In 1974, the West Berlin authorities imposed a ban on settling migrants in the districts of Tiergarten, Wedding and Kreuzberg, where the proportion of foreign residents was 12% or higher. Migrants from non-EC states were only issued residence permits if they could prove that they had found living quarters outside these districts. Despite official reports highlighting the ineffectiveness of this misguided housing policy, it was not until 1990 that the ban was finally lifted. The “refusal of some landlords, sometimes openly expressed, to rent accommodation to ‘guest workers’ was characteristic of the housing situation at the time. Urban planning also played a significant role in the deterioration of living conditions for migrants.”1 That “hardly any organised criticism of the ban” was formulated was a result of the fact that “most migrants’ associations were not formed until the 1980s.”2

Nearly a year after the ban took effect in Berlin, nGbK, still headquartered in Jebenstraße in Charlottenburg, addressed German immigration history for the first time3: in January 1975, the exhibition Gastarbeiter – Fremdarbeiter by the DAAD stipendiary Vlassis Caniaris, who had been resident in Berlin since 1973, was realised. With his walk-in spatial installations, made of used clothes, bulky rubbish and found materials, Caniaris hinted at fragmented bodies and everyday scenarios aimed at reminding the viewer of the migrants’ precarious working, housing and living conditions.
The supposed discrepancy between the urban political reality and the subjective Environments in the style of Arte Povera was interpreted as a weakness by some reviewers. The accusation was levelled that Caniaris’ work lacked political sympathy, whereby critics missed the fact that his knowledge of migration was subtly transmitted through his materials and aesthetics without having to assert itself as ‘political art’.
While Vlassis Caniaris‘ Environments was about artistic treatment, the following years saw exhibitions realised that were devoted more to a documentary or activist practice. For example, Homeless People (1988) was the first to highlight the precarious situation faced by refugees and asylum-seekers. In the exhibition Duldung (1997), photographs and interview excerpts documented the housing and living conditions endured by Roma families in Berlin’s homes for asylum-seekers and demonstrated how a makeshift life between flight, waiting and arrival, between approval formalities and the threat of deportation looks.
Migration is always linked to aspects and phenomena of mobility, national border regimes, controls and deterritorialization. Several exhibitions at nGbK, in which artistic, political and activist positions interlinked, addressed these diverse facets from an interdisciplinary perspective: the project significans (2000) was conceived as an archive, information bureau and artistic intervention office that negotiated identification and surveillance technologies that were thus to be made usable “especially for asylum-seekers or foreigners without valid residence papers”4. The results were ultimately exhibited in the form of an archive which could be expanded or commented on by visitors.5

The exhibition MOV!ING ON (2005) addressed the political and existential “effects of European migration policy”6 and developed possible answers to discriminatory practices in the form of strategies for anti-racist behaviour, which were extensively documented in an accompanying publication. The exhibition not only critically investigated “instruments of state repression” and visual discourses but the “autonomy of migration” and the political struggles of refugees and migrants were also addressed.

The interdisciplinary project Transient Spaces − The Tourist Syndrome (2010) made a daring attempt to relate apparently incompatible phenomena, spending two years negotiating ”questions of mobility, tourism, migration, new flexible ways of life and permanently being on the move”.7 The Berlin part of the exhibition did not address Berlin’s role as a magnet of the international art scene8 or the experiences of a new, highly mobile type of artist in the Postfordian working world, whose activity has developed into a presence in social networks and online debates which no longer involves the creation of a physical work.9

The projects on migration and asylum-related policies realised at the nGbK demonstrated that the relationships between politics, activism and art are not restricted to purely superficial encounters. In fact, these spheres are in a reciprocal relationship, in which they create fields of activity and new economies of attention for critical questions and marginalised voices. It is one of nGbK’s achievements that it has repeatedly provided space for debates on migration policy. One blind spot of the conversation, however, is the “issue of the lack of diversity in Berlin’s cultural institutions, staff and self-image”.[^1o]

Eylem Sengezer

  1. Manuela Bojadzijev: Zwölf Quadratmeter Deutschland. Staatliche Maßnahmen und das Konzept der Autonomie, in: http://www.kanak-attak.de/ka/text/zwoelf.html, Zugang vom 25.08.2015. 

  2. Sybille Münch: Integration durch Wohnungspolitik? Zum Umgang mit ethnischer Segregation im europäischen Vergleich. München 2010, S.341. 

  3. Vgl. Katrin Sello: Kunstkalender, in: ZEIT, 24.1.75, http://www.zeit.de/1975/05/kunstkalender. 

  4. Pressemitteilung significans, NGBK 2000. 

  5. Vgl. Pauleit, Winfried: >significans< Archiv, Informations- und Interventionsbüro, in: Ästhetik & Kommunikation, Heft 111, 31. Jg, 2000, S. 49. 

  6. http://ngbk.de/development/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=57&template=ngbkberlinmelior&lang=de. Zugang vom 01.09.2015. 

  7. Pressemitteilung Transient Spaces , NGBK 2010. 

  8. Vgl. Zeller, Jessica: No Lonely Planet, in: Jungle World, 02.09.2010. 

  9. Vgl. Hito Steyerl und Boris Buden: The Artist as Res(iden)t, in: Etcetera 104: On Residencies, Dezember 2006. 

  10. Vgl. Bahareh Sharifi: 1 Schritt vor, 2 Schritte zurück. Die Logik des deutschen, weißen Kulturbetriebs, in: Migazin, 20. Mai 2015. http://www.migazin.de/2015/05/20/schritt-schritte-die-logik-kulturbetriebs/