Today, the concept of the project space harbours unprecedented economic, political, and structural possibilities. While the accumulated prize money of the Berlin Senate’s Project Space Award, now in its fourth year, is nearing the mark of one million Euro, formats such as the Project Space Festival and other collaborations (e.g. with Berlin Art Week or KW Institute for Contemporary Art) provide project spaces with prestigious public forums on a national and international scale. This is accompanied by an ever-growing recognition in the sphere of politics, as awareness grows of the central role the independent arts scene plays in Berlin’s cultural architecture. Following decades at the existential periphery, the idea of the project space is now enriched with new notions of power and possibility.
At the same time, however, there may be signs that the very idea of the project space has become fragile. Taken as a whole, seemingly singular fragments begin to complement one other in a particular manner which suggests a slow erosion of the concept at the very heart of the project space itself.
In April 2015, the Cultural Affairs department of the Berlin Senate announced the long-awaited jury decision for this year’s Project Space Award. Among the seven prize-winners was the Grimmuseum, a project space that – through its participation in international art fairs and its tendency to represent artists – seems to bear an unusual affinity to the commercial gallery model. Notwithstanding the well-deserved respect for the Grimmuseum – which merely serves as a point of departure for the thoughts developed here – this particular jury decision has left many in the project space scene wondering. It put into question one of the fundamental principles of the project space – the claim to be non-commercial. For years, project spaces had managed to keep their distance from the market – either quietly or with a sense of triumph. But what if a project space begins to take part in international art fairs? What then remains of the difference between the project space and the gallery? This question has led to a sense of unease among those who identify with the – largely unarticulated – independence of the project space.
At the same time, the drive towards more visibility on the already crowded centre stage of the Berlin art scene often draws project spaces into various collaborations, such as those with Berlin Art Week or KW. Yet this apparently confident move away from the public periphery also seems to entail a veiled threat to the autonomy of the project space. What is being sacrificed in order to become a part of it all? Were we naïve enough to think it would cost us nothing?
“Mehrwert” (in English,”surplus value”), is a notion appearing in the open call for One Night Stand – a collaboration between KW and The Network of Berlin Independent Project Spaces and Initiatives, the most renowned and successful lobby group for Berlin’s project spaces. Note the term “Value” – instantly, there is far more at stake than simply the hows and whys of any particular collaboration. Once project spaces and institutions begin merely to channel the magic of a strategic “value” of their combined powers, something is lost. Over the years, project spaces have intuitively understood themselves to be a brooding third space of potential next to the institutional and commercial agents. The project space’s traditional curiosity for its own potential – for the essential creative and critical power it harbours – may be at stake here. Instead of this, project spaces and institutions are drawing closer to one another in the search for mutual enrichment, a sense of togetherness, a “something more” – tightly wrapped in one another’s embrace. However, discussing the relationship between the project space and other stakeholders always already entails the question of whether it is possible or indeed necessary to carve out a third space between the institutional and the commercial There is still, I maintain, a profound power in this utopian idea for all involved.
The term “project space” has been rendered more open to interpretation in recent years; one could even say that today, it is more free. Directly connected to this observation is the fact that galleries and institutions have likewise changed in their self-perception. Commercial galleries have responded to the pressure to no longer simply sell, but to also contribute to discourse, by introducing thematic exhibitions and distinctly curatorial formats. The persistence of an anti-elitist Zeitgeist has prompted institutions to flirt with the perceived periphery. The very title of the One Night Stand – an unhappy marriage between joke and understatement – is indicative of this shift. It is far from clear whether these changes are negative or positive – yet if such changes are swept under the carpet of catchy concepts, as they increasingly are, then their implications go unnoticed, and their inherent strengths and weaknesses remain unarticulated.
The consequences of these new realities can be seen at play in the statement of this year’s jury for the Project Space Festival. The statement may be read as an honest declaration of defeat in the face of a project space scene diluted through differentiation to the point where it is no longer recognisable; a brave unwillingness to laugh away the problems that these shifts are causing:
“As part of this jury it has been shown how challenging it can be to answer the most basic questions in relation to project spaces, namely: What defines a project space? Should only the programs of the project spaces be assessed, and if so by what criteria? Or is it an assessment of the conceptual orientation of the project spaces in the context of the cultural and political situation in Berlin? (…) Due to the given time frame, the jury had not been in the position to develop the necessary criteria, as this can only be the result of a lengthy discussion process. Therefore, the jury was limited to a results-based selection by more individual, subjective criteria. The jury recommends the festival operators to continue to formulate their goals and intentions and discussions. A sharpening of criteria and parameters, at least in approaches would be useful for next year.”
What is expressed here is the clear sense that it is becoming increasingly difficult to articulate what a project space actually is. There is a growing understanding that the currently existing descriptions and criteria no longer produce a meaningful definition. What we have long called the project space scene has turned into something else.
This means that the powers and possibilities that have accumulated around the notion of the project space still persist around an ever more hollowed-out shell. It is yet unclear what possibilities may emerge from this situation, which opportunities for re-articulation might present themselves to us. Is it necessary to sharpen the definition of the term ‘project space’ again, to bring order into the troubled identity? Or are we rather called to develop a new, affirmative understanding of the term, out of the new realities as they present themselves to us? Whatever the way forward, we will have to reassure ourselves of the idea of the project space. At the very least, this must be accompanied by a questioning of ourselves: What is it that we want to achieve – we, who run or operate within project spaces? Who do we want to be?
To facilitate continued dialogue along these lines, the publication “On the end of the project space. A draft for a possible new beginning.” will be published on August 30, 2015 as Neue Berliner Räume’s contribution to the Project Space Festival 2015. Neue Berliner Räume has in the past worked with a broad variety of partners, among them institutions and galleries as well as universities, project spaces, independent curators and other initiatives. Our own work as a nomadic project space stands to us as an example of the changes undergone to the notion of the project space in recent years – changes that are often left unformulated or are accompanied by only theoretical discussion. It is thus not our goal to describe these changes in a purely negative light. Rather, we hope to initiate a discussion that is long overdue.