For over 60 years, E-WERK Luckenwalde power station produced and supplied coal-powered energy to the city and beyond. Under extreme political upheaval, after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, E-WERK ceased production and lay dormant for almost 30 years until Performance Electrics transformed E-WERK Luckenwalde into a renewable Kunststrom power station and contemporary art centre, turning the building’s power back ON. In this interview with Pablo Wendel, Helen Turner, Katharina Worf and Adriana Tranca we talk about the genesis of the project, the new artistic ethos behind the power infrastructure and how selling energy funds a one-of-a-kind cultural program.
KOOZ In 2019, 90 years after the opening of the coal power-station E-WERK Luckenwalde re-opened to the public as the renewable Kunststrom power station and contemporary art centre. Could you start by expanding on what prompted this endeavour and the genesis of this as being both grounded in external economic and social forces as well as your experiences and expertise?
HELEN TURNER- Both Pablo and I were tired of the cultural world talking about big change— representing sustainability but not taking any action. We wanted to implement real change into the very fabric of the system and we wanted to pioneer real alternative economic and ecological change to the cultural sector. Pablo is first and foremost an artist, and I also worked as an artist before turning to curation. I think E-WERK is fundamentally artist led and was born out of an artistic dissatisfaction with the system.
"I think E-WERK is fundamentally artist led and was born out of an artistic dissatisfaction with the system." - Helen Turner
E-WERK Luckenwalde Exterior circa 1928, archive image. Copyright of E-WERK Luckenwalde
KOOZ Amounting to a total surface area of 10,000 sqm which unfolds on four floors as exhibition spaces, workshops and artist residency programme as well as a vast outdoor space, the institution does not limit itself to the canonical interpretation of art but rather prioritises a transdisciplinary process which is deeply embedded with society and interested in the educational dimension of the arts. How, and in what ways is the curatorial agenda developed in response to the spaces of the power station and the context of Luchenwalde?
KATHARINA WORF POWER NIGHT(s) was born when we first opened the doors of E-WERK in 2019, and we've kept it going ever since! We had been toying with the idea for a while and so the program was finally created as a transdisciplinary platform for performance art, dance and music, combining innovative art with an open invitation to all participating artists and dancers to engage with the historical fabric of the neighbouring buildings of E-WERK and its surrounding outdoor area itself. Whether through exploration of the site through bodies, soundscapes, movement, dance, language installation.... We select a guest curator every two years to program POWER NIGHT (s) in dialogue with the curatorial team.
"The program was created as a transdisciplinary platform for performance art, dance and music." - Katharina Worf
E-WERK’s platform has evolved and had different faces, which is actually the beauty of working here. We are such a well-knit team and love to see our projects grow into different shapes and forms, there is no stagnation here. In 2019 we hosted POWER NIGHT for a day and a night with 8 different artists. During the COVID-19 pandemic we obviously had to find a new solution. We redesigned POWER NIGHTS with guest curator Lucia Pietroiusti into a 12-month growing exhibition to counteract the fast pace of exhibition making and allow our visitors to join us on the journeys, get to know the artworks and projects and see them take shape, giving more time to both the artists and the team. In the end, we had a comprehensive exhibition that was peppered with events and performances throughout the 12 months. No matter when you visited, it never looked the same.
"The last POWER NIGHT was a key example of how we brought together an international with a national and local audience." - Katharina Worf
The last POWER NIGHT was a key example of how we brought together an international with a national and local audience. We organised performances as part of E-WERK's summer festival and actively encouraged local residents to participate in architectural and curatorial tours. There was a real hunger to learn more about the art and the artists, but the artists were also very interested in learning more about the city, the building and its highly interesting history. Luckenwalde is a former G.D.R. city, so there are a lot of personal stories to discover and collective memories to draw from (I’m myself East German!), which is often an interesting starting point for early explorations or commissions.
ADRIANA TRANCA CURRENTS, an electronic music festival we have launched in 2022, is another example of E-WERK’s vision of using its spaces as resourcefully as possible. CURRENTS is an amalgam of live contemporary art and electronic music, presenting a mix of internationally acclaimed artists intertwined with emerging acts. It is a not for profit event, supporting an international community of artists and cultural workers existentially threatened by climate change, pandemics, wars, displacement and economic inequality. The institution seeks to trailblaze new forms of knowledge production and cultural events by being one of the first contemporary art institutions to run a 100% carbon negative electronic music and performance festival.
The first edition, which I co-curated with the production and DJ duo Khidija, brought to Luckenwalde electronic music legends like Suzanne Ciani or Dopplereffekt, among many others. I’m incredibly proud of being able to create the opportunity for our local audiences to experience these paragons performing in Brandenburg, rather than on the world’s biggest stages. It felt intimate, special and more deep listening events than concerts.
"CURRENTS is an amalgam of live contemporary art and electronic music, a 100% carbon negative electronic music and performance festival." - Adriana Tranca
KOOZ As a non-profit organisation whose cultural programme and production relies on the money raised from the selling of energy through the national grid by institutions and homes, how is the institution championing a different economic model? What are the benefits of exploring more local and decentralised forms of energy supply?
HT In 2012, Pablo founded Kunststrom as a non-profit electricity provider for the generation and transmission of renewable energy. Kunststrom is produced through transdisciplinary interventions, installations and performances in public spaces, creating unique art projects and feeding it as Kunststrom back into the grid. This makes the power grid itself, which is capable of releasing energy anywhere, the transmitter of art. This metaphor of the grid directly illustrates the way Kunststrom operates. Artists, designers, architects, art historians, engineers, economists and other interdisciplinary experts collaborate together, thus creating a synthesis between art, technology and business.
"Kunststrom is produced through transdisciplinary interventions, installations and performances in public spaces, creating unique art projects and feeding it as Kunststrom back into the grid." - Helen Turner
The idea of Kunststrom was born out of financial desperation. In 2012, Pablo was working as an artist, exhibiting internationally, but unable to pay his own bills. This false economy of culture in exchange for opportunity proved unsustainable.In an effort towards autonomy, Wendel decided to produce his own energy with the aim of establishing his own economic autonomy; and thus the idea of Kunststrom was born. This idea, however, was more than just an endeavour to survive, it was an aspiration towards alternative economic and ecological systems, which we hope will inspire others to consider energy as a shared resource and as such decentralise power.
PABLO WENDEL Currently, Kunststrom produces an average of 900,000 KW/h a year, mainly from the power station, using renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and wood gas. Kunststrom supplies energy to almost 60 cultural institutions, businesses and private households. The wood we use is the waste wood from several local companies, including a cable drum factory and playground company. Each supplier we collaborate with sources their wood from renewable and sustainable forestry suppliers who re-plant their trees. The wood gas process uses trees which remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it. When the wood chips are burnt the carbon is released again. This is why it is neutral CO2 —as long as the trees are replanted (i.e. the wood is sourced from renewable sources) the level of carbon in the atmosphere remains neutral. It is a balancing act. Coal’s energy, on the other hand, was stored for millions of years, and once burnt cannot be replenished. Once it is gone, it is gone.
"Currently, Kunststrom produces an average of 900,000 KW/h a year and supplies energy to almost 60 cultural institutions, businesses and private households." - Pablo Wendel
E-WERK Luckenwalde produces CO2 negative through a pyrolysis (wood gas) process. Locally sourced, waste woodchips are today transported via the original 1913 mechanical conveyor belt, furnace and shoot system of the former brown coal power station into the ground floor workshops, where the woodchips are converted into electricity and heat via a wood-gas system. This approach harnesses the grey energy of the building and alleviates the need to build new, carbon heavy systems.
E-WERK Luckenwalde is full of old machines that we have fixed ourselves. Using the ‘grey energy’ in the building, we try to recycle everything. We’ve re-used local materials to build the infrastructure for exhibitions.We wanted to use the old coal station as an image, transform it into an example of how progress in society is possible. Even with a small crew of artists and engineers, we’ve proven it. I really believe it’s possible on a bigger scale.
"Sustainability is not a question of technology but of perception. I think art can have a big impact on our mindset." - Pablo Wendel
Sustainability is not a question of technology but of perception. I think art can have a big impact on our mindset. That’s what we can provide with this place: room to think and reflect. That’s the beginning of a change. The sale of Kunststrom is only one of many ways we find ourselves -we are also funded by project funding, subsidised studio rent, donations and venue hire. But the big dream is to be 100% funded by the sale of it. We need over 5,000 clients in order to make seismic change—we hope your audiences can help by switching or spreading the word!
KOOZ Beyond the institution itself, what are your ambitions for E-WERK Luckenwalde as a case study for the creation of an economically and energetically independent institution? How do you seek the project and programme developing in the coming years?
HT | PW Our dream is to be autonomous, yet ecosystemic. We want to contribute in a meaningful way to obfuscating the climate catastrophe and revoke the concept of political, ecological and personal burnout in the arts industry. For example, the sustainable institution symposium programme in partnership with LUMA Arles and Rupert centre for Art and Education has focussed on change from an economic, humanitarian and ecological perspective. The symposiums in each institution last spring and summer brought together international artists, curators, economists, architectural scientists, anthropologists, political geographers, conservators and activists to collaboratively create positive sustainable transformation and tangible solutions for the cultural sector.
"Our dream is to be autonomous, yet ecosystemic." - Helen Turner & Pablo Wendel
There is also an artist residency opportunity attached to this project. Three artists will be selected to develop a prototype for sustainable exhibition making at the three respective institutions. We will announce the artists this Autumn. As part of this on 1–2 July, we held a summer symposium, Burn Out. During Burn Out, presenters shared their research on topics such as institutional burn out, ecosystemic infrastructural change and art world hypocrisy. They addressed critical questions: What does institutional de-growth look like and what are its limits? How can we supersede environmental imperialism and enact radical care at local and global level to rectify historical exploitations? Performances were splintered throughout the programme to create pockets of non-didactic reflection to champion art as an equally valuable form of knowledge transmission.
"What does institutional de-growth look like and what are its limits?" - Helen Turner & Pablo Wendel
Burn Out was an incredible moment for E-WERK; a meeting point of diverse disciplines including speculative design, indigenous rights, postcolonial geography, comedy and music. Participants and audiences came together to address the unsustainable landscape of cultural institutions and re-think how it might be possible to adopt a more eco-systemic approach. The programme was in itself an ecosystem, designed by the whole team (not just the curatorial department) to create a more pluralistic vision of cultural practice today.
We are already planning a second edition on May 4–5 2024 called The Drop Out: Tell Them I Said No, which will focus on the working conditions in the arts, vulnerability as resistance and arts activism. We would also love E-WERK to function as a peripheral cultural destination—where the journey is a significant element to the institution. Somewhat like Dia Beacon works in NYC. We would love Luckenwalde to become a cultural outpost—an art pilgrimage, or a beautiful day trip from Berlin to rural Brandenburg. The train is just 30 minutes, and we are also thrilled to know trains, including sleepers, are now bringing people from further afield, including London. We also want to empower our local communities and contribute to change on a hyperlocal level. To this effect, we are working with our colleagues at the local government on a plan for the Bauhaus Stadtbad, which sits next to E-WERK. The plans include regenerating this space with both Kunststrom power and heat and culturally.
Pablo Wendel is a German artist active in performance art , installation art and video art based in Stuttgart and London. He is Co-Artistic Director of E-WERK Luckenwalde together with Helen Turner and is Founder of Kunststrom, a non-profit CO2 Negative energy provider on the German national grid, which generates energy from art installations, using renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and wood gas.
Helen Turner is the Joint Artistic Director and Chief Curator of E-WERK Luckenwalde, where she directs the contemporary art programme, and presents a biannual performance programme POWER NIGHTS, inviting international curators to present new works for E-WERK and it's surrounding collection of listed architecture. Turner is a founding member of Gallery Climate Coalition, Berlin, and has spoken internationally for Prada Frames: On Forest, Saatchi Gallery and World Art Foundations, has published writing for Museums for Change and is a Jury member for VISIT Artist in residence programme and LAGI 2022 Mannheim. Turner was previously the Chief Curator at Cass Sculpture Foundation and has worked for Artangel.
Katharina Worf is a curator, cultural producer and art consultant based between London and Berlin. In Germany, she worked at Hamburger Bahnhof Berlin, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Temporäre Kunsthalle and Galerie Kamm. In London, she worked at Laura Bartlett Gallery, launched König Galerie’s London space and co-curated three editions of the annual performance festival Block Universe across London. Katharina is currently Curator & Head of POWER NIGHT at E-WERK Luckenwalde where she co-curated the first edition of POWER NIGHTS in 2019 as well as POWER NIGHTS: Being Mothers. In London, she works as Senior Art Consultant and Producer at London’s Contemporary Art Society *Consultancy realising public art commissions, building corporate art collections and writing cultural strategies. She holds an MA in History of Art & Visual Studies from Humboldt Universität, Berlin.
Adriana Tranca is an independent researcher and curator based in Berlin, Germany. She is Head of the CURRENTS Programme and Curator at E-WERK Luckenwalde. Originally from Romania, where she studied linguistics and art history, she relocated to London to pursue an MFA in Curating at Goldsmiths. This geographical and conceptual triangle has informed her work chiefly focusing on female artistic practices, on their hidden and marginalised stories.