Fotos: Ingeborg Knigge
Westwerk is a gallery. Westwerk is a club. Westwerk is an old building in the centre of Hamburg. Westwerk is a group of artists and creatively minded people who maintain and programme this location as an off-space, an art gallery,
a music club, a site for installations, performances, readings and events on the ground floor of an artists’ house located in an old building in the middle of Hamburg’s city centre.
Donning this odd name (a cross-reference to west end of a church and to the ‘Ost-West-Strasse’, a major road running close to the house), was established in 1985 as a means to rent the then vacant six-storey, former harbour warehouse built in oak, stone, concrete and steel, and partially dating back to the 18th century. Perched on a canal leading into the nearby Elbe river (originally a warehouse, then after major extensions at the end of the 19th century, a paper manufacture and in the 1970s storage space for the Deutsche Bank), this almost ‘forgotten’ building had been a strange survivor of the carpet bombing that wiped out so much of central Hamburg in the second World War.
The house had been empty for years, gathering cobwebs before it was discovered by a loosely knit crew of young artists, musicians and others working in film and design. Having founded Westwerk, this group moved in and immediately began living and working in the beautiful but dilapidated industrial building that offered ideal conditions for large-scale, open-ended, noise-tolerant and network-oriented artistic work. (The legends surrounding the initial ‘discovery’ of this Zhivago-like edifice are profuse and inextricable, too circuitous to be told here).
To collectively rent the house and somehow (no one had any clear ideas on this) maintain the ground floor as a public space the group founded a so-called ‘e.V.’ (‘eingetragener Verein’), an officially registered non-profit association whose stated purpose was (and still is) to present and promote the work of young and unconventionally minded artists. The brief text of the association’s charter was kept deliberately vague both in terms of targets and structure. Who could have guessed what this spontaneous initiative would ultimately turn into? In the outset this ‘club’ merely served as a thinly veiled raison d’être for using the spacious rooms upstairs as studios and workshops. Then as, to an even greater extent, now, space for artists in the city was hard to come by and all but unaffordable. In addition, the two large machine rooms on the ground floor were begging to be converted into something that only big money or the concerted energies of a group could make happen even if no one initially knew how.
Without knowing how long Westwerk (either as a group or a location) would stay in operation, the founding charter improvised by the original members worked well enough for the fast-hitting, easy-going programming that they began to stage at this venue. With its large hall at the front of the complex, opening out onto the street through two enormous wooden sliding doors (an ideal ‘shop window’ with an open-air feel during the few months of unreliably hot weather Hamburg enjoys in the summer months), this squarish stone-floored space with pillars and long, high walls was ideal for exhibitions, performances and large concerts. Adjoining the hall at the back, the second space, a towering, slender oak-floored room (the ‘bar’) which backs onto the canal leading to the harbour has become the focus for more compact and more social events smaller concerts, readings, film screenings, DJ events and parties. This much older section of Westwerk with its warm acoustics and early mercantile appeal has naturally evolved into the hub of social life in and around the club.
A potted history:
why Westwerk is still here
In Westwerk, the first years in the mid-eighties were marked by a wild, intoxicated and largely improvised rush of events, born forth by the pool of relentless and self-exploiting energy of the founder members. Private life, work and activity in and for Westwerk were channelled into a vibrant mix of experiment, exchange, celebration and debate, making this for a while one of the most popular (and hyped) venues in the city. When the Hamburg authorities then announced that the building, along with the other historical houses in the Admiralitätstrasse (in part also occupied by artists), was due to be demolished to make way for yet another glitzy prestige hotel development, Westwerk threw its weight into resisting these blinkered development plans. Over a period of one and a half years, a long and tortuous court case temporarily froze the street’s status quo, with the city’s liberal rent laws aiding the tenants to frustrate the politicians’ appetite for demolition. Westwerk became a thorn in the eye of the city senate by unfurling a large, very conspicuous and beautifully inscribed banner across the house facade which stated, paraphrasing the title of one of Fassbinder’s later films, ‘Senat fressen Strasse auf!’ (Senate eats the street). This was accompanied by the release of a single under the same name, a hard and furious disco mix with the song’s vocals sarcastically compiled from samples of local politicians and developers pontificating in radio interviews about the need for the planned hotel development. The song (later downloadable here as an MP3) was frequently played on local radio and Westwerk achieved crucial public profile for its protest.
The standoff was resolved in 1988 before the courts finished their business. The original investors bailed out, frightened off by the protracted legal tangle and the sitting tenants, while intense backroom diplomacy (assisted by members of Westwerk) led to the entire street being sold instead to a private investor, a prescient, liberal-minded lawyer and patron of the arts who agreed to maintain and repair the buildings, as well as safeguarding the tenant structures in this inner-city artistic community.
Some 18 years on, the owner’s concept of turning this isolated section of street lodged between two canals and two bridges (hence the area’s nickname ‘Fleetinsel’, or canal island) into an integrated and largely self-reliant cultural ensemble with a wide spread of activities, ages and backgrounds has fully matured. Besides Westwerk, the Fleetinsel comprises several galleries, two restaurants and cafés, a couple of bookshops, a small theatre and a beehive of artist’s studios, apartments, workshops. The project has proved extremely successful and continues to play a key role in Hamburg’s cultural scene. Westwerk stood at the beginning and became the nub of this progressive development, without ever relinquishing its original autonomy and momentum.
How Westwerk works
After this change to benevolently inspired, private ownership, the city woke up to the status and the potential of Westwerk and began modestly funding it as a public space for the arts. Without the small annual grant which covers the lion’s share of the ground floor running costs, it is fair to say that Westwerk would not have survived very long in this form. As time passes, each of its 16 or so members has always needed to find ways of reconciling his/her work requirements with the efforts demanded by the programming and upkeep of the ‘club’. In all the twenty years of its existence, no one in Westwerk has ever been paid for their work; it continues to be run on the basis of voluntary enthusiasm and the shared commitment of its members. Almost everyone lives and works in the upper five floors of the building; over the years the composition of the house residents has gradually changed, families founded and children born. Just five of the present members were among the founders, the others have joined in the course of time.
Westwerk’s existence notionally borders on the impossible: most other comparable organizations that started up in the 1980s have long since dispersed or undergone systematic professionalization. Westwerk has pursued a more or less covert and instinctual process of random professionalization; its non-committal charter remains the same, based on a highly flexible strategy of communal support and a healthy dose of inspired egoism, and headed by two hard-working chairpersons, tasks that have been equally shared among the members over the years. It works somehow no one quite knows why. Members meet regularly to discuss programming and various administration tasks, each year evolving a schedule that offers a mix of exhibitions for lesser-known artists in various media (shows, as in the beginning, seldom last more than 10 days), smaller and larger concerts, and a variety of other events. The programme is not steered by manifesto- or discourse-defined policy; Westwerk’s success is arguably also the result of its avoidance of any specific theoretical or political orientation in favour of a flexible, pragmatic and open-minded approach. Without such manifesto-driven targets a venue like Westwerk can remain open to all manner of new developments and needs artistic, political or financial.
What is not always clear is that Westwerk is also a group of working artists, whose own careers started before Westwerk was founded and further evolved through the shared collaborative activities in the gallery/club. Many of them, whatever their medium, have also exhibited their work here on various occasions, even though the space was never conceived simply as a show-case for resident artists. As active artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers or performers, they have repeatedly demonstrated their experience through an ‘inside-out’ artistic process, allowing Westwerk to further expand its radius and horizon by the resultant networking with other artists.
This uncontrolled proliferation has lead to exciting experiments and exchanges with other artists’ groups, galleries or clubs from Hamburg, within Germany and abroad. And in its early years Westwerk itself on several occasions also worked collectively as a group. In the late eighties it produced its first external piece at the Hamburg Art Fair with an ambitious acoustic and photographic installation. In 1989 Westwerk was invited to Edinburgh to occupy all three floors of an innovative art gallery in the Scottish capital, showing a site-specific installation, samples of various artists’ work and two music-based installations. In 1991 Westwerk travelled as a group to Helsinki, this time presenting a live performed installation based on the host gallery’s architecture, involving dynamic, multiple-slide projections and a montage of progressively collaged ambient sound. Westwerk has also visited Malmö and Chicago, besides promoting itself as a hybrid artistic body at home in Hamburg.
‘Media black hole’
The club’s broad (and often obstinate) scepticism towards sponsorship deals and outside offers to give Westwerk a higher, louder media presence has, of course, left its financial base in an uninterrupted state of crisis. To counter this, the club has always needed to find ingenious solutions and harden its stamina, spawning new energies from within or from the circle of its supporters. This somewhat puritan attitude earned it the half-admiring sobriquet from one advertising man of being a ‘media black hole’. The question of integrity and resilience to outside interference will go on forever the cost of covering costs but in this, Westwerk has always focused crucially and passionately on the content of its programme, rather than exploring ‘modern’ methods of generating revenue. To whose detriment? The debate will continue.
But its programme has been and continues to be impressive: Hundreds of artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, DJs, VJs, actors and performers have presented their work here since 1985. They range from the young and up-and-coming, little known outsiders, discourse-tripping veterans and eccentrics, intensely serious or exuberantly joyful, to bigger names with reputations one might consider too large for a place of such modest dimensions that operates on a shoe-string budget and with an essential modicum of technical support (for some examples
of artists and musicians, you can
click VISITING ARTISTS/MUSICIANS [later ...]).
In terms of presenting art, there has been no limit to the medium or the approach. Westwerk has shown painting, drawing, photography and paper works, wall works, sculpture, body art, room installations, video and film pieces, interactive computer projects, performance, in both solo and group contexts, including various interactions between art and other disciplines. The concerts and music hosted by Westwerk have ranged from experimental New Music, young contemporary composition, jazz and improvisation, unconventional, wilful and eccentric rock and pop, singer-songwriter performers, to cutting-edge exponents of metal, garage, reggae, hiphop, punk, ethnica and electronica. Musicians have come here from as far afield as Tokyo, Vancouver, New York, Dakar, Cape Town, St. Petersburg, Glasgow and London and as close as Hamburg as well, of course, as from within Westwerk itself. Theatre, performance and readings have also been hosted here, benefiting, perhaps, precisely from the absence of a defined institutional identity and the highly idiosyncratic nature and atmosphere of the location. The space itself has proved extremely versatile, adaptable to all manner of re-invention to suit each artist’s purpose.
Westwerk does not live in splendid isolation. The history of its growth and modus operandi has earned it a privileged status as a mouthpiece and authority in this field of the arts. Alongside other experienced players in the artistic ‘off scene’ like ‘Künstlerhaus Weidenallee’ (recently renamed as FRISE) or ‘KX’, as well as vociferous individuals from within the larger institutions like the Kunsthalle, the Kunstverein or the Academy of Arts (HfbK), Westwerk continues to make the case for greater recognition and support for the arts at all levels in Hamburg. With its rich experience as a protagonist in Hamburg’s cultural life, Westwerk has for many years been called upon to participate in various circles of debate and arts policy committees as a representative of the interests of younger and lower-profile artists and projects and other ‘alternative spaces’ in the city. Networking and liaising between various bodies, whether officially appointed or ‘grass-root’, the club has been able to inform, exchange opinion and experience, apply pressure or offer imaginative impulses in the constant debate political, public financial, theoretical, aesthetic and ethical that affects the work of all artists, art institutions, municipal cultural policy and public perception of the arts both in and beyond Hamburg.
Over the years Westwerk has maintained an aura and momentum whose impact is felt and acknowledged in all sectors of the arts scene in Hamburg. Ironically, in the city at large this venue is probably less well known than it is in Berlin and Cologne, Amsterdam, London or New York. Maybe it is no longer the same daredevil, dance-on-the-volcano hotbed of insurrection it was in the early years that’s the natural course of continuity: people grow older, perhaps wiser, some leave, others arrive, families emerge, work and careers need tending to. But the same spirit continues to propel it. Artists who stage and promote exhibitions of other artists, musicians who host other musicians have a more intimate knowledge of the conditions in which such people work, thrive or seek exposure. Maybe it comes down to the setting so near the Hamburg harbour, and to the building itself as a relentless source of inspiration. It’s beautiful here.
M. P. (2005)