In the fall of 2018 I spent two months in Berlin having an internship at Neue Nachbarschaft // Moabit, an initiative which was founded in summer 2013, and now has grown into a large community of over 200 active members both with and without refugee backgrounds. The main goal of the initiative is to create places where people can find each other, where they can make social contacts and live togetherness. It is an educational project and a social and cultural centre for international neighbourhood. As the members of NN state on their website: We do not just campaign for those who have fled, we campaign with those who have fled. NN aims to build a new type of community based on equality and respect as well as common experience of learning from each other. Marina Naprushkina, who is a major coordinator of NN gives a deeper insight into the work of the initiative in the interview, which can be found in this issue.
Neue Nachbarschaft has several sections based on different activities in which people could participate: lectures, workshops, readings, concerts, German lessons, child care, cooking events, Arabic courses, talks, studio. It’s not an academic forum, but rather a knowledge transfer of lived experience in 30 cultural formats made by both sides – by new and old neighbours. During my visit I took part in the work of Studio 26, an art studio that gathers people of different ages and professional backgrounds to practice art in any media available on the spot.
Luckily enough, it was during the time of my internship at NN, that the exhibition Everything! For! Everybody! Utopia today/How to save the world at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin by Studio 26 and NN was about to happen. Every week beyond the daily activities we worked on setting it up. I’m not sure if I can compare this experience with any other work on exhibitions I had before, as for me it was pretty spontaneous. I have to admit that sometimes I was pretty nervous about the process and timing. At one point I realized that maybe I exaggerate a bit with my need for professionalism, I started asking myself, where this anxiety comes from? Maybe my objections were rooted in a particular way of producing and presenting art I was trained in.
Even working within activist context and coming from DIY background I got myself caught into this “proper art rush”, in this division between the professional, valuable and the amateur, hence unimportant. So, I guess the criteria of values could have been revisited at that particular moment. While professionalism and expert knowledge based on research are undoubtedly valuable, at the same time who could better talk about social transformation and future politics if not people who are directly and most affected by nowadays crises? People use art as a tool and thus make Neue Nachbarschaft in Alt Moabit, Berlin a place worth to live in. They do it parallel to the contemporary art discourses, which advocate diversity and inclusion, while at the same time using language, which stays exclusively professional. The NN residents are mostly people, who haven’t got the opportunity to learn the codes of the western art world, therefore they approach art as an emancipatory tool, which is used in order to express themselves.
Utopia addressed by the show at the Max Planck Institute is obviously not the one from the nostalgic imaginaries of the Golden Age. On the contrary, it is a vision of the future, which manifests itself not only in the content but also in the building up of this very community of artists as neighbors.
The exhibition Everything! For! Everybody! Utopia today/How to save the world took place at the foyer and corridors of the institute. Extraordinary architecture of Max Planck Institute differs from the one at places dedicated to exhibit art. Though, the space didn’t influence the show in a bad way. Graphics and water colors, prints of smaller formats were positioned next to the banners and tapestry works. All of the exhibits had some common unpretentiousness and DIY-ness.
Authors of the works presented at the show, a lot of them kids and teenagers, shared the ways in which they feel in this world. In some works one could find references to feminism or gender theory. Nevertheless, that was experience which was embedded in them. Like at the lithographic self-portrait of a female teenage boxer, a refugee from Albania, who despite winning the title of the best female boxer in her category, lost the unfair battle with the German Office for Migration and Refugees. Utopia that could be sensed in this show was therefore something very real, a place where people coexist.
However, not exclusively art works, but also the form of the opening made a difference. There were around 40 people at the reception. Some of them worked together, some were part of the NN, some were the employees of the institute. Two girls, one Turkish and one German read a peace poem-manifesto in their native languages to the powerful man in this world. Afterwards, a band consisting of Syrian, German and Russian-speaking musicians performed as a part of the opening celebration. What I found most important there is the kind of informal atmosphere that one can find at home parties or family gatherings. Nothing like big institutions’ vernissage where one is usually confronted with very specific glances and professional stiffness. Nobody here was up to selling her- or himself as a kind of precious social set. In one way it reminded me about openings at KX gallery in Brest and this feeling of familiarity between the participants, artists and art workers.
I think that this is exactly what art does, creates space for being with each other.
Just recently I watched the film Unconstrained by Roman Aksionov, an artist from Minsk. The film is a depiction of his project that took place in 2012. After winning the contest for the best concept of a show he was offered to organize it at the gallery Y in Minsk. He decided to step aside and invite other people to exhibit their works or to express themselves in the format of a group show. The film includes two parts. In the first, the author is interviewing people on the streets asking them if they ever had something in their lives they wanted to share with a large audience. He also invites them to join the opening of the show. The second part was a documentation of the opening at the gallery during which everybody could create any artwork one could make out of the materials provided.
Both Everything! For! Everybody! and Unconstrained are examples of inclusive collective practice. Obviously they have different topics and different agendas but at the same time both state that art as a form of conversation shouldn’t be privatized by a small group of people; well educated, well situated, well networked. Decades of institutional critique haven’t changed much in the art world; The voices of those who advocate for wider inclusion are still heard as semi-rebellious while the infrastructure of private galleries and art market remains closed. The audience in this system is only to consume somebody’s else production.
I guess it would be naïve to think that the field that has its own well developed infrastructure of knowledge production and expertise, its own economy and market would welcome outsiders wholeheartedly. Like Marina Naprushkina says – they are not ready for it. But at the same time this issue of impossibility of inclusion, of direct involvement of others brings the issue of misrepresentation. The values and narratives which are constructed within institutional framework represent the perspective of a tiny percentage of the privileged ones.
Utopia is a process. One old situationist slogan says – “Be realistic, demand the impossible”, the other – “We will claim nothing, we will ask for nothing. We will take, we will occupy”. NN is this kind of impossible place, which became real, it shows us how small, self-organized communities can bring significant cultural and social change. When multiplied, they make politics, which is immediate and real, because based on experience not mere representation.