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Artists Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser work with architects Oliver Clemens, Bernard Hummel, and Christian Schöningh as the planning team at ExRotaprint GmbH.


Text by Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser

‚ExRotaprint‘ is the former site of the Rotaprint printing press manufacturing plant in Berlin’s Wedding district. Following the insolvency of Rotaprint in 1989, the 10,000 square meter premises fell into a state of neglect while lingering in the redevelopment line. In 2005, artists Daniela Brahm and Les Schliesser formulated a concept for taking over the property by renters already on site. The goal was to develop the location to serve a heterogeneous mix of Arbeit, Kunst, Soziales (work, art, and community). In 2007, ExRotaprint gGmbH took over the site, which is registered as an historical monument.

‚ExRotaprint‘ pertains to urban development, the real estate and monetary economy, tendencies toward the nature of social separation and exclusion, art strategies within city politics, and it sets an example for new projects in urban space. ‚ExRotaprint‘ is a model. A reality initiated by artists and created from the viewpoint of art. A realm of possibility is brought into being here: non-profit and showing solidarity, and non-ideological yet dependent on agreement and consensus. ‚ExRotaprint‘ forsakes the prospect of profits via ownership in favor of stability and inclusion, and it balances a heterogeneous array of interests.

Point Zero
Disused urban spaces and real estate can be an ideal situation for such projects. Point Zero is characterized by the moment at which—for the widest range of reasons—capital has been withdrawn and redevelopment strategies are put on hold. This point must be viewed as the moment of an opportunity to be taken before a new process of appreciation begins. The spectacular architecture of the Rotaprint site was the motivation and fuel for ‚ExRotaprint‘. In the nineteen-fifties the Rotaprint company brought in architect Klaus Kirsten to build modern additions onto the original Gründerzeit structure. Our interest in the architecture is not an end in itself, but it is part of a project that promotes and sustains heterogeneous relationships that are also far removed from high culture.
Purchasing a 10,000 square meter property without personal capital is a complex undertaking. Conditions such as the purchase price, usage possibilities, and the state of the building are critical to a successful development free from outside control. Within a heterogeneous group of artists, social organizations, and businesses there are differing visions that must be discussed and moderated. Fantasies of profits, investment returns or retirement safeguards quickly come to the fore and obscure the view of a common interest. Deciding to be non-profit was the result of a long process. ‚ExRotaprint‘ is intended to be a space for new strategies of social urban development that is free from the exclusionary consequences of speculation. We consider it an advantage when strategies of art are applied to the project. Critical here are in depth analysis and shifts in perspective, approaching details in novel ways, the appropriation of ideas and problem-solving methods, the principle of collage, as well as integrating different levels of meaning independent of ideology but with a sense of pragmatic idealism. A significant percentage of the work is directed outward. The outcomes and decisions of the internal process must reach both politicians and the public at large. Artists can generate a public and the public motivates politics and the press to take the goals of an initiative seriously. Art can therefore be a way of opening doors, or it can be a Trojan horse: enabling processes that are generally viewed with mistrust and are easily dismissed.

The Social Sculpture
Local social actors are experts; they know the potential of their surroundings. ‚ExRotaprint‘ rents a third of its space to work, art, and community, respectively. Working on-site are businesses, social organizations, and independent creatives. An overall community image emerges that presents an alternative to the imposed dreams of ­investment return monocultures, and instead ­promotes cooperation and exchange. Communication and direct contact are essential. ‚ExRotaprint‘, as a social sculpture, implies an expansion of the remit of art, which takes form here as a created reality—not as a reproduction or quotation. Though it can be art, it does not have to be.
We consciously select projects that work with the neighboring community of ‚ExRotaprint‘: a school run by Kurds teaches German to immigrants; a job services agency works with the unemployed and creates projects in the narrow, nebulous zone between the real economy and employment politics; and at the training center young dropouts are given the chance to receive a high school diploma. The social services organizations guarantee that the premises are open to people who live in Wedding and are part of the social body that makes up the district. Musicians, designers, writers, and artists rent office spaces, practice rooms, and studios. We offer these spaces to young creatives who, in turn, can themselves operate as points of interconnection. They are extremely well networked and create their own professional structures. The ground floor spaces are reserved for manufacturing businesses: metal construction; workshops for neoprene and wood; art framing and exhibition design; and serigraphy. Electricians and commercial cleaning and building contractors occupy the large units. In a district where manufacturing jobs have disappeared, new jobs and educational training sites are central to the economic and social stabilization of the surrounding environment. The spatial coexistence of manufacturing, creativity, and job services provides a mix that creates mutual exchange, critique, and spawns future growth. ‚ExRotaprint‘ has flat hierarchies and it moderates interests, visions, and ideas. This creates ties and fosters mutual communication.
Berlin’s Wedding district is a real space of urban theoretical discourses. Immigration, unemployment and poverty, and the fledgling appreciation in property values via “creatives” are converging to produce a conflict in the years ahead that will be reflected in many cities and redevelopment processes. Stakeholders in the real estate sector have long recognized the potential represented by artists, who, similar to those on the Left or those leading alternative lifestyles, seek out new spaces for working and living and can initiate processes of gentrification. It is impossible to avoid this dilemma. Our experience—that the success of ‚ExRotaprint‘ was only possible in a precarious economic environment—has fostered a bond with the immediate surroundings. We view what’s here, and its potential, in a positive light and we strengthen existing structures through our utilization plan.

The Legal Plinth
To insure the project and to be able to shape its future, a solid legal basis needs to be created. This legal plinth is the unwavering foundation of the social sculpture, which cannot be misappropriated by individual interests. A heritable building rights contract with two foundations, Trias and Edith Maryon, along with a non-profit ExRotaprint gGmbH partnership agreement forms a basis for the development of the project independent of all profits derived from direct ownership.
The purchase price we negotiated was not financed by a bank loan. Instead we opted for a cooperative arrangement with the foundations. Both the Trias and Edith Maryon foundations take a novel approach to dealing with property that circumvents real estate speculation. The foundations purchased the property on behalf of the non-profit ExRotaprint gGmbH, in order to then sign a 99-year heritable building rights contract that places ExRotaprint gGmbH in an ownership-equivalent position for the duration of that contract. We are responsible for all aspects of the property related to finances and development; our only limitation is that we cannot sell it. Written into the heritable building right contract are our intentions to rent equal portions of the premises to work, art, and community, as well as a declaration of the socially integrative orientation of the project. Thus ‚ExRotaprint‘ has long-term security and can exist independently of those involved in its inception.
The status of non-profit dispels the conflict over partial ownership and allows for planning unencumbered by individual interests. ExRotaprint gGmbH partners do not profit from the income generated by the property and cannot realize any increase in value from a sale of their stake in the partnership. Thus a long-term and stable location is created that can be developed on its own terms. This is the profit of ‚ExRotaprint‘. The first objective of the ExRotaprint gGmbH partnership agreement is the preservation of an historic monument and the second stated aim is the support of art and culture. Thus ‚ExRotaprint‘ can, in the future, be a place for discussing art, culture, politics, and urban development.