Self-managed art, culture, and project spaces in Berlin have always been, and are again increasingly, part of an—often resistant—urban development from below. Threatened by the pressure of financialization, precarization, displacement, and appropriation, these spaces are also places of an urban subsistence economy, social reproduction work, or the desire for the good life. In many of these places, art is also a means of political work for a city for all. The aim of an interdisciplinary research course was to trace these processes of an art-based communitization—or commoning—of urban resources in the context of Berlin, the results of which are partly compiled in this text.
Due to its historical and economic "parallel development" as a divided city, Berlin has experienced an initially delayed and then rapidly accelerating urban development since the fall of the Wall. The consequences of neoliberalization, financialization, and digitalization of the global economy have taken hold here at a slower pace than in other large cities, especially in the former East. Rent, land, and real estate price increases and the accompanying gentrification processes can now be experienced all the more drastically in the everyday life of the city as urban development becomes increasingly capitalized. A decades-long withdrawal of state planning bodies from urban development concerns has resulted in a heterogeneous urban landscape of increasingly closed and restrictedly accessible spatial resources. The history of self-managed cultural, art, and project spaces that have emerged in Berlin as very specific participants in urban space production should be seen against this background. The large reserves of space that were opened up due to the restitution regulations of the post-reunification period, especially in the east of the city, became the space of possibility for a very diverse culture of appropriation between art, politics, and cultural work.
Until the mid-2010s, there were still around 150 project spaces in Berlin in the field of visual arts alone, which represented a unique situation worldwide, and which also became an important resource for Berlin's city marketing. As exhibition spaces initiated by artists themselves, which are often used as production spaces at the same time, project spaces form cultural free zones through the curatorial, artistic, and political practices of their operators. The artists thus vehemently use, open up, and defend transitional spaces that are potentially constituted as commons beyond private and public. Today, thirty years after the fall of the Wall, and fifteen years after the financial crisis, the availability of spaces has decreased significantly in the wake of the exponential rent increases and the space situation has become much more acute for artists and cultural workers, not least due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The counter-designs of tolerated open-space occupations, industrial interim uses in negotiation with private owners, contracts with state-owned housing companies, rent agreements with property managers, cooperative model projects or enforced communitization of real estate in recent years are to be read in this context. They stand for a different contemporary Berlin that has emerged parallel to the financialization of the real estate industry, as a sometimes resistant, sometimes escapist, but in the best case emancipatory and self-empowering practice that keeps open the remaining free spaces - in some cases as common-like spatial areas or spatial commons—and sometimes even manages to reopen them back permanently.
What is the role of self-organized artistic project spaces today in the context of the increasing spatial enclosure of once accessible urban spatial resources one the one hand and in the context of a rising interest for artistic spatial practices, interventions and funding projects in the frame of “urban practice” on the other hand? What has remained of art-based commoning?
Project Spaces as Common Spaces—Theoretical Framing of an Urban Practice
The term "project space" refers to a form of organization in the art field that itself looks back on a longer history: the first project spaces, as they are called in research, emerged in the 1960s in the New York art field and then spread to many Western art metropolises, such as Toronto, Geneva, San Francisco, Vancouver, London, and Amsterdam, but also Berlin. The predecessors of project spaces called themselves something else: gallery, exhibition space, exhibition venue, self-help gallery, gallery-apartment, artist-run-spaces, and so on. Their characters, however, are very similar. The term is therefore by no means an established designation. Some actors, including the Berlin network of free project spaces and initiatives, are pushing it as a uniform—or better: unifying—designation. In a previous research project on project spaces in Berlin and Paris, six criteria for defining a project space were worked out:
Firstly, it is a space in which experimental, discursive, and interdisciplinary art practices are carried out and—secondly—shown to an audience. Thirdly, the space is self-organized by artists and sees itself—fourthly—as an open platform for other artists. Fifthly, the project space is non-commercial, and sixthly, it is not financially supported by the public sector.
By means of an interactive mapping, the development of project spaces in Berlin from the 1970s on was documented. Until the fall of the Wall, the two scenes in East and West Berlin remained overviewable. After the fall of the Wall, the number of project spaces, mainly in the Mitte district, increased rapidly. From the mid-2000s onwards, a further massive expansion continues until the beginning of the 2010s. From then on, the number of project spaces decreases continuously. Under the pressure of the deficiency of affordable spaces, Berlin's independent scenes became politically active in various networks: Berlin Network of Free Project Spaces and Initiatives; Coalition of the Free Scene; and Haben und Brauchen were the most visible. They achieved some successes, such as the Project Space Award or the City Tax funding. During this time, cultural policy became aware of the needs but also potentials of the independent scene, which translated into concrete funding streams for Berlin project spaces.
In recent years, a change in discourse that points to a closer entanglement between artistic and urban practices can be observed: artists are increasingly becoming urban practitioners who, due to an increasing lack of space, discover the potential of linking art production and space production and reinvent possible futures of urban coexistence by means of planning interventions. What thread can be drawn from the historical self-help galleries of the 1970s-1980s to the temporary space production of the 1990s to the exponential proliferation of project spaces in the 2000s and finally to the emergence of urban practitioners in the late 2010s?
This development of project spaces in Berlin from the sphere of self-organized and potentially common space to commodified and thus private or club-like space on the one hand, or to state-funded and thus institutional or even public space on the other, can be read with reference to commons theories as an enclosure of artistic-cultural free spaces. From another previous research project on Berlin's neighborly embedded commercial spaces as potential spatial commons, communitized space can be distinguished from private as well as public space on the basis of two criteria: accessibility and co-determination.
In cartographic studies, four different spatial models were made distinguishable from each other by transferring commons definitions from both social and economic science perspectives to urban space: according to this, common-like spaces are characterized by a high degree of accessibility, just like public ones, in contrast to private and club-like spaces with restricted access. However, private and common-like spaces have in common a high degree of co-determination regarding the operation and use of the space. In public or club-like spheres, on the other hand, the people using the space are hardly integrated into rules-making. In the self-managed project space, which is neither publicly funded nor operated as a gallery, the rules of artistic, cultural, or social cooperation are potentially negotiated among all participants.
The criteria of accessibility and co-determination make it possible to distinguish self-managed project spaces as potential commons from non-commons. The appropriation and commodification of the terms "artistic practice" and "urban commons" in the context of urban development, marketing, and design, as well as urban research, give us cause to take a closer look at the situation in Berlin on a socio-spatial level and to question it. Therefore, we argue that the practice in project spaces is to be considered as well as questioned as art-based commoning.
Actors in the art field who run self-organized project spaces attach great importance to their economically autonomous and politically free positioning. In the teaching research project, we looked at these two components of self-management from a spatial perspective, searching for those spaces that are produced out of such self-managed contexts and thereby open up and keep open potentially communitized spaces. “Potentially” because the economies and politics are rarely transparent and commoning is always dependent on the actual activities and interests of those involved.
What relevance do the practices of the project space collectives have in the sense of space-related community work or as participants in a production of space for the common good? What entanglements between municipal cultural policies and civic urban politics can be traced, disentangled, and interpreted in the context of a common good-oriented urban development at the scales of the project space, the neighborhood, and the city as a whole?
Commoning, Space, and Property
On the basis of an interdisciplinary research course that resulted in a synthesized mapping, initial answers to the questions on the protection of cultural open spaces in Berlin in the context of the enclosure of spatial resources can be derived. On the one hand, different socio-spatial coping strategies can be found, on the basis of which the project space collectives can continue their artistic, social, and emancipatory practices of open space production. The theses on the interrelation between the respective ownership or rental conditions, a forced institutionalization and the accompanying decrease of commoning practices can be confirmed and formulated more concretely. We would like to draw conclusions from the developments of the last few years for Berlin's urban spatial resources as an outlook that uses the fields of conflict between cultural and urban policy as a reason for a policy of common spaces and argues for greater self-determination for art projects as well as other self-managed cultural spaces.
The strategies and tactics with which project space owners keep their free space open are part of the pressure logics of financialized urban development. An important tool in the research was the question of how the project spaces are conditioned by questions of ownership: who owns the space, who owns the lease, who owns the courtyard, who owns the street in front of it, who owns the art, who owns the city? We were able to identify a differentiated spectrum of ownership and rental relationships for the project spaces, which indicates various degrees of securing accessibility to space. This security of access can be measured along the degree of dependency of the project spaces in the tenancy, which usually implies a specific duration. From this, the three cases can once again be verified as ideal-typical: permanently secure; medium-term with an open future; short-term; and unstable-precarious.
(Relative) Security and Autonomy
Project spaces with a permanently secured tenancy have sustainable access to their premises. Security is either formalized within cooperative ownership models with foundations or cooperatives, relatively secure also by renting from a state-owned housing company with whom an affordable lease could be negotiated, or in negotiation with non-profit private owners. Examples include ExRotaPrint (leasehold with a foundation and joint financing of the project space), SOX (lease with a cooperative at a symbolic rent), Uqbar (rental in state-owned property), Scotty Enterprises (trusting relationship with a private owner). These project spaces have a potentially long-term and sustainable perspective and can thus continue their activities without the pressure to institutionalize and commodify. Securing resources means keeping cultural free spaces open and enabling the maintenance of autonomous self-management as a commoning-like spatial practice.
Open Future and Forced Institutionalization
Project spaces with a medium-term tenancy that is open to the future have little planning perspective. The owners often have an indifferent attitude towards the use of the space and can terminate the lease at any time within the bounds of legality. This is the case with many long-established project spaces, which can also be justified statistically: in the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, about 75% of all residential properties (with shops on the ground floor) are privately owned. Project spaces such as G.A.S. Station, Bi'Bak Wedding, or Liebig 12 are more restricted in their autonomy than those with secure access to space, but precisely because of this a solidary and communal alliance with the neighborhood can emerge when displacement and gentrification occur. The search for funding opportunities becomes an exit strategy that secures a temporary income for the collectives, which can then be invested in rent payments, and at the same time forces the institutionalization and dependence on funding programs. This can significantly restrict commoning practices and reduce autonomy.
Liminalization and Destabilization of Spatial Practice
The project spaces with short-term and unstable precarious tenancies have no secure access to space, which is often only granted to them temporarily in the context of interim use. The project spaces are sometimes instrumentalized by the owners to achieve an upgrading of the properties through the use of artists. This is the case, for example, with Spoiler (former car dealership in speculative short-term rental), Disko Babel (development site on the S-Bahnring in a waiting situation) or District (displacement from an industrial site). As a rule, the project spaces only receive very short leases that are partially extended until the property is demolished, redeveloped, or resold. In such precarious tenancies, the practice can only be carried out with difficulty and minimal resources. It is precisely in unstable constellations that a great deal of self-organization and intensified commoning-like practices can be found "against all odds." Commoning as a collectivized production of space, which makes the tiniest and most precarious spatial resource shareable, then becomes a survival strategy with artistic means—or a political service to the landlord who extracts the cultural capital out of artistic representation and upgrading.
It becomes clear that there is a connection between partially forced institutionalization of the activities of the project spaces and a possible loss of the commoning aspects in the context of artistic spatial practice, which also affects the production of space in the surroundings of the project space. For the time being, these are exploratory findings that need to be deepened. However, the investigation shows how project spaces establish their respective political economy that oscillates between self-management and institutionalization depending on the urban and cultural political framework. In this context, we question the structural conditions that municipal administrations and city governments must create in order to maintain, secure, and enable project spaces in the sense of art-based commons. A framework for action for this is provided by the concepts of a common good-oriented urban development in which municipal safeguarding of spatial resources can be thought of and made operative by interlocking with the self-organization of spatial resources. The practices, types, and systems of project spaces considered here can provide different starting points for keeping urban resources open in common.
This text is an excerpt of an article that will be published in Konfliktuelle Kulturpolitik—Conflictual Cultural Politics, edited by Oliver Marchart, Anke Schad-Spindler, Stefanie Fridrik, and Friederike Landau-Donnelly as part of the series “Politologische Aufklärung—Konstruktivistische Perspektiven” by Springer VS in 2023.
Séverine Marguin, sociologist, is head of the Methods-Lab within the CRC 1265 »Re-Figuration of Spaces« at Technische Universität Berlin. She follows an interdisciplinary research focus on culture and knowledge production,
sociology of space, experimental and design-based methods. She is currently leading two research projects: "Museum Knowledge Space" at the HU Berlin and "Afronovelas: Spatial Stories and Production Regime in West-African Soaps" at the TU Berlin.
Dagmar Pelger is an architect and urbanist with an interdisciplinary research focus on spatial commons, critical cartography and design methods for cooperative spatial production from neighbourhood to landscape. Her dissertation on Spatial Commons was published by adocs in 2022. She is currently a guest lecturer in urban design at the UdK Berlin and since 2017 a member of coopdisco, an architecture and planning cooperative based in Berlin.
Authors of the Mappings: Karla Andermann, Davide Battel, Sophia Bernstein, Nicolas Bobran, Pia Elena Frey, Sarah Friedel, Katharina Funke, Duarte Goncalves, Daniel Gutzwiller, Carmina Henzler Carrascal, Olga Herrenbrück, Friederike Kiko, Elisabeth Loehr, Romy Mosesku, Nils Palme, Edwin Pfeffer, Lucie Riemer, Sophie Schmidt, Léon Schmutzler, Eduarda Silva and Natalia Wyrwa, with Séverine Marguin, TU Berlin and Dagmar Pelger, UdK Berlin, 2022.
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