Artists, Temporality, and the Governance of Collaborative Place-making

By Alison Bain (York University) and Friederike Landau

Work space for artists is becoming increasingly scarce in the city of Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin wall, artists were often welcomed in formerly run-down neighborhoods in order to creatively upgrade them, but their spatial presence in inner-city areas has undergone a transformation. Even though artists continue to play a crucial role in shaping the image and character of Berlin as a creative and open-minded place that attracts tourists, investors and new businesses, in times where both residential and commercial rent prices are rising and gentrification leaves visible marks all over the city, artists increasingly face the difficulty of finding affordable work and living space to pursue their creative projects. In response, various artist-led and cultural workers’ movements have collectivized to find alternatives to market-oriented models of ownership and tenancy. For example, the initiative AbBA – Allianz bedrohter Berliner Atelierhäuser (Alliance of Endangered Studio Houses) seeks to speak back to artists’ spatial displacement.

In addition to these political efforts to create new forms of advocacy amongst artists, individual artist groups and initiatives have started to form creative alliances with local stakeholders. In our article, we explore one such creative, temporary and collaborative encounter between the artist collective KUNSTrePUBLIK who created ZK/U – Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik (Center for Art and Urbanism) and local stakeholders. Engaging planners and policymakers from the local administration in Berlin’s borough Mitte in the neighbourhood of Moabit, as well as multiple other local associations such as neighbourhood development agencies, schools and planning offices, the former train station Güterbahnhof Moabit has not only transformed into a vibrant and multi-use public art space, but also serves as a striking example of a novel collaborative planning approach to temporally-phased stakeholder engagement. While the former industrial site was subject to a public open call to imagine and gather ideas for the future use of the space, once the land was assigned to the artist collective KUNSTrePUBLIK in the form of a 40-year-lease with the condition to exclusively use the space for cultural and social purposes, the responsibility of who takes care of what became disputed. In fact, the artist tenants were left with many maintenance responsibilities to manage on their own, while the local government who still owns the land and provides public park areas more or less withdrew from actively engaging the space. Moreover, the formerly acclaimed open and participatory process which was initiated by the local government revealed to fall back onto a fairly pre-determined, technocratic notion of how to ‘manage’ a space in an ethnically diverse and socio-economically disadvantaged neighbourhood.

The case study of Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik exemplifies how artists and creative workers become entangled in rapidly changing neighborhood developments, which are nested in neoliberalizing tendencies of downloading government responsibilities onto civil society actors and volunteer initiatives. By looking at how, when, and which stakeholders came together to discuss and design the future of a community place, notably equipped with different kinds of visions and ideas for the usages of the space, (institutional) knowledge and capacities like time and money, power asymmetries and diverging understandings of culture become apparent. Problematizing these unequal power distributions uncovers fallacies of stakeholder inclusion and modes of collaborative planning or place-making. In addition, diving deep into the analysis of the different rationales, hopes and expectations of different local stakeholders helps to investigate origins of problems and subsequent points of dissatisfaction and complications to enact policy change and development as well as broader community cohesion. On the one hand, the collaborative engagement between artists and local policymakers and planners reveals the former to not just be creative urban actors, but also to be hard-working, strategic and entrepreneurial subjects who appropriate knowledge ranging from construction to legal contracts to property maintenance. Hence, Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik not only showcases one survival strategy of a particular transdisciplinary art space in Berlin, but also illustrates a larger development of artists and artist-led organizations to extend their self-understanding as active stakeholders of local and urban discourses negotiating and making future(s) of the city. On the other hand, the local administration’s displays an unexpected openness to and aspiration to engage socially, ethnically and economically diverse communities in the process of re-developing a former industrial site into a place for community gathering. This institutional openness reveals the administration’s self-understanding to enact their democratically ascribed mandate to act in the best of the public good, however, their invitation to ask local populations about the future use of city-owned land also expresses an internalized necessity to create accountability and legitimacy in times of increasing urban division and rising skepticism about political institutions. Bearing in mind that Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik is marketed by local politicians as a ‘best practice’ example of how to provision space for cultural and social purposes in the long term, implicit hopes and expectations to learn from unconventional alliances becomes apparent. Emblematic for a shift in consciousness that considers different kinds of expertise, the case of Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik might give inspiration to make urban policies better and more anchored into the needs of the diverse local populations that are affected by these policies.

Reading the collaborative planning process through Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik as an insightful form of collaborative governance encounter – however temporary, informal, fleeting and messy as it turns out to be – makes visible crucial vectors to understand blurring spheres of action for both local state actors as well as artists in increasingly neoliberal urban contexts. Ultimately, by closely examining at what stage of decision-making which stakeholder groups were included and excluded, our article provides avenues of analysis for policy-makers, urban planners, architects, researchers and artist and urban activists alike to understand and critically comprehend the example of Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik with regards to both the successes and failures they have enacted so far.

Read the article here.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Alison Bain is an Associate Professor of Geography at York University in Toronto.  Alison completed all of her degree in Geography, receiving her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2002.  An urban social geographer who studies contemporary urban and suburban culture, her work examines the contradictory relationships between cultural workers, cities, and suburbs with particular attention to questions of identity formation, artistic practice, and urban change. Her research has been published in edited collections as well as numerous scholarly journals. In 2013, she published the monograph Creative Margins:  Cultural Production in Canadian Suburbs and, in 2017, she co-edited the textbook Urbanization in a Global Context.

Friederike Landau is a Berlin-based urban sociologist and critical policy scholar investigating new forms of collaborative governance in Berlin using the example of the city’s cultural and artistic scenes. Studying processes of political mobilization and articulation amongst Berlin artists, Friederike combines approaches of critical urban studies with interpretive policy analysis in order to conceptualize emerging multi-stakeholder arrangements in collaborative policy and planning processes. Unpacking the controversies of these temporary, yet policy output-oriented governance coalitions allows her to theorize new forms of stakeholder engagement that can help to address questions of political legitimacy, transparency and (democratic) participation of civil society stakeholders.


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