As a board member of the Network of Berlin Independent Project Spaces and Initiatives, Chris Benedict has been championing Berlin’s independent art scene for many years. An interview about the grey areas, picking a fight with politics, and whether Berlin’s project spaces have a future.
This year marks the first collaboration between the festival and the Netzwerk freier Berliner Projekträume und –initiativen (Network of Berlin Independent Project Spaces and Initiatives). How did this come about?
We had been thinking about a possible partnership for a while. There was always the question of whether to leave the two separate, or to team up in a collaborative effort. Some within the network, including myself, were of the opinion that it would make sense to collaborate, as we do have the same interests at the end of the day. And so we spoke with the festival director, Marie-josé, and then it was pretty quickly clear that we’d get along just fine.
There are two panel discussions in the programme. Which questions do you want to address here?
During the second panel, we’ll be discussing network-building, collective processes, and solidarity within the scene. The title is Coming and Going, and we are asking – who is going to stay in the city, and what are the conditions of remaining here? Some like to work all by themselves, others tend to look for networks, and it’s those different approaches that we are trying to look at. The first panel dealt with the relationship between project spaces and galleries in Berlin, and that’s basically a continuation of the longstanding debate concerning the market vs. the off-spaces: What’s the difference between a project space and a gallery, and what defines an off-space? Where is the grey area – and is it perhaps shifting at the moment? What exactly does it mean to be oriented towards the market, and where does the commercial terrain begin? All of those questions are very relevant at the moment, and the debate is constantly evolving.
Will the criteria that define a project space perhaps be more fluid in the future?
We are definitely in a process here. It’s been an ongoing discussion in the network for many years, and it’s something that we want to move forward with. Whether the criteria – that the network defined back in 2011 – are still in touch with reality, is something that needs to be discussed every now and then. We noticed, however, that there’s an excessive use of the term “project space” in Berlin. You’ll stumble across places that call themselves a project space but are something entirely different – at least according to our own understanding of the term. That extends far into politics and the administration, where a myriad of definitions prevail. Now, of course, you have to be open to changes within the scene, open to the fact that mounting financial pressure – for example through rising rents – might need to lead to a new, more accepting appraisal of the certain financial models.
Where did the network traditionally draw the line?
If you had a booth in a fair, you were certainly not regarded as a project space. If you sold art and took percentages, you were a gallery to us. But’s it’s not so simple in reality. There are project spaces that have sold art in the past, simply because the rent had to be paid somehow, right? Then again, I don’t know if we can readily accept this large grey area, not least because we need clear definitions for our political work on behalf of the project spaces. Blurring the lines doesn’t really help where we want to seek support for the scene.
Although the galleries are equally lining up to ask for funding from the city.
Of course, and not without reason. Yet, the gallery model represents a different approach, and thus any funding for galleries needs to be argued differently.
Reading the announcement for the first panel, it talks about “pollination”. Behind that is the idea that it’s mainly the project spaces that make the local art scene fertile. That perspective harbours a charge against the gallery scene: that they feed off the independent scene’s hard work – that they even hijack the model of the project space where they see fit. It’s a continuous battle to draw a line between project spaces and galleries, and one that’s not always been fought lightly. Would you say it’s possible in the future to come to a friendly co-existence between project spaces and galleries, on behalf of art and the artists perhaps?
I think we already co-exist just fine with everyone at the moment. (laughs). And maybe it’s great somehow that galleries open project spaces, like the EIGEN + ART Lab. And perhaps it’s also not completely objectionable if some project spaces sell art, as that helps the artists. Anything that furthers artists and the arts in this city is a positive measure. However, just take a look at the Project Space Award, where the Senate wants to support non-commercial projects. If you want to do that, you need to figure out what it means to be non-commercial in the first place. As the network, we cannot shy away from the discussion of what a project space is. We are the advocacy group for Berlin’s project space scene and therefore we need to define who belongs to that scene and who doesn’t. According to our self-conception, we are part of the independent art scene and that’s absolutely crucial. What then does it mean to be “independent”? That’s something we need to keep discussing and looking at.
What’s the value of the independent scene to Berlin for you?
Berlin likes to adorn itself with the scene, as it were. We might not have the powerful market here, but Berlin is heralded as the city of production. It’s mainly the artists that are producing, and they need places to show their work. The existing gallery scene cannot possibly cover all that, and they also feel the pressure to recognise market desires. The project space scene, however, wants to map out a different, much broader spectrum. Autonomy is extremely significant here. Needless to say, the independent scene has an economic value as well. It’s being marketed accordingly; it attracts tourists and the creative industries that want to be close to the artists. For years, the potential of the independent scene has been underlined, while it was kept on a financial drip. At some point, artists will just have to move on, and project spaces will have to close when they can’t afford the rent anymore.
Quite a lot has been achieved in recent years concerning financial support and overall recognition. At the same time, we have seen a continuous professionalization of project spaces. This way of working requires greater financial resources, which can only be generated through funding, or links to the art market. Wouldn’t it perhaps be important to maintain possibilities of working that are independent from funding or the market? If you only think in project sizes that necessarily require HKF funding, aren’t you in danger of losing a certain flexibility and spontaneity?
Sure, if you think of the 90s and the spontaneity of the scene, it had an entirely different set-up and therefore appeal, and also a different dynamic than the much-professionalized scene that we have today. But let’s be honest: the instability has remained. 98% of projects happen outside of the financial umbrella of the Project Space Award. And even if you have funding, it doesn’t mean that all costs are accounted for. Never, ever! In any case, as the network, we are fighting for funding structures that respect an idea of spontaneity. We don’t want project spaces to have to produce a full two-year program plan in order to get funding. Instead, we want structural funding – in the way of subsidised rent, for example. It’s our goal that we hold the niches which were previously claimed. That also means doing a project every now and then that is funded, so that artists can be paid.
Still, the question remains whether a higher level of professionalism and funding has changed the level of expectation. Years ago, it was clear to everyone that a project space didn’t have much of a budget, if any at all. Hasn’t that changed and how does that affect the daily work of a project space?
Right now, what has reached us in terms of funding is so benign that it hasn’t changed anything with regard to the expectations towards us, I think. Speaking about the prize-money for our own project space: it disappeared, just like that. You pay artist fees a couple of times, produce a catalogue, and maybe buy a disk saw, and that’s the end of it. Everything goes back to the start – everyone knows that. And that’s still not a good position to be in. We have to stabilise the independent scene financially in order for it to stay here. It’s all well and good to find it charming that things happen for free, or that there are no high expectations, but when artists have no money, they might have to move on.
In a growing, increasingly cramped, increasingly expensive city, will there be a future for project spaces – will they still exist in their current form in twenty years?
If the political decision-makers don’t start a major course correction, I don’t think we will be able to save the scene in all its diversity. There were hopeful signs for this legislature with regard to arts funding. We thought that the ruling coalition parties had a good understanding of the independent scene. Still, what little has been achieved remains a drop in the ocean.
Is it perhaps a matter of developing working models that are able to hold their own against the worsening conditions? I’m thinking of nomadic approaches, for instance, that suffer less from rising rents. Maybe out of all spaces, the project spaces are the ones most steeled against what’s coming, as they are survival-artists to the core. They know how to squeeze into the most unlikely niche, even if that’s just a wasteland.
Those approaches might be around, but for me, as a classic project space operator, that’s not an option. I don’t want to be relegated to curating a parking spot. I want to be able to create a program, I want security, I want to plan ahead. One of the tendencies that I’m seeing on the horizon concerns the locations that are being secured for arts and culture within the property portfolio of the city. Project spaces will have to think about whether it’ll be acceptable to them to co-exist next to each other within one building. And of course, there’s the movement towards the periphery of the city as a survival strategy. You can already see that by looking at the map of this year’s festival; and there’s lots of space yet. But I’m not sure it’s really an option for many project spaces to move to Marzahn.
What’s been the working relationship with the current Senator for Culture?
Lots of hope was put into him – much of it without reason, as it later turned out. There’s currently an idea of participation within the senate administration that’s very different from how we understand it within the independent scene. Money is being distributed in a somewhat patronising way, and we are expected to be happy with what we are given. As the Coalition of the Independent Scene, we have long fought for a remodelling of the funding landscape, and that this needs to happen by bringing the different cultural branches and their associations on board. And that’s been something of a car crash, to put it bluntly.
That sounds dramatic.
That’s the way I see it. Of course, the Senator of Culture wouldn’t put it quite that way. There were long talks, after which they offered a workshop process to us. However, we then had to realise that in this workshop, we were supposed to talk about what the arts can and must do for tourists or the audience in general. They didn’t recognise the arts as something that is important in and of itself, but rather as something that could be rendered productive for the city. The cultural administration reserves a right to make arts funding contingent upon certain criteria. They say that art might be free from having to fulfil certain duties; but arts funding isn’t, necessarily. And that’s when the alarm bells went off for us, and all branches of the independent scene backed away from the process. It remains to be seen what happens next. It’s definitely very tedious at the moment. As the independent scene, we were at a point where we really had to take up a fight, and we’ve now directed our efforts towards the politicians again.
What’s the difference between dealing with the administration, and the politicians?
The elected politicians sit in the Berlin House of Representatives and decide how to spend the money. The administration implements these decisions. Previously, there was a lot of dialogue between the administration and the independent scene – it was almost a kind of daily business for the Independent Art Coalition. That didn’t end so well, here and there. We’ve put thousands of hours of voluntary work into these talks and processes in order to provide ideas and impulses. And it seems that this didn’t really stick – it’s a bad awakening of sorts, at the moment. And that’s why we have to concentrate on the political sphere again, as that is where the decision-makers are.
How optimistic are you about this change of strategy?
I’m careful with optimism at the moment. It’s hard to cook up pressure within the coalition government, as the ruling parties won’t really interfere with each other’s departments. And if you look at the opposition, you are left with the CDU, the FDP or another party, that we, across the scene, refuse to talk with.
Does the AfD have any understanding of the independent art scene in the first place?
There were attempts from within the AfD to establish contacts to the independent scene. Rather isolated efforts, without much of a concept. Symptomatic for the whole party, I would say.
If you look at the independent scene as a traditional project of the Left, in how far do project spaces have to re-politicise themselves? Is there a possibility of finding a new role, even in dealing with the changing political situation? In short: Can the independent art scene be part of a leftist uprising, as it is being attempted with a movement such as Aufstehen (Eng: Rise)?
There are attempts already to mobilise the scene on a political level, I’m thinking of Kunstblock or DIE VIELEN here. After the election, there was a considerable outcry, and I think that things are moving into gear. Art has still the potential to be highly political, especially in Berlin.
You’ve been working for the network for many years now, which must be based on quite a substantial personal commitment. Does this push the limits sometimes?
The workload is tremendous – catastrophic even. You really have to watch out so that you don’t spread yourself too thin. I’d say I put in about twenty hours a week for the network, and most of it is voluntary labour. But then again, it’s such exciting work, and at the moment, I have the feeling that there is so much still to be achieved that I don’t want to step aside just now. The most important thing is that you know what you are fighting for, and that is to protect an entire scene. Personally, I don’t want to live in a city where this doesn’t exist anymore, and so I have to work for it – it’s that simple.
Interview: Manuel Wischnewski