Verena Spilker On Elevating Opportunities for Artists in Berlin and Beyond

The TQU founder's simple advice for those looking to support Berlin's queer artists: ‘Be brave and be generous.’

Words By Jill Beytin
Photos By Mario Heller

In 2009, Verena Spilker founded Transnational Queer Underground from a bedroom in Ukraine when she became frustrated by the lack of information on bands or musicians outside of the ‘western context.’ She started compiling information on artists and musicians, and thus Transnational Queer Underground was born.

Since 2009, it has grown into an online community for those in the creative industries, and has become a platform to help underrepresented artists gain visibility. Verena’s ultimate ambition is the same as that of outlines for TQU itself:

A world where everyone can be free.
We believe that no person is free while there are others that are not.
We want to work towards creating that freedom for all.”

We caught up with Verena before her upcoming talk at the BedTalks Berlin festival.

I’m an anthropologist and political scientist, as well as an artist, self-taught web designer and a queer activist.

Berlin is changing, and BedTalks seeks to help us move forward in a way that upholds Berlin’s long-standing traditions of activism and creativity. How will your talk at the event relate to this discourse?
In my opinion, one of the most challenging problems of our time is to find better ways of communication, and to develop an understanding of the troubles of the ‘other.’ This is something that is as relevant to Berlin as it is to any other place. We need to find a way to work together and to talk to each other, even if we don’t agree on everything. In my experience, people don’t have much tolerance for opinions that differ from their own. We have so many choices, be it through the internet, or living in a big city like Berlin, that people tend to only hang around with people who share their opinions. 

People who choose to move to Berlin predominantly come here to find their niche and I truly understand that wish; I came here myself to discover the queer scene(s) and to live a life in a more creative and also less heteronormative surrounding. But after having been here for ten years, the problems of these splits between groups has become more and more obvious. I think that we need to remember that we can only solve problems if we all work together and not split up into smaller groups. 

I really appreciate the idea of BedTalks and am very interested to hear what Philip Ibrahim has to say about the challenges Pink Pillow Collection Berlin faces. My background is very D.I.Y. – I’m an anthropologist and political scientist, as well as an artist, self-taught web designer and a queer activist. I have very little contact with the corporate world, but a lot of experience in building things out of nothing. So I hope that we can find ways to support each other in our work. I already have a couple of ideas as to how that might work, but let’s wait for the actual talk to discuss these.

What are some of the main challenges facing the queer communities of Berlin – how can groups and platforms like TQU help them to mitigate these issues?
TQU was born in a bedroom in Ukraine in 2009, where I was living at the time. I was working on an article about queer music for a lecture at Leipzig University. I found it incredibly difficult to find information on bands or musicians outside of the western context and, again born out of this d.i.y. spirit, I decided to set up a website to share the information that I researched, so that it could be useful for other people as well. 

Over time, some more people submitted articles or other resources to TQU, and thus the platform grew gradually. In 2016, I sent out a call for people to submit artworks that were published online, and selected works also shown in five locations in Europe, one of them being Berlin. This project included the artworks and ideas of 47 people from 27 different countries. TQU’s approach is not bound to one specific location. The fact that TQU is registered here as a Verein is only due to the fact that I currently live here. It’s only been a bit more than a year that I/TQU started hosting events here in Berlin as well. Again, what I see that is missing – and what I try to mitigate through these events – is bringing different perspectives together.

I think we all need to develop more patience for each other and our respective ideas.

What are some of the main ways in which groups like TQU work with queer, especially queer POC’s, to gain a greater visibility for their histories and experiences?
I’m a white person born in Hamburg, who has lived in Germany most of her life. I have also lived in communities and settings where I was the ‘other,’ but that was always my own choice. So I can’t speak of the experience of queer POCs or working with queer POCs, because that is not TQU’s main focus. What I try to do with TQU is to have an open platform where people can publish their stories, their artworks, introduce their projects in exactly the way that they want and see necessary. In my experience, people want to belong to a community, even if they can’t be out and have that kind of community publicly where they are from. I have the privilege of facing very little restrictions due to my sexuality. 

I get into no legal trouble running a queer online platform from where I am (though social media seems to be censoring these efforts more and more). The people that get involved with TQU tell very similar stories, whether they’re from a working-class background in Northern Ireland or from rural Kenya. The problems we face, while specific to our situation, are also universal. A lot of people feel like no one is listening or paying attention. People feel like they don’t belong, like they don’t fit in. And they try everything in their power to come out of harmful situations. So TQU tries to bring these voices together and let them speak for themselves.

What would be the ideal impact of your BedTalks speech on the audience and larger community – what will be the main call to action of your talk?
I think we all need to develop more patience for each other and our respective ideas. We need to take ourselves out of our comfort zones learn about experiences that are very different from our own. And looking at the world and many of our living standards, we need to make sure that we find the willingness in ourselves to reduce our comforts, so that maybe at some point everyone can live safely and comfortably. Koalas went technically extinct last week due to the bush fires. If we don’t take responsibility for our environment and all living beings equally, we will be suffering – and are already suffering – from it. 

We are all in this together, we’re all connected. If you discriminate against one group of people today, you will be the next one facing discrimination when the wind turns. I am working on a project about freedom right now, and it has been very challenging for me personally. I think one idea is incredibly important to all of us: We can not be free, while there are others that are not. We need to say that over and over again until we fully understand. There’s nothing that is about you or about me. It’s always all of us or no one.

TQU opens doors for people to feel like they can participate.

How does your work help to create a more independent and liberated community of artists (especially within Berlin’s queer and/or POC spaces)?
We have a lot of firsts and I think that that is important. People told me that they didn’t dare to participate in queer events before, due to the fact that they might face exclusion, because they are not sure how queer they actually are. Or people feel like they can’t participate in art shows because they haven’t studied art or have not had exhibitions before. People have started seeing themselves as artists, due to the fact that they got published on TQU. People found the strength to come out to their family after sharing their poetry on TQU. 

TQU opens doors for people to feel like they can participate, that they can make and change things and, from there, move on to do even more fantastic things. It’s kind of a place to get your feet wet before you start swimming. I think that this also what running a platform like TQU for me is about: to empower people to find their own voices and beauty. I don’t need to agree with every detail of an output, I don’t even need to like it, but somebody will and for somebody it might change the world. Most of our work happens online, but the events we run show this as well. 

What are some of the main reasons these spaces haven’t become “mainstream” part of the city’s larger artist community – do you think this situation is improving with the changing city dynamics or not?
There is still so much structural imbalance. The situation for funding, especially for diverse voices, is pretty horrible in this city still. I see that a lot of attempts are being made to change that, but there’s still much more room to grow. We had a talk about art and art production this summer, and everybody is struggling financially. It’s frustrating to imagine how much more could happen if people had the financial stability to actually focus and work on their talents. Mainstream art institutions might host the occasional trans artist, or person with a non-European background, but only if they don’t question structures too much and behave. I think Germany and its institutions have a problem with allowing structural change in general, but that’s maybe another discussion.

The question of what is mainstream and what isn’t and where queer (as in action against heteronormative structures) fits in, is one that I could go on for pages about. I think we should get rid of all of these distinctions and I think that is happening already. I can’t see clear lines between mainstream and underground anymore, other than maybe in the way of financing and structural exclusion. Queer artists have always been in the front of any cultural movement, especially queer POCs.

I think the queer artistic community needs structural support.

What has your experience running TQU taught you about the diverse queer communities specifically in Berlin – how can readers connect with and support queer artistic communities in the city and beyond?
To some extent I wish the time of queer communities was over. I feel we only have a need for them as long as there is no full acceptance in society. Often times I see that people fight with each other, don’t talk to each other anymore or tell other people that they can’t possibly understand what one is going through and therefore exclude them from discussions. We have to be well aware of who is talking and on whose behalf and with what interest. But more than that, we should all focus on listening more, be forgiving if people make mistakes, and create an environment in which it is fun and easy to learn from each other. The process of personal growth overcoming trauma and prejudice is hard and is real. 

I think the queer artistic community needs structural support, eg. no more exclusion from bigger events, allowing for controversies and criticism of the existing structures, etc. But on a more personal level, you can simply see that when you go Christmas shopping you do a little research and find out about the queer and POC local artists around you and see if you find exciting things that you can buy from them. Hire people from the community for your next business event, make sure that your workplace doesn’t discriminate against anyone. Talk to people ask them about their experiences and make new friends. Open up to new ways and enjoy the beauty you will encounter. Be brave and be generous. 

How can people get more involved with TQU?
What TQU needs most is donations to continue to work independently. We have a crowdfunding campaign, and would especially like to find people who can support us on a regular basis, even when it is just a small amount. TQU is completely run by volunteers, honestly mostly me and a bunch of amazing artists and editors who help out with everything that is needed. I get a lot of requests for people that would like to volunteer, but in order to coordinate more volunteers, I would need another person to do that as their main job. That again would require a whole different setup and we don’t have the foundation for that yet. But that is something that I will be working on in the next year, so that TQU can continue to grow and evolve naturally. 

For now, people can visit the website and discover what is already there. There are stories to read and projects to discover. On PROPSLIST you might be able to find people to collaborate with on your next project or just take a look at the work of South African photographers or Malaysian mental health support services. And of course you can come to one of our next events at FAQ in Neukölln. 

What will be your main focus for the next year – what new projects will you be launching with TQU?
My main aim for the next year with TQU is to work on its foundation and we need to find enough supporters to cover the basic costs of running the website and Verein so that the work can be continued. I would also like to build an actual team, so that I don’t have to do all the work by myself.

Content-wise there are three different sections that will be the main focus. I run photo competitions which are really wonderful because it’s people from all over the place showing their perspectives on certain topics. There’s an open call for story submissions online now, so those submissions will get published in the next year. There will also be a physical publication of some sort of some of the stories that have been published online so far. And, lastly, there is Propslist, a main section of the website where people can submit and find projects and other beautiful things that the worldwide queer community is producing.

Verena will be speaking at the upcoming BedTalks festival on her experience running TQU. Head over to the Transnational Queer Underground website to learn about the organizations’ upcoming events, see the projects available on Proplist, and get involved in the TQU community.

You can RSVP for tickets to BedTalks via their website or you can walk in on the day. The event is free, and don’t forget to smash the attending button on the Facebook event.