The Berlin Network of Independent Project Spaces and Initiatives has existed since 2009, it has had registered non-profit status since 2015, and now includes more than 120 art project spaces and initiatives. The Network can look back on a series of astounding successes thanks to its energetic lobbying work. It is mainly thanks to that that institutionalized accomplishments such as the ›Project Space Award‹ (since 2012) and the two year core funding (since 2020) even exist—concerns that were met with a good deal of sympathy by the Berlin Senate Department of Culture. From the viewpoint of the political establishment, this is not ›only‹ a matter of supporting the arts, but also one of city marketing.
The art scene of Berlin is shaped not only by big players like museums, theaters, and operas, but equally by art associations, commercial galleries, and last but not least the large number of incredibly diverse art project spaces and initiatives. The latter constitutes a fluid scene, built upon constant change. At the same time, soaring commercial rents are the primary reason that project spaces are forced to close, often having to relocate to be able to continue. Most of them do not turn a profit with sales and are more experimental spaces or a kind of laboratory for new and emerging international artists—the kind that don’t exactly have collectors lining up.
»Project spaces and initiatives are spread throughout the entire city; they have very little or even no hierarchies, and provide art education in their respective neighborhoods.«
The ingenuity and fantasy in the exhibition programs of the many project spaces and initiatives are both rich and especially varied—or, to use a common contemporary word: diverse. I deliberately use this last term referring to gender and ethnicity. Because of their grassroots character, many project spaces had programs that engaged very early with these kinds of topics. As they were often strongly anchored in their communities, they stood substantially closer to young international artists and presented fewer hurdles and obstacles than established art institutions.
Project spaces and initiatives are spread throughout the entire city; they have very little or even no hierarchies, and provide art education in their respective neighborhoods. There is even a kind of plurality in the matter of what kind of spaces are used to exhibit art, whether it is the smallest room or cell, or even ›impossible‹ venues. The palette ranges from electrical plants, to gatehouses, or even to greenhouses and beyond, to former gas stations, boats, show windows, whether at street level or in the subway, from display cases to regular storefronts, to converted basements, and even purely digital spaces. The same goes for the programming that encompasses grants and residencies as well as cultural exchanges, advanced technical training and continuing education; debates in philosophy, cultural studies, and art history, presentations, lectures, and art education, not to mention traditional art exhibitions.
»We must see the work of project spaces and initiatives from the point of view of how they experiment with art and new forms of presentation, collectivity, even introducing, discussing, and testing problem-solving strategies for societal ills.«
Apart from the programs they build, the initiators of project spaces and initiatives tend be very different in their general attitude: Ranging from radical political subversion to humorous, ironic, and sarcastic exhibitions, or complicated and subtle projects with ephemeral art; science-based exhibitions, Constructivist, sound art, abstract or sociopolitical interventions. Brash, serious, traditional, avant-garde, minimalist, bucolic, baroque, or in the irreverent gestures of punk, discursive and also harsh with dissonance, brimming with critiques of society and capitalism . . . you can find any and all of this among so many project spaces and initiatives. All of them have a drive and a will toward expressive communication, onward to self-expression through artwork as an important piece of identity.
That this happens under definitively less than rosy conditions—funding or no funding—is no secret. Nevertheless, we must see the work of project spaces and initiatives from the point of view of how they experiment with art and new forms of presentation, collectivity, even introducing, discussing, and testing problem-solving strategies for societal ills. Such processes do lead to enormous professionalization, to international contacts, and to more sophisticated funding models. But let’s be honest: most people running a project space (often artists themselves) are operating on a very precarious basis, characterized by huge unpaid volunteer workloads. These kinds of conditions with the burden of double or triple duty cannot be maintained for long and, along with the pressure of constantly rising commercial rents and the associated displacement, play a direct role in the fluctuation of the number of existing project spaces at the moment.
»This has been a time where the arts have come to a standstill and many have realized the importance of fine art precisely because they have missed seeing it.«
The fragile existence of these dynamics that bubble up from below in the form of project spaces and initiatives made up of artists, art historians, and curators cannot be emphasized enough, regardless of the support given by the Senate Department of Culture. The long-term results of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in light of the deficit spending for crisis management, are almost impossible to predict but it could end up being very tight for the arts and independent scene in Berlin.
This has been a time where the arts have ground to a standstill and many have realized the importance of fine art precisely because they have missed seeing it. Art and cultural events offer cultural and political education—and are indeed system critical. Art project spaces and initiatives are an indispensable part of all this, enthusiastically built up and steered forward as self-commissioned labors of love, that because of their tenuous financial situation are forever endangered.
This text is a shortened and edited version of Matthias Reichelt’s essay from the publication ›X-Raum *10 Years—Award for Artistic Project Spaces and Initiatives‹, published by dbv—Bruno Dorn Verlag.