For the second part of the series Experimental Spaces, Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga revisits PROGRAM – an initiative for art and architecture collaborations and project space she founded and directed together with Carson Chan in Berlin from 2006-2012. Over a period of five years, PROGRAM operated as a discursive platform for artists, architects, critics, and curators to explore ideas through exhibitions, performances, workshops, lectures, and residencies.
Experimental Spaces is an ongoing series on Schlosspost in which Paula Kohlmann takes a look at various non-commercial projects and interviews their organizers about their ideas, attitudes, and strategies.
Paula Kohlmann: Tell us about your project space PROGRAM, which you ran in Berlin from 2006-2012. How did you build it up? What alignment did you have? How did you finance it?
Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga: PROGRAM developed out of a desire to try out different ways of making and exhibiting architecture and challenge the boundaries of the discipline through collaborations with other fields. Carson Chan and I had met a couple of years earlier while studying architectural theory and history at Harvard and, after a short period of working in architecture offices, we both felt that we wanted to pursue something different.
The first steps happened quite spontaneously I’d say – we were lucky enough to find a space in Berlin-Mitte that was empty for years and was thus affordable. We did some basic renovation while at the same time developing a programmatic model for what we could actually do there, which I guess was partly shaped by the possibilities of the space itself.
»While architecture exhibitions are often comprised of floor plans, models, and photographs of buildings, we were interested in putting together exhibitions where a spatial idea can rather be communicated or shared experientially.«
In terms of funding, the main support was coming from a large shared workspace that was attached to our exhibition space. That was a relatively new thing in Berlin at the time and it also helped us build an informal community where several exchanges and collaborations started shaping. And then we had to seek project-based support for each exhibition – grants, support by different embassies, private sponsors, as well as funding that the artists themselves would bring in. This was not really a sustainable strategy in the long run, I have to say, but it still allowed us to make quite a lot of things happen during those five years.
PK: What did PROGRAM focus on?
FLH: The main focus was this attempt to understand architecture as a complex social system and rethink architecture exhibitions beyond a representational mode. While architecture exhibitions are often comprised of floor plans, models, and photographs of buildings, we were interested in putting together exhibitions where a spatial idea can rather be communicated or shared experientially. So, we encouraged a number of collaborations between practitioners from different fields that would manifest themselves spatially and site-specifically. Beside the exhibitions, there were also talks, workshops, screenings, and other research-based projects. And we also ran a residency program where we would host one artist, curator, or architect for usually three months at a time.
PK: How did the first idea develop or change within the five years? Were you ever surprised or disappointed with the changes?
FLH: The initial idea was more this impulse to diversify the ways we understand and make architecture by putting it in dialogue with other forms of thinking and making. That central idea didn’t really change much for me … It was rather an ongoing learning and experimenting process, and each exhibition or project would come with its own set of questions, explorations, and discoveries.
Looking back now, I’m often surprised to see how many things actually did take place at PROGRAM over those five years and how we got to work with such great artists, architects, theorists, and experiment with various different concepts and formats. Given the often limited means we had at our disposal and the fact that we didn’t really have much experience in this field to start with, there’s not much room for disappointment really …
PK: Why did you decide to end the project? Do you think it’s generally almost impossible for one person or group to run a project space for more than a few years due to the very tiring nature of this often uncertain, self-organized work?
FLH: We decided to close the space at the point when we were asked to pay about three times as much rent, given the urban transformation of the area we were in and the rising rents in Berlin generally. And I guess the whole project wasn’t really sustainable in the long run without a proper source of funding … But that also came at a time when, at least for me, a kind of circle had closed, and I was eager to explore other possibilities beyond the exhibition format.
I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to run a project space for a longer time, as long as the desire, intentions, and scale of the project stay well calibrated … But often these initiatives grow out of a specific context and constellation of people, and these things naturally shift over time, so it’s important to be able to realize when things need to change or come to a halt.
PK: What is different in Berlin now compared to how it was ten years ago when you founded the space? How have the circumstances for the non-commercial scene changed?
FLH: Well, the street we were on in Mitte is nowadays almost unrecognizable, and it’s only been ten years … The rents have been rising everywhere, and there’s less and less room available. Many project spaces as well as commercial galleries keep moving on to different parts of the city until they are outpriced again, which is of course a complex system of cause and effect …
Still at the same time, the city keeps attracting more people and there’s always new spaces opening up and so much stuff happening. In the last few years, there seem to be more self-organized structures for support and exchange between the existing project spaces as well as a few more possibilities for funding from the city for such initiatives.
PK: Besides PROGRAM you have also been involved in other spaces, for example HomeShop in Bejing and A Public Library also in Berlin. Were these projects an attempt to explore other possibilities beyond exhibitions?
FLH: Yes, these projects have been motivated by a whole different set of questions. HomeShop was an artist-run space situated in a small alleyway in the center of Beijing. It was initiated in 2008 by Elaine W. Ho, and a couple of years later we decided to expand in size and scope and moved to a different location. For the following three years there was a group of 7-8 of us organizing the space together. This project started as a series of explorations on the relation between public and private space in the context of a residential neighborhood in the center of the city and a desire to experiment with the micropolitical possibilities of daily life and community in that very context – obviously very different to the landscape of Berlin described above. Over time, HomeShop became a space that brought together artists, designers, thinkers, and neighbors, via small-scale activities, interventions, and collaborative projects, in an attempt to put forward alternative models of economic and artistic production. But that’s a whole other story that perhaps we’ll save for another episode …
The other project you mentioned, A Public Library, was hosted last year at Bona-Peiser-Bibliothek, one of the public libraries in Berlin-Kreuzberg. The year before, the library was threatened with closure by the district’s administration due to financial cuts in the library department, but a civil initiative had prevented, or rather postponed, its closure. We were offered a space at the library to use for two afternoons a week and, together with Fiona Geuß and Caleb Waldorf, we organized a series of talks, screenings, workshops as well as classes of The Public School Berlin, in an attempt to rethink and reactivate the space of the public library as a space for conversation and for collective reading, viewing, and learning.
»Project spaces operate with a different logic and at a different scale than commercial galleries and institutions, and they can experiment with ideas and formats without necessarily having to conform to rules or to try to appeal to everyone.«
PK: How do you view the role project spaces can play in a city? Is it possible for a project space to operate independently from the market?
FLH: Project spaces operate with a different logic and at a different scale than commercial galleries and institutions, and they can experiment with ideas and formats without necessarily having to conform to rules or to try to appeal to everyone. Their specific role depends on the sociopolitical context they find themselves in and the aspirations of the people who run them, but they often do open up room for conversations and encounters around which a sort of community, however fleeting, might form itself.
And as for the second part of your question, there’s actually many project spaces that operate with varying degrees of autonomy and definitely outside a sort of market logic. In doing so, they often support and put forward different kinds of economies and modes of production, new ways of working together, which might open up small cracks through which we can look towards other horizons.