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Klaus Biesenbach Recalls the Founding of KW in Berlin 25 Years ago, a Moment of ‘Radical Change and Freedom’

Exterior view of KW, Berlin around 1990. ALFONSO RUTIGLIANO/COURTESY SABINE HORNIG

Exterior view of KW, Berlin in spring 1991.

ALFONSO RUTIGLIANO/COURTESY SABINE HORNIG

Exactly 25 years ago today, the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art opened in a disused margarine factory in Berlin. The Berlin Wall had come down only two years before, and word had spread quickly that the city was becoming a fertile ground for artists. “It was a pivotal, unique moment, the point after a moving and peaceful revolution,” Klaus Biesenbach, one of KW’s founders, told me recently. “It created a moment of great radical change and chaos but also great freedom and opportunities.” Over the next few years, Biesenbach, who is now director of MoMA PS1 and chief curator at large at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a band of other artists and curators would transform KW into a storied venue for venturesome art. In the text below, which comes from a series of oral-history recordings that Biesenbach has been making about KW, he recalls those early years—chasing potential squatters out of KW, navigating myriad bureaucracies, and building an institution. KW, Biesenbach said, “always felt like an extraterritorial zone, like an arts colony or an ambitious commune.” It was a time, he continued, when “an art-obsessed young guy who couldn’t get an apartment or internship in a gallery in West Berlin could start his own museum.” KW is marking its 25th anniversary in Berlin today with a gala and performance program, and MoMA PS1 will host a party to mark the occasion at the Delano in Miami Beach, Florida, on December 1 at 10 p.m. —Andrew Russeth

Klaus Biesenbach.

Klaus Biesenbach.

©BIRGIT KLEBER

In late November 1989 I came to Berlin. I had spent the summer in New York, staying with a friend who at the time was the editor of an international magazine. On her cable TV and in the many different newspapers she had at her home on the Upper West Side, I had seen and read about an autumn full of demonstrations in East Germany, embassies taken over in Budapest and Prague, unrest in Berlin and Leipzig—it was clear I had to go back to Germany.

I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and could not continue trying to orient myself in New York, a city that offered nearly too many competing opportunities.

Born in West Germany, I had grown up in an atmosphere that was still highly influenced by the postwar need, re-democratization, and Cold War turmoil, in which the bloc system was a brutal reality, and East and West were unchangeably separated and threatening each other with nuclear wipeout. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a historic moment I could not allow myself to miss. So I went to Berlin.

I wasn’t there on the ninth of November, the day the Wall came down, but later that month. West Berlin was crazy, busy, and frantic. You couldn’t find even a shoebox to live in. It felt as if everybody had come to the same conclusion I had, that Berlin was the place you had to be at this moment. I could not find a room, which was deeply traumatic. So I took my passport, crossed the border, and went to East Berlin to look at a couple of areas.

I very much liked the Scheunenviertel and Spandauer Vorstadt, the old Jewish downtown areas right in the center of Berlin near Alexanderplatz and Museum Island. Hackescher Markt, Krausnickstrasse, Sophienstrasse, Grosse Hamburger Strasse, and Auguststrasse—that was the area very close to the old official Berlin of the 1920s and ’30s, with the city’s old ballrooms, opera house, and museums, like the Old National Gallery, Bode Museum, and the spectacular Pergamon Altar. The area emanated a certain gloom, like a proud, empty, gray, decrepit metropolis. Despite the fact that the air was very heavy with coal ash from all the old room heaters, I loved this district. Many people had left over the years because the buildings were desolate and falling apart more and more. Many facades still had bullet holes from the war, and often the voids that the war had left in the city were still just there, barely filled with rubble and trees. Once the Wall fell, even more people took the chance and left, flocked to the West.

In a building in Grosse Hamburger Strasse that I liked very much I started talking to tenants. They said I needed to talk to the Hausgemeinschaftsleitung (HGL), which is a mix of a superintendent and a co-op board. The HGL said, “Well, we have a bicycle storage. It’s not used as an apartment anymore. It has no real floor; it has no heat. It’s a bicycle storage. Have a look.” So I had a look and I liked it.

It was in a really beautiful setting, in one of my favorite streets, with a window looking at a completely rundown building with a sandstone angel sculpted into its facade. It made me think of Walter Benjamin—his angel of history—looking at you as he moves forward into the future with his back to what is yet to come. I could relate to this notion: Many friends warned me at the time not to move so quickly to the East and risk being stuck if some political move renewed the separation and the borders closed again. I said that out loud and the sophisticated woman from HGL said, “I understand. But you can have it. You can have the key, but only from the co-op. Then you have to go to the government representative.” So I went to the government, to the Kommunale Wohnungsverwaltung (KWV), the municipal housing administration, and I said, “There’s this beautiful space. Could I possibly renovate it?” And the person at the KWV, sitting in a very toasty, hot, coal-overheated office said, “We can’t take care of foreign students’ housing problems.” So I came again two weeks later and another two weeks after that. In the meantime, I started renovating the place because the co-op board had encouraged me. I finally got a contract for something like 47 years of free rent, if I were to renovate it, put a floor in, and everything. It was actually a very important experience for me, because I learned how East German bureaucracy functioned. I was very friendly, very modest, but insistent, and wouldn’t give up. I went again and again and again. It was a very interesting point of entry for me into how a different society functions.

In West Germany and the United States, everything was about bragging and selling yourself for the highest price and being the “director” hotshot of something. Even if you were the director of the interns or director of reservations in a fast-food place, you had to be a director, and you had to sell yourself, market yourself. But in East Berlin, there was a very different, very humble, down-to-earth atmosphere. Even highly accomplished artists and writers were incredibly understated. The logic of buying and selling, of contractual agreements and fiscal liability was very different. Money wasn’t really an incentive, I felt. I was very impressed by this. Then, two things happened: I decided I wanted to become an intern again, as I had been in New York at a gallery and at a magazine. But none of the commercial galleries in West Berlin would take me. I went from one gallery to the next and nobody could make use of me. That was a downer, but it led me to realize that I was half-experienced with the administration bureau of real estate, so why not try the administration bureau of culture?

Exterior view of KW, Berlin. ALFONSO RUTIGLIANO/COURTESY SABINE HORNIG

Exterior view of KW, Berlin, in spring 1991.

ALFONSO RUTIGLIANO/COURTESY SABINE HORNIG

I went to the cultural commissioner’s office in East Berlin in the Berolina Building, right next to the TV tower, where the Kulturamt (cultural administration) was located, run by Rainer Blankenburg’s team, and I basically declared myself an unofficial intern there. I just started showing up regularly, which was incredibly exciting. There was a phone and a little fridge, and a desk I could sometimes use.

In the bicycle storage that I called my apartment, which I was still renovating, I had nothing. I was off the grid. Not even a phone. Nothing. Being a self-declared intern at the cultural administration helped a great deal. I learned so much about occupied squatted houses in Berlin, which very often were cultural initiatives. I heard that artists had been taking over many vacant buildings, and that they were not being cleared out immediately by the police. I thought, “Well, I have experience with the real estate administration and I’m nearly an intern here at the cultural administration, so why don’t I go to the real estate administration again and try to get a real gallery to start an artists’ space?”

This is how I got a small apartment-turned-gallery in Krausnickstrasse, on the elevated ground floor, the bel étage. The back of the apartment was not in use anymore, as the floor had sunken in over several floors. But I started to do exhibitions in the front rooms. I wanted to create a nonprofit Kunstverein (art association) there and call it Gemeiner Kunstverein, which means “Community Art Association” but also—tongue in cheek—“Mean Art Association,” to create a provoking tension of civic courage and potential civil disobedience within an official framework.

I remember July 4, 1990, the day the German D-Mark was introduced to the former East: I sat down with a bunch of friends and artists, and we decided to form Gemeiner Kunstverein at Krausnickstrasse. I was 23 years old. My close friend Oliver Rausch and artist Jim Avignon, two of the other founders, created an incredible installation maze in the apartment—and we opened. Since it wasn’t absolutely ideal as an exhibition space I continued pursuing a better one, and I actually found a commercial space called Likörfabrik (liqueur factory) at Auguststrasse 91, which had been an industrial loft of sorts. (Two years later, when we wanted to focus on setting up KW, we were also trying to maintain Likörfabrik, but it was too much, so I called gallerist Esther Schipper in Cologne and offered it to her. She took it and moved to Berlin.)

While we were running the Gemeiner Kunstverein in Krausnickstrasse, there was an opening at Galerie Weisser Elefant (Gallery White Elephant), run by Ralf Bartholomäus, for Peter Moors, an artist who put tar on straw sculptures and straw paintings. Moors had a very impressive studio at Tacheles, a wild squat in the ruins of what had been the grand entrance of a 1920s department store on Oranienburger Strasse; it housed a lot of artists and was ripped open on its entire backside over several floors. At the opening at Weisser Elefant, I met Alexandra Binswanger and Clemens Homburger—a young, intellectual, and very sophisticated actress from Switzerland and her boyfriend, who was an architecture student. Since I was without a phone, I gave them a piece of paper inviting them to our second opening night at Krausnickstrasse. Together with Alfonso “Ali” Rutigliano, a law student, and Philipp von Doering, who studied communication design at the Berlin Art Academy, Alexandra and Clemens had founded a small art association in West Berlin. (It had a very funny name so we made a pact never to mention it.) Those four were incredibly organized and effective. Since Ali was a law student they had all their papers straight, in contrast to the Gemeiner Kunstverein. I showed them Krausnickstrasse and the Likörfabrik, the two spaces I was running. I was still working at my unofficial self-declared internship, which I would have continued forever, if I’d had the time. The four were thinking of doing a first exhibition with Timo Kahlen, and one with Ingo Niermann, and I offered them the Likörfabrik venue. We collaborated really well and it was fun, and hard, rewarding work.

At nearly the same time, in spring 1991, somebody in the cultural administration wanted to show me the old margarine factory, which is now Kunst-Werke, at Auguststrasse 69. I went, and we saw the front building, a former baroque mansion, with two side wings. There were trees growing through the two sides. There was an old garage that had nearly collapsed onto itself with cars buried under it. You walked into the doorway, which is still the front gate of KW, and you could see the sky, because there were holes in both the first floor and the roof: you could literally see through the structure. I remember saying, “No, no, no. This is unsalvageable. We cannot save this. I’ve seen buildings like this, but this cannot be saved.” And a couple of weeks later Gisela Schlegel and Jutta Weitz from the WBM (Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Mitte), the housing association, came by and urged, “It will be a ‘gym’ otherwise. Please”—a “gym” or how we say in German, a Fitnessstudio. “We would like this meaningful, important building to become a cultural institution; let’s have a look again.” I went again, and only then understood that they didn’t mean just the totally decrepit front building but also an abandoned factory building in the rear that had produced spray paint and quartz lamps. That was an incredible opportunity.

I asked Alexandra, Clemens, Philipp, and Alfonso to come look at it with me. That was in March 1991, on Ali’s 25th birthday. WBM offered us an affordable contract. The cultural administration wanted to support us, they wanted to give us a 25-year contract. We pragmatically decided that we would merge the Gemeiner Kunstverein, the foundation that I had started, and the association that Alexandra, Clemens, Ali, and Philipp were running, in order to initiate Kunst-Werke. I remember we sat in the open courtyard at Auguststrasse 69, where Café Bravo is now, and brainstormed: Kunstwerke, like Gaswerke or Wasserwerke, like an institution providing the city with something, but not electricity, gas, or water—but art. As Kunstwerke could also mean “works of art,” we decided to put in a dash to make clear it wasn’t works of art but art station, like power station. And that began 25 years of having a funny, incomprehensible, unpronounceable name.

So we signed the contract and declared ourselves Kunst-Werke. There we were, five students. None of us had any money or trust fund, but we had this gigantic building. We filled it with studios. We invited Allerlei Rau, a theater performance group, to take one floor; Rainer Görss, a great artist figure from the Wendezeit, and a link between the art worlds of the East and West, took another floor. We wanted to do exhibitions on another floor.

Among our first tasks were finding 60 tons of coal to get us through the winter and repairing some roofs, but also getting the whole institution going. Strangely enough, slowly but steadily, all the old structures of East Germany evaporated, faded, and in time, didn’t exist anymore. The reunification had started to work out, but we learned that the contracts for many of the buildings given away by the cultural administration and the WBM were actually not legally binding, and there were restitution claims. I went to the registry somewhere in Berlin-Lichtenberg on an all-day excursion and miraculously found the records for our building, documenting its ownership from the 1800s through the early 1900s, the ’20s and ’30s, leading up to the ’50s and the present time. It was clear the restitution claim would come through, as the building had changed ownership under the shifting political powers over the decades and had disadvantaged the sellers. I asked a prominent lawyer, Mr. Knauthe, who had publicly stated he would support artist initiatives, to take on our cause as a first example and do it pro bono, and he was up to the task. We were able to track down the owners who had lost the building between the Nazi era and the oppressive system of the old DDR (the German Democratic Republic). That was incredibly fortunate; it made us even more aware of the historical relevance of the whole area. We contacted the heirs of the prior owners and invited them to look at the old factory we had turned into an art center. We explained how we had gotten the property by contract; we toured the building and the studios, and explained that we would like to continue being there, and that we’d find a way to pay our dues to them. They were intrigued and supportive. Two years later, the Berlin Lotto Foundation owned the building, and KW was given a long-term lease to run it as a nonprofit art center.

Now, we still had the Likörfabrik at Auguststrasse 91, where the Timo Kahlen, Ingo Niermann, Monica Bonvicini, and Joan Jonas exhibitions had taken place, but our focus and energy shifted to the old margarine factory complex at Auguststrasse 69. The sheer size [of the undertaking] and all the challenges and opportunities that came with it kicked in. It wasn’t exactly on the scale of a student project anymore; we could only give it up or continue, so we committed ourselves to the daily requirements, and I slowly shifted gears from full-time student to full-time art worker.

We put these nice woven chairs that we had found in some theater storage in the courtyard of KW, and we sat and conferred and worked under the old walnut tree that’s still there. We had no phone in the building. My only income was a stipend as a medical student; I had to spend a minimum of time at the university in West Berlin in order to keep this scholarship. I would often call the offices of very important people, like the mayor or the cultural commissioner or other potential big donors, out of the blue from a phone booth in West Berlin.

I moved into the front of KW, into a wonderful room with holes in both the floor and the ceiling, in order to keep the building from poachers. This was a time when many cultural initiatives were squatting in abandoned buildings, occupying them for communal living and art projects. I remember one weekend there was this dance company—some of them were Dutch, others were German. They came with their mattresses and woke me up. I opened the window and yelled, “All studios are occupied. Nowhere to squat here.” And they moved on.

Exterior view of KW, Berlin around 1990. ALFONSO RUTIGLIANO/COURTESY SABINE HORNIG

Exterior view of KW, Berlin in spring 1991. 

ALFONSO RUTIGLIANO/COURTESY SABINE HORNIG

Another time, police buses came by. Since I didn’t have even a shower I must have looked disheveled. But I wore a suit—I’ve always had a suit since I was a student. I walked downstairs and kicked out the police, quite aggressively, insisting, “we have a contract. What are you doing here? We’re a cultural initiative. It’s of international importance what we’re doing here.” I was in my mid-20s and must have looked a little funny coming out of this apartment without running water. But I successfully fought off being evacuated by a police squad. It was absolutely necessary to live in the building. We had the studios, which were great. We started programming the third floor with exhibitions. Ars Viva featured young artist exhibitions with the support of German industrialists. We had a group exhibition curated by Angelika Stepken that the critic Sabine Vogel called hingerotzt, meaning “spit on the floor” or “better quickly done, without care.” Then we had a guest residency at the Galerie Eigen + Art from Leipzig, which Judy Lybke was running before he moved to Berlin, and he did a show with all of his artists. Also, Rainer Görss, our past artist in residence, had worked with the Auto-Perforation-Artists collective, and his practice offered associations with Joseph Beuys, Arte Povera, and site-specific installations. His studio brought many curators, such as Christos Joachimides, who at the time did all these monumental contemporary international exhibitions in the Martin-Gropius-Bau.

The first years of KW were active but improvised. We were a bunch of students running an institution, first with little support; then we got help from ABM-Kräfte, a government program that created jobs in cultural or charity organizations to help curb the unemployment that reunification had triggered. It had started with our taking over the building that we’d been offered by WBM and the cultural administration, but then we had to survive in it by ourselves. I took Sabine Vogel’s article about art that was “carelessly thrown into the corner” as a devastating blow. I called her and other critics, such as Peter Funken and Thomas Wulffen, Skate Helgason, Bojana Pejić, basically critics and curators who were in Berlin, and we had meetings in which we discussed what it means to start an institution, to install art in a decrepit building, to be a noncommercial gallery, etc., in Berlin. We met once a week and called it Kuratorium, and out of this initiative evolved “37 Rooms,” 37 exhibitions curated by 37 curators in 37 different rooms along Auguststrasse: a school, a hotel room, a church, courtyards, a hospital, apartments, an old laundromat, abandoned ruins, basements, several storefronts, and attics.

Curator par excellence Frank Wagner exhibited Felix Gonzalez-Torres; Katrin Becker curated an exhibition in the abandoned school across the street from KW; Bea Stammer and Gabriele Horn filled a whole abandoned building in Auguststrasse 4 with women artists, including Valie Export and Yoko Ono. Aura Rosenberg and John Miller invited Mike Smith, who used a toilet as his exhibition space, and on and on.

Just imagine the critical mass of artists, attention, guests—everything that was brought together by 37 curators, writers, and multipliers. Brigitte Sonnenschein and I organized this exhibition. I had conceived it and worked with all the curators. On June 14, 1992, the exhibition opened. It was a huge success. In one week, we had 35,000 visitors. We had to explain to the neighbors that this would not continue forever; it was for only seven days. At the same time, I had organized a Nan Goldin/Gundula Schulze exhibition on our third floor. We did an exhibition in Bode Museum with contemporary art in the historical collection, with artists including Isa Genzken. KW looked very good during this week. I had invited female art professors who had recently come to Berlin, such as Christina Kubisch, Leiko Ikemura, Anna Oppermann, Rebecca Horn, and Marina Abramović, to participate in an exhibition called “Arrival.” Marina arrived just as “37 Rooms” closed, during the closing discussion with all the neighbors. I remember it was a very intense, very productive talk. I think all the area residents—and the organizers—were very happy that it wouldn’t continue, with 5,000 people a day on Auguststrasse. The talk ended with applause. And right at that moment, Marina Abramović walked in and thought the applause was for her, of course.

I think we got international attention with “37 Rooms.” So many international players, critics, and artists participated, visited, and learned more about our Berlin. It was equivalent to Documenta in Kassel. It was the first time that so many art insiders who came to Kassel to see Documenta could visit all of Berlin, including the art scene in the East. For us, “37 Rooms” meant the loss of innocence and, for me, also the end of two-and-a-half years of being off the grid, sucked into East Berlin. I started traveling again as I had done before November 9, 1989, when I moved to Berlin.

After so many years KW is still there because I luckily managed to buy and secure the building and funds for its renovation and at the same time convinced the parliament to adopt it as a state funded but free and private institution. It has a great board and the ’90s sound like a foreign country now.

It’s fair to say that the basis structures to prepare KW were created in 1990. The building officially opened in 1991, which is why they are celebrating 25 years now. But KW lost its innocence with “37 Rooms” in 1992. Soon after I started studying art with Katharina Sieverding at the University of the Arts in Berlin, and started working internationally as a curator. I worked intensively with my own generation of artists and curators on what found a larger expression in the 1998 Berlin Biennale. But in its beginning, so much was chance and the courage to face the unknown.

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