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A conversation with Helen Turner on community, transgenerationality, and sustainability in times of crisis.

  • Nov 28 2022
  • Dalia Maini
    is a writer, editor and urban mermaid.

To visit E-WERK Luckenwalde is a journey. You leave the chaos of the city behind, and when you come on the train, the landscape suddenly opens up. Then, when you arrive in Luckenwalde and walk through the town – it's very quiet. There is a feeling of abandonment, which many artists, visitors, and students who visit say is exactly what they like about E-WERK. The cacophony of the city is left behind, and there is a capacity to focus, without distraction. After visiting the power station, now functioning as a contemporary art center and Kunststrom power station in Luckenwalde, and diving into this feeling of regeneration, I got in touch with Helen Turner, the co-Artistic Director and Chief Curator, in order to breathe airs of change together.

Let’s start with my first visit to E-WERK last summer for the Sommerfest, where the historic Mendelsohn Hat Factory was partially occupied by Isabel Lewis & Sissel Tolaas’s H_SPACE_H performance (in collaboration with Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop and Ethan Braun). The day-long series of events branched out and inhabited historic buildings in Luckenwalde; in doing so, you negotiated with the community’s desires and needs. How do you establish a dialogue and avoid cultural colonization?

There are over 150 listed buildings in Luckenwalde, many of which are abandoned, and more Bauhaus buildings than in Weimar and Dessau – so it has a huge cultural potential for rejuvenation. However, we are trying to be very conscious about our presence in order to understand how it is possible to integrate the local community and create accessible programming, which is simultaneously non-patronizing and participatory. We are actually on the precipice of expansion to develop an E-WERK campus, which will include the neighboring Bauhaus Stadtbad and other adjacent buildings. The city has just received 4 million euros of federal funding to renovate the building into a space with culture, energy, and the community at its heart. E-WERK Luckenwalde will ultimately provide the building with 100% carbon-negative energy, produced on-site at the power station. In collaboration with the city and LUBA GmbH, the former city baths will become a cultural space with studios, recording and seminar rooms, and practical workshop laboratory spaces devoted to ecological practice in the arts.


So, the program at the Stadtbad will be an open invitation to the community to organize events. Encouragingly, we have already received requests from locals to host a silent disco and flea market, which would fold into the event program, alongside the contemporary art program. We are interested in creating an open platform, and therefore dialogue, in order to question the hierarchical and often top-down position of curators and cultural practitioners who organize and decide what to show and who to show, and what an audience wants. I think it's really important, particularly here, to pay respect to civic buildings and keep them in the hands of the public. At E-WERK, we have kept the entrance to exhibitions free because we want the buildings to remain publicly accessible to everyone. 

I think cultural transformation always presupposes practices of generosity and trust, because we have inherited the idea that culture is hierarchical and imposed. This creates fears, but also desires for more grassroots approaches. When the role of the curator seems to be always that of the supervisor, I am wondering if, instead, the curator could offer service to the community, to understand their cultural cravings. The curator could also be the emissary of the silent public, the one that stays in the background because they are never seen as having potential.

One aspiration at E-WERK is to create intergenerational and interdisciplinary knowledge systems. Since starting E-WERK, we have worked closely with the local community in order to understand the functional aspects of the power station. We inherited the archive that documents the whole history of E-WERK from 1911, and in 2021, we did an exhibition called The Archive Show, curated by Adriana Tranca, who invited six contemporary artists – Lamin Fofana, Keiken, Henrike Naumann, Jenna Sutela, Lauryn Youden, and L.Zylberberg – to respond to the archive by creating new scores. In this context, we invited some of the site’s former workers to act as mediators between the archive and the artists, and to translate the knowledge kept there. Another example is artist and co-Artistic Director Pablo Wendel’s turning the power station back on again. This engineering achievement would have been absolutely impossible without consultation from the men who used to work here. It has been extremely humbling how many of the people related to the history of the building have come forth to share their knowledge about the power station, and most importantly, their belief in the possibility to do what we are doing. They were glad to see the power station activated again, as a functioning power station producing and supplying electricity to the building and national grid, but this time ecologically with Kunststrom.


When I think about E-WERK I inevitably connect it to energy and therefore to entropy, a continuous dispersion and restitution of fluxes between bodies of knowledge. The former workers of the station, coming back as mentors and activating the station again for another purpose, create a symbiotic process of co-responsibility. I am wondering how to make this multilateral correspondence visible in time through the activation of the static medium of the archive.

Adriana Tranca, one of our curators here, organized a series of scores in response to the archive as part of The Archive Show, which was an attempt to think of the archive as a de-linear space, encompassing past, present, and future. One example was the artist Jenna Sutela, who organized a workshop called Spit Drink, based on the ancient tradition of producing sake through saliva. The idea was to create a living score for future participants engaging with the E-WERK archive to drink and thus keep the space like a living organism. I'm really interested in these works, which melt into the fabric of the building and the project. For instance, we worked with the artist Himali Singh Soin in the summer for POWER NIGHTS: Being Mothers, curated by Lucia Pietroiusti in collaboration with myself and Adriana Tranca and Katharina Worf. For her contribution, Soin created a phytoremediation garden in collaboration with soil ecologist Dr. Habil Hans-Holder Liste, in order to find out what flora we could plant so that we could extract the contamination from coal out of the earth at E-WERK. So, this summer, we planted mustard seeds with the idea to naturally draw out carbon contamination from the ground, which feels to me to be a kind of poem. This is one permanent piece; another was introduced by artist collective Cooking Sections, who developed a site-responsive bread called Grundbrot to reimagine human and more-than-human relationships with the soil, a biodynamic recipe established in collaboration with Brandenburg regenerative farm Gut & Bösel.

It feels like E-WERK is a hub for art practices of reparation intimately intertwined with scientific and ecological discourse. These artistic practices can be undertaken by people in order to create new rituals and heritages beyond the artistic gesture. This is a subtle, yet substantial, approach to bringing about a different consciousness around the discourse in art.

Yes, these are transferable ideas. We're strong believers that art has this huge socio-political potential to activate change. A lot of the works we commission or work with have a functionality, which is perhaps why we find ourselves collaborating with engineers, ecologists, or soil experts. Pablo Wendel has been producing Kunststrom electricity for over 10 years now. He has been on the sustainability mission for a really long time, mainly because he was so tired of the art world making gestures about sustainability rather than taking action. The electricity produced at E-WERK, called Kunststrom, is fed into the national grid for clients throughout Germany. Anyone in Germany can switch to Kunststrom, and in doing so, your utility bill for your office, studio, house, gallery, or institution then also supports the contemporary art program at E-WERK. 

Many cultural makers advocate for change, but they end up in the pitfall of institutional non-performativity and never enact it. E-WERK has a privilege because of the building it inhabits, the former electricity central. And this is in your favor, especially now with inflation: many institutions will need to deal with rising costs, and instead, you are autonomous and self-sufficient. 

It was quite an interesting test for us when the pandemic hit: we were able to survive because we were powering ourselves. We kind of had this base of resilience. We didn't have to feverishly produce digital programming to get funding in order to pay everybody. We were able to stay very quiet, but afloat. It showed that we can be autonomous, but interdependent with our surroundings. I have to think of my colleagues in big institutions who are tirelessly trying to make a change, such as switching to a green energy provider, but as a federal institution, every decision is laced with political implications and bureaucracy and can be extremely slow to enact the change they wish to see. I think, as you said, we have this kind of privilege of being independent. If we want to stop or slow down, we can, although our program is mainly funded through public funding so, to stay culturally active, we still need to run. 

Yeah, constantly applying for public funding in some way is a tiring labor of cultural preemption. One always needs to project oneself into the future and be aware of institutional frameworks. In some way, it is the work of complying with the system of relevancy, where the guidelines are always already predefined but not necessarily situated in transformative ways of approaching culture-making. There is no time to ground one intention when chasing applications.

Also, you don't get paid to do the funding. There's always this lack of consciousness of the labor that gets put into something. I would also really like to try and achieve long-term institutional funding because I really do believe that the state should be investing in culture and cultural institutions, and really recognize the value of culture. So I'm not opposed to public funding, I just think it's not sustainable on a human level.

Regarding the self-sustained model you represent, I have the sensation that a lot of the discourse of useability and circularity is actually not economically accessible enough for the majority of people and institutions.

Many people argue that the reason they're not becoming more sustainable is because of cost, but at E-WERK we often see that the ecological option is also the economic one. I guess it’s all in the Greek etymology of the word eco or home. Of course, there is the argument that you might have to invest more upfront, which is a privileged position, but if we think on a deep-time global scale, if we don't invest the money now, globally, it's going to be three to four times more expensive in five to seven years. If we delay, basically, it's going to be economically disastrous. At the moment, we have around 60 clients in Germany powered by Kunststrom who, in turn, ensure our survival as an independent institution. But our dream is that we would be 100% reliant on Kunststrom in the future. But for this, we would need over 1,000 clients. So, in 2023, we intend to do a big campaign to encourage people to switch to Kunststrom. Of course, it is more critical than ever to take into account where your energy is coming from. 


The sustainability approach undertaken by E-WERK is very future-thinking, but art institutions often don’t take responsibility for presenting viable plans to reduce their environmental impact seriously. In the face of reckless displacement of budgets, sustainability still feels out of the long-term agenda, for many.

I'm one of the founding members of the Gallery Climate Coalition, which is a collaboration between galleries in Berlin to come together to try and share resources about becoming more sustainable. There's a carbon calculator integrated into the website, so galleries or institutions can calculate their carbon impact for each year. This then helps institutions to calculate their carbon budget for the forthcoming years in addition to calculating the cost. Many have found that if you actually choose the more ecological route – so if you don't fly artworks, or don't fly your workers, but you take the train – you can simultaneously take care of the planet and the rhythms of labor. So I think that's really important, that GCC is a melting point between grassroots institutions, such as ours, and mega-international galleries, who are all coming together to find solutions and ways to slow down. What we all saw during the pandemic was an incredible amount of goodwill and desire to decelerate, but, unfortunately, there has been quite a sharp return to the hamster wheel, and an unsustainable pace of production both on human and planetary scales. 

On the contrary, your programming mirrors this desire for slower fruition, also in terms of the exhibition’s length and formats. Full weekends of cultural offerings for families and elders give texture to your desire for mirroring natural cycles and symbiotic metabolism.

We have an ecological statement that has three main objectives: progressive deceleration; playing with the impossible; and collaboration, not competition. For instance, with POWER NIGHTS 2021-2022, we were really trying to experiment with slow curating. In 2019, the first event of the series took place in one night, an explosive first event with eight different performances, which was fantastic. But then during the pandemic, we started to question the format, and we agreed that condensing the program into one night didn’t make sense anymore. So we decided to divide it into chapters over the course of the year, letting the exhibitions by the seven different artists build into each other. Lucia’s curatorial concept was all about fertility and fertile soils. As such, we looked at fertility from several different angles, Tabita Rezaire for example presented this amazing documentary called Womb Wisdom (2021), where she interviewed three midwives from French Guiana about their historical practices of midwifery. Over the course of the year, people kept coming back to see the exhibition grow and how it had changed. However, we did find that this aspiration towards slowing down, and thus self-care, wasn’t 100% successful, as the workload was a lot higher and the whole team was exhausted at the end of the year.

This is part of the challenge: how can we allow each other to rest? Resting is a luxury, because how do you afford to live while resting? I'm wondering if you already have an idea of what 2023 will look like. 

We are framing 2023 around the idea of the material revolution. We will be launching a residency program with LUMA Arles and Rupert in Vilnius, and we're going to invite artists to develop new material prototypes for sustainable exhibition-making. This will run alongside a symposium program, the first of which will be held at E-WERK, titled Burnout. It will be around the idea of human sustainability, and how we can facilitate better working conditions and systems so that we can better take care of ourselves as cultural workers or artists. The second one, in collaboration with Rupert, will be focusing on economic resilience and alternative economic systems. And the third, at LUMA, will be focused on how we can approach materials in a radically different way, integrating those new materials and ecological practices into the work we do. Via this residency program, we are hoping to establish concrete alternative solutions to climate catastrophe for our sector.  


With the music festival CURRENTS, you have already worked on different planes, histories, materials, and energies. Will we see more of this? 

Together with the head of CURRENTS, Adriana Tranca, and the curators of the festival, Khidja (Andrei Rusu and Florentin Tudor), we saw the huge potential of bringing music to Luckenwalde. We felt that bringing electronic music made so much sense with who we are as a functioning electricity station. It was an incredible and hugely symbolic moment for me witnessing Suzanne Ciani sitting in the titanic structure of the Cupola in the Turbine Hall, which forms part of our current exhibition Cold Light (Lindsay Seers, Keith Sargent, and Performance Electrics), an homage to Tesla. The Cupola sculpture in the center of the Turbine Hall is based on Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower, which he built in 1910 in Long Island. Tesla was a radical thinker, whose idea was to give away energy for free. He has been a huge inspiration for Pablo for his radical contribution to electricity and showmanship – he used to do performances with electricity and was in love with a pigeon. Having Suzanne Ciani playing the Buchla and her quadraphonic sounds in this gigantic monolith of electricity, I really felt E-WERK become a cathedral to the avant-garde. We really want to encourage this kind of feeling of slippages between exhibitions, and transversality among times and communities. 


More info:

Save the date for 2023 at E-WERK Luckenwalde for the first symposium Burn Out at E-WERK on 25 March 2023. The Material Revolution is a year-long program inviting viewers toward innovation; encouraging the artistic agency to reclaim its authority in socio-political change – to activate new material approaches and territories in order to stimulate urgent change in the cultural sector and inspire action-led thinking. Further announcements to follow this winter.


    Cover: E-WERK Luckenwalde. Image courtesy of Tim Haber.
    fig.1 Wigs carrying the idiosyncratic smell of EW’s production of electricity, which Sissel Tolaas sourced while on a site visit to E-WERK. Courtesy of the artists and Maria Schneider.
    Isabel Lewis and Sissel Tolaas with Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop and with the composer Ethan Braun: H_SPACE_H - shown as part of the finissage of POWER NIGHTS: Being Mothers by E_WERK Luckenwalde. Image: Alex Krupp.
    fig.2 Jenna Sutela in collaboration with Markus Shimizu, Mimi Ferments Berlin, Spit Drink, 2021. Image: Andres Villarreal.

    fig.3 Installation view of Tabita Rezaire, Womb Wisdom, 2021 part of POWER NIGHTS curated by Lucia Pietroiusti at E-WERK Luckenwalde, 2021 - 2022. Courtesy E-WERK Luckenwalde and the artist. Image: Stefan Korte.
    fig.4 Suzanne Ciani's performance at CURRENTS 2022. Image: Julia Grüßing, courtesy of E-WERK Luckenwalde.


    Helen Turner is E-Wek Lukenwalde's Artistic Director and Curator.



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