Silberkuppe—what is the significance in the name?
The idea of the space and how we might go about running it came long before opening in May 2008. We had already sat around for ages deciding not ‘what to renovate’ or ‘how sparingly to apply white paint’ in our old space, which we sublet from the collective basso, before the name problem arose. Actually it was part of our idea to only do things that seemed really necessary. We thought a name for our space would somehow suggest itself as we started working, that we might even open nameless. The only thing that was clear was that we weren’t going to call the space after ourselves like a new brand of tea. From the beginning we also asked artists close to us to contribute to the decision-making about everything. One of our problems was how to light the room. In the end we decided the light could change all of the time instead of being fixed. But the first version was using chrome-tipped light bulbs. The bulbs came from a GDR factory in our neighbourhood, which no longer exists. One day we were sitting around musing and the artist Nairy Baghramian noticed the packaging of the bulb, which had the slogan ‘Die Lampe mit der Silberkuppe’ (which roughly translates as ‘the bulb with the silver tip’). The word silberkuppe is weird in German too… out of context it isn’t clear what it means. We liked that. We thought also about Galerie Meerrettich (Gallery Horseradish), Josef Strau’s artistrun space and the benefit of having a cheeky, slightly absurd name… a name which would accrue its own identity, which could be an open metaphor or one which would only acquire significance or meaning through what we actually do over time.
What needs/desires was Silberkuppe hoping to meet when setting up the space?
We opened at a time when the Berlin contemporary art scene, in particular the commercial gallery scene, had been expanding at an incredible rate for a number of years. Paradoxically we thought that despite this money and possibility that there were certain approaches and constellations of art and artists, which were being sidelined or rendered unpractical in this context. We also had the sense, from working with artists, of a sense of fatigue amongst the successful ones—you know— producing for fairs or big shows one after another, the problem of people becoming alienated from their own work and not having the chance to share and discuss it with their peers. Also, many artists weren’t getting the opportunity to just try things out because the stakes were somehow too high, in the wrong way, everywhere. In the 1990s in Berlin when the gallery scene was virtually nonexistent or just getting started, everyone went to everything, knew each other and things were very hotly debated. It would be wrong to be nostalgic about back then because other difficulties were very real too. On the other hand we thought that it would be good to have a space in which our peers—artists, writers, curators of all kinds—could socialise and make exhibitions and projects which didn’t entail the normal rhythm or production mechanisms which exclude and make demands of artists elsewhere. From the beginning we tried to make sure that Silberkuppe would be a meeting place to generate informal discourse, as well as a kind of alternative production site.
How would you define Silberkuppe’s relationship to the institution (the Hayward Gallery in this case)?
It was quite a big decision for us to accept institutional invitations after only existing for less than a year. We were conscious that after working hard on our local context and making things possible that it might be rather a stretch to work as we do in an institutional setting. Before Tom Morton from the Hayward Gallery Project Space invited us, we said yes to a show at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden. There it seemed to make sense because the exhibition 7×14 was a kind of revisiting of a radical series of exhibitions in the Kunsthalle held between 1968 and 1973, which was probably the first time that a German institution opened its self up to this process— that the artists lived and worked in the art spaces, organised events and actions, played music etc. We thought it made sense for us to try out those ideas again now. We blew and stretched our resources to invite 18 artists and five guests who lived and worked in the Kunsthalle for 12 days. Hayward was a different story, smaller scale, but important to us. The original invitation was because the Goethe-Institut made some funding possible to make a show coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall. It was clear we didn’t want to attempt a Berlin survey show or an historical show about Berlin. Instead, we decided to work close to our roots in this lineage of project rooms, independent spaces, temporary projects and actions, which characterised the 1990s and which to an extent has continued to exist parallel to the art scene proper. We decided to invite some of the protagonists of that interwoven, recent history to do something that reflected on their past and present practice but were also people we liked, who somehow helped define our thinking and approach—for example, the seating and table platform made by French interior designer Janette Laverrière, which can be interpreted as a desire for getting together and talking on one level.
Collective. Collaboration. What do they mean in the context of this project and the contributing artists?
Is the independence of the space essential? We definitely see how we work as a kind of close collaboration with the artists or others involved although that doesn’t need to bleed over into authorship questions. Sometimes people think we are a collective— but we aren’t sure if two friends constitute a collective. The idea of collective is most alive in the work of basso—a very active group from Berlin who normally operate more sub-culturally at a critical distance from the art world although many of the people involved have also individual art practices. Their work at the Hayward show, ISO project, 2009, was one of their most elaborate outof- town projects to date. They held a workshop in the Dan Graham pavilion for two days turning 400 donated moving blankets into a collective sculpture. On the last day they relocated to a normally disused sculpture terrace on the Hayward and installed the work and improvised music together. The public were invited to enter their blanket bubble which was constantly being reformed. The idea of the blankets was to take a material that recalled the concrete of the Hayward but to make it soft and liquid, to add amorphousness to the strict originally utopian shapes of the building. In some ways we are more interested in the problems of involvement than independence. We often say that Silberkuppe quite consciously works within the existing art world structures and within the field of contemporary art, but hopefully in some of the grey zones that exist among the various protagonists and interests that exist there. Of course, we are also independent in the sense that we are self-funded and aren’t beholden to either public or private interests or influence, and yes, that was an important decision for us to operate like this and one that we made very consciously from the beginning.
What elements of artists’ practice and production inform the creation of the Silberkuppe programme?
This is a difficult question to answer because our programme is intentionally very diverse and sometimes even aesthetically dissonant. Heterogeneity is becoming one of our hallmarks because of the way it causes a sense of lack of an easy-going consensus, it makes you think about difference rather than be complacent. Certainly we are interested in art that is reflected and self-critical about the idea of what an artist is, about modes of production, creation of meaning and context, as well as about notions of the public, the viewer and audience—but it doesn’t have to look all the same nor come from one group, scene or even one generation. It follows from this that we don’t make decisions based on medium or anything like that. It’s important to us when we work with an artist that we can have a fruitful conversation and do something together which might not fit somewhere else. We hate the idea of our space just being an art hotel for instance. We like art that is speculative. There are particular discourses in recent art history that are important to us too like: the legacy of feminism, queer theory, institutional critique, conceptual art and all of the art of the last 20 years which has been struggling with issues and content in order to involve social politics. We also like outlaws and the forgotten or the cornered and difficult.
Is there a conscious desire to express the ephemeral of art production in this project?
Having the band Motherland play in the foyer of the Hayward, or basso’s workshop project, were ephemeral but stay in memory. In the long term most traditional art objects are just as transitory too though. Perhaps it’s not ephemerality as such which is the issue but rather the ideas and content which are important. Nicolas Siepen’s installation in the Hayward addressed this idea—he created a kind of beach on which documents and objects washed up as kind of relics from his own past involvement in many, many different politicised projects.
How does this project and the Silberkuppe project itself relate to the urban landscapes they are found in?
Not directly, but this is also not something we ignore.
Does the idea of public accessibility (or inaccessibility) have any bearing on Silberkuppe projects?
Everybody wants to be loved don’t they, (we laugh). We just found out that over 6,000 people saw the Hayward Gallery Project Space show. This made us think because you have to remember that in Berlin we are only open by appointment so we tend to meet people one-to-one and have long talks about things. So there is quite a difference between the kind of exposure to the general public—the Hayward gallery in the Southbank centre has a huge and diverse demographic—and our usual intimate style. We do care if people ‘get it’ or not. At the same time we think it’s better to challenge and be generous to a curious public rather than make art conform to some weird one-size-fits-all-brains disparaging phantasm about the mental state of the ‘general public’.
Curated by Silberkuppe: Under One Umbrella, Bergen Kusthall, 5 March–7 April: Old Ideas, Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, 16 January–14 March: Rooms Without Walls, Hayward Gallery Project Space, London, 25 November 2009–20 January 2010