Boris Sieverts was born in 1969, studied art at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and subsequently worked for a number of years as a shepherd in the French Massif Centrale, as well as at architecture bureaus in Cologne and Bonn. He has been guiding locals and tourists through the grey zones of sprawling conurbations since 1997 with his alternative urban travel service, Büro für Städtereisen.
In truth, Boris Sieverts usually tends to be ‘embarrassingly touched’ by theatre. Nor would he ever call himself a performer. He feels much closer to architects and town planners. ‘The place I guide people round is the star – certainly not me,’ he says. Boris Sieverts organises city tours to the diffuse margins of civilisation, those no-man’s lands that are left behind by structural change. Would it be better to say he researches, stages or analyses what he shows his customers? ‘I draw complex pictures,’ he says, ‘the landscape is the material.’ In remote industrial wastelands where people hardly go of their own free will, he discovers exotic beauties and gifts them to his travel groups. ‘The only thing that I stage is the lunch,’ he says. Sieverts’s tours rarely last for less than six hours, and there are also two and three-day trips. Of course, given that they are intended above all to be entertaining, it is important to eat along the way. So, while doing his research, he looks for a prominent place with a fine view where he can arrange the white-covered table for his twenty or so fellow walkers, who tuck into sausage and kale casserole, roast pork with crackling or a barbecue. ‘Many people have told me in the past that the day in the north west of Cologne was their summer holiday,’ recounts Sieverts. It strikes one as hardly credible amid motorway feeder roads, gravel pits and paths that peter out in the middle of nowhere. From time to time, Sieverts, kitted out in full hiking gear, makes passing comments on the aesthetic and sociological peculiarities of the landscape, the built structures or the patterns of local residents’ movements.
The group is led through undergrowth, past railway lines, wild rubbish dumps or forgotten barracks, while he also gravitates towards sleepy, unsympathetically developed suburbs. Indeed, he is interested in all the niches and no-man’s lands that modernity produces. And the urban motorway from the north to the south of Cologne, that crime of urban planning constructed in 1957 when a six-lane asphalt corridor was smashed straight through the city centre.
Although Sieverts has worked in the Ruhr District, Paris and Warsaw, it is probably no coincidence that he is based in Cologne, of all places, on a semi-dilapidated factory site close to the right bank of the Rhine in Deutz, where he is surrounded by media agencies – but also such down-to-earth businesses as bicycle mechanics and joinery workshops. Even the way to his office seems like one of his city tours, taking the visitor along a huge, wide, apparently endless road past a port used by river traffic, between boat houses that have seen better days and weather-beaten gateways.
Cologne, this battered, razed city that was rebuilt after the war with such rampant ugliness, suits him well. People in the drama world started to take notice of him when theatrical city walks were coming into fashion. In 2007, Sieverts held an exhibition at the Cologne Art Club. The director Rainer Hofmann went on one of the associated trips, then hired him for the 2008 Politics in the Independent Theatre Festival, which Hofmann was curating. This was followed by a tour created for the AusFlugHafenSicht (ViewFromTheAirPort) project at the 2008 Theatre of the World Festival in Leipzig. What Sieverts would really have liked to do was fly his tour group from Leipzig to Paris. Air services had just started on the route, and the airports displayed astounding parallels – but no one could be found to sponsor the flights. So he restricted himself to leading a Country Outing with Airport in Leipzig, on foot, by bike and in horse-drawn carriages. During this tour, he demonstrated how airports tear landscapes apart, interrupt roads, flaunt their public facades – yet allow their hidden sides to fall into disrepair – and are built on the least valuable land available. He brought out how this is happening in parallel at airports all over the world and fostered a quite new awareness of precisely these kinds of change.
He worked for the Goethe-Institut in Warsaw as part of a project called The Promised City, conceiving a two-day walk around the city’s recently built estates. These ‘gated communities’ for the nouveaux riches are separated from other neighbourhoods by fences and guards, look like the black strips on a barcode when viewed from above and shoot up out of the ground unhindered, but are constrained within strict geometrical shapes. At night, the participants slept in tents – they had to take their own sleeping bags.
Boris Sieverts needs about two weeks research to make his meticulous preparations for a tour – he sets out with topographical maps, searching for an ‘inner logic’ and, at the same time, the most meandering routes possible. For it is important that his walkers feel as if they are in a foreign country and lose their sense of direction, even when they are just a few kilometres from home. This allows the holiday effect to set in as people gain a sense of distance and perceive new facets of environments they are used to living in. Sieverts offers about twelve tours each year, roughly half of which are commissions. He started running trips for the public in 1997. At first, it took a while for word to spread, but there are now dedicated fans of his work. ‘The main problem,’ Sieverts says, ‘is that no one can imagine having a good day out between Poll and Ossendorf,’ a couple of unremarkable districts on the peripheries of Cologne. But it is important to him that two key principles of tourism are upheld: His tours are designed to have recreational value and enable people to get away from their everyday routines. He would never allow a journalist to come along for just an hour. It has to be all or nothing: ‘I try to make each individual tour as long as possible, so that an approach it is initially possible to see as an alternative reality becomes at some point the only way of looking at the world.’ He admits the way he directs his travel groups’ attention therefore involves a little bit of brainwashing as well. Although ultimately, he feels, this allows them to come much nearer to the truth of the landscape.
Residency at the project Kirunatopia
2011, Kiruna, Sweden
Hamburg - Reise in ein unbekanntes Land (i.e. "Hambur - Journey Into an Unknown Country")
Seminar at the Hafencity Universität Hamburg, Studiengang Kultur der Metropole
Within the frame of Offenbacher Architektursommers
Ruhr 2010: “A 40 – Eine Reise” (i.e. A 40 – A Journey)
“The Promised City”
2010, Goethe-Institut Warsaw
“AusFlugHafenSicht” (i.e. ViewFromTheAirPort) with raumlabor
2008, Theatre of the World Festival, Halle
“Der Kölner Norden (Reise in die raue Stadt) ”(i.e. The North of Cologne (Journey into the Raw City))
2008, Politics in the Independent Theatre