Berlin is known as a city par excellence for artists, creatives and grassroots movements and it is exactly these people who are great at imagining and repairing broken systems, making significant contributions to creating a more environmentally safe and just society. To celebrate their work, I selected the ten most innovative art initiatives in Berlin (in alphabetical order) that engage with environmental issues through their artistic programming and practice.
1. Art Laboratory Berlin
Bio-art, art/science, citizen science , visual art, arts education, art & technology
This small gallery space is a gem known across the globe. (I was tipped by a friend from Indonesia to check them out!)
The main focus of Art Laboratory Berlin is to present contemporary art that exists at the intersection of art, science and technology. Within this field, they have a keen interest in the non-human and their survival on this planet. Their ongoing research is called Nonhuman Subjectivities/Nonhuman Agents. The exhibition Non-Human Subjectivities used data to show how different species will be affected by climate change. The work of Art Laboratory Berlin is often embedded in a theoretical framework, building on the work of scholars such as Rosi Braidotti, John Grey, and Donna Haraway, to better understand the phenomenon of the nonhuman.
Art Laboratory Berlin pursues a sustainable form of interdisciplinarity, going beyond the mere juxtaposition of art and science. They want to create constructive synergies between artists and scientists in order to support transparency and content production.
“I enjoy facilitating collaborations that demystify science and take the scientists out of the institutional straitjacket.” —Christian De Lutz
2. art objective – contemporary art collaborations
Visual art, education
Art Objective – Contemporary Art Collaborations is an artist agency that functions as matchmaker for artists, cultural institutions and exhibition venues. When I Skyped with one of the founders, Katja Vedder, she was on her boat. Katja is a passionate sailor and concerned with the state of our oceans. A key project of Art Objective is OCEAN Contemporary, a great example of her professional engagement with the ocean. This collaborative, non-profit research and exhibition project aims to stimulate contemplation and responsibility for our oceans through contemporary art. International artists present pieces with a focus on the ocean and the many problems for which humanity is responsible. The project follows the objectives of various national and international strategies within the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity (2011-2020) and the previous United Nations Decade on Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) to prevent the rapidly dwindling biodiversity of our planet and preserve it for the future.
Other projects include Bitter Water (2016), a collaboration with a shipping company on polluted waters, and Tension Test (2015), an exhibition presenting the ocean as endangered landscape, habitat, mythology, the scientific subject of research, a target for political strategies, and an ecosystem on a tension test.
“It’s good as an independent curator to concentrate on a topic. I’m passionate about the ocean so this is my focus. I’m still constantly amazed at all the new perspectives I find; people draw so much inspiration from the ocean.” —Katja Vedder
3. Entretempo Kitchen Gallery and The Food Art Week
Visual art and performance, food design, food art
The Berlin Food Art Week and its related activities are organized by Entretempo Kitchen Gallery. Entretempo is an interdisciplinary art space researching and exploring food from a cultural and design perspective. Art becomes an extension of the kitchen and food, a common base for expressing and sharing thoughts and ideas. When I visit founder, artist, cook and author Tainá Guedes in her kitchen gallery in Prenzlauer Berg, she quickly rustles something up for lunch. It is delicious. One of the key programs she organizes is the Food Art Week, which shines a spotlight on the political and social impact of food as a manifestation of history, sociology, geography, science, philosophy and communication.
All projects of Entretempo Kitchen Gallery involve food, art, sustainability, alternative economies, and environmental activities. Additionally, Entretempo practices solidarity through community-supported agriculture, using organic and regional vegetables from Speisegut, a Berlin-based community farm project. Going beyond the normal reach of a gallery, it hosts workshops, lectures, events, and offers a range of creative services for food and design-based projects.
“I want to live a meaningful life. I don’t want my grandchildren to say: “But you were in the middle of it, why didn’t you try to do something about it?” —Tainá Guedes
4. Green Music Initiative
Music and creative industries
When I visit Jacob Bilabel in his office in the Torstrasse, the wall is covered with prizes. These are mostly prizes awarded to the Green Music Initiative (GMI) by the music industry for coming up with initiatives such as low carbon touring or sustainable CD packaging. It is not our first time meeting. I first got acquainted with his work on EE Music, a European collaboration project with the aim of creating a dialogue amongst leaders of the music industry on how to establish an efficient and sustainable music culture in Europe.
Active in Europe through multiple EU projects, GMI acts as a platform for coordinating the music and entertainment industry’s efforts to minimize their footprint. CO2-reduction strategies are implemented in cooperation with scientific institutes, stakeholders, and artists, paving the way for others to follow. GMI showcases best practices with the objective of creating industry-wide demands for innovative and sustainable solutions – both from a climate and business point-of-view.
“This is not about saving the world, this is about understanding we ARE the problem. But precisely because we are the problem, we are also the solution.” —Jacob Bilabel
5. Haus der Kulturen der Welt (The House of the Cultures of the World)
Visual art, performance, theatre, dance, music, literature
Beautifully situated on the banks of the river Spree in the Tiergarten, a huge inner-city park, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) is a prominent and well-established space for international contemporary arts and a forum for current developments and discourse. The HKW presents artistic productions from around the world with a special focus on non-European cultures and societies. Visual arts, music, literature, performing arts, film, academic discussions and digital media are all linked in an interdisciplinary program.
In cooperation with artists and experts, the HKW offers visitors opportunities to grapple with the conflicts and challenges our time, in which questions about sustainability are often embedded. How do our living conditions impinge upon others? What kind of a future do we want to live in? How do we deal with climate change?
In the two-year interdisciplinary work The Anthropocene Project (2013-2014), the HKW examined the implications of the thesis “humanity forms nature” through sciences and arts. The project Über Lebenskunst (2010-2012) (on the art of living) was set up to develop and test new approaches to the art of survival in the 21st century. This included an educational program, which was jointly developed with the Future Institute of the Free University of Berlin, to bring issues of culture and sustainability to classrooms throughout Germany. The national committee of the United Nations Decade on Education for Sustainable Development added this project to the official measures in the national action plan.
6. id22 – the Institute for Creative Sustainability
Art, architecture, community art, co-housing and development
Tucked away behind the long line of construction materials shaping the Spree bank in Berlin, id22 – the Institute for Creative Sustainability helps keep residents’ community spirit alive. The institute is especially interested in co-housing projects that are sustainable and participatory. In collaboration with members, partners, and volunteers, the Institute studies and supports pioneering local Berlin initiatives, including the Spreeacker Initiative, that recognize the crises emerging in the world around us, with a focus on social and environmental injustice.
id22 emphasizes communication and networking, cooperation and conviviality, and helps strengthen these creative communities. Increasing sustainability through creativity is at the core of this practice. They conduct research and support and publicize initiatives with a focus on creative sustainability, self-organization and inclusion.
“There will be no environmental protection without attention to people, and without social justice.” —Michael Lafond
7. Orchester des Wandels (Orchestra of Change)
Orchester des Wandels (Orchestra of Change) is an initiative by the Berliner Staatsoper (Berlin State Opera). Their primary goal is to inspire audiences and the public, and to raise awareness about climate change. The musicians had the idea of putting climate protection on the program through Klimakonzerte (climate concerts). This was realized under the auspices of Daniel Barenboim. The music is accompanied by visuals and performed at the State Opera as well as other venues. For exaple, the orchestra played at the opening of the recent project EnergyTransitionArt , has performed a range of musical interventions at scientific events, and contributed to the 10th anniversary celebration of the KlimaAllianz (Climate Alliance Germany).
“My drive came from my son, who was born some years ago. I had the feeling that I couldn’t look him in the eye if I didn’t fight for his future.” —Markus Bruggaier
8. Prinzessinnengärten (Princesses Gardens)
Community art, architecture, urban gardening
Although I visited Marco Clausen in the garden during the dormant winter months (February), I can imagine this beautiful space being a hive of social activity in the summer. The big wooden structures of the Neighborhood Academy are just asking to be climbed! Set up by a group of friends, activists and neighbors, Prinzessinnengärten is an urban place of learning. The name derives from the street Prinzesinnenstrasse (Princesses Street), which is in a decidedly modest part of town. The garden is a place where locals and tourists of all ages and backgrounds can come together to experiment and discover more about organic food production, biodiversity, and climate protection – a living space to learn about healthy eating, sustainable living and a future-oriented urban lifestyle.
“What drives me is social, ecological change – we just HAVE to do it, there are no other options.” —Marco Clausen
9. ufaFabrik – Internationales Kultur Centrum (International Cultural Centre)
Visual art, performance, community art, comedy, world music, multimedia events
The ufaFabrik brands itself as an “eco-pioneer.” It started doing sustainability work as early as the mid-70s. It has solar panels to generate energy and heat, green roofs and planted façades for insulation, and toilets that use biologically treated rainwater to flush. The ufaFabrik promotes engagement in culture through exchange and education. They bring together local and international cultures, creating a dynamic field for participation for the young and old alike. I first visited the ufaFabrik in 2012 when I attended their conference Creative Strategies for Sustainability. It was an EU-funded program to provide cultural managers with skills to implement sustainability in their organizations. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was so much space! They even have their own bakery and everyone is friendly. This is definitely a product of the 70s…
In 2004, ufaFabrik received an award from the UN-Habitat for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment. Groups of visitors from around the world now come to learn how to successfully interweave ecology, economy, social engagement, cultural activities, and cultural education. With its informal atmosphere, this is a place where anyone can feel at home.
“Every change in society and in sustainable development starts on a personal level, it begins with us! As soon as we start to change our personal behavior we will produce some kind of effect on the environment and hopefully won’t create new problems. Change always goes hand in hand with trying out new ways of doing things, of communicating, of learning and creating new forms of interaction. Besides strong fights and intense protesting, the surprise, the unexpected, and humor might help to create a change in perspective. We need creativity to encourage others and ourselves, to enjoy what we do, and as a resource to renew our energy.” —Sigrid Niemer
10. ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics
Visual art, performance, geography, anthropology, urban planning, architecture and the humanities
The ZK/U – Center for Art and Urbanistics is a residency program and laboratory for inter- and trans-disciplinary activities centered on the phenomenon of The City. The Center is located in a cool-looking former railway depot surrounded by a landscaped park. Analogous to the 19th century transport of goods by rail, this venue seems to be a hub for the transport of ideas and ideals in the post-industrial era. The large spaces allow for studio work and events, but also symposia and exhibitions.
ZK/U promotes international exchange on global issues in the light of what is happening in one’s own backyard. Social and environmental justice are recurring themes that find their way into most projects and events. Working with local and international partners, ZK/U residencies aim to bring together critical minds for artistic production and urban research in which the local community always plays an important role.
“When you see something is not working right, you want that to change. I’m driven exactly by that desire for change: I don’t want to just be a commentator, but provide constructive criticism.” —Matthias Einhoff
The full publication looking at art/sustainability initiatives in Berlin, called “Creative Environment,” is now out! A free online version can be downloaded here.
This article is part of the Top Tens series.
Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues.