BERLIN — In the Neukölln borough of the city, there’s no room for hand-wringing about what constitutes a work of art. Or the validity of an art exhibition space: cafes, living rooms, empty apartments, ground-floor galleries, artist studios, and bars alike are all employed in the service of exhibiting art during 48 Hours Neukölln, the Art Festival (48hnk), which took place this past weekend.
Founded in 1999, 48hnk is arguably the oldest festival of its kind in Berlin; while reminiscent of Bushwick Open Studios (BOS) in Brooklyn, it has an attitude all its own. The 48hnk website is replete with images and documentation of various works produced and exhibited during the event. The mobile app, produced by Quarterland, made navigating the program virtually effortless. There were more events than anyone could have possibly attended in 48 hours, yet clocking in at only 50 or so spaces, 48hnk is still much more manageable than BOS’s more than 500 venues.
No discipline or variety of exhibition space seems to be privileged over another. Industrial design, graphic design, illustration — not to mention jewelry and fashion — are presented right alongside contemporary art, which itself ran a wide gamut, from provisional sculptural installation to video. A whirlwind of multifunction spaces simultaneously showed oil paintings, silk screens, café macchiatos, used clothing, and ephemera. This lack of distinction is presumably in service of a “democratic” selection process.
In New York there is an overt commercialism throughout many similar contemporary art presentations: artists tend to focus on objects which are often small, salable; presentations tend to reflect that of commercial galleries, white walls, hung in enfilade. Not so at 48hnk. Well, maybe except for the jewelry — that was definitely for sale. But the art did not seem to contain or display the traditional markers of commerce so often present in Bushwick. No such bald capitalist tendencies are present at this festival. All one could feasibly buy were the drinks.
Virtually every space had a full bar – especially the actual bars, which also served as exhibition spaces (mainly for video). Bars weren’t differentiated from any other display mechanism (e.g. non-bars) by neither the map nor patrons. Yet they all were equipped with a standard menu, priced out as follows: beer €2, wine €3, longdrink €5. (“Longdrink” means “cocktail,” though they’re hardly the pre-Prohibition mixologist-concocted variety to which I’ve grown accustomed in Brooklyn.) Empty bottles lined the walls, pooled together in vast displays of last night’s frivolity.
Galleries and project rooms blended together into pseudo-domestic, quasi-professional environments: one might encounter a bed attached to the wall with provisional wooden framing; in an otherwise clean studio space, a carpet barfed out of the open maw of a kitchen oven. A table, seating 3-4 people who were quietly talking together over coffee, dominated one exhibition space, around which much art was installed, but it was impossible to view due to the private conference in session. A litany of couches covered in bed sheets were strewn throughout narrow hallways, stacked in corners, left outside in the rain.
Dark, unfinished basements were a favorite for video exhibitions. Almost all of the spaces, at some place or another, featured a fabric wall of stapled-up bed sheets, concealing some unacceptable piping, or living room furniture, or whatever, as if bed-sheets were a suitably neutral presentation device.
An unmitigated, unabashed amount of promotional materials were displayed as importantly as artworks and distributed by hand at virtually every event, the totality of which could amount to a serious case study in artist branding. Postcard-size announcement cards are by far the preferred way of notifying others about upcoming (and past) exhibitions — never mind the Internet — and there were stacks of them everywhere, professional, gleaming. Some spaces even produced their own mini-catalogues.
Spaces could be identified from a distance by the flying banner of the 48hrs Neukölln flag, which seemed to be everywhere, but also by the official yellow posters which emphatically stated Hier Ist Kunst (“art is here”) and were themselves presented in tiled repetition around the entire neighborhood. Cleverly, caution tape was printed with the same branding (Hier Ist Kunst), which doubled as directional arrows and as barriers cordoning off sections of buildings and apartments you weren’t allowed to just traipse through. If a space didn’t have a flag, or posters, or caution tape, then it definitely had a group of people sitting out in front of it, drinking and smoking throughout the afternoon in groups of 3 to 10, perched on plastic folding chairs around a picnic table, all of which were inevitably populated by hundreds of empty bottles.
By 5:30pm on Sunday (the event was meant to run 48 hours from Friday evening — thus officially running until 6pm) many of the video projections were conspicuously switched to the Mexico/Italy match of the World Cup, the familiar unnatural grass field of fußball filled the tiny cafes and bars in which they were projected with an eerie green light. It was back to business as usual, the videos were switched off and everyone went back to drinking just regular booze, uninflected by art.
48 Hours Neukölln took place at various locations in Berlin-Neukölln from Friday, June 27 through Sunday, June 29.