Conversation with Eylem Sengezer on January 18, 2022, via Zoom
Anna-Lena Wenzel: When and how did you come to the nGbK? Do you recall your first impressions?
Eylem Sengezer: I realized my first project at the nGbK in 2012. Anna Bromley and Michael Fesca asked me to join a project group that organized the exhibition The Irregulars. Economies of Deviation. The people in the group didn’t know each other before and it was their first time working at the nGbK, so our knowledge of the society’s structures was limited. We knew there was a general assembly where projects are presented, but we didn’t know about the structures and grassroots decision-making processes, the role of project groups and the coordination committee, or the responsibilities involved in realizing a project. So it was a learning process on various levels—with respect to collective work, and because it was our first experience of curating on a large scale. On average, nGbK projects have a budget of 50,000 euros, which is quite a lot if you’re doing something like that for the first time.
ALW: In addition to the exhibition, you also published a glossary …
ES: Yes, our application included an exhibition and a glossary, and at the general assembly we ended up taking first place. This was a huge surprise, because unlike other projects we had no contacts or networks within the nGbK. Which, admittedly, is often helpful. The theme of the exhibition—the relationship between art and work with a focus on post-Fordist discourse—was clearly popular. We also organized a symposium in cooperation with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung—in the end it was quite a program.
ALW: Was it an advantage not to know in advance just how much work it would be to realize all of this?
ES: Fortunately, we all had a relatively large amount of prior experience working in other institutional contexts, but we still underestimated the workload. At the time, my life situation allowed for this extra unpaid work, which is not the case today. There is a major discrepancy between time spent and payment received. As in many other project groups, this led to conflicts. But even if I had know beforehand how much work it was going to be, I would still have applied, because it was an important experience I wouldn’t want to be without. I learned a great deal for my curatorial practice and for myself personally.
ALW: In the ten years you’ve been associated with the nGbK, has this relationship between time invested and remuneration changed for the better?
ES: You mean regarding the way I deal with it, or in institutional terms?
ES: After that first project, I realized three more. What certainly did change is the way I dealt with it. The more experience of working at the nGbK you have, the easier it is to understand certain processes and to make careful use of your own resources. Looking back at the first project, we were very ambitious and we realized a great deal, of high quality, in a short time. The subsequent projects were easier to organize because I had a better knowledge of the institution and its procedures. Right after The Irregulars I did the metabolism project The Ultimate Capital is the Sun, followed by Wissensspeicher and the anniversary project 50 Jahre neue Gesellschaft. In thematic terms, then, I focused more on the institution itself. That was partly due to an interest in engaging more intensely with its history. I had always understood the nGbK as a political place, not least because it was founded in the spirit of 1968. But what exactly did this political quality mean and how has it changed in recent years?
Studying the history of the nGbK in the process of digitizing and structuring its archives for the Wissensspeicher changed my view of the institution. It gave me a better understanding of the different phases in its history, with their contradictory notions of the political, and of the fact that the way its structures, responsibilities, and roles are understood is and always has been subject to negotiation.
In recent years, the question of structures has been especially present, due among others to the upheavals caused by multiple changes of management. Looking back, the period around 2014/15 sticks in my mind as especially full of discussions, not least due to the vacuum created by the departure of the management. At this time, the coordination committee had to step up, and I perceived it as very active and committed, including with regard to the relationship between paid and unpaid work. There was even talk of completely getting rid of the office team.
ES: Yes, it was discussed by a minority of members, and it was not a new discussion. My view of the institution also changed with the various positions I occupied: after my time as a member of project groups, also attending the coordination committee, I was a directly elected member for a short period. Last year I was elected to the steering committee. In the past, I saw the steering committee primarily as a representative body, but it also addresses many structural issues for which the coordination committee has no time or capacity. Thanks to my new role, I now have a better understanding of certain necessities. Because the nGbK is currently making the transition from Lottery funding to being funded by Berlin’s Senate—something was never certain and that took fifty years to achieve—the institutional issues take on a new form because the transition brings new constraints. There is also the question of how the nGbK can redefine its structures to make the grassroots model work better. How do we translate these structures into a different context? I see a disconnect here between structural transformation on the one hand and, on the other, the interests of project groups which, understandably, are often focused on their projects. Sometimes there’s a lack of communication about exactly what the individual committees do. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s also important.
ALW: You’re currently on the steering committee with Ingrid Wagner and Ingo Arend who, like yourself, have known the institution for a long time and, crucially, from the inside. That strikes me as good for the interplay of the various committees.
ES: In recent years, steering committee members were often chosen for their representative qualities. It makes a difference whether or not you’re familiar with the work of project groups and their interactions with the office team. As a member of the steering committee, I’m active in various working groups—on diversity/anti-discrimination and on location—and I think it’s important for the steering committee to keep in touch with the other committees and working groups, because they initiate important debates about the society. Personally, I see myself more as a supporter and facilitator than as a representative, among others because I think the project groups themselves are best able to represent and present their work outside the nGbK. In terms of politics the situation is slightly different; there, the steering committee is needed as an intermediary, especially in the current transformation phase. Also, it very much depends on each individual how they define their role. There’s the structure as defined by the nGbK statutes—but how this structure is brought to life, how things are realized and organized, that’s something different.
ALW: You’ve already mentioned that the specific content of these tasks is subject to negotiation. Would you say that this structural adaptability and this openness to new actors is what makes the nGbK special?
ES: Yes, many things can be discussed and negotiated, but it depends on having a knowledge of structures and a certain amount of experience within the organization. When you’re new, it’s hard to engage with these structures, but there’s an understanding that criticism is allowed and that once criticisms have been expressed, negotiation is necessary. That makes the nGbK special. In other institutions, structures and individuals are not criticized with the same openness due to the existence of dependencies. Such dependencies and hierarchies of power don’t take the same form at the nGbK, being organized more horizontally, for example between longer-standing members and those who are relatively new. Sometimes it can also depend on the level of linguistic access.
ALW: You work for Diversity Arts Culture (DAC) and you have an extensive knowledge of how cultural institutions deal with discrimination.
ES: An institution must always reckon with criticism. It must deal with discrimination and exclusion, whether it wants to or not. Discrimination also takes place in the cultural sector, with a number of cases becoming public in Berlin in recent years. At Diversity Arts Culture, our impression is that the response to discrimination or criticism is often silence. In a few cases, there are designated contact persons or structures like a works council or equality officer, but complaints are often dropped out of fear or ignorance, or a response is delayed “until the air has cleared.” For this reason, DAC founded an independent complaints office for Berlin’s cultural sector last year. It offers psychosocial counselling to those affected, plus a preliminary legal assessment. To date, the cases reported to us have most often involved racism and sexism.
ALW: Can you describe what you do in the Diversity Working Group?
ES: Following an accusation of discrimination at the nGbK in 2021, there was a discussion in the coordination committee, an event was cancelled, and all members were informed by email. We discussed the fact that there was no complaints procedure and that discrimination and abuses of power were not being adequately dealt with. Among other things, we organized a training program and sought advice on how to set up a complaints procedure for those affected by discrimination and abuses of power. It was relatively easy to found the working group, but not to find members willing to do this work on a voluntary basis. But precisely on this subject, the members play a crucial role. The success of the Diversity Working Group depends on whether and how all of the bodies within the nGbK make this issue their own.
ALW: Although the structure of the nGbK is based on grassroots democracy, there are still power relations, working not directly through specific posts but via knowledge. In my view, working out how to discuss and tackle this fact is the challenge posed by this process of engaging with discrimination. This is not a simple task, because it depends on fostering an understanding of what is perceived as discrimination in the first place.
ES: Interestingly, since we’ve been working on this, several instances of discrimination have been reported to me, including racism and sexism. So I would say the nGbK is now in a learning process, understanding how abuses of power and discrimination manifest in its own structures. These are important first steps—recognizing things and naming them ...
ALW: ... and developing an awareness of the issues ...
ES: Exactly, and that calls for an ongoing engagement. The issue is named by individuals, but not viewed as a structural problem. Highlighting this structural dimension is the task of the working group. At the nGbK there is no director who could unilaterally determine what form a complaints procedure should take and how it should be implemented in structural terms. The Coordination Committee makes it easier to raise the matter within the institution, but all of the committees and groups have to engage—and that’s not so easy. In this respect, the decentralization of power poses a challenge.
ALW: Because responsibilities are not always clear and the decentral communications structure sometimes makes it feel like one is speaking into a void?
ES: Yes. Now it’s a matter of getting as many people on board as possible. This issue may not spark waves of enthusiasm, but it’s part and parcel of any art society that considers itself political.
ALW: How do you see the nGbK today with regard to diversity?
ES: The nGbK is still a relatively white institution. In the ten years I’ve been working there, far too little has changed in that respect, for example among the office staff, but also in the project groups. Relations with the neighborhood on Oranienstrasse have also often been discussed, but the nGbK hasn’t managed to create lasting links with migrant communities there—or just in isolated cases, not on an institutional level. There are still various gaps to be filled.
ALW: In our conversation, Christiane Zieseke said that issues are addressed at the nGbK before they enter the mainstream. She also spoke of the nGbK not really being taken seriously within Berlin’s cultural sector. You’ve worked at different cultural institutions in the city, so you know the outside viewpoint. What’s your impression?
ES: I have a similar view. The nGbK is perceived as an art venue with a plurality of voices. But instead of charismatic curators, its discourse is shaped by individual projects and artists. Politically speaking, things are different—the nGbK is an important institution and is perceived as such. I think the nGbK is pioneering in the way art institutions generate access and participation—the nGbK is both an important place of learning for young curators and artists, and a place where things can be tried out. Larger institutions with their ossified structures and hierarchies are lagging behind. In this respect, the nGbK could be a model for other cultural institutions.
ALW: For me, the collective aspect is very important. The fact of being obliged to work as a group of five people, which automatically leads to a more decentral approach based on the need to negotiate. I see a general trend here—with ruangrupa, the curatorial collective for the documenta, or the Turner Prize being awarded to a collective in 2021. On this point, the nGbK is ahead of its time.
ES: Alternative directorship concepts is a big topic in the cultural sector at the moment, it’s even mentioned in the recent coalition agreement, although in most cases it doesn’t go beyond two co-directors. The nGbK is a good example of how an institution can be organized democratically, with the collective as a central aspect. This has the effect that power is not concentrated in a single person, which in turn influences the way people work together and the way themes are chosen and developed.
The collective aspect is also the reason why I stayed at the nGbK. When I’ve worked for hierarchical cultural institutions that leave little or no scope for participation in decision-making, the nGbK was always a welcome alternative. Which doesn’t mean I have no criticisms of the nGbK. But being able to play such a shaping role is something special, for example being involved in deciding to distribute fees fairly on the basis of solidarity.
ALW: But that also means friction, it means sharing responsibility for the organization and being able to deal with shifting boundaries between paid and voluntary work.