible. At the end, we actually had some money left over, so we were able to pay ourselves. That was good.
ALW: Are you still a member?
PPPB: For sure. In terms of its approach, the nGbK is unique. I like that the borders between art and curating are so fluid. I look forward to seeing what happens next. I like the decision to have a space on the U5 subway line, because that strengthens the link to the location in Hellersdorf. It’s important for Berlin that the art scene should diversify and decentralize. And the proximity to the Haus der Statistik is also productive. The two institutions have a lot in common, both focusing on practices of resistance. It’s extraordinary that the new pavilions on Karl-Marx-Allee are realizing plans drawn up in East Germany, continuing a history that has been much erased over the past decades. That’s a sign of hope for Berlin.
2022/23: Curating through Conflict with Care
Research, workshops, online platform
“Inclusive curating” may sound like a contradiction in terms, since the practice of curating includes selection and thus also exclusion. Derived from the Latin word curare, meaning “to take care,” curation raises the question: Who and what are curators taking care of today?
Curating through Conflict with Care (CCC) is an interdisciplinary, collective research project addressing structural conflicts within Berlin’s cultural landscape and approaches to institutional change. The two-year project starts in 2022 and will consists of three phases—research, workshops, online platform.
nGbK work group: Maithu Bùi, Sophya Frohberg, Ayasha Guerin, Moshtari Hilal, Duygu Örs
"Art in the Underground 2021: as above, so below", nGbK, 2021. Poster by Sasha Amaya, "Neophyte", 2021. Photo: Adam Naparty
From a total of 105 entries to the open, international art competition »Art in the Underground 2022/23: new urban publics«, a nine-member prize jury has selected (in an anonymized procedure) six proposals that deal with current changes in social practice:
Julieta Ortiz de Latierro
sandy kaltenborn, athena javanmardi, paco camberlin: learning from kotti (AT)
Irene Fernandez Arcas: Exploring Inner Care in Public Spaces (AT)
Sunny Pfalzer: Scores for Fake Authenticity (AT)
Sinzo Aanza, Jasmina Al-Qaisi, Falonne Mambu, Nada Tshibwabwa, Ralf Wendt, Elsa Westreicher
Liminal Beast of Prey: CRUSH ME TENDER Wrestling Show (AT)
The works, visible in public from June through August 2023, link Berlin’s subway with urban spaces above ground, as well as featuring on in-train info screens throughout the network. Like the 2020/21 edition of the competition, »Art in the Underground 2022/23: new urban publics« will focus of the qualities, limits, and potential of urban space, exploring it via a range of artworks. This time, taking its cue from the association of public squares with the common good, as a place to meet and talk, three Berlin locations and their subway stations serve as the settings for artistic interventions: Kottbusser Tor, Strausberger Platz and Rotes Rathaus. All three are architecturally striking, as well as being cut across by streets or spanned by an elevated railway. These urban spaces have different usages: traffic, shopping, communication, relaxation. The selected works seek to amplify and highlight these usages, making each site into an actor—as sites, occasions, and objects of alternative political self-organization.
Irene Fernandez Arcas is interested in the healing potential of art; focusing on the neoliberal exploitation of self-care, body, and mind, her work examines the desire to achieve intimacy and make connections in urban settings. A digital project by sandy kaltenborn, athena javanmardi and paco camberlin counters the oversimplified media image of Kottbusser Tor as a problem zone with a view of its many-layered social fabric. Julieta Ortiz de Latierro’s three-part project consists of a photographic intervention at Kottbusser Tor subway station, a one-day workshop in a nearby park, and a video produced as part of Art in the Underground and shown on in-train info-screens throughout Berlin’s public transport network. In Sunny Pfalzer’s durational performance at Strausberger Platz, six performers explore the tensions between gender diversity and the binary gaze with which queer bodies are confronted in public space. Sinzo Aanza, Jasmina Al-Qaisi, Falonne Mambu, Nada Tshibwabwa, Ralf Wendt, and Elsa Westreicher, six artists from Germany and the Democratic Republic of Congo, come to Strausberger Platz with performances, literature, sound works, and graphics that criticize exploitation and consumerism. In a wrestling performance in front of the Rotes Rathaus, Liminal Beast of Prey bring together education and entertainment; embedded in an urban science-fiction story, the show presents characters metaphorically fighting battles that otherwise often remain invisible.
The prize jury consisted of Stéphane Bauer, Anna Ehrenstein, Kerstin Honeit, Ute Müller-Tischler, Harry Sachs, Viron Erol Vert, Lorena Juan, Mirko Winkel, Isabelle Meiffert.
Historical development of the »Art in the Underground« competition
Originally called “Art Instead of Advertising,” the competition was first held in East Berlin in 1958, with entrants asked to submit posters for peace. The works were shown on platform billboards at Alexanderplatz subway station. Whereas many East German institutions were dissolved or renamed after 1989, this competition survived in its original form. Since the early 1990s, neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK) has been realizing projects in cooperation with Berlin’s Senate Office for Culture under the title “Art in the Underground” with artworks in or near subway stations.
The project will be accompanied by a publication.
nGbK work group:
Lorena Juan, Marenka Krasomil, Isabelle Meiffert, Sandra Teitge, Mirko Winkel
Funded by the Senate Department for Culture and Europe – Public Art
Conversation with Matthias Reichelt and Josefine Geier on November 15, 2021, at their apartment.
Anna-Lena Wenzel: Matthias, how did you come to be part of the nGbK?
Matthias Reichelt: I think I applied for membership in 1981 for the exhibition Das andere Amerika. I was doing American studies at university and one of my teachers was the sociologist Reinhard Schultz. We wanted to publish a German edition of the history of the workers movement in the United States by Marxist historian Philip S. Foner. Then Tom Fecht, co-founder of Elefanten Press, and myself co-developed the idea of turning it into an illustrated history as both a book and an exhibition. We both became members, but to be honest we were quite naïve. I remember a general assembly at the Technical University, there were around 200 people. There were genuine ideological blocs: Alternative Liste, remnants of the Maoist and Sponti factions, members of the SEW (Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin) who were referred to as “revisionists” and of which we were part, as well as people with no specific affiliation. There were heated debates, but it was interesting.
It was only just before the opening of the show in 1983 at the Staatliche Kunsthalle that Reinhard and I actually understood how the society worked. Tom Fecht was always the one who kept the minutes. He was on the nGbK Coordination Committee as our liaison person. Later we found minutes of project group meetings with decisions we had completely missed because we had been focusing mainly on research, documents, and loans. In the end, the exhibition lost money. Reinhard and I received around 1500 deutschmarks each for three years, but we did most of the work, not least because we continued to supervise the show when it went on tour (including to Stockholm, where the nGbK received a lump sum of 25,000 deutschmarks that was used to pay off most of the debt). I’d say it’s rare for work to be evenly distributed within project groups. That’s something I experienced again and again. Nonetheless, for me, the nGbK and the principle of learning-by-doing were very important. Without this organization, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was always great fun, too, so I don’t regret it at all.
ALW: You also worked as part of the office team. When was that?
MR: That was from September 1986, but it came about by chance. I was asked if I’d like to work there as a temporary replacement for someone else. I said I would, but on the condition that I could continue to work on nGbK projects in my free time. That was the basic deal, and it was clear that I was not allowed to perform roles like treasurer or Coordination Committee liaison in any project group I belonged to. Later, under Leonie Baumann, I was stripped of this option. She was elected in 1991, when Christiane Zieseke moved to the Senate Office for Culture. Until the start of 1996, Leonie Baumann and I had a good, trusting work relationship, but then there were problems during the NO!art exhibition. Generally, the office was run as a collective with little hierarchy. And it was always important to me that it should operate in this spirit, that everyone should feel (more or less) responsible for the whole and look after the public image of the nGbK. The idea was that we all deal with each other as equals. But then the team became more and more vertically divided, with the some considered lower, like the technical staff and gallery assistants. I found that very problematic. A toxic atmosphere arose, full of intrigue, and many people left the office team. The first to go was Maria Wegner, who had arrived from the Kunst-am-Bau-Büro (Art in Architecture Office) together with Leonie Baumann. By the end of 2004, my working relationship with Leonie Baumann had become such a problem for me that I saw no other option but to hand in my notice. In total, the process of cutting my ties with the nGbK took almost eight years.
The exhibition Achtung Sprengarbeiten! (Caution! Blasting Operations!, 2007) had something to do with criticism of the authoritarian tone and lack of transparency, criticism expressed by large sections of the membership through the Coordination Committee and at general meetings. The exhibition theme came about because we said that the nGbK needed to be blown open by a kind of productive explosion. From 2008, I no longer considered myself to be a member and I stopped paying my membership fees. Looking back, I would say that I was and remain sympathetic toward the nGbK as a society and as an institution. I think it’s important, especially as a field of experimentation and learning. Today, I could no longer be part of the lengthy discussion process, I wouldn’t have the patience.
ALW: How did you see the nGbK at the time?
MR: It had a different character because there were not so many other institutions. There were two art societies and the classical, traditional museums, whereas now there are many institutions that address similar issues from a critical, leftwing position. The neuer berliner kunstverein (n.b.k.) also changed fundamentally under Marius Babias. In terms of content, the two art societies are now very similar.
ALW: From today’s point of view, I find it hard to imagine that the two societies were the result of a schism.
MR: Because there was no art society, Berlin’s Senate Office for Culture suggested founding one, leading to the creation of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (German Association for Fine Arts, DGBK) in 1965. This was a kind of Cold War move to artificially reinforce the cultural scene in West Berlin in contrast to East Germany. In 1968/69, part of the DGBK’s membership wanted self-determination, and this group then founded the left-leaning Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (nGbK), while the remaining members reformed as the more traditional Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.). Their programming and production procedures were completely different: on the one hand, the classical system of directors and curators, on the other, a grassroots democratic model with groups producing projects and exhibitions as a collective.
ALW: And how do you see the nGbK today?
MR: I must admit that I no longer feel close to the style and language of certain exhibitions. That has to do with the way discourse has evolved, but I also think the program as a whole lacks diversity. Today, solo shows like those featuring Unica Zürn, Boris Lurie, or Blalla W. Hallmann wouldn’t have a chance, which is a pity.
ALW: Although RealismusStudio organized a solo show of work by Toni Schmale a few years back, which might be comparable.
MR: Maybe. But I sometimes find the themed shows lack focus. The research often seems superficial, while certain questions and phenomena that predate the digital era are barely taken into account. The nGbK has always been a place for themed exhibitions and for studies and overviews on cultural history and politics, with publications that have retained their validity. I haven’t noticed anything like that in recent years. Also, the impression is sometimes given that issues like colonialism or racism are now being addressed at the nGbK for the firs time, which reflects an ignorance with regard to the analog era.
ALW: You dealt with these themes early on …
MR: Yes, I was active in the anti-apartheid movement and I campaigned for the colonial street names in Wedding to be changed. Today my position on this has changed, and I would say it’s better to keep them, with a commentary. History and the memory of history must remain understandable and should not be simply erased or replaced. Which reminds me that I thought it was a pity, and very wrong, that the nGbK got rid of its striking logo with the star at the behest of Diedrich Diederichsen. As I see it, discarding an identifying mark that had been around for over forty years and replacing it with a mark of colorless indecision was an act of cultural and historical amnesia.
ALW: Can you tell me anything about the exhibition 100 Jahre Einmischung that dealt critically with the Berlin Conference of 1884?
MR: The nGbK exhibition took place in 1984 in a space run by the Berliner Festspiele at the Bikinihaus. It was organized by a project group around Hans Mayer, who, together with Ruth Weiss, co-edited the book Afrika den Europäern. Von der Berliner Kongokonferenz 1884 ins Afrika der neuen Kolonisation that was published by Peter Hammer Verlag. The publication and the exhibition have been forgotten, but they are worth rediscovering.
ALW: Our Wissensspeicher project was launched with the aim of highlighting thematic continuities, opening up the archive, and making parts of it available digitally.
MR: Yes, that’s very good, but it needs to be developed further. Maybe it’s time to consider shifting the focus slightly—in a different direction thematically, or in terms of production. This could mean a return to fundamental questions, linking back to issues that played an important role in the early days of the nGbK. For example the question of the functions of fine art raised in 1970 by nGbK co-founder Dieter Ruckhaberle and the Marxist Wolfgang Fritz Haug. What does the hugely increased importance of art and museums in neoliberal, hyper-capitalist society tell us?
ALW: One special thing is the introduction of two-year research projects as a new format.
MR: Previously, many more projects emerged from the universities. Today, the universities are so aligned with the system, so pacified, that political struggle no longer takes place there.
ALW: I’d say the main problem lies in cuts to non-professorial teaching staff. Today, people no longer have time for projects outside their university work, because most of them have to create their own posts and secure funding for them. Although Left Performance Histories in 2018 was a joint project with a network from Berlin’s Free University.
MR: OK, sure, but the Bologna Process has made universities more school-like and put students under great pressure. Also, in the 1980s there was still a strong Marxist presence at the Free University, with lectures on critical psychology, and the entire philosophy and social sciences faculty, which no longer exists. The 1987 exhibition Inszenierung der Macht, for example, came almost entirely from the university. It was a huge project group.
ALW: You mentioned the tough ideological debate of the early days. How do you see that today?
MR: In all these clashes, I think the various protagonists were also self-promoting and jockeying for power. The two can never be fully separated. So it’s important to hold on to collective structures with little hierarchy and to keep everything under scrutiny.
ALW: How was the nGbK perceived when you were active there?
MR: At the time, West Berlin’s cultural scene was limited. Few individuals or institutions wanted to try out new, critical ways of communing art, to rediscover forgotten artists, or to address the political content of art. There was Kunstamt Kreuzberg with its space at Bethanien [now Kunstraum Kreuzberg] and the Haus am Waldsee, the Haus am Kleistpark, and Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Most of the municipal art offices were staid and conservative in their approach. In this context, the nGbK’s chances of being respected as a radical art institution were good. That changed after 1990 as other societies and project spaces emerged. Today, there are so many spaces that consider themselves critical and left-wing, plus a huge self-organized network doing essentially the same as what nGbK project groups do. From the older generation, with whom I’m still in contact, I know that the nGbK no longer has their attention to the same degree. This has to do on the one hand with the overwrought zeitgeist and its focus on diversity, gender, post-colonialism, and critical whiteness, and on the other with the language used to communicate these issues. Maybe it’s time to examine the dangers of hyper-PC on the left in the cultural sector and highlight the places where it culminates in cancel culture and new forms of censorship.
Personally, I feel that old, white men are now argued against in a racist manner. Of course there is structural racism that must be combatted, but when the fight against it goes so far that other people are silenced, it becomes reactionary. Everyone must call him- or herself into question, again and again. Just because you were an anti-apartheid or anti-racist activist doesn’t mean you’re immune to unconscious racisms. When I was younger, I thought: I’m an anti-fascist and a Marxist so I’m on the right side. For the exhibition Das andere Amerika, I once approached a Jewish sculptor in New York, whose works we wanted to show. When I met him, the first thing he asked me was what I knew about Jewish culture. And I said, well, not much, but I’m an anti-fascist, etc. He didn’t loan us a single work. My answer was far too smug and naïve. That was a decisive experience for me, one I’ve never forgotten.
[Josefine Geier comes home and is asked by Matthias to join the conversation.]
This is Josefine. I met her at the nGbK where she was part of the office team from 1978 through 1990. From around 1986, we had an excellent and very close working relationship for four years—except for the problem that we would bring the work home with us, often ending up discussing some problem or other into the small hours (laughs).
ALW: Josefine, how did you end up at the nGbK?
Josefine Geier: I was working at the n.b.k., until I noticed its links to the Springer publishing house and the fact that its executive board included the deputy leader of the CDU in Berlin’s city parliament, Klaus-Rüdiger Landowsky. Then I saw a small ad in the newspaper saying that an art society was looking for a new member of staff. That was the nGbK. I applied, was invited for an interview, and got the job. For many years, when returning from vacations I would look forward to the work there and the people I worked with.
ALW: Did you realize projects alongside your work in the office, like Matthias?
JG: Yes, but only once I’d left. It was good to see it from the other side. As a member of staff, I often took minutes during Coordination Committee meetings. When I attended these meetings as a member of the Dorothy Iannone project group, it was an interesting change of perspective.
ALW: What did you think about more and more new members joining the nGbK who had no idea about the society’s structures?
JG: I don’t think any society can avoid this dilemma. Most people join because they want to realize their project. They may have skim-read the statutes, but only the delegate the group sends to Coordination Committee meetings really understands how the place works.
ALW: How do you see the nGbK now compared to in the past?
JG: I notice that I no longer feel like going to exhibitions. To me it looks like photocopies hung on the wall with provocative statements. It used to be real art on the wall. It was sensual. There was a desire to connect people with art in visual terms, as well as explaining its social and political function.
MR: The nGbK has lost touch with its USP of appraising history from a leftist perspective.
JG: Yes, even the Kunst-Werke have hosted exhibitions that should really have been at the nGbK, such as War Crimes of the Wehrmacht in 2001. The original idea of the nGbK was not just to hang a beautiful or a horrific picture on the wall, but to give access to art. Today, everyone’s doing that!
MR: I remember we deliberately aimed to address people from non-academic backgrounds. We gave guided tours of exhibitions to union groups.
JG: I remember many times over the years that there was talk of merging the two art societies—especially after elections. The two entities were saved by the fact that the nGbK was special because of its structure, a quality recognized even by the CDU.
ALW: I’d like to come back to the relationship between office team and project groups. It seems to me that this demands a fine balance—on the one hand, interest and understanding are key to this working relationship, while on the other it’s crucial to prevent conflicts of interest via the ban on members of staff being active in project groups.
MR: I think it’s great if people who work in the office also have a genuine interest and identify with the society. We saw ourselves as a collective. But over time, significant differences crept in. There were people who said: It’s five o’clock, time to go home.
JG: At the same time, the office team’s work was regularly called into question by project groups: Must the office team be so large? We’re paid a fee or work voluntarily—and they are employed with a fixed salary? As a member of the office team, that didn’t feel good.
ALW: I can imagine being torn between the wish to appear as professional as possible to the outside and the wish to do justice to the solidarity-based structures within the office team and the collective working methods of the project groups.
MR: Yes. The basic idea was that project groups received support and advice from the office team, while the responsibility for content lay with project groups alone. For a while I was in charge of press relations and this strict division of tasks was a problem for me because the way some of the texts were written was very dry. It was always a balance between helping people help themselves and attempting to create structures that would keep the organization running, while maintaining the autonomy of project groups in terms of content.