an old conversation – plus addenda: with Philip Horst, ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics
by Juli Cordray
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet with one of the Co-Founders and Directors of ZK/U, Philip Horst. The meeting took place a couple of months before the opening of the 10th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, for which ZK/U hosted one of the four permanent exhibition venues. We spent some time on the subject, as well as KUNSTRePUBLIK’s (the artist collective behind ZK/U) hosting of the 5th Berlin Biennale in their open-air Skulpturenpark. On the day we met, ZK/U was holding a conference on how initiatives give public spaces a new use, with a specific focus on the Flussbad in Berlin – an initiative that aims to restore the river Spree and make it safe for swimming by implementing a filtration system that functions on the basis of plants. These ideas, as Horst pointed out, offer ways of working differently with the city and the community – a major focus of ZK/U’s work, and one that is as pressing as ever. As we sat outside on a sunny spring day in the lively, open space around ZK/U’s site – surrounded by communal gardens and playgrounds – Horst expanded on this impetus further in an introduction to his and KUNSTrePUBLIK’s work:
We’ve been working together since 2006, and for the last 9 years my output has gone exclusively into the group. Our group name is KUNSTrePUBLIK and we have multiple, varied roles: we’re artists, curators, managers, fundraisers, lobbyist directors and craftsmen with a focus on the public space. These objects or situations often refer to platforms for bringing people of various backgrounds together. Perhaps the largest sculpture of them all is ZK/U! We have 14 studios, one of which is the Ständige Vertretung (Permanent Representation), which is solely for artists and project spaces from Berlin. Next to that, we organize various other projects and events that take place here on site …
One example of work that we’ve done recently within the frame of Hacking Urban Furniture, is Stage To Go. For that project, we decided to take cars and find different uses for them as pieces of furniture – cars in Berlin are moved an average of 15 minutes a day. That means that the rest of the time they’re just standing there. Therefore, we put a mobile stage on a stationary vehicle for people to use as an extended space. You could also lift the car with a pulley and thereby produce electricity. This electricity could then be used for a speaker system installed on top, allowing an open platform for exchange and performance in public space. These kinds of experiments with sites and infrastructures give context to our artwork. At ZK/U, we develop formats to address not only the art scene, but rather use our art as a vehicle for bringing together parties of different interests – as a space of both research and practice.
This year, we picked up the conversation to delve more deeply into ZK/U’s program and initiatives and follow up on recent projects.
About the Stage To Go project that you mentioned, could you perhaps give some examples of the kinds of performances/exchanges that took place in this space? Where do you see the potential of opening up such platforms for performance on a broader scale – i.e. what could its potential impact be beyond the immediate/transitory event?
Philip Horst: In the sense of an expanded concept of performance, we want to use art not only to initiate artistic but also structural questions that have social relevance. Examples of this are the Artist Displacement Program and the Untersuchungsausschuss (“UA” = fact finding committee). The Fact Finding Committee is a 4-month process on a Berlin spatial, political issue; the findings and results are summarized in a final publication. The Artist Displacement Program is a long-term process where artists work within organizations for at least half a year.
The V.I.P. Box that you can find in front of the ZK/U building also carries out performative mediation work, especially in cooperation with young people. The V.I.P. Box (formerly Executive Box) by Adam Page & Eva Hertzsch deals with the appropriation of public spaces by its users. Its permanent installation in the park area in front of the ZK/U building aims to start a dialogue between residents who use the park and artists who use the Z/KU building on topics such as property, privilege and just city. Since February 2018, it has stood permanently on the park grounds of the ZK/U and was first exhibited at documenta X in 1997.
On a different, though perhaps related note, can you talk about the radio project: Threads *ZK/U? There seems to be a lot of work and discussion around the radio medium within the art context recently. Why is it an interesting platform for you in extending your research and practice?
PH: Threads*ZK/U is the sister-studio of Threads radio (London). It builds on the dynamic interconnectivity of the ZK/U Berlin, echoing its drive towards meaning-creation and disruption in the urban sphere. Threads is a new radio station based in Tottenham, London, which will curate a unique selection of upcoming, cutting-edge music, alongside providing a platform for a range of socially and politically focused talk-based content.
The radio project complements our idea of creating an interesting offer both for the neighborhood and for an international audience. With the radio project, we can document processes that take place at ZK/U. It’s a possibility of documentation and mediation.
The topic of gentrification, real estate development, precipitously rising rents and lack of accessible space is critical at this moment in Berlin. There have been initiatives forming to mobilize against this threat, and KUNSTrePUBLIK itself holds a long-term lease on the ground occupied by ZK/U – preserving it as an open space for dialogue and exchange in the cultural sphere and keeping it out of the speculative market. Are there any insights you could share with regard to your experience and collective findings in terms of other strategies and modes of mobilizing?
PH: A large site, which is currently in our focus, is the Haus der Statistik. The 40.000 qm block in the center of Berlin is an abandoned building next to Alexanderplatz, which was supposed to be turned into office spaces to be sold to the highest bidder. Through an artistic action in 2015, it came to a turn in events which led to the collaboration with other artists, urban planners and architects: our initiative with the name Initiative Haus der Statistik was founded. Now, it has turned from an initiative into a cooperative. Since early 2018, we are in close dialogue with four public institutions (Koop5) from Berlin to develop the Haus der Statistik as a place for collaboration and non-commercial activities, since everything else around Alexanderplatz has been commercialized. That way, we try to connect different people and groups who would normally not collaborate with each other. It’s how we create a new place. The same applies to the ZK/U, where we combine popular event formats with complex and critical topics and questions. FUSSBALLABALLA is a prime example for this. On one side of the screen we show the World Cup game that is taking place within the stadium, while on the other side of the screen we report the protests outside the stadium, as was the case during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
This one’s open: anything else you’d like to say/add/question or highlight?
PH: We are currently working on the question of how publicly commissioned art can create sustainable structures. This includes not only excluded social groups, but also other species such as animals and machines (computers). In this way, the STATISTA project strengthens the real space and tries out what could later become permanent in this place. Here, art acts as a mediator and builds bridges to other social groups that do not actually come into contact with art. Urbanism is otherwise often a cumbersome subject and has a similar language, but through art there is a vivid translation guide. This is what characterizes this project and our work at the ZK/U.