Urban Arts in the Ruhr
Bubbling in the Pott

Art as a soft location factor, as a motor of urban development, as a spearhead for education and integration – in recent decades increasingly substantial demands have been made on art projects in public space. How are art and planning coming together in the Ruhr region?

Opening of Pulse Park, an interactive lightinstallation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Westpark Bochum Opening of Pulse Park, an interactive lightinstallation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Westpark Bochum | Copyright: © Urbane Künste Ruhr/Ariette Armella If those in charge had their way, they’d like to remain a Cultural Capital forever, as Katja Aßmann, 42, puts it as she laughs. An architect, she was already in charge of culture in 1999 during the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA, International Architecture Exhibition) Emscher Park and is the director of Urbane Künste Ruhr, the successor institution to Ruhr.2010 GmbH. The founding of Urbane Künste, funded with approx. three million Euros, was preceded by a decision of the Bundesland North Rhine /Westphalia that the activities ignited by Essen’s year as a European Capital of Culture must not simply fizzle out overnight. Now, some of them will be continued under a new label at least until 2014, longer if possible.

In many respects, it seems as though the right person for the job has been found in Aßmann: she is a notorious networker who knows that art needs free space and takes responsibility fort his. Particularly the latter quality fulfils the conditions for constructive cooperation both artistically and in terms of long-term planning, since including art in the region’s development cannot entail implementing it for concrete goals. In that case, there would be scarcely any difference between the two approaches.

Spatialised synapse formation

The structure of Urbane Künste Ruhr is like a rapidly growing network of roots that reflects the character of the Ruhr metropolitan region with its 53 cities, numerous transportation axes and semi-urban intermediary spaces: cavorting under the institution’s roof are the two Art-in-the-Park (Kunst-im-Park) projects EMSCHERKUNST.2013 and ÜBER WASSER GEHEN (i.e. walking on water), the art project “B1|A40 – Die Schönheit der großen Straße (i.e. the beauty of the great highway)” along the autobahn, “Urban Lights Ruhr” with its focus on light-art installations, the “Mobile Labore” (i.e.mobile laboratories), run by artists’ groups and urbanists, and much more. If one considers that any number of well-known and less-known art producers as well as countless other institutions – art associations, museums, universities – are involved in each project, one gets a sense of the phenomenal dimensions of this initiative founded in 2011. To complete the confusion: Urbane Künste Ruhr is simply the art section of Kultur Ruhr GmbH, of which the celebrated Theaterfestival Ruhrtriennale and other comparable events in the area of dance and music are also part.

Utopian special use zones

B1|A40: Honey from the pumpstation B1|A40: Honey from the pumpstation | © Markus Ambach In contrast to a biennale, for instance, in which everything is aimed at a final fanfare, a decentralised and a-cyclical orientation is resulting from this project’s long-term structure: the region is positively bubbling. Nonetheless, the activities of “Kultur Ruhr GmbH” are not solely aimed at the noble goal of cultural promotion. Its slogan is: “Culture through Change – Change through Culture!” (Kultur durch Wandel – Wandel durch Kultur): with the concrete goal of image transformation and new job creation in the areas of the culture industry and tourism.

As for the inevitable call for “cultural beacons” that follow from this, Aßmann has pulled off a balancing act: in addition to projects that fully cover this demand, such as Christo’s installation “Big Air Package” in the Gasometer Oberhausen or the landmarks by high-profile artists at EMSCHERKUNST.2013, enough space for experimentation has been provided, and – very important – space for them to fail as well.

Under the title “Archipel Invest”, for instance, various colleagues invited by the Berlin artists’ collective KUNSTrePUBLIK are working in the district of Vest (part of the Recklinghausen metropolitan area) on the thematic areas of identity, investment, reproduction and implementation. A central instrument here are so called special use zones equipped with specific authorisations apart from economic stipulations. A restaurant in which “conversation leftovers” are reprocessed, electricity-generating spinning bikes powered by seniors with which one can in all likelihood barely get a light-bulb to glow, a soap opera production that claims the entire city as its stage - here the issue is exploration of new societal models in which the needs of the residents take centre stage instead of economic efficiency criteria.

Crossed autobahns

At underground station Eichbaum there was the beginning of the project B1|A40 beauty of the great highway At underground station Eichbaum there was the beginning of the project B1|A40 beauty of the great highway | © Urbane Künste Ruhr Markus Ambach’s autobahn project also provides a good answer to the question of how art can influence the region’s developmental planning: as sensitivity training for urban contexts that are given too little consideration in the usual analysis grids. His exhibition format, a further development out of “B1|A40 – Die Schönheit der großen Straße” (i.e. the beauty of the great highway) from 2010, is exactly tailored to the conditions of the region. The densely-populated autobahn section between Duisburg and Dortmund serves as a concrete location to deal with the numerous thoroughfares that both connect and separate the Ruhr area. 100,000 people live here in the so called construction-free zone forty metres to the left and right of the autobahn alone.

Together with the participating artists, Ambach seeks to make the diversity of the surroundings visible, the history of the village community of Wertacker, surrounded by the autobahn junction Kaiserberg is just as much a part of it as a post-industrial melange of church, bordello, slaughterhouse and allotment gardens near Bochum. The quality and the residents of the places are to be considered seriously in the autobahn expansion planning until 2020. In this way, through art, numerous new encounters and experiences arise at the side of the road – without their having to be explained as being a “motor” for anything.