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In Conversation with Marina Donina and Regina Tetens

Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik Berlin: Philip Horst (copy)

ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics (short: ZK/U Berlin) is an artist residency, a space for research and production, and a platform for exhibitions, conferences, and workshops related to social and cultural topics. The artist collective KUNSTrePUBLIK founded ZK/U Berlin in a former railway depot located on the grounds of Stadtgarten Moabit, an urban garden. Its doors opened to the public in 2012. Around fifteen artists and urban studies researchers from around the world live and work at ZK/U. During their residencies, which last sev­eral months, the processes and results of their project work are presented to the public on a regular basis. Many of the social and cultural projects ZK/U initiates center on challenges to urban society.
Co-founders and current board of directors: Philip Horst, Matthias Einhoff, and Harry Sachs.

Regina Tetens: Thank you for meeting with us today! You are a co-founder of several artist groups—when did you start and what motivated the founding of the KUNSTrePUBLIK and the ZK/U, Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik?

Philip Horst: We started working as Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik in 2006, and we were not only a collective but also founded an association to be able to get funding for our ideas.
At that time, we had a lot of space; in Berlin, there was still a lot of free space available, but we didn’t have a lot of money. So, we had to organize money, and this structure as a non-profit organization gave us possibilities to acquire different funds. We started with doing our own artwork, both as individual artists and then later also as a collective, and we made artworks in a common authorship under the name of KUNSTrePUBLIK, which is the association behind the legal entity of ZK/U, but we are also an artist collective under the same name.

When we started in 2006, we were five men; two of the group have now dropped out to concentrate on their own art. In 2010, we acquired the building and we had to get a million euros of investment; it became a long-term project. It was already during the project Skulpturenpark where we had organized everything, fighting and curating, while we also always had an art piece in these shows. Maybe to complement or to bring in new aspects, same as the artist colleagues.

ZK/U somehow became more visible as a name than KUNSTrePUBLIK. So, when ruangrupa asked us to participate, we decided to take part as a whole ecosystem and not only as a group of artists.

RT: What is your role within ZK/U? Do you have specific roles?

PH: We are all equal within the structure, but after working together for fourteen years, certain roles have developed. This naturally falls into place. I am mainly responsible for the residency program, new partnerships, and taking care of running the business. And Matthias Einhoff is responsible for acquiring projects and the educational framework. And he manages our building construction.

In the first phase, all three of us covered all themes together, but now we don't have the time to do that anymore, especially with Haus der Statistik.[1] It's a project we all work on; everybody does a little on a daily basis. We normally all work together on our artistic production and for artworks. At the very least, we discuss ideas and brainstorm, but do not necessarily execute together; the creative process is the important part.

RT: What was the most innovative or interesting project so far?

PH: I think the ZK/U, like all our ventures, has an experimental aspect, and I think that was really interesting. Also, Haus der Statistik. Even though Haus der Statistik is much bigger and involves much more and many more stakeholders, whereas ZK/U was more controlled by the three of us. I see it as a kind of artwork, as a social sculpture.

There was, for example, Stage to Go. That's a machine which goes over parking cars, lifts them up, and uses the car as an energy producer to produce light and electricity for sound on this kind of stage. So, its use was also to make electricity run. The engineering part was very interesting, also the result and the product. You could lift the car with two hands: a human being can lift up a car.

And then maybe the crazy stuff we did once, like Fairpetuum Mobile. It was a race between two cars; one car consisted of a car and a trailer. It was a wood gasifier with dried horse shit running the engine. The other one was an Opel Corsa, which was running on ethanol alcohol, produced from old fruits. We had a race in a former trotting track. It was a fantastic summer day, but then suddenly we had an enormous thunderstorm, and everything was sinking, water everywhere. During the race, you could bet on the future of the area, on demographics, the job developments, the language, and how it will be in 2050. This way, money was collected, which is in a bank account now and will be released in 2050. When one can see the real development over that time.

It was at the same time when we opened a farm for culture champions, a mushroom farm, which served as an exhibition design. We acquired the material from the mushroom industry. So, these are always different aspects, when we enter into new fields and find ways on how to turn them into an artwork.

RT: Is there a project you would like to realise—a dream project?

PH: Yes, like what we want to do for documenta. We took down the former roof of the ZK/U building and will transform it into a boat, on a boating trip—a very adventurous project. Along the way, we will have about fifty events, touching base with the local communities and with other artists.

It’s the roof of ZK/U, and now it has been turned 180 degrees upside down and will be used as a raft. It looks like a roof, a floating roof. It’s 16 meters long and 5.5 meters wide. So, it is a little shorter than the actual hallway, but this was a legal issue; it has to go through all the rivers with the regulations in place.

We will start on the Havel, then go on the Mittellandkanal and then enter the Weser but against the current. And then on the Fulda to Kassel. We want to move without fossil energy, but with people. We have paddles and we’ll install bikes, but we need others to pull us, maybe with rowboats, swimming, fishing lines—all different ways of moving us forward. If no one helps us, we will stand still or on the Weser be moved back to the Atlantic, which is also an interesting option. But we want to reach Kassel; then we will turn it upside down again, like a campsite for the community. The estimated journey is 60 days. There is the Around the World in Eighty Days novel. That was the beginning of modernization when everyone started going fast. And now we turn the 90 upside-down to 60; 60 days from Berlin to Kassel. We are trying to be slow in opposition to all the speed around us.

And one day, we could maybe continue with this slow journey to go and visit the other Lumbung members.

RT:  We understood that Berlin was an important place for you when you founded KUNSTrePUBLIK, because there was so much free space. How important is the location in Berlin for you and for the context of projects you work on, and how does this location and the political situation influence them?

PH: The core part of ZK/U is the residency, and that very much depends on its location. I think for an artist and researcher, a residency in Berlin is a big advantage compared to being somewhere else. Many people like to come to Berlin; the city has a lot of different histories and many artist scenes. On the micro level, ZK/U is in an island situation. It is in the inner ring of the city, but you look out over an industrial harbor area with a lot of container shipping, which is very unusual for Berlin. Then we are surrounded by a public garden, which almost seems like our private garden. It is a property with a playground community garden. These surroundings have a very special atmosphere. That has advantages for the audience, which is not necessarily an artist audience, just people hanging out. So, we have people around us, not like other art venues where there are only artists—this is special.

RT: Is there anything else about Berlin that makes it special, perhaps in the combination with politics?

PH: If you talk about politics as official politics, like the Senate, like at the county or district level, then it's interesting to look at Haus der Statistik, and how it developed. There was only a very little moment in time when this could have happened the way it did. And there were different factors which provoked it or made it possible. One was the crisis of the Syrian refugees coming, fleeing war. The whole administration in Berlin was collapsing after the ongoing race on real estate, which led to a commercialization of the inner center, especially at Alexanderplatz, which today is almost entirely full of offices and shops. All the bigger cultural spaces closed; Tacheles was gone, and nearby there wasn't much left. The politicians realized that they were selling everything. There were no places for people to interact and to meet in non-commercial ways. And that was our concept we put forward, to create a hub for interaction of different groups of people—not only artists, but also normal people in other active and social groups, and that succeeded in the Haus der Statistik not being sold, or only sold from the federal government to the county level. And now it has developed in a very special relationship between us as an entity of people, civil society, and different administrative political entities. And this has been going on since 2017, 2018, so already three or four years. So, that is also because of a very special political situation in Berlin. That also had to do with the constellation of the Linke, SPD, and the Green coalition. Such artistic influence became part of the coalition contract when it was written. That is also a very special political situation. And I think even more back then than it is now, as the more conservative parts are taking over in the SPD. And I think about this constellation now, and how it probably wouldn't have been possible also because the pressure on space is even bigger now, also from commercial parties.

RT: How did the community respond to the project? Is there a community around the area of Haus der Statistik or ZK/U reacting to what you do there?

PH: At ZK/U, the park is already a recreation area where people come to relax. During the summer, we normally have events, sometimes several days a week: cinema, cooking with Speisekino or Gütermarkt as a mixture between a flea market, workshops, and the bike market. These are popular things, mixing with critical artistic work, which offers the audiences accessibility, different to an art exhibition. From the beginning, we thought about formats that could involve the community—not necessarily work with them but have a low-level entry point.

This way, we have different entry points to seeing or experiencing art and to our open houses, which happen monthly or every two months, as a kind of open studio of our residents. Not a glossy exhibition, but rather showing the process of what the artists are working on. It works as an invitation for the audience and residents to encounter and bring forward their research, more of a dialogue than a show. That is the core of ZK/U and KUNSTrePUBLIK both in different forms. In ZK/U, we also create this fused space of knowledge production, criticality, and popular entertainment.

Like FußballaBalla, a format we organize in parallel to big public football events, like European or World Championships. We have small monitors spread around the park, and people have to really gather together. Or we have split screens of a game and maybe another game of the same team playing twenty years earlier. Like movements inside and outside the stadium, fighting against the development costs through the event. Or we invite urban researchers to talk about the development in the area of the world championship, like China today, opening the winter Olympic games, but not having a natural ski area, not even winter season, all just artificially produced. We like to put spotlights on things and show what it means, in all different aspects. Yes, that's what we try to put a spotlight on!

RT: Besides communicating with the community or the people you invite, how would you define your collective practice? You said you work together and discuss ideas together. Is there something that you would define as important for you or how you work?

PH: Maybe it’s also interesting to talk about what a collective is. The three of us, we mainly do the art projects. Sometimes we involve other members of ZK/U. Then, there is ZK/U as an organization, which maintains the residency and partnerships. This is done with other people who are not necessarily part of the artistic output. And that's the biggest challenge, on how to cross that line and how to bridge it. And there are people we hire; they are paid for working at ZK/U, while we are kind of freelancing. It's also maybe that difference that they are rather not necessarily employees.

MD: ruangrupa introduced a lot of their cultural background into the way they work and are curating documenta. In this collaboration, are there any cultural differences that have affected your working practice in some way?

PH: The whole lumbung concept, if you look at it globally, is also the scaling of ruangrupa. There's always this colonial discourse embedded, even though it’s not spoken out loud. We are from Germany; documenta is a German festival. There are a lot of lumbung members invited who live in former colonial countries (not necessarily colonized by Germans, but by Europeans), and therefore there's always a little gap between us. Mostly in terms of resources. Because we have a building, we don’t always have to look for new studios, which makes us privileged in the Berlin scene.

There is a certain responsibility, but also a lot of knowledge about how to spend money. Since documenta is almost all public money, it must be spent in certain ways. For us, it was so difficult in the last fifteen years to understand the Vergabeordnung (awarding regulations), and it is hard to explain to people from other countries, too. A lot of the talk was about how to sustain and reuse the resources of documenta. The needs were very different, even though everyone has the same problems in a way, like money and land. That's also why there is this big question about land, how can we acquire land, or is a different economy possible? These are the core questions of the lumbung. And the press, like how can we publish ourselves and how do we build a digital network outside of Google, Facebook, and YouTube. It's a classical Marxist question, how to get your production in your own hands.

Normally, we find a specific thing that seems interesting. And either we develop it on the site, while we are there, or we do it from a distance, like in Washington, DC. We were invited there to do public work, and we were researching different aspects of the city. And we found two things that Germans were famous for. A lot of alcohol production, like breweries, belonged to them. Then, there was a straight-edge movement, which also originated from Washington, DC. Like don't drink, don't smoke, don't fuck within the hardcore scene. And then we thought it would be interesting to bring these together: our German traditional alcohol-making and the straight edge anti-movement.

There was one dentist from California who made a lot of money with some patents. He was installing freshwater fountains all over the US, and he placed one in front of German pubs. To give people an alternative to drinking alcohol. Very simple idea. We found one of the remaining fountains in Boston; it led to the first public art commission in the city. After it was placed there, there was a group of people saying: “Hey, why can everyone just put their shit in our public space,” and they formed this commission to decide what is allowed in public space. Temperance movement. Now, from 200 of these fountains, only two or three still exist, in New York and in Washington, DC. We made a one-to-one replica and put it onto a trailer to make it moveable. And on the front of this fountain’s roof, there were engravings like “temperance”, “modesty,” etc. We made them with a magnetic sheet, and you could put your own letters, find your own morality. Then we gave it to people to use as a protest tool, because Washington, DC, like Berlin, is also the federal capital. We created a reform or demonstration tool with a very conservative shape. We did a similar thing in Skulpturenpark with LandsEnd with opera or kind of conservative songs in burnt-out cars.

So, trying to move different cultural forms of expression into a new meaning, but in the context of its location.

RT: This is a very basic connection to ruangrupa as well, who very much work with the local context.

PH: I like it very much. It needs a lot of time and (not necessarily) money, also dedication to find and learn about these structures, a good connection, and ambassadors who can translate the locality.

RT: How are your projects normally funded or supported by project money?

On different levels: from the EU, the federal state and locally. Not so much locally anymore, but in the beginning, because the amount of money is relatively small to the administrative things you must do to prove how you spend it, etc.

RT: And how do you share the money in the group, and how do you divide it?

PH: The three of us always share everything, and we also work over full time, every one of us. Others have contracts, some are employed or freelancing. It also depends on the engagement level and when they joined our group. Some employees behave like employees. And others are very caring. Distinguishing this may be stupid, but people who are employed often work according to a different logic towards where they work.

RT: Do you document or archive your projects? Is that an important part of your work?

PH: Of course we do that. It's never the main aspect of our work because during documentation, we have the next project already. We never really invested or put a spotlight on this process. That's why we are not represented by galleries or not visible on the internet. We were invited more by social science and technology, the art market.

RT: How do you see your visibility in the art world and the art discourse?  What is your relationship to it?

PH: We were never really interested in being hyped in the art world. I often experienced art events as something not so favorable. Especially those lingering and collaborating with big companies or grants. It's always a bit shiny-shiny and double-faced. I rather have our little ecosystem, which is more honest somehow. I think it's important to put more effort into that. Within the lumbung network, there's the idea of having a gallery taking over, as a Marxist idea of what's not only the production, but also the distribution, but of course you need also the contacts and the ability to work within the system. For lumbung, distribution of art is not their core field. They are interested in more aspects. That's why they formed this group. There's also this big shift now toward collectives and socially motivated practices, beside the shiny art market stuff.

Marina Donina: Please tell us more about the collaboration with ruangrupa? Is there some more common ground or motivation?

PH: We met ruangrupa before their tenth anniversary, and they invited us to Indonesia. It was 2010. Since then, we have invited each other to different projects, such as the Jakarta Biennial, the Archipel in√est in Ruhrarea, Sonsbeek, etc. So, we always had some kind of working relationship and friendship.

MD:  And how do you refer to their key values that they always emphasize?

PH: I think humor is a very important aspect of our work. It can be serious, but not necessarily only serious. For me personally, it is very important for life. And then a local anchor. I told you how we develop our artwork. Also, ZK/U is locally rooted in its surroundings. Then, transparency. I'm very transparent now. And I think with the public, not everything can be transparent. That's what I believe. Because it must be understood and read in a way that it can be understood.

It is also difficult not to be simplistic, because sometimes we make things more complicated by adding more layers. There are sometimes too many, and maybe it's too much. In its form, it should be simple again, in its explanation it can be complex.

MD:  How do you see the composition of your collective evolving in future, after documenta?

PH: It's important to be a part of it and an honor to be invited, but also without documenta, we have many things going on, and it adds another layer. It's expanding our network and our knowledge into regions we didn't reach out to before. We will see how it changes our practice for the future. I think one important aspect and the idea of lumbung is that we visit and spend time with each other in the different localities to understand also how the others work. This wasn't possible because of Corona. And that is something I would really like to do. I like to understand a place. I don’t know if you ever can fully understand it, but getting a glimpse by being present is really important.

This interview was conducted on February 4, 2022, via video conference.

Philip Horst was born in Hamburg (1972) and lives in Berlin. As co-founder of KUNSTrePUBLIK (2006) and ZK/U Berlin (2011) he has worked as curator, artist, and researcher.

Regina Tetens is a freelance curator and art producer, based in Berlin. She currently works for ART+COM Studios.

Marina Donina is an art curator, based in Zurich. She is currently enrolled in the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, MAS, at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.


[1] The House of Statistics is a building complex in the Berlin district of Mitte at Otto-Braun-Strasse 70-72. It was built from 1968 to 1970 as the headquarters of the GDR's Central State Administration for Statistics. After German reunification, federal German authorities used the building until 2008, and was unused after that.

Until 2017, the building was owned by the German State, who wanted to demolish it and sell the site. But as part of the Capital Financing Agreement, the Berlin Senate was able to acquire the building complex. Together with several other initiatives and administrations, a basic renovation will take place and a broad subsequent use is planned.


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