The Art Association Wagenhalle was founded in Stuttgart in 2004 in the former wagon repair hall of the Royal Württemberg State Railways. Since then, it has grown incredibly, acquiring a multidisciplinary and international character. More than 100 members, active in all fields of art and culture production, share studios and ideas, giving life to a remarkable series of events, exhibitions, and concerts.
I met Lisa Biedlingmaier in a cozy café, in the middle of Zurich. She told me about herself and her experience growing up in Georgia, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union, until the age of thirteen, at which time she moved to Stuttgart. There she studied art education at the Academy of Fine Arts. After school, she decided to move to Zurich, where she got a degree in photography at the ZHdK (Zürcher Hochschule der Künste). Since 2005, she has maintained an active arts practice, based between Zurich and Stuttgart, and as a member of the Wagenhalle Kunstverein. Lisa started her own curatorial project in 2014.
Beatrice Fontana: Thank you, Lisa, for taking this time. You work as an independent artist and curator, and you are member of the Wagenhalle Kunstverein. How would you describe your position within it?
Lisa Biedlingmaier: I am one of the many artists who are members of the Wagenhalle in Stuttgart. The Art Association is first and foremost a community of shared studios. Only in 2014, I started to work on my curatorial practice there—at first as part of a project known as peekaboo! in conjunction with Bernadette Wolbring, and then later, on my own. The infrastructures at our disposal, within the exhibition space, resemble those of a self-organised, artist-run space. That means that only the bare rooms are available. There are no employees or technicians whatsoever helping with the facilities usually needed for an exhibition. Now and then you get some help from a kind studio neighbour.
This situation will hopefully change as soon as we are able to move back to the official Wagenhalle space, which is under renovation at the moment. During the construction period, in fact, all the exhibitions are being held outside at the Container City, in shipping containers, located in the proximity. The move back to the Wagenhalle is planned for summer of 2019. We will then also have a multifunctional room at our disposal. In the Container City setting, my curatorial activity could be described as follows: I do the research and plan the exhibition; I invite the artists; I write the texts; I apply for funding. Next, I help the artists to set up; I offer and prepare the rooms; I clean the exhibition space; I drive to the hardware store; I communicate with the graphic designers and print the flyers; I hang up the posters. Finally, I take care of the space during the opening hours, and, to conclude, I remove the exhibition; I send back the artworks; I wash the laundry; I clean up the showroom; and lastly, I close the budget and make the final report. My partner usually re-paints the showroom, cooks for the artists, and put his workshop and his bar at the artists’ disposal.
BF: Does the centre/periphery dichotomy—as a spatial metaphor as well as social model—play a role in your artistic and curatorial work? Could you define it?
LB: If you consider the art scene as being divided into network-islands, and you acknowledge that the chances of island-hopping are relatively small, you have no real choice but to practise within your own range of action. Of course, as we continue to orient ourselves within the major international discourses and exhibitions, the feeling of being peripheral remains anyway. So does the dichotomy.
Artistically, I have dealt with this topic in the video work Hearing about Athens (2017). In the video one can see the Container City and hear the documenta 14 radio from Athens. The physical location of the recording on the one hand and the possibility of receiving audio from major international events through media on the other, is a metaphor for both the dichotomy and the interconnectedness between the so-called alternative art world, and the established one.
Curatorially, I tried on one hand to contribute to the Stuttgart’s art scene by inviting non-local artists (from Zurich, Vienna, Saarbrucken), and at the same time to cement the public character of the Kunstverein’s activities. No one is interested in artists as long as they remain working in their ateliers. But if one contributes to the cultural life of the city, they will finally have the opportunity to be noticed, and to get the necessary financial support. This is something that has actually happened—in fact, we have received regular institutional funding from the city since 2018.
In general, the accessibility to places like the Wagenhalle is higher and the borders are more permeable and undefined [compared to other artistic institutions in the area] thanks to the plurality of the events we are offering. One often feels the need to oppose something in the world out there: the world of commerce and political frustrations. To project qualities such as care, community, and anti-commerce. In a way, I think we became an oasis for those who are interested in topics such as alternative consumption, who would like to become active in this area themselves.
With the new place and the institutional support, however, we must reinvent ourselves and develop a new concept that helps to protect this free Geist. It would be a pity if too much bureaucracy were to narrow those possibilities.
BF: Considering the specific case of the Kunstverein Wagenhalle/Container City, did the peculiarity of its location (in a central position in the city of Stuttgart, but with a strong peripheral character) add value or attribute different meaning to the work that was produced there?
LB: It's all about possibilities. In the end, we adapt to the situation and try to make the best of it, which means using it productively. And the advantages of the Wagenhalle/Container City in that sense are obvious. The rent is cheap, the rooms relatively big, and one can feel a disorderly but creative atmosphere on site. It will be interesting to see if this character will persist when we will move into the renovated building. The peripheral character of the area gives one the feeling of being far away from the hectic city and of being able to work in peace. At the same time the city can be reached in ten minutes.
Places inspire and offer possibilities. And that is how my autonomous curatorial work started: through a seldom used room that happened to be free at the time, and that was at my disposal. These rooms are like a vacuum that asks to be filled. Of course, if you exhibit in containers, then you cannot help but be reminded of precarious living conditions, and that is obviously reflected in one’s work, for example in Hearing about Athens or Discover your Soul.
The invited artists are usually my personal guests, which creates a dynamic that goes far beyond a regular working relationship. You tackle things together and try to make the most out of what you have. I realized that the more money is involved, the more people expect and are tempted to negotiate rather than collaborate with you. The same thing applies to me: when I perform or create without an official engagement, I try at least to have a good experience and a good time.
The need for an infrastructure like the Wagenhalle arose from the urge to have a room in which larger projects could be realised, workshops could be held, and a gateway to the public—in the form of exhibitions—could be opened. However, shortly after having found the space, our plans appeared to crumble: a report from a fire protection officer said that no external audience would be allowed to enter the hall. That was exactly when we, as peekaboo!, were planning our first big exhibition there.
We needed to think quickly! In an effort to make it work, we set up the exhibition right behind the four big gates of the hall. This allowed the audience to enjoy the artistic work without physically entering the space—it was enough to stand on the threshold. We added a series of truck trailers and containers, placing them on the opposite side of the gates, and turning them into open white cubes. This makeshift exhibition concept remained the same for the following three years. Out of emergency a very original and creative mood was generated!
The topic of gentrification and the question of our positioning as artists in the urban space, which is always also a political and social space, remained present and concrete, giving life to many site-specific works. In 2017, when the construction site for the renovation of the Wagenhalle started, we had to move to the opposite parking lot and into the so-called Container City, a group of ateliers made out of shipping containers and built by the artists themselves.
BF: Which part of the community do you try to address with your projects, and which part actually becomes involved? In other words, how does the neighbourhood respond?
LB: Everyone is welcome! At the last exhibition, Humus Sapiens, which was accompanied by four days of workshops, the urban gardening project Stadtacker was also involved. The workshops were free and open to all. But In addition to the participating scientists (Global Hackteria), it was, above all, artists who came. That is because our newsletter is mainly directed at, and read by, people already participating in an artistic environment. I usually try to involve different people by corresponding the opening hours of the exhibition space with the concerts taking place in the adjacent venue. Thus, that subsection of the public that is interested in music can also enjoy the exhibitions. The thing is, although everyone is welcome, we noticed that some mediation and translation of the space is needed in order to enable us to speak with different kinds of public. Not in the literal sense of the word, but in a figurative sense. As we all know, contemporary art is not very easy to communicate.
Either a project is designed to appeal to specific groups of the population. In that case, you adapt your language to their particular knowledge and integrate this specialised way of speaking into the concept. Alternatively, the project is designed to appeal to a broader audience, and you find yourself in the situation where you have to sacrifice complexity, and break down the contents more thoroughly.
Even at the university, this twist was needed if you wished to work in an interdisciplinary manner. As far as the neighbourhood is concerned, I would say that we do not have an immediate neighbourhood, as we are shut in between the cemetery and the railway tracks. But that comes with a few advantages of its own, such as the potential for a vibrant music scene.
BF: In your opinion, does the spatial position of cultural and social projects change the attitude of municipal and institutional players towards them?
LB: To the city we first needed to show that, as artists, we are worth being promoted and supported. You might know that the geographical position of the city, within a mountain basin, leads to land scarcity and high real estate prices. So, given the central position of the Wagenhalle, we demanded a lot! That resulted in us having to prove that we could be internationally acknowledged. When our project grew from being just a temporary use of an empty space to something bigger, the first step was to stand up as one voice: the voice of the Kunstverein. And when we had to choose an alternative location, during the construction site for the renovation of the Wagenhalle, it became vital not to have our working place moved to the periphery of the city. That resulted in Container City. Stay in place, no compromise!
Connection to the cultural life and the proximity to the supply centres play an important role for artists. Indeed, when you're there at Container City, you can hardly believe that you're not in the periphery, but actually in the centre of Stuttgart. This space was long left free for the major railroad project Stuttgart 21. Due to the massive resistance and protests of the citizens, the construction was delayed, which naturally suited us. Now, with the city having invested money in the Wagenhalle, our right to exist has been certified, and we receive institutional support. In that sense the central location is obviously relevant.
BF: What is your strategy for furthering the project as you grow into the future?
LB: Working in the new space, from the summer of 2019, will be a major challenge for us, wanting to make use of it as successfully and intensively as possible. In addition to exhibitions, theatre performances, and concerts, much more will then take place. That is why I think it would be advisable to maintain a high level of experimental spirit. We are, after all, a cultural production site, which means not only established cultural workers should be involved. It is important that young artists or students, for example, get the chance to experiment on their projects. As an artist, the role of the curator is also a peripheral activity for me. In fact, I do not aspire to a curatorial career. While for many an off-space can be a career springboard, I do not pursue any further goals in that sense. I experience that as a huge freedom, which enables me to also act as an artist here.
For me, the independent alternative music scene has been inspiring. I have experienced it for over ten years, here at the Wagenhalle. Beyond the commercial, they celebrate themselves, without giving account to anyone. Unfortunately, when a similar concept is applied to art, it is unfortunately associated with a much bigger commitment, and also—as art is always dependent on external subsidies—with bigger financial efforts.
In conclusion, I think that peripheral and central as ideas are not disconnected from each other, but rather that the one flows into the other. We could say that the peripheral is the breeding ground for the established.
Lisa Biedlingmaier is an artist and a curator. She is internationally active since 2011 with exhibitions, performances and screenings. Alongside she is an active member of the Art Association Wagenhalle in Stuttgart and of the research groups forschungsgruppe-f and BAD LAB. She is also Co-founder of the Peekaboo! curatorial duo, and part of the performance group Feinstaub. Lisa currently lives and works in Zurich.
Beatrice Fontana is an architect and urban researcher. In 2009 she co-founded the architectural office hoffmannfontana, which specializes in temporary re-use of large buildings and urban structures. Her research as part of the MAS Curating at Zhdk is focused on political discourse within the curatorial thinking. Beatrice lives and works in Zurich.