A Prize for the People

Taking stock of Berlin’s art scene with Berlin Art Prize co-founder Alicia Reuter

Words By Elly Harvie

Even in touting itself as such, the Berlin Art Prize is subversive. It was set up in 2013 by a team of artists and art historians as an alternative to the hierarchies that distort other art prizes.

Truly independent, the Prize has been run hitherto entirely through volunteer work but, now in its 5th year, it has been granted funding by Hauptstadtkulturfonds. Having orbited outlying arts spaces such as Kuhlhaus and DISTRICT for a few years, in 2018 it returns to convenient Kreuzberg.

From 650 applications, this year’s jury have selected works by nine Berlin-based artists; Pauline Doutreluingne, Övül Durmuşoǧlu, Philipp Ekardt, Michaela Melián and Johannes Paul Raether. As the Exhibition Opening and September sneak up on us, preparations for Berlin Art Prize take five are frantic. Co-founder Alicia Reuter is keen to emphasize that the “team is essential to both the concept and it’s execution”. We intercepted her in between Art Prize-related errands to chat about why “exchange and discourse” are more important than ever.

Exhibition Opening. Photo by Mathias Voelzke

Why did you found the Berlin Art Prize?

We started working on it in 2012 and the original impulse was that we realised with a lot of existing art prizes in Berlin, in Germany and also internationally were being awarded to the exact same people over and over again. it was usually a white man to be honest. He would win a prize in Berlin and then he would win a prize in London and then he would be awarded something in New York and each time it would be a bigger and bigger prize. So the concept was to take on this system of approval that existed. That’s why anonymity is central to the entire application process. The artist applies with their portfolio, with no reference to their gender, their educational or exhibition history, no references to their age. The only time that a personal reference might come into a portfolio is if their artwork has to do with a very personal experience. We wanted to put all artists that applied on an even playing field. It was a political statement against existing art prizes. But at the same time we also wanted to personally get to know more artists in Berlin. We realised that we also existed within our own sphere and we didn’t always find our way outside of that. So it was a way for us to meet artists but also make a statement the way art prizes function.

How does the Berlin Art Prize differ from other art prizes?

I think that fundamental to what we are doing is the sense of being part of a community. That all of our openings and events have always been open to everybody. We’ve never had a private event. I think that that alone sometimes can have an effect on the type of artist that applies, in the sense that they understand that it’s not just the Berlin Art Prize they are applying for. They support this idea of a community of artists being open to everybody, and being inviting to everybody. I can honestly say every year we have had an applicant where we immediately recognised the work from an exhibition, but we also have artists who have never had an exhibition before, because of the way we set up the application. I came here because I wanted to build a career in the Arts and I’m always seeking my community across the creative field. I think what we try to do is offer a platform for that that isn’t closed. There are no pretensions about us.

I think that fundamental to what we are doing is the sense of being part of a community.

How has your original political statement evolved? You recently gained some funding from the Hauptstadtkulturfonds…

It started with just the name. There are four founders, two artists and two art historians-writers. We chose the name the ‘Berlin Art Prize’ as an ironic statement: who are we call ourselves the givers of the Berlin Art Prize? And at the same time why can’t we? We are in the field, here on the ground, working alongside everybody else. Getting the funding this year has really allowed us to expand our events programme. This year we are also paying everyone. That is such a big deal, especially in the arts field. It is always been our goal to pay people. Up until now we have worked as a volunteer team. We are really really proud of the fact that we are paying everybody from the artists to the translators, to the people constructing the walls. Which I think is a political statement in and of itself. Work is work and we should all be paid for the work that we do. I feel very passionately about that point! We hope that we continue to get the funding to do that. We got the money and we immediately dispersed it to the arts community. Our proposal had to do with themes of empowerment and commons. Our event programme is looking at empowerment not just of a creative community, but really of everyone.

Anastasia Muna. Photo by Mathias Voelzke

How do we manage this question of funding within a capitalist system? How would you define Berlin’s art scene within the global art market?

As changing. I’ve been in Berlin for 13 years and it is really undergone a number of changes since I’ve been here. It’s moving away from ‘project space-oriented, anything goes, events in a warehouse’ (although we are having an event in a warehouse!) and becoming much more commercial. However I do think that Berlin does continue to have that aura of –I hate to use this quote but ‘poor but sexy’– and I think that we work very hard to maintain that. It’s not necessarily people who are ‘poor but sexy’ that are maintaining that. I think we’ve seen a lot of capitalisation on, for example, run-down spaces. There were spaces we were looking at that would need a lot of work for us to have an exhibition there, and when we asked whether there were any plans for renovation, the response was ‘no, this is how people want them’, and the rent would be something like €3,000 a day. I think that Berlin maintains this sort of look but I think that it’s is starting to turn into a facade almost, where there’s actually a lot of money behind the scenes. This idea of something being run down is very cool at the moment. It’s a little problematic because independent events like us can’t afford these spaces. It’s becoming harder and harder every year to find a location. Gentrification, especially within art community, is a theme that we are seeing a lot, and it’s also something that we are addressing within our program of events. There seems to be this facade of ‘anything goes’ but that’s actually not the case, at least not as it was 10 or 20 years ago, which is how Berlin got this reputation, and that’s failing a little bit [now].

As an organisation representing Berlin’s grassroots creativity, how difficult is it to oppose the pressure to gentrify?

I’m thinking about how much my rent is! I think that it’s easy to take action or to speak out, but I think the bigger question is whether those voices are actually being heard over the ‘ker-ching!’ sounds of all of the money rolling in from property development and investment. I think that there’s a lot of people speaking out but it’s hard to say if the word is actually getting through and if Berlin’s independent art scene is being damaged due to rising costs. A lot of young galleries had to close their doors within the last 2 years because they can’t sustain the rental costs. I’m an optimist, and I think that there’s still ways to work through this. I don’t know entirely what they are—with the Berlin Art Prize we are trying one route. I think that discussion, discourse and exchange are extremely important.

It’s becoming harder and harder every year to find a location. Gentrification, especially within art community, is a theme that we are seeing a lot.

What are the selection criteria for the Berlin Art Prize?

It varies. Every year we have a [different] jury of 5 independent ‘cultural producers’ for lack of a better word, but artists, curators and writers. The criteria are equally open. We have had a situation where a portfolio might come through to the very final round in one year, and then the next year the same applying artist is cut very early on. It would be the same for me going with a group of writers to an exhibition. We all have different opinions about what we see. There’s a lot of dialogue that occurs. This year’s jury was fascinating because there really was a lot of dialogue about specific works, a lot of exchanges about understanding each other viewpoints, about why they did or did not like a certain work. It was particularly interesting to listen to these very deep discussions happening. I wish I could give all artists some clue about how to become a nominee but unfortunately there aren’t any very specific criteria as to what we looking for. We always try to pick a very dynamic jury. We would never have a jury that was just five artists or just five writers, and we also try to make sure that our jury have diverse backgrounds. It will come down to how they perceive art and how they exchange with each other as a team. We don’t give too much input. We also have a process in place where if anybody knows the artist personally then they aren’t allowed to give a vote, so that cuts down out any nepotism that might occur. This honest discourse actually works really well.

How does cultural commentary emerge from the Berlin Art Prize?

Every year when we look through the portfolios we see trends. This year there is a lot of ceramic work as well as a huge increase in the number of video works. We had to buy an extra hard drive, and it was something like 40 hours just to transfer the data. The there’s a lot of video in the exhibition but not exclusively obviously. It’s hard to say why trends occur. I don’t know whether it’s something that’s out there then in cultural perception. I noticed that in 2016 there were a lot of references to Thoreau and Walden Pond and I couldn’t pinpoint the moment or the article that came out or what these artists read that inspired them. In previous years we had a catalogue that was intended to be a documentation of this moment in time in the Berlin art scene. [This year] we are doing a digital catalogue of essays which will be available on our website at some point during the exhibition, but this year we are focusing more on the events, which we have found are a better way to work with this very live and in person community that we are striving for.

What are you most excited about the Art Prize this year and Berlin’s art scene right now?

At the moment I am excited about getting the walls up! No, I’m most excited by the programme of events. Members of the NSU Tribunal will be joining us for a discussion in German about why that process shouldn’t be stopped. We also have an event taking place Isiah Lopaz and Rachael Moore and they’re talking about racial bias within the arts community and within arts institutions, and we have Peaches and Melanie Jame Wolf joining us to talk about sexuality. That’s an event that I’m coordinating that I’m really excited about. But it’s not just sexuality it’s also education about sex work and the economics behind all of this, and of course Peaches who is herself very expressive sexually, so three different artistic viewpoints. Several of the artists will be presenting their work. The events programme is really strong. We have this starting point of empowerment and commons, but they are truly events that we organise because they’re the kind of events that we would want to attend. [They are] talking about very Berlin-relevant themes and a lot of themes that we feel aren’t necessarily being addressed, or they’re not finding a platform in Berlin right now.

The Berlin Art Prize public events programme of readings, performances, discussions and workshops runs throughout September. The prize will be awarded on midnight on the 28th of September.

Find Berlin Art Prize at The Shelf, Prinzenstraße 34, 10969.  

Exhibition opening. Photo by Mathias Voelzke