In anticipation of the third edition of the Berlin Art Prize, an independent annual award honoring contemporary art from Berlin, we met up with the founders to hear all about this "meticulous cover version of a classical art prize", which became one of the key landmarks of the Berlin art scene.
The prize was founded in 2013 by four artists and cultural producers - Sophie Jung (art historian and journalist), Zoë Claire Miller (artist and curator), Alicia Reuter (editor and writer), and Ulrich Wulff (painter). The team, this year tripled in size, is currently preparing the big exhibition, award ceremony and party, which will take place on Friday June 12th at DISTRICT Berlin.
When and why did you actually decide to initiate the Berlin Art Prize?
Alicia: We began in 2012, but the first prize took place in 2013. In a sense, it was an initiative of Zoë and Ulli. They were two artists looking to develop a project outside of their traditional circles. So they asked Sophie and myself, two writers, if we would be interested in forming a new kind of concept.
Zoë: It was a combination of a lot of different ideas, hopes, and aspirations that seemed very unrealistic. Generally, we felt like it was a pity that Berlin, as an art metropolis, only had these art prizes that were funded by unlikeable corporations, like Vattenfall. And of course, the city’s artist grants are inadequate, 15 awards for 10,000 artists in town and you’re only allowed to apply every three years. Everyone knows that there is no chance of getting any funding or support from Berlin. If you are applying as an organisation or institution, you really have to have a major professional infrastructure to make it through the Kafkaesque application process. We felt like it was a shame that there was nothing else out there, especially nothing with an open call.
Sophie: All of the existing art prizes in Berlin were a part of the marketing strategy of companies or institutions. The way they were awarded addressed few artists, and was not really fair and open.
Alicia: That, and the artists that are being nominated are already well on their way.
Zoë: We wanted to create something that was really open for a highly diverse scale of works that was inclusive rather than exclusive. Another factor for us was that we felt that when you apply for things, it sucks if you have to pay a lot of money. We thought our “dream” art prize would involve an exhibition, a catalogue, and a residency in an exciting country. There was nothing here offering that, so we wanted to bring together all these aspects into something we feel like we would want, as artists. We wanted to make it a really big thing out of minimal resources.
Sophie: You have all these big names, big institutions, they are there, and at the same time we have this serious and funny statement.
Alicia: To be arrogant enough to call yourself the Berlin Art Prize, to be four people that are still struggling to pay their rent and bills through freelance jobs or exhibitions…
Sophie: ...there was always humor and irony in it.
Zoë: We are interested in the self-aggrandizement that belongs to historical institution of prize-giving – the act of bestowing critical acclaim.
Sophie: There was a moment when all of us – first Zoë and Ulli as artists who were actually affected the most by the arts funding policy in Berlin – felt the situation in Berlin was bad, so our approach was a gesture of support.
Alicia: I think, then and now, one thing that has not changed is the heart of the Berlin Art Prize. It’s about supporting artists, but it is also about bringing artists, collectors, gallerists, curators, writers, and anyone interested in art, together. That’s really the impetus for this crazy afterparty every year. A lot of existing art prize events are closed – you’re not getting in without a mailed invitation. The Berlin Art Prize is about inviting everyone. We get requests from reporters asking whether they can be accredited, or people asking if there is any way they can get on the list, they don’t realise there is no list! Another thing that’s happened over the years is that nominated artists have ended up working with the jury, with each other, and with us on other projects. It creates an opportunity for relaxed networking. You don’t always find this at gallery exhibitions. There are some spaces in Berlin that are good at creating this atmosphere, but at a lot of spaces it is slightly stifling, there is a certain mood that comes out at exhibitions which we definitely try to avoid.
Zoë: We were very interested in the question – do we have a community here? There are so many artists, of course, lots of different parallel communities and scenes that do not necessarily interact much or at all, and we wanted to do something that could potentially join all these disassociated structures.
What has changed over the years? What would you highlight as the most important achievement or progress?
Alicia: We still have no official funding, all of our funding comes from independent sources, so just the fact that we are still entirely a team of volunteers, a team that’s tripled in size – that is unbelievable, incredible. New to the team this year are: Ann-Kathrin Rudorf, Dan Meththanada, Erin Reznick, Julia Lesser, Owen Reynolds Clements, and Saskia Wichert, and Moritz Fedkenheuer, Leonie Huber, Attila Saygel and Lorenz Schreiber are still with us from 2014. I’m so thankful that we attracted good people who are genuinely interested in the values and the concept of the prize. I think this year’s team added a year to my life!
Zoë: Berlin has obviously changed. The rents have basically doubled in the past five years. That makes living a lot harder for everyone here, and it also means that people do not necessarily have that much free time to do preposterous things, like founding an art prize without funding, for fun.
Alicia: We are really grateful for the flexibility that we have being a small team of volunteers. Everybody's input is valued, so I could imagine that we will continue to develop and change in the future. I really see this, the third year, as a very significant year for us. We are still here, we have grown, we are continuing to do what we do, and I think that 2016 will be our year for funding.
This year the Berlin Art Prize is moving to another location, and you have an entirely new group of people in the jury.
Sophie: The Berlin Art Prize is not linked to one institution or one location. We think it should travel around the city. It was always important that we use different locations around Berlin each year. The jury also changes every year but also must have a certain relationship to Berlin. Most of them live and work in Berlin and know the scene. It is part of the concept – that it changes every year. The location, the jury, and also the exhibition and the applicants.
Zoë: This year we are hosted by DISTRICT, it’s the first time we are hosted by a project space that runs its own program and has put on shows for years in the same location, and we are really happy about the collaboration. They are giving us a lot of infrastructural support, and have a space that is set up for showing art, which is extremely helpful.
Alicia: In the first year we went through 120 liters of paint! Just the fact that we don’t have to paint all the walls and ceilings... We still have some work, though.
Who is the jury this year?
Alicia: Monica Bonvicini, an Italian artist based in Berlin. Willem de Rooij, a Berlin-based artist originally from Belgium. Elise Lammert, an amazing young Swiss curator and writer. Kitty Krauss, a German artist also based in Berlin. And Natasha Ginwala, a curator, academic, and writer. She was the co-curator of the last Berlin Biennale.
Zoë: It is interesting to see how the jury develops a different synergy every year, with divergent tastes and attitudes.
Alicia: And very different approaches. Every year personalities come out in the jury, which is really interesting to watch, how other professionals discuss the works they are seeing, especially when they feel passionate about a certain piece.
Berlin Art Prize 2015 trophy created by Yael Bartana
What can you tell us about the exhibition opening and the ceremony?
Alicia: There are 29 positions, but 33 artists. And three amazing trophies that we can’t wait to show off on stage. They were made for us by Yael Bartana, an Israeli artist also based in Berlin.
Zoë: The show opens at 18h, the award ceremony is at 20.30h, when the winners will be announced. There will be three performances at the opening, many pieces are performance-based.
Sophie: From 22h on, when the ceremony is over, we will all celebrate the great Berlin art scene!
Do you have some short and/or long term goals set for the Berlin Art Prize?
Zoë: It’s a transitional phase, because we started out as the new thing and no one knew what it was about. It was a completely novel, weird idea. Thinking about the goals that we have and the directions we want to develop into. Definitely something big coming up.
Anything else you would like to add?
Zoë: I think that the Berlin Art Prize is a really beautiful project but it can’t make a structural difference for the mass of underfunded artists in the city with only three winners every year and 30ish participants. What could make a big difference would be a new model of artist grants for Berlin. The city’s budget negotiations for 2016/2017 are under way and I am working together with other artists and curators to convince the parliament to introduce 350 grants yearly for visual artists in Berlin, each at €7000.
Alicia: We are already thinking about 2016. The jury gave us a lot of helpful feedback. Also the new team members have ideas about how we can grow, change, and develop the Berlin Art Prize as a broader platform. We are considering having not just one event, one exhibition, that takes place once a year, but something, at least information and support for artists, coming out of the Berlin Art Prize year-round. But these are all just ideas that have been thrown out over the course of many meetings.