Improvisation and Continuation: Urban Activism and the Role of Art

A peripatetic interview with raumstation3539 to the city of Giessen. Part 3 of 4

Our tour to Giessen, an 88.000 inhabitant city in the middle of Germany, which happened to become the temporary centre of our lifes as cultural researchers, already brought us from Grünberger Straße to Seltersweg, from one of the main streets to the commercial centre. Crossing parking lots and market places our conversation flew from general concepts of urban planning to changing demands, from scarcity of housing space to urban activism.

Our guides, Jan Buck and Christopher Reuter, are part of raumstation3539, a non-profit organisation especially coordinating the management of vacant spaces in Giessen. With them we are now standing in front of the Alte Kupferschmiede, a cultural centre located in a former forge.

Random Walks: The main task of raumstation3539 is the management of abandoned places. How does this look in practice? The way you described it sounds like you would mainly broker.

Jan: As part of the so called Urbanautik program, we are conducting the management of vacant places here in Giessen. We are approached by people who want to start something, or by people who know about abandoned places and ask for help. Together with the city’s administration we then look for the owner and get in touch. But raumstation itself is also actively looking for abandoned spaces to find places that can be used in a way that creates a cultural and/or social benefit. Due to the Urbanautik program we are closely working together with the city as well as with the three relevant bureaus – the cultural office, the office of economic development and the department of town planning. They know our needs and support us, we get along very well.

Random Walks: On your website you are often talking about synergies. Do you see yourself as a kind of relay or hub?

Jan: One could say so, yes. Over there we can turn the corner to go to Johannette-Lein-Platz. There we can explain many things we said before.

The grey emptiness of Johannette-Lein-Platz.
Photo credit: private

A few years ago, this place wasn’t recognisable as a place. There was an alley, slightly cut off from any traffic. There was drug trafficking. Then this square was created, new shops opened. Well – „square“… Actually it is only a big, sealed area, which makes only few offers to stop and stay here. Here is a bench, over there some steps, but in direct sunlight. No shade at all. The stores we have here consider themselves, I would say, young and hip: a fashion shop, a zero-waste shop, a burger place, and a café. There is life too, but although people are lured here, they also hide, for instance next to the wall over there, in a small shady niche [right now the sun is baking, it is about 35 degrees]. Life on this square takes place despite the architecture. Or in ongoing struggle with it.

The shop over there used to be an interim use, the „Fröhliche Gesellschaft“, next to the entrance of the car park. The whole complex belongs to am equity fond who is also in charge of the car park. There was a temporary gallery and the festival office of the Diskurs-Festival. Back then there was life here. But since it was only an interim use, it was obvious that, due to the rent in this area, it was utopian to transfer it into a regular tenancy. As soon as a new tenant was found, they had to leave. But now it is vacant again. No one will start something here another time. Someone invested a lot of time and energy and established something and when it has to end, it is the end. Nothing will come after it, for now.

Random Walks: What kind of scene was using the places you mentioned?

Jan: Well, most of them are, of course, students. How to describe them … hard to tell … in any case they are mainly students, many are not coming from Giessen or surrounding cities and villages. People that are looking for something urban. Although this is not entirely true. There are also some students with roots in the city who want to take responsibility. And others, coming from afar, who only consume.

Christopher: But after three years, students leave and then there is an interruption. Nothing happens. People realising and experiencing this try to create an urbanity and make things happen they don’t find here. There is a big gap: for students in their twenties there is a big variety of options, but then it quickly decreases. The other offerings address people in their 40s and 50s. This gap is something people try to bridge.

Random Walks: Which role do art and culture in general play in urban planning? In your work specifically it is one of the cornerstones.

Jan: It is a comprehensive phenomenon that artists are amongst the first to discover and develop new spaces. Because they are abandoned or vacant, because they need spaces for artistic work and expression. This space has to be cheap since they don’t have a primarily commercial interest. This is the classical beginning of gentrification. Something new emerges, creativity radiates. There is an impulse that motivates people to start something new. This moment then initiates many things. It doesn’t have to be merely art. Especially in Giessen we have a good example, the Kü-Che, a student, donation-based café, which has been founded seven years ago. The idea was: We have a space, we create a cozy atmosphere, we are baking cake and offering coffee. Join us! You don’t have to consume; you can decide for yourself how much you want to pay. At first a space for communication was established. In this context many things got started that had an impact on urban planning later on. Be it urban gardening or the Free School, a community college, which allowed everyone to offer classes. Meanwhile the Free School is closed, but for years it was a big centre of grass roots activism and DIY culture.

To come back to the arts: I think it is crucial to demonstrate that you can change what happens in a city with your own hands, even when it starts small. This impulse inspires others and creates social occasions to get in touch. This is incredibly important.

Random Walks: That sounds very undogmatic. Many projects with which you are working together are paying attention to stability and economical sustainability. You are often mentioning financial issues and seem to be far away from classical squatting. Is this impression correct?

Jan: That’s correct, I guess. Our principle is that we start on our own. We believe that there is something like progress in a city, which we would measure in social criteria and the criteria of sustainability. And the projects with which we are working, they have to go all the way. With the last people at a squatted house in Giessen we had an intensive exchange. Their attempt was absolutely legitimate. They wanted a student house, offering self-administered education and culture. To achieve this aim, they did what they did. Our means are different. But the pressure on people to just appropriate places is real. This is a problem that has to be solved, everyone is involved and has to address this in his or her field. The direction is the same. To discover places that are unfinished, that are not commercialized, that offer free spaces for people to engage in how the city develops. This ranges from squatting houses to the creative industry.

Christopher: The size of Giessen almost presupposes this already, since it is a very small scene. To mobilize a critical mass, you have to forge coalitions.

Random Walks: You are focussed on creating sustainability, bringing people together to prevent projects from disappearing after a few years, maybe just because the founders are about to leave the city. That sounds very exhausting. How does this look practically?

Jan: This is indeed something we struggle with. It is definitely necessary to have this goal, but, by all means, it does not always work. Take, for instance, the members of Kü-Che, who had to leave their former place. We invited them into the Anschlussverwendung. So we enabled this location and from time to time support their PR, but apart from that they did everything on their own. You can give a little help to make things easier and support a change of generations. To make sure new members can be found if the pioneers leave. But in case of the Free School it didn’t work. Key members left the project and there weren’t enough younger members to take over. This is unfortunately still the standard case. It is indeed tough to set up structures, because with every generation you have to start anew.

Random Walks: The high fluctuation of students in Giessen demands an ongoing communication from many projects: Who are we? What do we do? What is our purpose? Additionally, the student’s motivation to get active might have to be triggered in the first place, doesn’t it? Did this change over the last years?

Jan: It changes I think. We are fighting an up-hill battle. Due to the modularisation of BA and MA programmes, people have less time to volunteer or to just be aware of what is happening around them. Then the increasing rents are forcing many students to work. That costs a lot of time. Here I see the universities obligated to act. About 50 percent of the people of Giessen are part of this organisation, in one way or another. The university has a certain responsibility to empower these people to shape the city in which they live.

Service Learning could be a part of the curriculum: students could volunteer and get credit points. This could be one way. For us it is also a tedious endeavour to get in touch with the universities. We wish for an institutionalisation of a direct channel, to make sure that new students coming to Giessen are introduced to the already existing projects and structures and to the various options to volunteer. The General Student’s Committee is already doing something in this vein, but there is still a lot that can be done.

A pice of street art on a bleak backyard, adding some splash of colour to the mostly functional urban space.
Photo credit: private

Random Walks: The universities do not see themselves as social agents, although there is a lot of research and academic debate on this issue, as long as it is about big companies. It seems like the ivory tower shows itself here …

I have another big question. In the concept of the festival Giennale the term transculturality plays a key role. What does this look like practically?

Jan: At the beginning it is important to know, I would say, about the status of Giessen as passage, but also as a city of arriving. This is part of the city’s history. After the Second World War Giessen became a home for many refugees from the former eastern territories. Later, after the unification of Germany in 1989, many people from the former GDR came to Giessen. Nowadays many refugees fleeing from war and crisis arrive here. This has shaped the cityscape as well as the inhabitants.

Christopher: I think this is special about Giessen. For a city of roughly 100.000 people it is a huge melting pot.

Random Walk: Does Giessen have a history with guest-workers who came here in the 1960s or 1970s?

Christopher: That was more a thing in Wetzlar or in Lollar, I think.

Jan: There are a few communities that are still connected to the countries they came from. There are, for instance, strong Aramean and Vietnamese communities. Many different cultures, but most of the time they are separated. That’s at least my impression.

Transculturality not only concerns the cultures of homelands, but also demographic gaps, academic cultures etc. If students live here for only a few years it is often the case that they are not too close with their neighbours. Several hurdles prevent social togetherness. Although the different groups and cultures would have a lot to say to each other and could start a lot of things together. Our aim is: we want to work with all of them. We want to bring the groups and cultures together, against their tendency to separate themselves from each other. We want to develop shared goals. And first and foremost we want to find common ideas. Especially regarding questions like: what can a city look like?

Random Walks: This means that urban development is always developing democracy?

Jan: Yes, precisely. It is always about a democratic discourse. It is about negotiating compromises which allows everyone to keep their individuality, but to also follow a shared goal. I indeed believe that, when talking about the dangers for democracy, about the strengthening of right-wing populism and extremism, that something like urban development can play a crucial role. To talk about urban space means to talk about the things that directly concern you. Where do I live? What can be done here? What rights do I have to change something in this city? Or is it, in the end, maybe only the rights of a shop owner who wants his customers to be able to park their car in the area around his shop.

Christopher: Or the rights of real estate owners who want their rent to flourish.

Jan: Then you realise that the gaps are very deep and run in unexpected areas. Just recently in Seltersweg, the shopping street of Giessen, shop owners started to complain about the unrealistically high rent. Who knows, maybe the gap will soon not only run between renters and owners, but also between entrepreneurs and real estate owners. We will see.

Suddenly Jan stops and points to a street lamp, which is all covered in stickers.

Jan: The advertising pillar of the everyday man – and the everyday woman. This is a cool one [Jan points to a white, minimalistic sticker]. It is from the “Technodisco” in Wetzlar. Wetzlar is only about ten minutes by train away from Giessen. This club was set in a former cafeteria on the roof of a car park, founded by musicians and organisers of electronic music. It was maybe the most vibrant dance location in the last years in this region. Great concept, great commitment and great design. Now it is closed. This concerns a lot of people. The vanishing of opportunities to go out. Over there, on the right, was a club called the Haarlem which had a decade-long history. Wasn’t it founded in the 1950s already? Something like that. A well-established institution in Giessen, recently it had to close. A hotel will be built there. A few years ago, the city published a so called “Vergnügungsstättenkonzept” [roughly translated: a concept for the places of leisure activities] which disregards the entire city centre und hence prevents that new clubs can be opened in this area. There is only one club left in the city centre. Every time a venue closes there is no chance for a new one opening. In the long run this means that all of the clubs in the city centre will be gone. This is also a political question. The city’s administration could take steps to prevent this. This is an issue we would like to address.

Do we want to continue? Or do we want to walk somewhere else?

End of part III / to part IV / back to part II

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