“Heroes of Labor”

Festival Helden der Arbeit, September 7 – October 7, 2002. Berlin (various locations)

This voyage to Berlin was part of an ongoing investigation based around a certain recycling of space and how deserted spaces or sites in the urban landscape can be appropriated and reused. In this case, through artistic and cultural intervention.

Oberschoneweide in south east Berlin presented such processes in September/October 2002 through the art festival “Helden der Arbeit” as it opened up various factory buildings within its declining industrial district to visiting artists and, in turn, the show’s visitors.

Oberschoneweide is way off of Berlin’s beaten tourist track. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, Berlin’s recent upsurge as a cultural capital, marketed to rival London and New York, has highlighted areas such as Kreuzberg (infamous home of the anarcho squat scene in the 1990s), Mitte as an area of cultural regeneration, and now Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain as upcoming areas with attitude. Oberschoneweide is somewhat off the map.

As presented in the various guides to the city, its neighbouring Kopenick is renowned as an idyllic 18th century town to have escaped bombing, decay, and development by the GDR, while Oberschoneweide is given a brief aside as one for architecture buffs. But indeed it does, possess impressive examples of modernist buildings from the early 19th century.

History repeating

Researching the history of the site incorporated a history of industrialisation itself. Oberschoneweide was the first district in Berlin to incorporate symbols of industry into its official insignia in 1898.

It was the original home to the AEG and the German electrical industry. Much of the area’s most prominent industrial buildings are designed by AEG’s first Artistic Director, Peter Behrens, in an era of technological invention, production and expansion.

The motor industry also found its base in Oberschoneweide. The first taxis and motorised transport trucks in Germany were constructed in the city, followed by the GDR socialist production of cable and television electronics.

However, these buildings that once vibrated with the sound of turbine and motor, have now fallen silent, empty, waiting to sound out again. Evident in the streets bearing the names of Edison, Volt¡Ketc the whole area bears the traces of both dissipated and potential energy; an energy to be taken up and used in new areas of production and communication, both social and cultural.

Yet the tension between cultural renewal and local dereliction is apparent. Renewal is evident in the overnight scaffolding erection and makeovers of dilapidated grey facades into balcony clad Mediterranean orange glory. But Oberschoneweide is home to working men’s pubs full of the unemployed (the area once employed 30, 000 people now 300) and the integration of an artistic community. The plans for regeneration present all the usual friction.

Working it out: “Helden der Arbeit”

Literally translated as “Working class Hero” (although up for discussion and with a preferred omission of the class) this title for the show takes it name from the medal of honour awarded by the former communist regime of East Germany. This choice of ‘theme’ was intended to directly comment upon and involve the context in which the artists were invited to work.

A certain irony is present as the dominant industry is now less then prominent highlighting the very lack of work. The concept for the show grew out ofthese surrounding problems and the realisation that it is high time for new ideals and projects.

Starting out as a seminar proposal by Michael Brand (curator) at Berlin’s Art Academy (Udk-Berlin) the project soon expanded gaining the backing of the local “Kulturwerk Oberschoneweide”. The Kulturwerk Oberschoneweide formed in 1998 to help tackle the areas problems as part of the Kirchbauhof GmbH- a non- profit employment and job training organisation.

Subsequently (and even during the show) mysterious financial troubles plagued the organisation, making plans for the continuation of this particular festival on a yearly basis now unlikely. However the optimistic premise of the show remains.


Within “Helden der Arbeit”, artistic production was split between various empty factory spaces acquired for the duration of the show. The focal point was the “Reinbeckhallen” as an established, local venue for silent film screenings and concerts.

The festival was inhabited by Mechanical shovelling workmen, a people’s mausoleum of industrial icons, large-scale photographic work, and performances including “Mechanical contamination” and “The Brain Machine”.

However, the main focus was placed on an ex Battery factory primarily taken over by the artist groups TRO (Berlin based) and Luna Nera from London.

Known as the KunstFabrick, this building is hidden from the main road behind a refuge for homeless alcoholics and reached by enormous cobble stoned pathways indented with remnants of the factory rail systems. Less grandiose than the industrial halls, within its red brick walls a suprisingly elegant interior is revealed through paintwork seeming to depart from the walls, enclosing the ornate stairways and large windows.

A brief inventory of the works upstairs include an homage to the coffee break, rusting icons of Industry, machines triggered by the movement of worms in mountains of soil, and a series of photographic portraits depicting some living “Working class Heroes” who were awarded the medal of honour.

Downstairs, past a labyrinthine installation by Russian artists Andrey Efimoff and Anna Ivanova, the entrance to the basement looms and the layers of dust increase.

Through bunker doors the visitor is met with a coffin shaped mound of earth in the process of excavation. Invited to join in this archaeological dig the visitor is equipped with implements (spoons and brushes) and can then proceed to uncover elements of a mini industrial age town complete with rail tracks to bag up, comment on, and leave the site to the next enthusiastic Archaeologist. (Installation by Mark Civil)

A deep base sound reverberates and beckons an exploration further into the darkness, where the visitor faces a video installation by Julian Ronnefeldt. Playing games with the viewer, barriers of metal rods and slaughter house curtains separate mixed and manipulated images of industry challenging you to enter the actual image and move further inside the claustrophobic space.

The sound field of a radio style mix of static, rhythmic machinery and music (from Berliner’s Walter Ruttman and Wim Wender’s films) takes over and leads towards a low lying landscape made of old boiler suits sewn together into a large patchwork tent – The cast-offs of now surplus labour. Invited to peep into or enter this quasi military/ Bedouin /bohemian hybrid, the mysterious cast of blue light contrasts with the literal smell of work, sweat, and canvas. (Installation by Hilary Powell)

At the end of this surreal and eerie journey the visitor is met with a glowing golden pool of water, housed in the ex battery acid-testing pit. Above it on thin metal wires hang various tools and machinery parts dipped in gold pigment with the invitation to touch; to be mildly electrocuted by the low voltage current running through these objects. In the corner, a harsh and rhythmic looped edit of empty and working factories casts its own lightening pulse into the overbearing damp, dark, and dust. (Installation by Sandrine Albert)

Past, present, and future glimpses of the site.

It is these glimpses that the Luna Nera group base their site responsive practice around, choosing to work in abandoned spaces of cultural or infra-structural significance. Other sites have included synagogue, prison, tram depot, and bank. But it is industrial plants and factories that retain continued interest as specific sites of material production and energy.

Like the mini dig described above, the process of research and practice is archaeological; uncovering and extracting the facts and fictions of a site and composing them in new constellations.

This show unsettled the cobwebs, let sleeping histories and stories breathe and awakened the building to the promise of use. One comment was that such processes could be likened to an exorcism in which new energy could stir up the ghosts of memory; confronting the past through the present and intensive activity.

This battle with dust, the build up and symbol of years of inertia and inactivity, continues as the site awaits a potential conversion into studios and workshops by the TRO group.

Established in 1997 the artists group TRO ( Teifenrausch Ost -the namesake of one of the many industrial production companies that made their home in this area of former East Berlin) has played a major role in this festival and the area’s artistic regeneration as a whole. It is in this factory that they now base their efforts for continued creation and collaboration.

FUTURE currents of culture

In his manifesto for the future, Michiel Brand (“Helden der Arbeit” curator) sees Schoneweide as the centre of art and science in central Europe in 2020 and as the next dynamic cultural hotspot in Berlin.

This vision of a possible future of Obershoneweide sees the festival expanding as a regular international event housed in the numerous factories. These will also become the sites of university campuses and centres of commerce linked to the nearby research centre of Humboldt University in Aldershof. Access will be made through the existing S- Bahn or a proposed high speed shuttle along the adjacent river Spree with easy international access via the nearby Schonefeld airport, into which Buzz flies direct from London.

The dynamic nature of the modern metropolis means that such possibilities are not out of reach. But before the forces of capital and commercialisation stake their claim on the area, a more fragile process is already set in motion.

In all of the publicity for the show, focus was placed on the reality that artists are often forerunners in the revitalisation of desolate neighbourhoods; aiming to place Oberschoneweide within this pattern of regeneration through an artistic Avant Garde e.g. New York’s Soho and Paris’s Montmartre. Many of the Berlin based artists, e.g. TRO, have already chosen to situate their studio practice in this area, recognising the immediate advantages of cheaper rents and the potential for development of the vast industrial spaces surrounding them. This was characteristic of the early stages of urban renewal and regeneration. Oberschoneweide’s hidden artistic community and spatial potential is exposed through the extended international network of communication centred around participating artists from Europe and beyond.

It is indeed a case of “watch this space”. Even though the area’s heyday of telegraphy, radio, and electricity, coupled with a futurist-style celebration of the machine and industry, are over, a newkind of cultural current is singing in the wires of eastern Berlin. In this era the electrical metaphor is apt as the artists act as catalysts of cultural change and potential; providing bright new sparks within the mechanisms of urban reinvention.

Hilary Powell is currently studying for a PhD in Cultural studies at Goldsmiths College. University College, London. Combining theory and practice she is investigating the processes involved in the artistic appropriation of the spaces and sights of the wasted margins or junk spaces of the city. Her own installation practice incorporates such elements as seen in a recent project – “cold turkey”, involving the creation of an artificial forest of London’s left over Christmas trees as part of a large scale installation in a railway arch under conversion.

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