Public Space

2015 Type: Archive Matter

Art in the public space means two things: taking art out of its institutional space and expanding it into the city, and making it available to an audience that is not specific to the art world. Artistic practices that enter the public space can take various forms and have various intentions. The project Gröpelingen 1878–1978 (1979) aimed to create a wall painting and hence a classical work-of-art-on-the-building. In many projects, spaces traditionally used for advertising are utilised for artistic and political messages: for example, there was the poster campaign by Barbara Kruger under the motto Dein Körper ist ein Schlachtfeld (1991); posters by GENERAL IDEA on the topic of AIDS and Valie Export’s large-scale and provocative Aktionshose: Genitalpanik. One focus of nGbK’s activities in the public space is on the underground: in showing art in Berlin’s U-Bahn system. Why the U-Bahn? Because, as formulated by Marc Augé, this “[is] the place of places, the place of confrontation, a social concentrate, a kind of public square.” 1

This focus emerged in 1992, when nGbK assumed the organisation of the project Kunst statt Werbung. The project continued the East German tradition of a competition which was held for the first time in 1958 and called on entrants to design posters for peace. The prints were exhibited under the title Frieden der Welt on the walls of the underground train station Alexanderplatz. Exhibitions were held at irregular intervals in the subway station under changing titles (Berlin – Stadt des Friedens, Kunst und Literatur für den Frieden, Denken an Revolution) up to the year 1989. The competition was also continued after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In April 1991, a working group organised by BBK-Bildungswerk formed under the name Kunst statt Werbung. It moved to the nGbK in 1992 and received funding from the city administration.

Since 2001, the group has gone by the name Berlin Alexanderplatz U2. In 2008, advertisers were using the subway station at Alexanderplatz, making a continuation of the competition in its existing form impossible. After extensive deliberations, nGbK decided to hold the competition under different conditions, without a fixed station.
Up to 2011, the new working group Kunst im Untergrund and its project U10 – von hier aus ins Imaginäre und wieder zurück “referred to the social and collaborative dimension of art in the public space […].” 2 In the year 2012, there followed the open competition Vorne fahrn, followed by Nach der Arbeit in 2013 and Was ist draußen in 2014. Since 2014, members of the working group have been active in the large residential area of Berlin-Hellersdorf. The station urbaner kulturen is a discursive event and exhibition venue and a place where artists and residents can work together. It is complemented by a green space adjacent to the underground station Cottbusser Platz, which is a prime example of the public and free venues for cultural and leisure activities which are increasingly coming under threat from development.

On the one hand, art in the public space reaches many more people than it does when it is put on show in the white cube. On the other hand, it is more vulnerable and first must fight to gain attention. In Katalog U10 – von hier aus ins Imaginäre und wieder zurück, Karin Rebbert sums up: “The art in the subway project by NGBK, which has gone through various changes over the years, counted (tens of) thousands of viewers every day and, at the same time, left its own essential mark on specialist discourse about art in the public space and urban developments.” 3 At the same time, Leonie Baumann notes that “the history of reception of art in the public space […] has not been a success story up to the 1990s.” 4 It could neither meet its own high expectations of changing society for the good with its enlightening nature nor did it attract the broad acceptance or interest of the public. As a result, differentiated expectations, knowledge and abilities of the audience were given more attention: “Exhibition-makers no longer work for the visitors, but with them.” 5
This approach was also adopted by the exhibition project integrale Kunstprojekte, which was held at various locations in 1993. The art projects “involve [people] in two ways: motivated by content-related concepts, they advance into social fields and are, depending on the respective system, situational works. They usually have a fixed, limited target group and involve their observers as participants.” 6 That means: “Art in the public interest takes over from art in the public space.” 7 The problem: these participative projects restrict the public that they address. The more concretely and intensively certain sections of the public are involved, the more exclusive it becomes. A challenge that must be confronted time and again.


Anna-Lena Wenzel, 2015, revised 2019

  1. Augé, Marc: Kunst als Übergangsritual, in: U10 – von hier aus ins Imaginäre und zurück, NGBK, Berlin 2011, p. 19.
  3. Rebbert, Karin: Grußworte, in: U10 – von hier aus ins Imaginäre und zurück, NGBK, Berlin 2011, p. 15.
  4. Baumann, Leonie: Zurückbleiben war gestern, in: U10 – von hier aus ins Imaginäre und zurück, NGBK, Berlin 2011, p. 30.
  5. Baumann (2011), p. 33.
  6. Kliege, Melitta: Mit der Kunst aus der Kunst, in: integrale Kunstprojekte, NGBK, Berlin 1993, p. 13.