This year's Berlin Art Week is underway, and we've met with the Netzwerk Freier Berliner Projekträume Und –Initiativen – which comprises a crucial part of the independent scene in BAW's program. Board member Chris Benedict, who also runs WerkStadt project space, spoke to us about the Network, the organization and the Project Space Award, which will be presented this Friday, 15 September, with an accompanying program of exhibitions and events.
Can you tell us a bit about how the Network got started?
The Network started in 2009 as a loose, grassroots association. It was mostly project spaces in the north of Berlin that came together for a meeting, and that meeting had a title: Chances of Crisis. They came together to talk about the problems and the current situation of project spaces and initiatives in Berlin: lack of governmental support, lack of financial support from the city. The idea was to create a network for exchange – of ideas, equipment, experience. But it was also to come together and formulate statements and articulate what was needed for the scene, in order for it to remain vibrant. That was the main goal in 2009. I’ve been involved since 2011, and it was still this very loose organization then. But they had already come to an agreement about the definition of a project space. One of the main goals and achievements at the beginning of the network was to establish what a project space is and why it is different from the galleries and other art spaces in Berlin. Then it was also to find out how to fund these spaces on a long-term basis – to come up with something that fits the needs of project spaces, as different as they are: some are big, some are small. The content is also very different. Most project spaces are based in visual arts, but they are branching out to other disciplines. That’s one of the criteria, or defining features, of a project space: to be interdisciplinary and not just stay within one genre.
How is it run now? Who makes up the team and how is it organized?
Already in 2009-2010 there were the so-called structural meetings taking place every 6 weeks, in order for all Network members to come together and talk about all topics. Then, as it got bigger and more tasks had to be undertaken, work groups were founded. There’s a work group for the political aspect: talking to the political representatives. Then there’s another that is organized around the PR side. And there’s always a work group for the award ceremony – which is an annual event. More recently, in 2015, the main step was to found a non-profit organization. We came together and founded this so that we have a base from which we can apply for funding, and also to be able to receive donations. Now we also have an executive board of the organization, which consists of 3 women, including Isolde Nagel, Jole Wilcke and myself. The rest is very typical of a non-profit in Germany: it’s democratic; the base is very flat. We still have the work groups, we still have the structural meetings, but now we have this framework around it in order to be seen as a solid institution and received more as a partner to political discourse and in negotiations with the Senate. That was an important step.
The association has existed in some form for quite some time now. What developments or changes have you seen over the course of its existence?
It’s changed quite a bit. A lot of the people that founded it, that started the whole movement or the Network, are not there anymore. Maybe it’s because they have returned to only concentrating on the art program that they run, or they had some success in applying for funding and are busy. There are other cases where they lost their space due to gentrification. So there’s a change of faces quite a bit in the Network, and in the scene in general. We always say that the peak of the project space scene was in 2010 – one year after the Network was founded. It’s been decreasing ever since: the amount of spaces there are, the amount of activity. We have a map on the website where you can change the number of years and see how many spaces there are. What you can very quickly notice is that 20 years ago there were a lot more in the city center, and now they’re being pushed to the north and south – Neukölln and Wedding are the two hubs and everything else is decreasing and being pushed to the periphery. That’s something that we deal with a lot, and we’ve picked it up as the topic this year with the panel discussion: It’s Spacetime! We need to talk about this, or it will be lost – the decentralized scene will be lost if there are no means undertaken by politicians or the Senate.
The Network itself does not have a space. Was this a conscious decision – in order to integrate the Network with the project spaces that comprise it?
No – in the beginning we just met in different spaces every 6 weeks. Everybody has a space, so that was never an issue. But as the Network and the tasks grow, it’s becoming more and more of an issue. A headquarters for this discipline is more and more needed. We do it from our spaces, but it would be good to have a more solid structure behind it – and of course funded. One space that we do have – mostly for events – is the Kunstpunkt in Mitte. For this year’s event, Raum ohne Raum, we have some of the award winners showing there, because they don’t have spaces. The owner gives it to the Network and wants to support the independent scene. We have it as a kind of base right now, but it’s not really an office structure. It's the closest thing we have right now to a central space.
One of the important projects of the Network is to organize the annual Project Space Award, which grants much-needed funding to a selection of project spaces and initiatives. Can you give some background and insight into how and when it was established?
The award was more or less a compromise between the Network and the Senate. The scene requires something very different, because we’re talking about long-term funding and securing the project space scene – which is a big undertaking for the Senate, as there’s a lot of bureaucracy around it. When it started 6 years ago, they didn’t have the necessary personnel, and the only thing they could do was to give out a prize, since it’s for work the winners have done so far and not for a specific project. The great thing is that the prize can be, and has been, used in many different ways: some winners had debts because they had been paying for the project space over decades out of their own pockets; others realized projects; and others invested in better equipment. But it’s a one-time thing: 30,000 euros sounds like a lot, but some spaces use it for one year’s rent and then it’s gone. So, it’s not really what we asked for, but of course we’re happy that money is reaching the scene and the people that work in these spaces and initiatives to make this possible. We still demand more: long-term funding, as well as different kinds of funding, such as project funding and structural funding.
By now we have 69 spaces and initiatives that have been awarded, which is quite a number. It was a very important step and signal that the Senate is appreciating the work that’s being done in the city – for the image and reputation of the city. Now, this year, they have even increased it a bit more. It’s been increasing over the years: we started with 7 prizes the first year; then there were 14; and now there are 20. It has continuously grown, which is good, but the Senate was always reluctant to do so. For them, it makes more sense to have fewer award winners, with bigger sums, if needed. But that would make it more about excellence, which is not who we are. We don’t want the lighthouses of project spaces – we want the basis. Of course quality is always the main criterion for winning an award, but we don’t want fewer – we want more. There are a lot of high quality spaces that need funding. That’s been a struggle with the prize over the years, which we continue to work on and are talking to the Senate about. We have a pretty good relationship – it’s really been a cooperation with the Cultural Senate over the years. But our task is to demand, because it’s a struggle for survival; we have to demand a lot and be firm.
Tell us about the award program. What's on for this year?
We’ve done different things each year. When it was just 7 award winners, we did a bus tour. We wanted to pack a bus full of politicians, administration and press and show them the spaces, how different they are, what they do, the people behind them and so on – because a lot of people have no idea what a project space is. We did bus tours for 3 years, and eventually the word spread and people started to become aware of what this term is and what this scene is. Now there are too many award winners for the bus tour, so we changed the format and started doing bigger events, like a ceremony. We also like to use it politically, so we always have a political discussion as part of the event – the panel discussion. Last year, it was about careers of artists in Berlin and career opportunities for artists. This year, it’s space: gentrification and the future of these niches that we play with, as project spaces. Since it’s the art scene – not only political – we always have performances as well. This year we have short films, for which there was an open call. Like the panel discussion, the films also deal with the topic of city/spaces/urbanity within the context of gentrification. We’ve also changed the bus tour to bike tours, which will take place this weekend on Saturday and Sunday at 2pm: one tour in the north and one in the south, each including 5 award-winning spaces.
It started 3 years ago that we are now officially part of Berlin Art Week. That was an initiative of the Senate. We were a little skeptical, but it’s turned out to be a very good cooperation – a lot of attention has been given to the off-spaces through Art Week. And I think for Art Week it’s been a nice addition, because everything else is mostly commercial, so we’re one of the only representatives of the independent scene. I think that through this year’s topic – dealing with the lack of spaces to play with or to fill with art, or to keep alive – there will be even more interest, since it’s something everybody’s been talking about. This year’s also the first time that we have two venues: Bar Babette and Kunstpunkt, where exhibitions and the short films will be shown. We published a map this year, which will be launched during BAW as well. It’s supposed to give an idea of the current situation and landscape of project spaces. Of course it’s never complete and it’s never actually current, because spaces open and close so quickly, but it’s an attempt to catch what’s there and put it down to give people an idea of what we are talking about – how many spaces there are and where they are located.
What other projects or events are organized by the Network? Is there anything else coming up?
We’re concentrating a lot on the political work right now. Of course there are other events, too: we did a series in cooperation with Kunst-Werke. We are planning to do more in the Kunstpunkt, but that’s all dependent on funding. We do so much unpaid volunteer work that we can’t put things on top of it. We have more existential problems right now. We have to work more on getting funding for the scene, because now the Senator and the State Secretary have understood that the prize is just one step and they are talking about giving us more in the direction of structural funding. This is what the Network is there for – to articulate the needs and do the lobbying and political work.
We do have get-togethers, not only for Network members, which take place about three times a year. We have our publications, so we’re thinking about events around that. Last year, we published a book called Freedom of Space, which we want to re-launch. We also have the map, so we want to think about new events around that. Basically, the award is the biggest thing this year and then there are smaller meetings and get-togethers – a lot of discussions. That’s what the Network’s about.
September 13–17, 2017