A Critical reflection on the exhibition “Sharing space(s)” at feldfünf that took placeduring the 3rd Month of Photography-OFF in Berlin in November 2018

The exhibition “Sharing space(s)” deals with the supposed democracy of the public sphere and starts from the exhibition space itself. The conceptual pair Shared Spacestands for a planning philosophy that was originally developed in the Netherlands in the 1990s. The aim of the model is to make the public road space more liveable and equal for all participants. But what actually constitutes a public space? Since ancient times, urbanity and democracy have been inextricably linked. Urban public space goes back to the Attic democracy in the 5th century BC and is still a model for democratic societies today. But is the model of the ancient meeting place still relevant today? Public space seems to have become much more of a political field of tension and its use and shape will have to be renegotiated in the future. The first question to be asked is whether all people have access to public places at all, can they influence and help shape it? One thing is certain: it is a democratic achievement and can only be maintained through a culture of mindfulness, tolerance and enlightenment.

© Natalia Kepesz, from the series Sonnenbaden / Sunbathing, 2017
© Natalia Kepesz, from the series Sonnenbaden / Sunbathing, 2017

In the centre of Berlin there is a new space for art, interaction and exchange: feldfünfis located on the border between Mitte and Kreuzberg, in the immediate vicinity of the highly guarded Jewish Museum. Every day, busloads full of tourists are unloaded here. In the quarter, 70 percent of the inhabitants live in social housing with a migration background. Since 2017, condominiums have been added to the quarter. feldfünf starts exactly there and wants to create a space for encounter and exchange. The institution sees itself as a cultural platform with a specific interest concerning the public sphere and the urban space as well as intercultural and collaborative projects with the surrounding communities. The aim of the initiators is to assume responsibility for sustainable urban development. feldfünf last proved how this can work as one festival HUB of the Make City Festival in the summer of 2018 and currently with the Night Screenings series, showing films and video works between sunset and midnight, examining questions about public space and the public sphere and highlighting relationships that shape social coexistence.

The exhibition “Sharing space(s)”, curated by Cornelia Siebert, addresses those places that are inscribed with a contradiction between urban planning ideal and the reality of life. The photographic works of Daniel Seiffert, Natalia Kepesz and Sebastian Wells are set in a satellite town, look at public pools and leisure areas, and refugee camps. All these public spaces are inhabited and used by people with very different backgrounds.The public pool stands for freedom, longing, substitute holidays and is a place of aimless nostalgia. For her work “Sunbathing” (2017), Natalia Kepeszvisited open-air pools shortly after opening or before closing, in order to catch people in moments of loneliness. “These places were created to give city dwellers the illusion of escaping the city and being closer to nature. But there are parts of the city where nature is merely tamed,” says the photographer. Artificially created areassuch as parks and open-air swimming pools are democratic places, where all people are equal and free. Everyone is (almost) naked and therefore equal, sticks (more or less) to the rules of the public recreation area and dreams his way into the distance. It’s about more than just a little cooling down on hot days. In many German cities and communities, the public pool is a public space in its most original sense: a place of encounter, in which the rich and the poor, the right and the left, foreigners and locals meet. And yet this place is more about escaping from the city and from other people than anywhere else. In the city in the midst of people. Daniel Seifferttakes a different look at the satellite city with his portraits of the residents in his work “Trabanten” (2013-2017). In 1962, Willy Brandt (Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, 1964 – 1987) laid the foundation stone for the ambitious housing development project called “Gropiusstadt”— a satellite city for 50.000 people. Designed by the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, among others, it was initially celebrated as an icon of modernism before struggling with a bad image for decades. 90 percent of social housing was rented out and the site was regarded as a social hotspot. It became known beyond the borders of Berlin, which happened mainly because of the book and the movie “Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo”. The movie portrays the drug scene in Berlin in the 1970s and centres around 14-year-old Christiane who lived in Gropiusstadt. Daniel Seiffert was born in East Berlin in 1980 and has his very own connection to Gropiusstadt. “I myself grew up on the other side of the Wall in the 1980s, not 100 metres as the crow flies from Gropiusstadt,” he says. In 1989, after the fall of the Wall, he went by bicycle to the high-rise housing estate he had dreamed of behind the Wall. But he was surprised. Instead of a drug juggernaut, he met a mixture of stuffy pensioners and a high proportion of migrants living peacefully together. Almost one third of the residents is over 65. The myth of the place the series tries to record plays a decisive role. In the work “Utopia” (2017-2018) by Sebastian Wells, public space becomes global. Tent cities, isoboxes, barbed wires and surveillance cameras have become synonyms for a global phenomenon of the 21st century: Refugee camps that have been temporarily erected, the dismantling of which is not fixed and thus represents an eternal temporary solution.  For his huge project, the young photographer travelled to 22 places in the world to visit refugee camps. The sites of “Utopia” are located in peripheral areas in Kenya, Jordan, Greece, Turkey, but also in Berlin Tempelhof and Amsterdam Bijlmerbajes. What they have in common is that they were established by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, founded in 1950, which has committed itself to “protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. “ 

© Daniel Seiffert, from the series Trabanten, 2013-2017
© Daniel Seiffert, from the series Trabanten, 2013-2017

Sebastian Wells´ two-part work consists of satellite images through which we first approach the camps from a distance. In the second part of the work, he zooms into the places in his photographs and moves there as a participating observer. The title of the series refers to the idea of utopia, which comes from ancient Greek and means non-place. There is no better way to describe these places, which are characterized by order and control. A temporary area is built in places that is offers people just enough space to survive. Although these camps often exist for years or decades, they never become a place, a city or part of the map. And this despite the fact that the space changes by inserting a provisional architecture. “Its inhabitants are crisis-trained masters of adaptation. The refugee has become a new category of human being, the refugee camo is the political stage on which he has to play his part” says the photographer. The work makes it clear that these public places are not only invisible, but also not accessible to everyone. 

The exhibition opens the sobering reality and indicates that the demand for a public place to be democratic is rarely fulfilled. When the foundation stone for Gropiusstadt was laid, there was a vision.  The shelters for refugees are created out of necessity, quickly, improvised and without the time and capacity to create a shared space. What defines “Sharing Space(s)” at feldfünf is that – unlike the museum white cube – a relationship is established between the photographic works and the concrete architecture and the space in which they are shown. The ambiguous title further points out that finally the exhibition is less about the concrete places rather it is about the role of accessibility, interaction and participation in public space in general. The ideal that public space is there for everyone will remain utopia, just as it wasn´t reality in the historic city. But spaces such as feldfünf contributes to establishing public space and democracy as an expression of social and cultural coexistence.

© Sebastian Wells, From the series Utopia, 2018
© Sebastian Wells, From the series Utopia, 2018

Anne Wriedt

Installation view “Sharing Space(s)” feldfünf 2018 © Sebastian Wells

Anne Wriedt is an art historian, curator and writer with a focus on contemporary photography. She is curatorial assistant at Braunschweig´s Museum for Photography and co-founder of Kunstverein gegenwart in Leipzig, an institution working sight-specific and focussing on contemporary art, discourse and performance. Anne is based in Berlin and Braunschweig.

Featured image: Installation view “Sharing Space(s)” feldfünf 2018 © Sebastian Wells

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