2015 Type: Archive Matter

Berlin’s specific situation – a divided city in the custody of and guarded by the occupying forces, a western island in East Germany surrounded by walls, heavily subsidised and highly political, stronghold of the student movement and the squatters’ scene – was repeatedly the subject of nGbK projects. It was and is not about merely portraying various discourses and camps but about active involvement in cultural-political matters.

One prototype for both interests – one the one hand, narrating a social history and on the other hand, expressing concrete political demands – was the exhibition project Berliner S-Bahn with the subtitle Gesellschaftsgeschichte eines industriellen Verkehrsmittels (1982). The exhibition, which was shown in the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, focussed on the desire to heighten public awareness of the S-Bahn in West Berlin. It also aimed to highlight the historical, socio-cultural, aesthetic and ecological, but, above all, the political significance of this means of public transport in the divided city, not least to resist the city government’s plans to “modernise” the S-Bahn by abolishing it.

While the S-Bahn served to reflect Berlin’s position as a divided city and take a critical look at efforts to renew it, the focus of most exhibition projects was on what Wolfgang Müller called Subkultur West-Berlin. Along with independent spaces and projects, these also included cultural-political struggles for visibility and support. In order to raise public awareness of “basic cultural activities” 1 the working group Berliner Kulturplätze formed in 1981 and produced a total of five exhibitions in the years that followed. The working group “hence stood up for decentralised artistic efforts which [had] hitherto been unjustly neglected by official Berlin cultural policies.” 2 In addition to realising these projects, the group formulated concrete demands and demonstrated possible solutions. For example, to mark elections to the city parliament, political parties were presented with what were called Kulturelle Prüfsteine (Cultural Touchstones) – a discussion paper that demanded a “change in the hitherto practiced concepts and methods and a much-needed re-orientation of cultural and art policies as implemented to date” 3 .

Celebrations marking the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin in 1987 also sparked intense controversies. A working group of the nGbK had conceived the exhibition Mythos Berlin, which aimed to capture the myths, projections and reflections triggered by the industrial metropolis that is Berlin, used the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof in a specially constructed building on the grounds of what was left of it. The opening had to take place under police protection due to protests from the left-wing/anarchist scene. In response, nGbK held the photographic exhibition Schlaglichter – Schlagstöcke. Aktionsraum Straße. The makers of the exhibition wanted to negotiate areas excluded from the ceremonies marking the city’s jubilee. Snaps of squatting scenes or peace demonstrations were used to portray the city and the street as a place of art and create a counter-publicity. 4

Addressing social and spatial changes was what motivated members of the project Baustop. randstadt, – aggressives, nicht-akkumulatives, städtisches Handeln in 1998. The plan was described as “an argumentative exhibition on social city development” 5 and accompanied by a series of events and functions involving discussions, workshops, a video library, posters at bus stops and a series of films. 6

In 2012, Haben und Brauchen realised a series of events at nGbK discussing current cultural-political issues such as property development and the ‘City-Tax’. The idea followed for Ene Mene Muh und welche Stadt willst du?, whereby questions regarding participation in urban development were in the spotlight and addressed in the form of a space diagram and a series of events. The project was realised by the initiators of Berliner Hefte zu Geschichte und Gegenwart der Stadt who – partly in co-operation with nGbK – have released numerous publications since 2016 on the social, cultural and economic changes in the city, including specific aspects such as a the Marx-Engels-Forum or the Legende vom Sozialen Wohnungsbau.

That a look back can help find answers to current issues and conflicts was something that the working group Formate des WIR was aware of when, in a series of discursive events held in 2013, it posed the question: “Which formats were developed by artists in Berlin to open up new space for negotiation within fields of social conflict? Which artistic formats were used to test models of democratic processes? Can their conditions, strategies and modi operandi be transposed onto current processes of societal negotiation?” 7 The focus is “on artistic formations, collective activities and working approaches in 1960s Berlin” 8 , including the KuLeTheater, the Staatsgalerie and the Museum der Unerhörten Dinge.

In order to capture urban changes, exhibitions often used the medium of photography, because photography, as described in the preface to Über die großen Städte, “conserves moments from the city’s history”. 9 In 1987, a working group formed that addressed the field of urban photography and especially the city of Berlin as a protagonist. Deliberately subjective photographic impressions and positions devoted to urban change were central to the three-part exhibition Vom Umgang mit Veränderung (1995). In Peripherie als Ort. Das Hellersdorf Projekt (1999), the phases of German-German upheaval and development in the newest Berlin district, Hellersdorf, were reflected by artistic means.


Anna-Lena Wenzel and Irene Hilden, 2015, revised 2019

  1. Roloff-Momin, Ulrich: preface, in: Kulturplätze. Materialien zur dezentralen Kulturarbeit, NGBK, Berlin 1985.
  2. Ibid.
  3. AG Kulturplätze der NGBK: Berliner Kulturplätze, in: Berliner Kulturplätze 1. Theaterspielen nach Feierabend, NGBK, Berlin 1984.
  4. See „Das ist nichts für Wilmersdorf“, Interview with the NGBK-Arbeitsgruppe, taz, August 12, 1987.
  5. Press release, NGBK 1999.
  6. See AG Baustop. randstadt: preface, in: Baustop. randstadt,- aggressives, nicht-akkumulatives, städtisches Handeln, NGBK, Berlin 1998, p. 3.
  7., accessed February 28, 2020.
  8. Project subtitle.
  9. Cremer-Schacht, Dorothea and Dieter Lange: preface, in: Über die großen Städte, NGBK, Berlin 1993, p. 8.