Almost every story about Berlin after the fall of the Wall begins with a description of abandoned and vacant spaces and derelict sites around the city’s center. These were declared “Freiraum”—unencumbered space that was free of the pressures of exploitation and bureaucratic control because, during the political transformation of German reunification, the ownership status of many properties remained unresolved. The central foundations of the capitalist system and its utilization of space temporarily ceased to function.
This situation is often viewed as the starting point for Berlin’s ability to establish itself as a cultural capital. Self-organized, collective, and interdisciplinary cultural entities combined with inexpensive and easy-to-rent spaces offered a multitude of new opportunities for producing, presenting, and generally conveying art. Whereas the post-reunification narrative of Freiraum assumes that such free space simply exists and only needs to be suitably utilized, repurposed, and appropriated, I wish to reference Henri Lefebvre in making a counterargument: space—and thus also unencumbered free space—does not exist per se, even if de facto empty space is available. For Lefebvre, space is the product of social processes. These include political decisions, social and economic developments, and even subjective perceptions.
In this respect, space is not just a matter of physical space and built architecture; rather, considering the social processes associated with its creation, it takes on a cultural and temporal—and thus alterable—dimension. Central to the processualization of space lies a political dimension because the associated power relations should not be thought of as rigid constants. Space in Lefebvre’s view is part of an ongoing social and political negotiation process that, as it were, creates it in the first place. Urban Practice comes into play here because it shapes social processes and thus also participation in the transformation of space and in its societal power structures.
In terms of cultural policy, a look back at the 1990s leads to the conclusion that the extent of vacant properties available during the post-reunification era was not alone sufficient to produce the cultural developments. Equally important were the non-profit orientation of ownership structures, sufficient financial funding for artistic work, and an understanding of art as participation in social processes. These tenets should be central to the creation of future cultural policy.
Annette Maechtel has been managing director of nGbK since March 2020, and a member of the Initiative Urbane Praxis within the Rat für die Künste (Council for the Arts) since September 2020. Several of her exhibition and research projects have dealt with Berlin as a political and discursive space. In 2018 she completed her dissertation at the Institute of Theory at HGB Leipzig. It was published by b_books in 2020 under the title Das Temporäre politisch denken: Raumproduktion im Berlin der frühen 1990er Jahre.