The economic crisis still seems to have most of Southern Europe in its grip; especially in the cultural sectors public money is being cut – sometimes to a bare minimum or even less. But crisis conditions can actually become a fertile ground for change. In 2012 the Goethe Institute for Southwest Europe initiated a platform called “We-Traders” to collect and connect civil initiatives in the cities of Madrid, Lisbon, Turin, Toulouse and Berlin. The exhibition that will bring the selected projects together opened in Madrid on January 31st and will successively visit all the other cities involved. uncube talked to its two chief curators, Angelika Fitz and Rose Epple.
What are We-Traders?
Angelika Fitz: We-Traders are citizens who take making the city into their own hands. The collectivity (“we”) and exchange (“trader”) aspects are key. It’s not about mercantile exchange, but forms of co-production and exchange of knowledge: the emphasis is on the common good, not private profit.
Rose Epple: It is also the title of the exhibition we are curating. Together with local projects and co-curators, we are working with Goethe Institutes in Madrid, Lisbon, Turin, Toulouse and Berlin over two years. We are jointly developing manifestos as well as questions to ask visitors in order to compile our own statistics.
Who can be a We-Trader?
AF: Anyone. We invented the concept to describe a phenomenon prevalent in “crisis cities”, where citizens have had enough of unregulated financial markets and austerity. The big demonstrations of recent years achieved little, so now people are joining forces and taking action regarding public space, housing, and jobs for young people.
Your website lists five We-Trader projects taking place in Berlin: a mixture of the commercial, like the coworking space betahaus, and the uncommercial, like the Allmende-Kontor gardens in Tempelhof. How did you make the selection?
RE: We kept the list of projects deliberately short – 26 around the world – as that is manageable as a platform while being diverse enough to cover a broad range of activities.
AF: The projects are very different, especially in terms of their relationship to the state. Does one involve public bodies or prefer to be independent? This was discussed in depth at our workshops. But what all the projects have in common is a desire for permanence. Temporariness and hit-and-run strategies are not so sexy when everyday life itself has become so precarious.
Lisbon, Madrid, Toulouse, Turin, Berlin – how did you choose these cities? Did significant connections between them or the projects emerge? Did you identify a general trend?
RE: The project was initiated by Goethe Institute Southwest Europe, hence our focus. But we also wanted to involve both large and middle-sized cities. In the We-Traders forums, we conducted video interviews with local planners, philosophers and economists, which revealed many common issues: the social impact of the financial crisis and austerity on cities, and also the flaring up of a new civil society.
This year, during the exhibition tour to all five cities, the projects will meet each other and work together in the exhibition. The audience will also be involved through open calls. We’re interested to see where this might lead!
AF: Equally important is networking with city authorities. We want to have them on board because our work is not about neoliberal substitution of public services.
You say: “Citizens across Europe are currently taking the initiative to re-appropriate urban space.” What’s new about that?
AF: Nothing is entirely new. But the mix of factors is specific. On the one hand, digitisation and social media are reinforcing calls for participation and, paradoxically, analogue activity. The rise of the recent Maker Movement goes beyond digital channels. On the other hand, the crisis is also being viewed as a moral one. The question of what is a “good life” is back on the agenda.
What is the social mix within the projects you’ve brought together?
RE: If we take an example like the Campo de Cebada in Madrid, it’s all age groups. In 2008, the last indoor swimming pool in the city centre was demolished to make way for a shopping centre. Then the crisis came, the project was halted, leaving behind a huge construction pit. A group of neighbours refused to accept this and began claiming the space for themselves. They built an open-air cinema and a basketball court, planted a community garden, and now they’re planning a community college. All decisions are made collectively.
AF: The “We” in We-Traders is open and open-ended. It is not a social movement like in the 1970s. Not for nothing did the activists from Campo de Cebada win the prestigious Prix Ars Electronica – for their combination of virtual and physical open source strategies.
What happens after the final exhibition in Toulouse in December 2014?
AF: The Goethe Institute will continue to address the theme of the city and participation. At the moment, these activities are being bundled – with the support of the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development – on the blog Weltstadt: Who creates the city? – so there can be a worldwide knowledge transfer beyond the European focus.
RE: The activities of the We-Traders will continue. After all, we didn’t initiate them; just raised their profile and hopefully bolstered them. And we would be happy if our project led to more people becoming We-Traders.
- Florian Heilmeyer
More about the We-Traders platform on www.goethe.de
Angelika Fitz is a curator and author in the fields of architecture, art and urbanism, running her own office in Vienna since 1998. www.angelikafitz.at
Rose Epple a.k.a. Rose Apple has been designing exhibitions and publications in the fields of art, urbanism and design since 2002. www.roseapple.net