The WCW-Gallery as a work of art in public space
A description of the exhibition space in Mokrystrasse 5 using terms by “Büro Berlin”. By Oliver Bulas
The art space and studio project “WCW-Gallery”, which is located in the Wilhelmsburg district of Hamburg opened its gates in spring 2008 with a conventional art show.
Only half a year earlier Björn Beneditz, Martin Blumenthal, Oliver Bulas, Jan-Peter Heusermann and Daniel Megerle joined as a group of tenants.
Beneditz, Bulas and Megerle are artists themselves.
Blumenthal works at an art insurance company, while Heusermann is employed at a production company for documentary films.
Björn Beneditz was the leading power behind the search for rooms in Wilhemsburg. At that time he already lived in the district together with his girlfriend Isabella Stellmann.
Their goal was to find cheap space and using it as studios while giving possibility for occasional exhibitions.
In the first place, Wilhelmsburg attracted the loose group because of the low rents in comparison with the average prices in Hamburg - while at the same time located close to the town centre.
Above that, the surrounding social conditions were a heavy issue together with the city government politics towards this district that influenced the decision for the location.
Wilhelmsburg is the name of the second biggest river island in the world after Manhattan.
Its economics were traditionally dominated by the port. As population grew quickly, it made up a society quite isolated from the northern side across the river. Thus Wilhelmsburg was an independent town until it was incorporated into “Groß-Hamburg” during the time of National Socialism.
After World War II a vivid urban structure developed again (highly frequented business streets with grocer’s shops, services, five (!) cinemas). This liveliness faced a continuous decline since the 1970s and emigration (old established companies closed down, none of the former cinemas exists today). Since that time the number of immigrants grew and the streets of Wilhelmsburg today are inhabited by numerous cultures. There are people who call the enriched dynamics “inspiring” and others calling it “soft locational advantage”.
Today the town government plans an international building exhibition in the year 2014 on Wilhelmsburg-island.
It is taken as an occasion to enhance the weak infrastructure of the region.
The city of Hamburg invests into renovations of houses and attracts students and persons engaged in the cultural sector with concessions and benefits. The leading intention is to initiate the process of gentrification, finally meaning growth of prosperity in the area.
It seemed especially right to be present in this unsettled therefore delicate situation and, if possible, to intervene.
In-between the first room proposals, there was an attic, which turned out to be inappropriate though. In spring 2007 the final choice was a flat in Mokrystrasse 5 with app. 45 m2 (three rooms) plus an adjoining shop (app. 12 m2), which were originally not connected.
The flat was officially void since years, but had been used as an illegal habitat repeatedly in the meantime. There was neither toilette nor bath. The rooms needed refurbishing at a basic level. The house, in which the WCW-Gallery is situated, mainly is inhabited by migrants, some of them living in precarious conditions. Strangers inhabit the basement of the house regularly. They use piled up bulky waste as bivouac. There is a cooking burner. There is no WC.
The renovation works started in early summer of 2007 and they took nearly one year. The money for materials, tools and salaries came exclusively from the private budget of the persons involved.
The Landlord dispensed them the part of the rent, which they spent on the renovation works. Repeatedly discussions came up about how the former shop with his big front window should be employed after it had been designated as exhibition space. One concept was to use the exhibition space only occasionally besides the studios. The other was to start a continuous curatorial work in the space. Björn Beneditz was the first to move into his studio. The works in the other rooms took longer than expected.
Early 2008 it was clear that the shop room would be used continuously for exhibitions, now connected with the flat through a narrow alleyway that is reminiscent with its proportions of Bauhaus architecture.
The interior was newly plastered, painted white and the floorboards were abraded and also painted white.
They installed neon lamps. Their aim was to create an exhibition space that would anticipate the kind of development, which the city government had in mind for Wilhelmsburg; a space that would make up the greatest contrast with its surroundings; a time machine – a white cube. “Büro Berlin” would call it “viscous”.
It might be said that the concept of the “white cube” represents the art business of today. A contemporary museum or a gallery aims to lift the artworks out from the sphere of everyday live and emphasize the autonomy of the works by their putative neutrality.
In contrast it is known that already Duchamp showed proof that the specific exhibition situation, the context and its reception constitute the artwork.
He did this for example by the “ready-mades”, which were elevated to works of art.
Following this path of thoughts, the invitation email for the opening of WCW-Gallery on March 8th 2008 gave a small historical excurse about the “white cube”:
Like manifested in the flesh, pictures in the mediaeval times showed the presence of saints. Paintings were permanently fixed in an especially dedicated space.
As the portability of pictures increased, the sacred space also became subject to change: it simply became attached to the painting. The shift continued on the premises of the bourgeoisie and as a result magnificent frames were disappearing more and more from the pictures.
After all, modern paintings are presented mostly unframed in museums and galleries that look like white cubes. The spaces and buildings are the new frames now. They adopted the function of sacred space.
This text intentionally demystified the way the space works. Beneditz and Bulas thought about possibilities to regard the creation and pursuing of a (social) space as their artistic work. This led Beneditz to finally give up his studio in order to concentrate on running the place. Above that, they wanted to go outside the rooms with their work, into public space.
For the opening night they built a platform together with Blumenthal and Heusermann. It was arranged on the street in front of the shop window and it mirrored the outline and the surface of the room beyond the window glass on the street. It was conceived to open up the space towards the public, but it turned out that the white-painted structure differed so severely from the surrounding area that it became unclear whether the white colour would not rather tend to reflationary spread all over the place.
To create the thin (>Büro Berlin) that means a vital moment, orientated towards the present, there was no need of such chunky interventions. Already the first night at the WCW-Gallery showed how a special atmosphere occurred among the visitors. It seemed like a whiff of stimulated social gathering, a heteronomy for a few hours.
It nearly appears as if art was capable to create a different world, contrary to the theory of author Michael Lingner. It remains unclear, whether the interior design of the “white cube” leads visitors into new spheres or the presupposed “distance from home”, which would make them stay longer; it was neither clear, if the conditions in the district created a good environment for such gathering or the low price for alcoholic drinks at the bar - leaving aside the question how much “alternative” this temporary alternative community actually is.
“Thin has to be achieved anew all the time.” (Büro Berlin) That was the reason why Beneditz and Bulas were immediately doubtful of their own approach and why they thought it should be revised. They wanted to create something new and they wanted to take risks. But most of the time these declarations remained intentions. Through the continuous questioning of the project they found themselves in an ambiguous relationship with their own undertaking. Questions came up: What kind of relationship to the mentioned dwellers in the basement should one have? How to treat the situation that one sits up here and thinks about aesthetics while others are sitting underneath the floorboards with very basic needs? Is one to bear the blame, when these persons would be banished from the basement? Does one have to seal of from the exterior because of the burglary (during renovation works an industrial borer had been stolen and later during the opening hours an Apple laptop)?
How should one relate to people from the neighbourhood? Would it be possible to arouse their interest? Would one destroy the fundaments of one owns existence at the place, if one adds to the upgrading of the district?
Most of the questions have not been answered properly until today or there was yet no choice how to deal with the situation.
Above this there is the fact that the individual members do not share common interests and intentions about running an exhibitions space. Partly the ideas diverge widely or become partly contradictory.
On one hand there is the tendency to regard the space as an open, aesthetical hangout. On the other hand there is the intention to establish a professional gallery business. The public comments of the WCW-Gallery and its actions navigate in between these poles. Already in the very beginning it was clear that one would not act as a homogeneous “group”. Instead there was the intention to obtain dynamics from the friction of contrasting positions.
The studios were more and more taken up by the exhibition space. Daniel Megerle soon sorted the WCW-Gallery, as he was not interested in running an exhibition space while being a painter in the first place. Possibly he was also not very convinced by the concept of the project. Finally, Bulas works in the last remaining studio.
The Gallery as a stage
When I read the text “Ein Produktionsbegriff (A term of production)” by Büro Berlin, I noticed several similarities and differences between Büro Berlin and the WCW-Gallery.
The aim of Büro Berlin is to make the basic conditions of artistic production visible: “The quality of an artwork lies fundamentally in the fact that it does not hide the structure of its becoming.” (p. 21)
If WCW-Gallery was regarded as a work of art, it would be necessary to point out
that there is no way to learn something about the history or local processes when visiting the space. For the visitor it could be certainly very revealing to learn about the history of the space and for the operators of the rooms it could be an act of reflexion.
Not only the history remains opaque. The “communication structures and the decision structures” (from: Michael Lingner: “Notwendigkeit und Möglichkeit von Selbstbestimmung in der Kunst heute” (Possibility and necessity of self governance in art today)) are kept shut from public. The question comes up, if the operators want to appear more interesting, keeping them selves covered.
Looking on the website, the names of the operators do not appear anywhere. Neither any hint can be found what artists can do, if they want to present their works at the space. Partly the structures can be described as mafia-like. The editions by artist Jonathan Monk for example were sold to friends of the operators already before the opening of his exposition. Yet there is no way to get any information about selection processes and criteria on which artists are selected. Thus here it is still essential: “viscous remains viscous” (Büro Berlin, p. 21). In contrast, only few local artists were selected. The reason is that one wants to keep distance from the Hamburg art-clique.
On the other hand the selection of artists happens independently, as only the opinion of the operators is decisive. The WCW-Gallery maintains it self only by the self-exploitation of its members, no money is being received from external sources, except for sales of art. From the very beginning they decided against funds from the IBA (International building exhibition) or the culture department.
Under the heading “production” one can further read in Büro Berlin’s text: “One succeeds to work under circumstances of production to that extend like intentions remain visible under the conditions.” (p. 21)
At this point the problematic composition of the operator group with their unequal ambitions shows up.
The intention of Beneditz and Bulas to use the space as freer and more public space of conversation seems to become reality only during the exhibition openings of a generally regular gallery business.
The intention to run an independent space could be realised against the adversities of costs though. There is doubt if any intentions can be visible at all in the project regarding the diffuse spectre of opinions.
For Büro Berlin artistic work is also “work at the conditions of production”. This occurs in the organisation of artists, institutions and companies, it “brings people together” (p. 22). This could be a starting point for the WCW-Gallery to actually alter the surrounding reality.
The roles among the cast inside the process of production also have a big impact. Especially if those actors are being considered who are the least replaceable. These are persons not deployed by WCW-Gallery like residents, passers-by, pupils, craftsmen and others alike. It would be appropriate to align the production process with the irreplaceable roles.
A different issue Büro Berlin questions is whether works (“products”) are being experienced during their process of production or in the state of a finished, presentable artefact. We can use the term “live” from Büro Berlin for the case of the WCW-Gallery. It describes a situation of congruency of production process and process of reception. Moments like this can be experienced during the opening nights. WCW-Gallery offers a stage for social processes. The persons in the audience are actors at the same time. What happens, when people from other districts come to Wilhelmsburg to visit an exhibition? Would their view on Wilhemsburg change on the other hand, after they have visited the WCW-Gallery? Do the visitors create anything new by their presence in the streets of Wilhelmsburg?
A particular kind of socialisation develops during the nights at the space. Like Büro Berlin, the WCW-Gallery is not interested in creating a reproducible object (though objects are shown and sold). The interest is more in creating a stage for “live”-moments. A stage is the “zone of potential effectiveness” (p. 23). This means the liquefaction of conditions at this point and the possibility of something “thin”, depending on the mood of the actors.
A possible conclusion can be that the intentions of the operators could be expressed much more consequently, if they would have been published.
A greater transparency of the decision processes and better exterior communication could lead the “artwork” WCW-Gallery to new qualities.
Objectives and intentions should be laid open to work on them. If open-minded conversations with other artists, companies and institutions in similar circumstances took place, it would be possible to reflect on the own conditions of production and to enhance them.
Hamburg, February 26th 2009