Learning by Doing by

by 2. 3. 2023

In recent years, we have witnessed our European context become more structured and hierarchical. What has occurred is a normalisation of relationships within Europe’s current borders. If we’re talking about the sphere of contemporary art, this fact is apparent from the transformation of the EU’s cultural politics, its real politics, and also trends within visual art. The artworld is more closely tied to economic factors, whether these take the form of its means of funding or secondarily in the economic conditions of the country in which the activities take place. The situation within Europe is confused because it is usually perceived locally, regionally, nationally or individually – both from the perspective of the future of the Union and the advantages and disadvantages it brings, again perceived economically and on the local, regional, national and state levels. There are also conflicting perspectives in the east and west of the Union, as well as beyond its borders.

The ZK/U centre was founded in the summer of 2012 on the grounds of a former freight railway station in the centre of Berlin, in the municipality of Moabit, near the Westhafen harbour. Moabit has been linked to the history of the workers’ and revolutionary movements from the period of early industrialisation after 1820 through the emancipation of the working classes in Berlin after 1861. This history is automatically complemented by the important prison history in this part of the city. In the post-war period, when Moabit was in the British sector and close to the border with East Berlin, the district was – similarly to the more popular Kreuzberg – inhabited by immigrants, and even after the reunification, it remained a neighbourhood with a high concentration of residents of non-German origin. Questions of society, politics, emancipation, and urbanism, as well as their local reflection, civic participation and, finally, specific realisations have been an important drive in the development, organisation and planning of this part of Berlin-Mitte – the central district of Berlin. Of course, with this many unanswered questions, confrontations and frictions have come about. These belong to the active operation of every European metropolis in ourneo-liberal economic environment, where the interests of the public (the citizens), the state and private capital mix.

In this situation, the activities of ZK/U – the Center for Art and Urbanism – are a serious attempt at actively participating in the development of the city and planning for its future. The involvement of the diverse inhabitants of Moabit which ZK/U activates is also essential. Their rent contract for the former freight station will run out in 2052. Their agreement with the city of Berlin is generous, allowing for a completely different kind of planning, realisation and output than those of similar cultural, artistic and social institutions elsewhere in Europe, where stable existence cannot be ensured in a horizon of ten years or less. ZK/U’s programme takes various forms – from long-term residential artistic and research projects which run throughout the year to one-off events such as Speisekino: individual artistic presentations connected to the culinary skills of the artist in residence at ZK/U.

ZK/U’s activities are structured following themes –“Discourses”– and the practical operation of the individual projects and their success or otherwise in the community of inhabitants in Moabit or other parts of Berlin where ZK/U is active (such as the House of Statistics on Alexanderplatz). Discourses direct activities towards global problems – cultural politics, politics in general, sustainable ways of life and civic questions in the urban environment: (self-)education, available housing, inclusive, participative, cultural, artistic, and educational activities, migration and so on.

Cities – urbanist environments – are specific places with particular problems and inhabitants. ZK/U thus connects global problems with local practice. Their approach is strictly horizontal and aims towards civic and cultural independence and engagement in an otherwise predominantly vertically organised environment.

Another of ZK/U’s outlets are “Projects”, which are “artistic, research-oriented, socially significant, and often international experiments which can become Formats”. The “Fact-Finding Committee” and the “House of Statistics” are among these. I want to give more attention to the “Fact-Finding Committee” (UA; Untersuchungsausschuss), as its product is an “intermedia zine” of a representative character – a publication we can refer to and proceed from.

The UA’s project is based on three months of work by a voted committee which applies itself to topical urbanist themes in Berlin. ZK/U selects topics it considers important and in the public interest. The resultant zine is a kind of working declaration; a manifesto, and is conceived as a recommendation for other interested inhabitants, politicians and active civic initiatives in the sense of “what is to be done?”. Three issues have been published so far. The first on the topic of the Green Commons (2018), the second on the year 2052 (2018–19) and the third on Solidarity (2019).

The 2052 issue focuses on the creation and retention of a common, open and inclusive public space in today’s fragmented and divided society. The issue is, in fact, a summary of alternatives and possibilities with regard to the ‘90s and later. The scene of ‘90s unified Berlin is cited, with the simplified English title translating as “The First Ideals of Berlin”, or “The Ruined Days”, detailing the Tacheles club/cultural house and other such centres. ZK/U is the direct successor of these cultural, artistic and social activities, all of which were gradually stifled, transformed or recycled. We live in a period of recycling – waste, climate, vintage, hipster culture, coffee culture, consumerism, conservatism, etc. – dark humour. The 2052 issue is a compendium of the possibilities of engaged socio-cultural work in the present, at a time when these efforts in the urbanist centres of Europe are practically impossible or exhausted. In most cases, a coexistence of culture from the ground up with current administration is impossible in European cities. With some exceptions. One more distant European example is the Cyklopen project in Högdalen in Stockholm. It has no direct relation to the history of ZK/U. Even so, it is a project which adapted to the contemporary local European environment following more or less the same logic after several generational failed attempts at existence and social acceptance. Just like ZK/U, it is a space that is self-organised and open, not a priori restricted to any social or cultural group. It also appeared in a similar district (though in a different city). Högdalen is a neighbourhood which accumulates various generations of immigrants who later integrate, whether they are from Eastern Europe, the Near East, or another part of the world. It is therefore multicultural and inclusive. The Cyklopen project is the first place of cultural contact and social inclusion in its locality. In many respects, it substitutes for the apparatus of the state, city or municipality. Cyklopen is a unique project built on pragmatism, discussion and compromise. It is not radical within our central-European parameters – it is radical in relation to contemporary reality, where the “is or isn’t” position is predominant. In the case of Prague, for example, projects such as this one have not survived and are currently non-existent.

Back to the existence and function of ZK/U. In comparison with Cyklopen, it has much greater ambitions and operates on a much greater scale. With a view to the size and dynamic of the city of Berlin (and the district of Moabit), ZK/U is a meaningful and sophisticated project which has its own back door – it can dynamically change based on the transforming social and political situation, answering new and newer questions of a social, cultural and artistic character. Its rental contract runs out on the 29th of February 2052, but it can be extended. Art itself plays a dominant role. But according to statistics from ZK/U sources, 1 artists are less cooperative and less resistant to the changing social and economic order of society. May ZK/U be active well beyond 2052!

Lexa Peroutka is a visual artist, curator and writer focused on critical art practices.

1 See Elena Mazzi‘s work within the Magic Carpets framework at ZK/U Berlin, “Solidarity” project zine issue, The artist, after all, is (not) working (ZK/U Press, 2018)

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Lexa Peroutka