Oulu and Chemnitz have quite a few similarities: both have experience of being industry-driven, both are fairly small, and both are future European Capitals of Culture. Where Oulu’s Nokia-led prosperity crashed and burned and became a diverse basket of technologies and culture, it feels like Chemnitz still struggles somewhat with its monocultural situation. We spoke with Robert Verch of Klub Solitaer e.V. – a dynamic cultural association that is re-contextualising the infrastructure of Chemnitz.

Could you tell me something about the association’s history?

Robert: Our association was founded in 2010. I wasn’t in Chemnitz back then and thus not part of the founding process. Mandy Knospe – who is still on the board with me – returned from her studies in 2010, and she noticed that there were a lot of empty buildings and barely any places for artists. The building we are in was about to be demolished, and they took control of it and stopped the demolition process. Now we have a lot of creatives using the building, there’s the Lokomov Cultural Centre, Gallery Hinten in the back of the Lokomov, artists studios and rehearsal rooms as well as a hack space – it all comes together as a kind of a melting pot. 

Since then we’ve also opened another building, just around the corner, where we also have the small gallery Glaskasten, studio spaces, print workshop, digital and photo lab… We aim to create working conditions and enable collaborations for artists and creatives. We also run the off-theatre Komplex, in collaboration with Taupunkt e.V. who mainly takes care of the programme. 

the Lokomov by Sascha Linke (© Fraunhofer CPM / smart³ / Sascha Linke)

On the way through Chemnitz I didn’t see many posters or evidence of cultural activity and it seems to me there is very little cultural visibility, although it seems like you have a vibrant cultural scene. Do you see yourselves as underground, or enablers, what is your position in the Chemnitz cultural scene?

We want to be enablers. We design our own cultural programmes to offer people who work here a range of diverse cultural influences. Chemnitz is traditionally a workers’ city, and it has one of the oldest populations in Europe. The city and the areas around it are fairly low income. So these are challenging conditions for any culture [activities]. This is probably why you don’t see many posters and stuff. The city is very much still in transition.

So, why Chemnitz?

There’s also the question of why not? The cultural bubble is small, but familiar. There is hardly any art market here, but on the contrary one can find pretty good living and production conditions. You can connect easily to a wide range of people and decision makers, project makers – I find the cultural consumers pretty diverse in social or educational background, which I personally miss elsewhere sometimes.

It gives you a broad playground to try out what you want to do as a culture creator or artist. And if you think of places like Berlin, the competition is tougher. I might imagine the city officials are quite positive of such cultural actions, it brings employment and might attract younger people. 

Well, I think your assumptions are all correct, and this might be one of the factors that keep us here. Another thing about Chemnitz is that you can have a lot of impact in what you do. And still, there is the administration perspective on it, which doesn’t always fully understand that cultural change might be a key factor for the future of the city, although there has been some improvement.

Younger people here are a minority, so sometimes the officials don’t see why some things should be supported or funded. 

I was wondering, is there a certain main industry in Chemnitz that defines you somehow?

The whole area is still pretty much in the automotive industry, and we especially have suppliers of machinery and engineering, engineering is a very big issue here. 

I know from my own experience in Oulu that it’s dangerous for a town to put all of its eggs in the same basket.  

Some people wish Chemnitz to be the industrial city from the 1920s again, when it was blooming. I don’t believe that this would promise salvation and create a liveable city. But there are only a few producing industries here anymore. However, there are a lot of small engineering companies and smaller high-tech companies which are prospering. There’s also a university for technology, but there is no art school, hardly any aesthetic-poetic discussion of things, or an aesthetic-poetic layer, socio-cultural or philosphical reflection of what is happening – it’s all very pragmatic. The Chemnitz European Capital of Culture application addresses the city’s spirit, by dealing a lot with makerism and self sufficiency, thus combining the playful and the pragmatic. I love this approach. 

To address the pragmatic and technological spirit poetically we started collaboration with international partners and local research institutes, like the local Fraunhofer Institute. We started the FUNKEN Academy with a European Summer School where young professionals go through these microchip manufacturing and 3D printing research centres, folding DNA or printing fungi and metal. And there is something wonderful happening when we bring artists to scientists, there is a reflection and something like cross-innovation there. A direct, aesthetic kind-of-science communication, not saying “look what we achieved ” but rather “look at the way we see the world”.

Let’s talk about residencies. Artists go to residencies to be in new surroundings, or to find quiet and isolation. Where does your residency fall in this?

I think our residencies definitely do not fall in the quiet and isolated box. We believe in the impact of artists working in a cultural context. The city of Chemnitz is kind of in a specific context, it has its special needs and challenges. So when we invite people for our residency programme DIALOGFELDER, it’s really about meeting the people who live here, challenging the city, challenging the urban surroundings, doing interventions according to a given topic. The programme’s focus was on the night, senses or digitalisation in and of public spaces during the last years. In the program, we offer a five-week residency with an intense welcome weekend, where Chemnitz locals and cultural activists present their city to the residing artists first. First week is research, then it’s finding the process, then testing, then preparing for an exhibition or intervention, and then the fifth week is a presentation week. This opens up a lot of potential where we – the Chemnitz people – can discover something, which was unseen or perceived before. Participating artists are invited to do something differently. It doesn’t fully have to fit their oeuvre or anything, they can do a little sidetrack if they wish.

There is this idea of serendipity involved. 

The idea is to involve the people of Chemnitz?

It doesn’t have to be participatory, but of course there sometimes are participatory projects. For instance, Anna Schimkat, who found these old flag holders on lampposts from the 1980s, she made new abstract flags, very colourful. People didn’t participate in the making, but started wondering what the flags were for. They were very festive, and people started to talk about whether the street could be a festive street, there was a shift of mind happening. 

installation view of Anna Schmikat’s work during Dialogfelder 2017 photographer: Mandy Knospe.

Another example would be by Susanna Flock, who looked at the district through the lens of Google, and she gave reviews to often uncommon places and commented on them, making a little tour in a booklet, changing a route of the district with beautiful and funny comments. She also did interventions in Google Maps, commenting and adding photoshopped pictures to other comments. 

I’m all for temporary art, but some things make me wish it could remain. 

I think constant change is what makes a city vibrant. 

A lot of what we do stresses out the administration and the public. It’s pushing boundaries. There are a lot of things you can try out and discuss with the public through artistic interventions. Open an art restaurant, give ideas to other restaurants, to people who own houses, which affects their livelihood, how to combine living and working together. This in turn affects the city of Chemnitz.

The residencies and their context are spaces for serendipity. Artists are trained on sensing their surroundings and making something out of it. Of course they sometimes fail, but it’s important that artists, and working with artists, is a very good way of sensing something that others can then relate to in the future.

Robert during a walk with artists in the framework of the feminine fiction symposium 2023; photographer: Natalie Bleyl

Robert Verch was talking with Pasi Pirttiaho

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