by Ava Bromberg and Brett Bloom
Image: Nils Norman’s Map with Activity Parks
Hamburg Action: A Field Guide
The city of Hamburg Germany is known for its strong historical commitment
to public art. Formal sculptures are found throughout the city, as are more
innovative and groundbreaking works. One such work, well known outside of Hamburg,
Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz’s "Harburg Monument against War
and Fascism and for Peace", consists of a twelve-meter column plated in
lead. Residents were invited to cover the column with inscriptions. As a section
became full, it was lowered into the ground. After seven years (1986-1993),
it was fully entombed in a sarcophagus-like structure near the Harburg train
station, south of Hamburg’s city center.
A tradition of working in public that is often informal, political, and confrontational
is equally as strong. This field guide highlights recent self-initiated work
by Hamburg artists. We sought out the projects discussed here, meeting with
members of the groups and in some cases experiencing their projects.
Some of these projects were quite ephemeral and only intended to last a short
time. Others have an enduring presence and reflect long-term commitments to
changing the city. They are not always as visible or permanent as the bronze
sculptures one may happen upon on a bike ride through the city. All are, however,
creative approaches that articulate a recent history of Hamburg city spaces,
and the commitment of artists and local citizens to opening these spaces up
for more critical conversations. Hamburg isn’t an extremely large city,
so you can get information about these groups, or get in contact with them
and others like them, in a relatively short period of time.
Displaying a total lack of imagination, the city of Hamburg’s Art in
Public Space Department, which provided financial support for a few of the
projects discussed here, recently commissioned a giant Jeff Koons sculpture
for the "Spielbudenplatz" (Central Square) in Hamburg’s St.Pauli
neighborhood. Regardless of whether or not this represents an ideological shift
in the city’s idea of public art towards a predictable internationalism,
artists and activists working in Hamburg will continue to re-interpret the
spaces of their city, not waiting for official approval or trends in the international
art market to spark a conscientious debate.
It is a stereotype that Germans are highly organized. You will find Vereine
(associations) for just about anything you can imagine. There are about 29
activity parks scattered around Hamburg. They can receive public funding, but
are run by private Vereine. The activity parks are places where children, usually
ages 9-14, can build their own playgrounds with some adult supervision. In
these parks, kids’ imagination can be realized in the built structures.
The large park we recently visited had dozens of buildings, some two or three
(child-size) stories tall - interconnected with wooden bridges. It also had
a garden, a bonfire pit, a stage, a place for parking tricycles, tools and
These parks offer insights into German attitudes about activity in public and their constructive approach (as opposed to the regulative one finds here in the U.S. – fear of liability and lawsuits would prevent the construction of parks like these) to providing children an outlet for their imagination in a public setting.
The Park Fiction project began in 1994 when a small open patch of land with views from the St. Pauli neighborhood to the Elbe River came under threat of being sold by the city. The city wanted the space developed into high-rise corporate offices but the people living in St. Pauli wanted the space and their river view to remain unobstructed. The Park Fiction group organized to preserve the open space for use as a public park. In Margit Czenki’s film about Park Fiction, a participant named Sabine says about the project:
It wasn’t just about having the park as a green area, but also about parks and politics, about the privatization of public space, about parks all over the world, about skateboarding and the pace of the city and accordingly it was about community conferences and democratic planning procedures.
Park Fiction used a variety of methods to facilitate what they call "collective wish production", a process whereby the desires of the people of St.Pauli could "take to the streets." Park Fiction began a participatory design process for the contested open space parallel to the design process pursued by the city. Residents were invited to articulate designs for the park that contained elements they desired. From early on in the process the park already had what group member Christoph Schaefer described in an interview as “a social reality.” It was used continuously for public events such as open-air screenings, billboard demonstrations, and concerts. The core Park Fiction group, which expanded and contracted over the eight year course of the project, consisted of artists, musicians, and neighbors working with social institutions, the church adjacent to the park, squatters with a long history of activity in the neighborhood, and shop and café owners. A planning container on the site held an archive of desires, a garden library, and an “action kit” which functioned as a portable planning studio that could be taken to apartments in the neighborhood. Since 1997 Park Fiction’s efforts were financed by the Art in Public Space program of the municipal culture department of Hamburg. Yearly, Park Fiction held major events at the park and presented the project outside of Hamburg in international art and music circles building cultural capital for the ideas outside of Hamburg before bringing their demands to city officials. As Christoph Schaefer adds, also in Czenki’s film:
Films, performances and lectures brought art, town-planning and politics together, or rather created political discussions about art and vice versa questioned the standardized forms of political practice.
The energy behind the project was hard for one prominent city official to ignore when he attended a later Park Fiction event. When people in the neighborhood and the group became involved in widespread protests against the closing of the Harbor Hospital in St. Pauli in 1997, the city knew it had to start negotiating with the residents of St. Pauli. Roundtable discussions about the park began with politicians. After a long bureaucratic process the park, as planned by Park Fiction, is presently under construction. The project insisted on residents effecting desired changes to their environment. The result is an important landmark of successful planning from below where top-down bureaucracy traditionally dominates the decision-making processes.
GALERIE FUER LANDSCHAFTSKUNST (Gallery for Landscape Art)
The Galerie für Landschaftskunst has a long history in Hamburg of developing
interesting ways of presenting art. The space started in the backyard and attic
of a house in Altona, a near suburb of Hamburg. The building now houses an
apartment for residencies. Throughout their history, GFLK developed indoor
and outdoor pavilions that could travel around presenting work including a
research outpost in the southern part of Zealand in Denmark. GFLK also runs
a more traditional exhibition space near other galleries and Westwerke, Hamburg’s
longest running “alternative” space. GFLK maintains an ongoing
commitment to doing work outside of this space and continues to develop challenging
As part of a long-term project (recently presented at the Hamburg Kunstverein), which encouraged myriad ways of mapping Hamburg, GFLK collaborated with artist Mark Dion to convert a shipping barge into a mobile research facility called the Biologische Forschungsstation Alster (Biological Field Station). They docked the barge at several locations on Hamburg's canals and artificial lake, hosting meetings, classes, exhibitions and other activities that encouraged a close and detailed look at the evolution of Hamburg’s waterways.
In the past, Hamburg’s extensive harbor was known for shipbuilding and international trade. As part of the city’s new “Master Plan”, planners have suggested developing vacant landmass in the harbor into an exclusive neighborhood. This proposed Hafen City (Harbor City) would double the current size of the inner city and be tailored to attract New Media companies and their employees. A large maritime museum, as well as housing, office buildings, leisure, and shopping spaces are planned, in spite of the added expense of working the difficult terrain and protecting the buildings from flooding. The city government created an information office to promote its vision for Hafen City. Located at the Kesselhaus near the site, visitors to the official center find a massive model of the proposal that can be zoomed into with cameras. Although only one building has now been completed, the model illustrates what Hafen City will look like 25 years in the future. Though Hafen City is presented as a reality and not a proposal still far from being realized, it remains to be seen whether this huge project will be built. Furthermore, as the group TetraPak writes:
Public participation and concept-transparency are fictitious: The Master Plan refers to a public planning dialogue which never took place. The Kessel Haus is described as a public place for discussions about the Hafen City, but there are no mechanisms to organize such a process.*
TetraPak (a group of cultural producers from different disciplines) wanted
to open up a debate about the site, challenge the purely economic rationale
driving its development, and contest the merit of the city’s Master Plan.
TetraPak proposed an information space of their own, “where urban space
is shown and discussed as a collective space which isn’t reduced to economic
rules and functions, but deals with the contradictions of life in the city.” *
Since 1995, members of TetraPak have been reading and discussing texts on issues
of gentrification and privatization of city spaces, and considering strategies
In the past four years, TetraPak started dealing specifically with the Hafen City problem. They created their own information office in rented space near the city sponsored information center. The private company that is linked to the city and controls the area nearly denied TetraPak access to their space, fearing, as group member Jelka Plate explained, that it would destroy the image the company built and undermine their information monopoly on Hafen City. TetraPak opened their office in conjunction with an exhibition called Artgenda 2002 so that more people would visit. They invited artists from harbor cities for projects and worked collaboratively with city ethnographers and others to construct a different kind of model of Hafen City growing out of descriptive analysis and critical debate. Film screenings and discussions, lectures about city development and bus tours to neighborhoods brought focus to real planning problems, the creation of different kinds of ghettos (wealthy and poor) and the different images of urbanism such spaces create.
*From the TetraPak website: ready2capture.dekoder.de
Persons immigrating to Europe who enter Hamburg by ship face a dangerous journey with often hostile or deadly conclusions. Many refugees pay freight vessels to travel as stowaways, or Blinde Passagiere, with hopes of starting new lives in the European Union. Although the suffering of this group is rarely acknowledged publicly, one can take a harbor tour that tells the stories of stowaways. The group Blinde Passagiere has been organizing guided nighttime tours around the harbor for the past few years. They project slides from their boat onto harbor constructions and bridges during the tours as Reimer Dohrn, the tour guide, tells the story of refugees trying to enter Europe as stowaways, and the “degrading practices by the authorities of the city of Hamburg.”* He imagines the situation will only get worse if plans for Hafen City go forward. He writes:
The plans for the Hafen City (which won’t have anything to do with a "port") already have crucial influence for the stowaways and their possibilities to escape. Two years ago, the Africa terminal (where most of the ships from Africa arrive) was in the planning area, now it is located in the immediate vicinity of the central guard of the harbor police.*
When caught by authorities, refugees are generally sent to one of two boats, the Bibby Altona and the Bibby Challenge. Both boats have been under contract with the City to house refugees in the harbor since 1995. Combined, the two boats have enough space to house 1244 persons. For information or to schedule a nighttime port tour contact Reimer Dohrn at ReimerDohrn@aol.com
*quotes from ready2capture.dekoder.de/cgi-bin/wiki-t.pl?BlindePassagiere
The performers in this group change with location and occasion to include local activists as well as some of Hamburg’s fine musicians. Their intention is to intervene unexpectedly in public spaces and transform difficult political content into playful public performance. The group was first organized for the No Border Camp in Strasbourg in July of 2002 and have since developed a series of plots against police brutality, racism, gentrification, and war that have been performed in a variety of situations. They enact the plays with music, costumes, and props, easily attracting a crowd and occasionally confusing authorities.
The members of a radio activist group called Ligna have realized several
creative actions using the free radio station FSK in Hamburg. One action took
place at the recently privatized central train station. Visitors are now subject
to rules set forth by the company that owns the station. The rules aim to eliminate
obstacles to commerce, to ensure that persons in the station are only shopping
or getting on and off trains. Certain physical gestures are now forbidden.
One cannot sit on the floor, lie down, close ones eyes, or put one’s
hands out in front of them as in a begging gesture. Ligna organized a “Radio
Ballet” of forbidden gestures in May 2002. Several hundred people dispersed
throughout the station at a set time wearing hidden headphone radios tuned
to FSK. The voice over the radio coordinated the movements of these silent
participants, requesting that they all sit down in unison, then lie down and
so forth, until every outlawed gesture possible was made. A video made of the
action shows the train station filled with people, and their choreographed
In December 2002, Ligna circumvented a ban on demonstrations in the central shopping area of Hamburg during the Christmas season by orchestrating a “dispersion”. For this action, several hundred people scattered throughout the shopping area, and walked with pocket radios tuned to FSK, loud enough to be heard through their clothes. Music and spoken word from a variety of political groups was broadcast during this crucial period when the Bambule encampment of persons living in vans and trailers were fighting eviction from a piece of public property. This protest was also against the illegal invasion of Iraq by the United States.
See www.momenta.net.tf for an interview with Ligna