This festival opens at the calculated geographical center of all of this year’s applicants for the Project Space Festival – a place given the title The Center of Minimum Distance. This blog, which shares the same name, opens with an attempt to address the question of the peripheral.

The project space in Berlin appears to be bound up with the idea of the periphery – both symbolically and geographically. As a simple illustration of this, in her study Die Berliner Projekträume: ein Standort, French art sociologist Séverine Marguin has mapped the locations of Berlin’s independent art spaces from 1970 to the present day. Sliding the time bar across the 90s, as post-Cold War Berlin itself becomes less and less a periphery and more a center of today’s (somewhat) reunited Europe, you can see the blue pindrops on the map dramatically moving further out from the city’s center and towards its edges.

According to the urbanist AbdulMaliq Simone, the periphery is always in excess of the center – and at the same time, constitutive of the center. Without the periphery, there is no center; without the center, there is no periphery. And so: “the periphery never then offers anything of substance of its own; its own status as supplement never directly contributes to a transformation of the normative.” (“At the Frontier of the Urban Periphery”, Sarai Reader, 2007, s. 462). A wasteland, for example, is an in-between-space whose ownership is uncertain, where plants grow wild, concrete crumbles, and humans might linger without necessarily being asked what they are up to. Only in the undefined space of a wasteland is such a situation possible. And yet, of course, the flipside of this lack of definition is that the wasteland becomes a temporary thing, an empty placeholder to be developed by (centralized) processes of urban land valorization. Both wastelands and project spaces are often understood to be remnants of the wild Berlin of artists, bohemians and rebels – an image that, today, also sells itself to tourists, investors and newcomers better than any marketing campaign could.

The project space is also often defined in opposition to – and therefore through the terms of – a pre-existing normative reality: “non-institutional”, “non-commercial”, and perhaps “non-hierarchical”. This “negative” mode of definition, which charts a periphery that constantly skirts the danger of being swallowed up by the center, is reflected in how recent discussions around the definition of the project space in Berlin have played out.

Yet instead of asking “what is the project space?” – because it is clear that in reality there are as many very solid answers to this question as there are project spaces themselves – maybe it makes sense to think, also, about why we are asking ourselves this question.

This links into increasingly urgent discussions surrounding the role of independent artistic practice in Berlin more generally, as the “role” of the artist in Berlin has become problematized by the “added value” it offers for urban development, both in terms of city marketing/tourism-based public interests and real estate-based private interests.

In this context, a refusal of definition has some concrete advantages. In 2014, in the wake of its sharp and well-substantiated criticism of the pressure caused by “turbo-capitalism” and gentrification on Berlin’s independent art scene, the self-organised group Haben & Brauchen (“to have and to need”) opened a working group to define “art terms between autonomy and functionalization“. What followed was a highly detailed discussion of the term “autonomy” (with reference to a number of male philosophers). The discussion addressed the rise of the “functional” and self-defined artist-as-activist or artist-as-community-worker in the context of Berlin’s institutional deregulation over the last twenty-five years, suggesting that as a result, “autonomy has to mean: hand over the money, but don’t dictate what it can be used for” – a useful definition that nonetheless reduces a complex problem down to a financial arrangement.

Running a parallel line of argument, the Avatara Plenara Zeitstipendia campaign last year successfully pushed for a number of “time-based” grants for independent Berlin-based artists in which, significantly, “…neither should specifications be demanded of the contents or formats of funded artistic practices, nor should detailed project plans be required”.

Another recent institutional attempt to define the project space in Berlin using open parameters arose out of a financial arrangement. In 2012, when the Netzwerk freier Berliner Projekträumen und Initiativen (formed in 2009) successfully managed to agitate for a no-strings-attached funding system in the form of the Preis zur Auszeichnung künstlerischer Projekträumen und -initiativen – a significant development, since funding in the form of a prize means funding that does not require acquittal – i.e. the project space has complete autonomy over how the money is spent. Or indeed, whether it even needs the money: in some cases the Award was given to spaces with semi-commercial or institutional profiles. This led to heated criticism and debate within the scene, calling the definition of the project space into question. Does a mode-of-definition-by-way-of-refusing-definition (either consciously, or by default) provide adequate leverage to secure independence? Is the project space still “proud to be peripheral”?

In the 2015 text The End of the Project Space and its attendant treastise Attempts…, curator Manuel Wischnewski writes that “the project space is a space with distance. It maintains a fundamental distance not only from the market, but also in relation to institutional, state and any other structures.” At the same time, Wischnewski observes that the project space in Berlin has never been of more interest to central structures. Recent developments such as the above-mentioned Berlin Senate-funded Preis zur Auszeichnung künstlerischer Projekträumen und -initiativen, which now draws on a pool of over one million euro, or indeed this very Festival (also now funded by the Berlin Senate Chancellery of Cultural Affairs’ City Tax programme) demonstrate the “added value” of independent artistic practice to the city.

Moreover, the project space scene has in some cases developed an intimate relationship to the commercial art scene – from participation in international art fairs to this very Festival’s past collaboration with Berlin Art Week. Structures such as the One Night Stand series, in which project spaces mounted an evening-long event in Kunstwerken’s Chora, demonstrate the “added value” the project space represents on an institutional level. In all cases, Wischnewski observes a slow appropriation of the once-peripheral project space by its supposed antagonist – be it state, market or institution.

In an article published last year in Das Kunstmagazin, art critic Larissa Kikol takes things one step further, proposing that the project space is, in fact, a kind of breeding-ground for neoliberal-capitalist conservatism. Mapping the rise of a new, entirely self-exploitative and self-obsessed neoliberal subject, she also observes the process by which centrally orchestrated processes of precarization, and the need to cultivate of an image of success, are internalised – like it or not – by no-longer-peripheral actuers of the “independent” scene. The “off-space” is replaced with the term “project space”, and with it, the idea of a networked space emerges. Whether or not Kikol’s provocative assessment corresponds to the reality is up for debate, however she clearly highlights the danger that an undefined self-conception can be appropriated by external forces only too easily.

When AbdulMaliq Simone writes that a periphery can only be defined against the centre, he also suggests that a periphery defined in this manner can produce nothing of substance on its own. Yet carving out an identity only in opposition to economic processes – such as gentrification, economization, precarization, valorization – determined by an external, yet all-too-close center also means, in a very subtle way, deferring to these processes. It attracts their attention. Opposition is as hip for the (marketed and non-marketed) identity of Berlin as it is for real estate agents. In this city we can already see a narrative in which these processes of institutionalization, commercialization or valorization are understood to be inevitably swallowing up the peripheral position, either eradicating it or reworking it into a network in which the center has interpolated the entire structure. Things so easily turn into their opposite.

But perhaps there is no need to be so cynical. On the ground, the situation often becomes more complex. Most of us are more than aware of the above-mentioned issues. And the truth is that the project space in Berlin has a long political history, and in the meantime, new models and structures for self-organization and collaboration have sprung up. Nonetheless, in a city where there is a constant influx and exodus of (to use a term we all know and love) “creatives”, perhaps there is room to continue to clarify certain principles. Contra-Simone, perhaps it makes sense to take a look at other systems of self-(or non)-definition that go far beyond the economic, taking the form of something much deeper: a political self-understanding.

It seems that due to external (centralized) pressure, a self-definition of the project-space-as-periphery becomes necessary – a relationship with the center, however, is not necessarily negative. Funding from “central” sources comes at a point in time when the independent scene is both most in need of, and most capable of (demonstrating its vital position in the cities’ cultural landscape) and formulating a convincing argument for increased support and influence. Yet on what basis, in whose in whose name, and on what terms are these representative acts of claiming both funding and self-definition made?

The Project Space Festival of 2016 forms an artificial Center of Minimum Distance. In so doing, a non-existent center (and perhaps it is also a permanent wasteland) is called into being – a center of one’s own that can be drawn upon if necessary, or one that may not, ultimately, even be necessary.

The purpose of this series is to delineate, from the viewpoint of a tenuous center (that may not even exist), a number of positions, definitions or refusals that “the peripheral” might insist on, on its own terms.

More to come…

Image: Project Space Festival Berlin 2016, Day 04, Bruch & Dallas: Layout.  Photo: Lysander Rohringer

Text: Sonja Hornung

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