Are We Independent? Art Spaces, Cultural Politics and the Real Estate Market

GmbH (Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung / limited liability company) is a temporally joint venture in Stuttgart run by Weiny Fitui and Marco Trotta. Both play vital roles in the cultural landscape of Stuttgart by developing projects like Jacob17 and contain’t – transitory venues for arts and music events, performances, mobile structures, and DIY architecture, as well as platforms for connecting people and ideas. Fitui and Trotta are cofounders and organizers of the collaborative project Ateliergemeinschaft Bauzug 3YG, better known as the Waggons Stuttgart, a cultural initiative in a set of decommissioned railway cars located within an industrial zone in Stuttgart Nord since 1999. Through the aforementioned projects, GmbH focuses on the relationship between self-organized structures of independent cultural initiatives and the comprehensive bureaucratic and political apparatus beyond it, highlighting complex and difficult processes.

By using – not without cynicism – a vocabulary explicitly deriving from the private sector, GmbH sheds light on how »subculture« in the long term is in fact never independent from cultural politics, urban planning, and the real estate market, especially in a powerful economic region like Germany. How does a collaboration with the political and bureaucratic apparatus, or the private sector, change mechanisms of labor and the structures of self-organization? What are the benefits, drawbacks, and limitations of collaborating with the public and private sector? Here, Weiny Fitui and Marco Trotta take stock of almost 20 years of interim use.

Schlosspost: As a starting point, the railway cars were given to you and your collaborators in 1999 by Deutsche Bahn (German National Rail) as seed capital. From the beginning, the cars and the area were only intended for interim use. In the course of the project’s development and growth, the integration of Waggons Stuttgart into the urban planning of the city of Stuttgart played a crucial role, not only for your long-term planning and integrated strategy but also for the city council’s authorities themselves. While on the one hand the value of the property increased, the wish for a new »cultural development zone« within Stuttgart also arose. After 12 years you were facing an evacuation request.

GmbH: By the time we received the evacuation request in January 2011, the wagons had already had 12 years of successful cultural work under their belts and a huge creative network had emerged. For the city and the Deutsche Bahn, the Waggons’ integration into the framework planning for the Nordbahnhof (northern train station) was not planned at that time. For the wagon artists, their guests, and their network, it was clear that self-organized cultural open spaces were needed in the city. These spaces would serve as an important counterweight to the many commercialized areas – if not at the Nordbahnhof, then somewhere else.

Years passed from when the artists demanded the integration of such spaces until, in 2018, the department of urban development in Stuttgart would include »cultural development zone« for noninstitutionalized projects into the international call for the urban planning at Stuttgart Nordbahnhof. Only two months ago, this demand was included in the announcement text for the international urban development competition for the future Nordbahnhof quarter.

»For the wagon artists, their guests, and their network, it was clear that self-organized cultural open spaces were needed in the city.«

The projects have a rich history of efforts, designs, projects, events, festivals, competitions, network meetings, the founding of associations, and even in creating a political party. We designed and implemented two of the projects created, Jacob17 and contain’t.

Within a designated period of about six months, Jacob17’s goal was to initiate many events, exhibitions, concerts, and performances. Their success showed our vast potential and created the basis for our demand that there be and remain open spaces in the city.

Map by the Stuttgart’s urban planning city council, 2011
Map for interim use, studios and event location, 2014
Container model

The idea behind contain’t, on the other hand, was to sustainably secure the survival of a free space through mobility, flexibility, and adaptability through the use of freight containers and mobile architecture in a city with a great shortage of space. The clear commitment to interim uses with medium-term lease durations, flexible space formats, and the resulting change of location would also make it possible to research different topographies in the city.

Particularly in connection with contain’t, there were collisions with rigid conditions and regulations – especially in the area of building law – and consequently an increased focus on this in public relations work and political demands. We simply had the feeling that everyone liked what we were doing, but every little creative impulse would be stifled by months or years of bureaucratic application procedures, precarious financial states, or rigid requirements regarding the carrying out of events. Since our events were popular and our work respected, there was increased public attention for these issues. Years later, politician and administrators may have felt the pressure to simplify these processes. When the container city was built on the premises of the Kunstverein Wagenhalle, the city had finally learned what building laws were required for the temporary container alternative quarter, making it more flexible for the Kunstverein Wagenhalle to establish the project on these grounds.

»We simply had the feeling that everyone liked what we were doing, but every little creative impulse would be stifled by months or years of bureaucratic application procedures, precarious financial states, or rigid requirements regarding the carrying out of events.«

Schlosspost: Large-scale initiatives like the ones you just mentioned must have well-functioning strategies of self-organization, and must provide certain resources, i.e. space, labor force, economic resources, etc., in order to operate. To cover basic needs, put innovation to work and turn visions into reality, these experts have to find partners and collaborators. In many cases, this is the city council, the ministry of culture, or companies from the private sector – public or private funding bodies. In the particular cases of Jacob17’, contain’t and Ateliergemeinschaft Bauzug 3YG, many partners were involved throughout the years. A collaboration with the political and bureaucratic apparatus or the private sector changes mechanisms of labor and the structures of self-organization. Often one gains professionality and knowledge about the city council policies and with it responsibility, and also a precarious dependency.

Like in any good business relationship, mutual dependence can guarantee equal and valuable business goals for both partners. What effects could these collaborations have between cultural initiatives or self-organized structures and their partners, i.e. the cities and companies, particularly in the realm of emphasizing a trusting and sustainable cooperation; which in reality often still remains a largely untapped resource? How can an initiative ensure that it overcomes its temporary status as project of »interim use,« in order to carry out a long-term sustainable impact on cities and regions?

GmbH: Before the projects receive the necessary recognition and appreciation needed as a basis for collaboration, it usually takes years of preparatory work and a certain understanding or familiarity with the ideas behind the projects. This appreciation is the prerequisite for valuable and sustainable cooperation. To work, these projects do not necessarily need financial support. Affordable and central premises and real-estate, simplified requirements and processes for temporary interim uses or pilots showing ways through the bureaucratic jungle, are often much more important and useful.

The fact that city administrations and companies may not feel obliged to accommodate noncommercial, self-organized initiatives, and to simplify and improve the conditions for them, often results from a lack of knowledge about the initiative’s positive effects on the city’s attractiveness and the intangible but immeasurable values they create for the people and the neighborhoods in it. This is indeed difficult to express in figures, but is noticeable, for example, in the popularity of the city’s art academies and its establishments of creative industries.

For more effective collaboration, the cities could, for example, implement vacancy indicators and thus make intermediate spaces accessible for creative projects at an early stage. Event and exhibition spaces could be coordinated in cooperation with studio communities and joint workshops. This cannot happen, however, as long as the scarce spaces are distributed according to strict capitalist rules and rents skyrocket, as we are accustomed to seeing in cities like Stuttgart. Accordingly, it is difficult for these projects to overcome their temporary status and function independently.

Schlosspost: You and your collaborators – architects, gardeners, event organizers etc. – are experts for the development of urban territory, DIY architecture and for cultural appropriation of industrial zones. Nevertheless, in 2018, Stuttgart’s urban planning city council launched an architectural competition for the planning and development of the Nordbahnhof area. At least the draft should contain a little space for »noninstitutionalized off-projects.« It must be mentioned that citizens’ initiatives and the circle around Waggons Stuttgart were invited to discuss the property’s further use.

GmbH: The fact that a need of areas for noninstitutionalized projects has been recognized has thus been incorporated into the urban development announcement, seems to be a move in the right direction. It is to be enjoyed with great caution, however, and quite frankly, thoroughly questioned and observed. It needs to be made clear what standards the city sets for »non-institutionalized« projects. The question should be raised of who will manage this area in the future, and how. After all, it is hardly conceivable that the city would enter into dozens of individual lease agreements with various initiatives and projects. The appeal of this zone for the projects and initiatives is contingent on the future administration of this area. Especially because the question of what »noninstitutionalized« projects are is still unanswered and vague. Who determines them, and who sets the standards?

Such questions caused confusion two months ago at the colloquium of the architectural offices participating in this competition.

Particularly in contain’t’s history, many attempts for citizen participation have been made in vain. For example, the »Bürgerhaushalt« – a city budget for proposals allocated and voted on by citizens, was denied to the project, despite its popularity in the vote. Or, on a different occasion, a petition written to the mayor – an effort that went unnoticed.

Schlosspost: Yes, in reality many cultural initiatives and cooperatives are only tolerated by the landlords and funding bodies because they comply with concrete guidelines. As soon as they wish to stay independent, sovereign, and uncontrollable, then their support is limited. And even if cultural initiatives and cooperatives comply with all the obligations, and furthermore promote dialogue and cooperation between partners through encouraging joint actions in urban planning and cultural work, in the end they’re often used only as long as necessary. The esteem and added value often remains unilateral; in many cases cultural initiatives are utilized for enhancing and upgrading urban districts that are urgently in need of development.

GmbH: Truth is, you have to approach these »successes« skeptically. Years of experience and empty promises have made us patient in celebrating such promises, and have taught us to hold out on calling »success« until we get tangible results. What remains of good intentions in the end, what will be implemented and to what extent this integrative approach will make a difference to the previous approaches. We will wait and see.

Trough out the years Waggons Stuttgart collaborated with many assosiactions and institutions:

  • Stadtjugendring Stuttgart
  • Akademie für bildende Künste Stuttgart
  • Circus Circuli
  • Kinder- und Jugendhaus Fasanenhof
  • Circus Culture 4 Europe
  • Kunstverein Wagenhalle e.V.
  • JKS Recycling
  • Akademie Schloss Solitude
  • Ya Plus K
  • Büro Umschichten
  • Staatliche Akademie für bildende Künste
  • LIFT / Stuttgartnacht
  • Plus+ Bauplanung Architektur
  • OLAAR Architekten
  • Wirtschaftsförderung Stuttgart
  • Kultur im Dialog Stuttgart
  • Rocker 33
  • Universität Stuttgart
  • Tour de Farce
  • Kunstverein Wagenhalle
  • Bauzug 3YG
  • Hochschule für Technik
  • Stadtplanungsamt Stuttgart
  • What’Sub Stuttgart
  • Åromåt
  • Treffpunkt Galerie Rotebühlplatz
  • Popbüro Stuttgart
  • Raumstation Weimar
  • Reallabor Spacesharing
  • Laboratorium e.V.
  • Emanzipation & Frieden
  • Stadtlücken / Wem gehört die Stadt
  • Critical Mass Stuttgart
  • Foodsharing Stuttgart
  • Villa Merkel / Esslingen

The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi