History of German Project Space Against It or For It

“Artists of the world, set up your own gallery!”
“Artists of the world, set up your own gallery!” | Photo (detail): Gareth Williams, CC BY 2.0

In 2011 the German word “alternativlos”, which means having no other (political) alternative, was voted “Non-Word of the Year” in Germany. What might well apply in the world of politics, however, is even more the case in the world of art – there are in fact lots of alternatives, even if in the end everybody is tilling the same soil. This is a look at the history of German project space.

Dagegen dabei (Against It or For It) was the title of a collection of texts on self-organisation strategies that appeared in Hamburg back in 1998. The title really could not be more appropriate when describing the relationship alternative exhibition spaces have with the less alternative institutions of the art scene. These two spheres are in the broader sense both art-market savvy and critical of institutions and for quite a long time now they have in fact been closely intertwined. Any attempts to differentiate between them, using words like “against it” and “for it”, like “inside” and “outside”, like “on” and “off” fade into a blurred haze.

This was clearly illustrated back in the 1970s when criteria like “exhibition participation” or “reviews in journals” started to appear in the artist rankings of business magazines. The decisive factor is no longer the actual number of works sold, but more the presence of the artist on the art scene, to a certain extent the symbolic capital accrued within the art scene’s operating system.

The art world as a dynamic network

Any structural separation between “institutional” and “extra-institutional” spaces is unfortunately not very much help, either. Even today it is still the German Associations Act that provides the statutory framework for most of the exhibition and event activities that come into being on the artists’ own initiative; according to the Act only a mere seven members are necessary for the setting up of an association or club. Before you know it the little, voluntary club has turned into a municipally subsidised undertaking. If, instead, the talk is of “artist-run spaces”, examples immediately spring to mind in which it is not the artists running the place, but more the gallery owners or curators.

There is, however, much more to all this than mere conceptual difficulties in drawing distinctions. The art world is clearly depicted here as a dynamic network of personal, cultural and political interests, whose nodal points are continuously being focused anew, dissolved and moved around. The ideas of what exactly should be done differently in an alternative context as opposed to a mainstream context are equally heterogeneous: sometimes the emphasis is on the quest for independent distribution channels, sometimes on the desire for less representative exhibitions. Collective forms of cooperation, criticism of the art market or a form of activation that cuts across the political divide are further focal points.

Phase one - independent production

Looked at from a bird’s eye view the relationship between the established scene and the various counter-movements can be vaguely divided into three decades: the 1970s, the 1990s and the present day. Buzzwords that were around in phase one might be, for example, the Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK/The New Society for Fine Art, Berlin) that was set up in 1969 and even today it is still Germany’s only grass-roots level, democratically run art association. Another key phrase from the period might be the Produzentengalerie - producer’s gallery. The exclusion mechanisms prevalent in the regular running of the art business were combated with new room for manoeuvring. “Kill your gallery owner! Artists of the world, set up your own gallery!” were the slogans on a poster created by Dieter Hacker for the opening of the 7th Producer’s Gallery in Berlin in 1971.

Phase two – invitingly different

Two decades later the focus was on networking, above all in Berlin at the beginning of the 1990s there was an absolute boom in project spaces. The range of terms defining what art could or should be was further extended - even more than in the years before - by process-oriented working procedures, some of which no longer required a manifest exhibition space. This prompted the owners of the major art houses to invite more and more artists to exhibit their alternative projects in their spaces, on the one hand to give them a forum, on the other to bathe in the glow of their critical potential. The claim that a counter-public could develop on the art scene soon faded into thin air - getting yourself noticed from an outsider position proved to be a feasible way to end up on the inside, at the very heart of the art business. Vice-versa, alternative formats were adopted more and more by dedicated galleries and institutions. This apparent fusing together might well have been the reason why vociferous opposition to the establishment no longer plays an important role.

Phase three - caught between the city and the living room

With the onset of the 21st century an awareness for one’s own history was spawned on the rapidly growing project space scene. Alongside collections of texts like Dagegen dabei there were also numerous symposia, for example, wirsindwoanders, an event that has taken place in Hamburg since 2006. Other examples would be events like Haben & Brauchen and the Netzwerk freier Projekträume und -initiativen (Network of Free Project Space and Initiatives) in Berlin. On a communal level they reflect on the role they have played, and still play, in the cultural life of the city, they demand more public funding and discuss questions on such issues as quality management or strategies on how to avoid being exploited for purposes of urban development or marketing.

Nora Sdun, co-operator of the Hamburger Trottoir (an association in Hamburg), has also observed a definite trend towards pragmatism – a trend that has taken some of the players back to the format of the “salon”. This “salon”, however, is clearly less exclusive – possibly due to it being propagated by the social media – than its historical forerunner from the times when the bourgeoisie was just starting to emerge. “Setting up a new project space means a lot of effort, the rents are high and the chances of being subsidised or sponsored are slight. Why should a free project space have to compete on an absurd level with an operation that is much better equipped. Any opposition to the circus of the art world is equally as ridiculous. That is why artists are now holding exhibitions in the comfort of their own homes and inviting their friends to come and take a look. Never again will they be as free as this – all sitting round the kitchen table.”