Kampnagel in Hamburg
Plenty of Room for Independent Theatre

Kampnagel | Photo (detail): © Antonia Zennaro

Twelve thousand square metres of built area, six former factory buildings with room enough for a total of 1,800 people. There are also nine rehearsal stages, a cinema and a restaurant. It is an incredible site, located in the Kampnagel in Hamburg district of Winterhude, and it is Germany’s largest independent performance and production venue. “At first I found the buildings terrifyingly large”, admits Amelie Deuflhard, who has been the indendant at Kampnagel since 2006; “now I find them simply fantastic”

Venue of the independent scene

For the past almost thirty years the production halls of the former machine factory “Nagel & Kaemp” have been used as a venue for contemporary performing art. In 1981, after the closure of the factory, the buildings stood shortly before demolition. They initially served as a temporary home for the Hamburg Schauspielhaus and were then, after several days of a protest festival held by independent Hamburg theatre groups, given to the independent scene as a performance space. Since then the venue, framed by large harbour cranes and the lazy lapping of the Goldbekkanal, has experienced a certain assignment to the experimental and avant-garde sphere. In fact, however, the scope of the Kampnagel programme is far broader, ranging from productions of the independent Hamburg theatre scene, youth theatre and promotion projects for the young to international guest performances and co-productions. Thanks to the variety of halls and performances spaces, Kampnagel “can show underground artists, experimental projects and international stars parallel and simultaneously”, says Deuflhard. “This balancing act between the experimental and established artistic work draws a very diverse audience and awakes a curiosity about the unknown in each case.”

Performance, concert, installation

The Kampnagel programme presents a range of aesthetic positions, trends and formats. Here the political activist Stéphane Hessel held his final lecture, and here Laurie Anderson can perform as well as the choreographers Sidi Labi Cherkaoui and Boris Charmatz. Here you can see productions of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, She She Pop, Showcase Beat le Mot and Lola Arias as well as the last concert of the British garage band The Streets, but also installations by Bill Viola, Santiago Sierra or Tino Sehgal. Kampnagel is the venue for performances of Rimini Protokoll, Ligna and the Geheimagentur as well as the up-and-coming Hamburg off-scene. “All in all, we present around 100 premieres, first productions and events each season, which attract annually over 150,000 visitors to Kampnagel”, says the homepage. In the last season, for example, 548 performances were shown, of which about half were home productions, co-productions or cooperative events, and the other half guest performances.

Since the 2012/13 season, the Hamburg Department of Culture has increased institutional support to 4.4 million euros. In the previous season, it was 3.9 million euros. The total budget for the 2011/2012 season amounted to 7.6 million euros, made up from additional external funding and ticket and rental revenues. Independent scene productions come to Kampnagel with their own funding. In addition, the intendant has regularly to do with fundraising. Applying for external funds, public and private, is part of day-to-day business; it is largely the responsibility of the dramaturges because external funds are generated directly from the artistic concepts. In preparing the programme, says Deuflhard, she often needs “the courage to say: Yes, I’ll do it”.

Outside the entertainment zone

Since 1998 the once detached factory area has been surrounded by office space that attempts to lure tenants by advertising itself as Media Park Kampnagel. Part of the proceeds from the sale of boundary land went into the redevelopment and reconstruction of the factory buildings. Kampnagel acquired its present structure and slipped into the back courtyards. But banners flutter on the roadside and large posters point the way through the less than charming office block. And no later than the summer festival, which has been taking place annually since 2008, Kampnagel will spread through the city. Then there will be not only performances and events in the factory area itself, with open-air tango, skywards flying swings and recycled scrap cars, but Kampnagel will also rebel against its perceived remoteness so completely outside the entertainment zone. Then it will be everywhere in the city, at the stock market, at the Kunsthalle, at the Deichtorhallen and at the Alster.

Even if the transport links to the culture factory are not really the best, Kampnagel can draw on a typically metropolitan audience. “Our audience has a much more open structure than that of a state theatre”, notes Deuflhard, not without some pride, and adds: “We have a theatre audience, a dance audience, a music audience, an art audience. Structurally, we work rather like exhibition curators. With many different productions that have to be placed within a larger context. We create guidelines, festivals, focal points and so not a repertory programme”.

The rough charm of industry

If you are yourself amongst the Kampnagel audience, you are captivated again and again by the industrial charm of the buildings, which has survived all the restorations: the oversized foyer, the almost boundless spaciousness of the rooms, including the rough, curtainless, exposed walls, the creaking bleachers – all this is Kampnagel. “A job in the theatre is one of the few jobs where you can express yourself critically. Art venues are diverse places where out of necessity you must keep learning your whole life long. The foil to this would be the row house development, symbol of the uniform place”, says Deuflhard, describing her inspiration – and gazes over the huge factory halls, without any front yard.