Katja Aßmann and Ellen Blumenstein in conversation about art in public space, the commissioning of the first artworks for the Spreepark, the special nature of the project and its challenges.
Five artistic concepts were selected by an advisory board during a workshop process to be permanently installed within the park. The artists engage with the park in great detail, visiting it again and again over an extended period of time and collaborating closely with landscape architects and other stakeholders. Through this, the artists, their perspectives and impulses can become an integral element of the park's infrastructure.
Katja Aßmann Katja has been overseeing the artistic development of Spreepark since the beginning of 2018. Since 2021, she serves as artistic director of the Spreepark Art Space. Her experience is with art found outside of museums, in alternative and sometimes unusual venues. Before joining the Spreepark, she held the artistic direction of Urbane Künste Ruhr, as well as ZKR - Center for Art and Public Space.
Ellen Blumenstein curated the workshop process alongside Katja Aßmann and Nina Mende. From 2013 to 2016 she directed the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, before moving to Hamburg to work with Imagine the City, a model project of HafenCity, to link cultural concerns more closely with urban development processes and to make art accessible to a diverse public. She oversees the development of the Spreepark as a curatorial advisor.
Questions and Functions
Katja Aßmann: During the workshop process, Ellen and I work closely together to organize and coordinate the works of the five artists. Throughout this process, we try to challenge how we can approach art and architecture in tandem. For example, how can we take advantage of the fact that we were able to invite artists before the planning had defined the framework? This is where our respective backgrounds come together because we both question how art can position itself in a larger urban development process. How can art complement the disciplines of urban planning and urban marketing productively and find its role in long-term processes, how can it become and remain relevant?
Ellen Blumenstein: Before I moved to Hamburg, I worked mainly in and with classical art institutions. I wasn't particularly interested in art in the public sphere. But my professional career has always taken me to places - physical or virtual - where art meets other social fields, where art becomes public. My focus has always been on which audience or group of people the projects are meant to address, who they are meant to reach. To that extent, these issues have always been very close to me.
Katja and I both develop projects that are integrated into urban planning processes. This automatically confronts us with the possibility of art being functionalized for economic interests or city marketing. But that defensive attitude disregards the opportunity to bring other, non-consumerist perspectives to the urban space.
Katja Aßmann: Naturally, we aren't simply interested in making the Spreepark a little more beautiful and decorating public plazas with art. Rather, we are interested in changing the culture of development through art. We are convinced that, in cooperation with these artists, we can broaden this unique site to include perspectives that would otherwise be missed, and the result will be a win-win for all users - even those normally uninterested in art.
Ellen Blumenstein: As curators, we take on an important mediating role; we act as a kind of interface between politics, planners, artists and urban society. That is why we are confident that our respective missions have great potential. Who else deals systematically with the function of publicly accessible sites without explicit self-interest?
In Hamburg, I work in a very young urban framework, while the Spreepark is all about designing nature. These tasks are fundamentally different in practice, but in theory, we have to find a way of dealing with very similar challenges. That's what makes the work at Spreepark so prolific for me personally.
Katja Aßmann: Our collaboration begins before we select the artists and develop new works with them. Even when defining a brief, we lay down the framework for the public space that later becomes dedicated to art, but we also specify the functional parameters that the work of art must later fulfil.
Katja Aßmann: The best thing about curating within a network is the possibility to devise strategies together. With Nina Mende, we developed the parameters for the workshop process and the list of artists in a team of three. As a team, each of us had to respond to the others' perspectives. For example, when we talked about the functions that the artistic concepts would have to fulfil, Ellen offered an important impulse. The qualifying measures that the works must meet relate primarily to the operational infrastructure, such as path design, resting areas, or waste disposal; of course, there usually has to be a water feature somewhere. These are all things that make a park functional. When considering how to propose this task to the artists, Ellen suggested including less typical, but potentially equally practical uses of a park. Places where children and adults alike can hide, for example, alternative places to play, or a non-functional signage system.
Ellen Blumenstein: These artists have to have the willingness to commit themselves to a complex and lengthy process, or a project like this will become a strain for everyone. However, I find it very rewarding to use artistic means, for example, to think about pathways that perhaps do not primarily lead to a destination, but are themselves an experience.
Katja Aßmann: This enables us to present the artists with unconventional tasks. It's not just "design me a park bench," but " consider how people would like to spend time in the park and what we can provide to make this experience exceptional. Suddenly, much more than a place to sit emerges; we create an experience. We try to keep the bureaucracy of the planning processes and the associated language, for example in the approval procedures, away from the artists. But at the same time, the work lies precisely in negotiating these structures, their restrictions and freedoms. This art is not created in the studio but is tested on and in reality.
Katja Aßmann: Following the advisory board's recommendation, we have now signed agreements with five artists who will join us on this journey. We really look forward to it.
Ellen Blumenstein: Another great thing is that we can reach so many more people through the Spreepark and its strong public appeal than if we were to commission works for a sculpture park.
Katja Aßmann: I hope that every visitor will have some encounter with art. Even if they don't notice it at first or don't recognize the projects as art. I hope they feel that something is different.