“Letter from Stuttgart: A Conversation with Fareed Armaly.”


The landscape of Stuttgart is surprising. Instead of up one goes down. Since the city is built in a mountain cup, one literally descends into it. The many staircases, which in the evening look like the scene of a perfect cinematic crime with their sparse old-fashioned streetlights dangling and the slightly broken stone steps, lead the pedestrian past the backs of houses, garden gates, through green inner-city patches or overgrown parks. It is always a surprise where they lead to, but the views are stunning.

Once down it’s a driver’s paradise. Designed in the fifties and sixties on the ruins of a totally bombed city centre, it has the flair of a modernist ideal in conflict with both a citizen’s desire for cosy corners and inclusion and the conservative’s nostalgia for a grandeur from a passed blown away in the forties. Mercedes has its headquarters in Stuttgart and when cars are important for Germany in general, Stuttgart is a master car-city. To reach the centre one has to cross the inner city ring, which is tiny, but built like an Autobahn: four lanes, tunnels etc. Until recently you could only cross it by going over or under. Beautiful, but alienating footbridges and underpasses. Now some pedestrian crossings have appeared in strategic places to try and overcome the separation between moving bodies and moving vehicles.

I have spent a lot of my recent time walking around this city. Trying to get to grips with its character, which for some reason I feel attracted by. As much as I feel bored and repelled by a lot of the leading values. One of the places which intrigued me in a positive way was the Künstlerhaus. As one of the more appealing cultural institutions of the city it appeared to offer a mixture of lectures, workshops and exhibitions which always have a peripheral program. The spaces are used in such a way that seeing an exhibition combines with browsing through a “footnote library” or watching videos that can serve to support the running ideas. As a member one can use these facilities as well as the well-equipped studio’s (film, video, photography and print) which I found to have some materials I could use very well. The combination of artists’ production with a program of small but very thoughtful expositions seemed so good that I was very surprised that it was not full of artists trying to edit their videos. The Künstlerhaus occupies four floors in a semi-industrial building in the centre of Stuttgart and each floor seemed to have its own function. The structure of the situation reminded in some way of the NICC so I met Fareed Armaly, the artistic director of the Künstlerhaus, to find out the overlaps and differences between these two artists’ initiatives, and talk about his views on the specific role he has for the moment.

The Conversation

A noticeable difference between NICC and the Künstlerhaus here is that the Künstlerhaus has two important paid positions: an artistic director (freelance position, temporary two-year contracts) and an administrative director (full-time, permanent contract), whose tasks are to lead two separate sides of the organisation.

Fareed Armaly: It helps to understand the background for all the administrative or institutional structuring of Künstlerhaus, by first understanding this is an artist-initiative, founded on the shift from the 70s onto the 80s, and thus situated on some important changes then underway in Germany. It was anti-academy to say the least. At one core, media groups aspired to open up certain options in terms of access to means of production. It joined with the zeitgeist keywords of transparency and communication, but I would say as this was already on the verge to the 1980s, in a very ambivalent, specific reading that belongs to a closer arts environment in Stuttgart.

In the first years, the founding members had to “think on their feet,” respond to alot of different events and reformulate in one voice, everything that was defining this young institution. Initially, there were several different groups, from avant-garde media positions to craft/artisans, in one building, and this had to represented within one unified institution. The verein (like the vzw WvO) structure was selected because in Germany that’s the simplest way, also to be able to receive funds, and it came with its own rules of organisation: chairman, board, etc. As I see it, the first years worked relatively well enough, because different media groups needed studios and space, and the focus was on achieving that reality. There was an early video that Künstlerhausmade on itself in the first years, and the then-president of the board stated the focus has to be on room for experimentation, differentiating it to other art institutions here. But alongside with that the administrational realities required more and more attention as the structure grew. After the first years of operation this led in part to the splitting of the director’s role. The Künstlerhaus decided its organisation would work better if the one director position was separated into two, as artistic direction and administrative direction. Both roles are to be in dialog, the artistic director is a partner with the institution, but separate in important ways. How that differs is in degrees depending on each artistic director.

The adminstrative director has nothing to do with programming. Their role remains responsible to communicate with the members, and should be as an interface with the city, at all levels of management and bureaucracy, and focuses on the operating system, the technical studios, the print studios, the film studios, the video studios, the rules overall.

The artistic director’s program is autonomous in that it must not be responsible to “please” anybody. The board asks for half yearly planning overviews, but that’s mostly a safeguard, a correct protocol. The artistic director represent a changing position, that keeps it current and bringing fresh impetus in, and so that it is not going to be a friends—only stagnation, a local power position game, or the security of satisfying the lowest common dominator in a small city or group. The downside to that is to begin anew every four years, one must have a stable institution that can respond to each new term. But as it is just a twenty year old institution, the lack of planning the future catches up, and so as the permanent-contract administration director ages, they won’t or cannot learn the necessary new technologies, whether computer or database or overseeing new kinds of requirements in digital workshops, and doesn’t do much in terms of furthering institutional engagement. In this very real scenario, the institution then is essentially on the verge of being an empty shell, members leave or decide to stay dependent on the new life-giving “drug,” the next artistic director, and what it does directly for them—literally. So it requires a specific energy, a foresight to keep this essential balance between two parts for the optimum of an institution to be achieved.

Wendelien Van Oldenborgh: Who decides on who becomes the artistic director?

FA: In the verein form, the board and executive board is entrusted with the decision, and then having made theirs, have to go to the members for validation. The Beirat (Raad van Beheer WvO) and vorstand (executive board) represents the members and are supposed to do the work, thus they run the process of selection and so on, and choose. This is a long process, as always in-games politics abound, but somehow the result has always been that this institution has had a unique list of artistic directors‚ especially when one considers it is Stuttgart, not Berlin or Cologne‚ and that they are trying to select from artists. It was unique in giving chances to mostly younger artists to hold an institutional role in the artist’s space.

The artistic director is only here on a limited timeframe, two or four years, and has a really specific program position. They cannot be made responsible to deal with the institutional long range, larger issues, for example with city government and other institutions, etc.. I would hope the institutional planning and all the linked decisions imply a constant planning and forecasting ahead. Thus the artistic director is only a part of that, not leading it. It takes so much already to just set up the first year or two, if one wants to get a real program going. And with such an institution, with media production, large building, changing uses, etc. there has to be consideration on all fronts, targeting funds from the city etc. Nobody, particularly younger than me and starting out, who will be here as artistic director for three or four years, can be assumed (with their salary especially) to invest that much energy in helping a whole operating institution, from technical studios to budgets, inheriting old fights, etc. learning Stuttgart politics, etc. and most importantly, why would an institution want to reinvent the wheel each time?

In spite of the fact I enjoy the idea of building further and the first two years are really fast, I also realize that in Stuttgart especially, if one is really engaged in the art field, they can’t really go more than four years here. My work as artistic director really was in part structuring the institution and building anew. Programming in this moment, meant focusing on the subject of the institution, which in the end, is the institution—not each member’s automatic exhibition space, or playhouse, or place to hide from the world in their few square meters, nor for that matter should it be solely a career lift-off for the artistic director. I saw the extra investment I made in the operating system of the studios, the house, the focus on its identity, etc., is because the work of the institution should be the institution in fact, and even the artistic director does belong to that as well. It should build further. Development should be measured by the whole institution, and not the personality of one individual as a curator. That should of course be interesting: it implies the institution has a complex character, always developing through the fresh input of a changing international view point, with a base that would develop parallel with its own local constituency issues.

So the work of continuity belongs to the institution. They themselves have to be responsible for the relation to the city that they live in, and in response to the members. As an artistic director I should be in dialogue between different areas and to the Künstlerhaus. There was a saying, the institution provides the hardware, the artistic director’s program the software. Thus when I started haus.0, I introduced the logic of the browser….

WVO: Do you only get money from the city or from other sources also?

FA: My exhibition budget is not large; in fact, it hasn’t changed that much in the last decade. The budget of one year programming here is equal to one exhibition of the Kunstverein (one of the other cultural institutions in Stuttgart WvO). So, even if the program seems more emphasized than the Künstlerhaus, we use only a fraction of the total budget. That’s something again, if you consider what the program has done in terms of creating a high profile in the last fifteen years. Each artistic director has gone on to lead larger art institutions, or as with Ute Meta Bauer, now co-curator of Documenta11, as well a university department. I will be the first not to actually go that way, being the age I was when I took the position, my goals are different.

The budget for the Künstlerhaus appears on paper to be quite significant in numbers, but as the city gives the money, and it is a city-owned building, as are the utilities etc. So something like 70 or 80% seems to go to heating, electricity, maintenance, renting and servicing—running the physical structure, and building. The city is paying itself its very high rents, and we benefit by having rooms, but not actual budgets.

We can always get money from different sources if we choose to go after it, but the city is the fundamental source, and the members, of course, but there membership rate is really little, 50 marks a year (1000 BF), that just pays for mailing.

WVO: How many members do you think there are?

FA: At my last check, we are now 400, but it fluctuates. This number went up since I started with the board, the work on revitalizing the media studios here. I think the highest was around 500, from another era in Stuttgart, basically before the effects of the East opening up, and people all moving from here on to Berlin. The median is somehow around 280–300. But I did believe that if the studios are renewed, people would come in.

WVO: Did the city give Künstlerhaus this building?

FA: Well, the building was more or less lobbied for by the original group. It was partly not occupied I believe. The fact that this is in a residential neighbourhood is odd, but the inner city of Stuttgart is not where people really live, as much as in the hills, the suburbs. This was originally more working or middle class, although that is changing now. This neighborhood is by sq. meter one of the most densely populated areas in Germany. So the members lobbied for this one in the heart of the residential area.

WVO: Did the idea of exhibiting exist directly or was there another goal?

FA: Yes, it existed, but there was no clear position. The first years I think everything was very much still in process. There was not even the whole building, there were only two floors at that time. One basic idea of the Künstlerhaus was that instead of everyone having their own media tools, in that time when no one could afford a video camera and a video editing suite, and an audio suite and so on, they should come together and have a room. The idea was of a subsidized video and audio editing room, film, photography lab, print rooms. The rates would be reasonable, and those people who wanted these studios and found them, would be in link with what is going on in the discourse internationally. The rent would be so little that then artists could produce at a reasonable rate and on a competent level. Most importantly I think, the idea was always to produce to distribute outside with the results, to go away from what can be a very provincial Stuttgart, to not just have your friends compliment you on your new video, but to go out with a competent level and compete internationally in a larger discourse. So the studios were like a heart for the institution, yes, that’s important.

WVO: Was production then more important than exhibiting?

FA: Production was a very defining presence, and of course the idea of exhibiting was there too, but not until the later part of the 1980s did the focus on exhibition language take over. There was a very different sized space, there was a different condition.

WVO: This idea Künstlerhaus, is it something in Germany that every city has, or does it differ from city to city?

FA: Germany has Kunsthalle, Kunstraum, Kunstverein, Künstlerhaus, …Künstlerhaus should be an artist’s space, initiated by artists. But if you see it in Munich or ones in other cities, well, they really aren’t like us in the sense of “contemporary.” Or in Vienna, Künstlerhaus Wien, there is no similarity. They are not having any production studios, and ultimately, the difference between them and a gallery or a Kunstverein is very little.

WVO: But they will have a membership of artists

FA: Well, the emphasis was on supporting that, and it just could be anyone in cultural production, or interested, etc. The Kunstvereins also don’t have a membership of “Bürger elite” anymore either, trying to introduce their notion of new values etc. All these terms are a bit vaguer, although some distinctions exist, like concerning having a collection or not, or their status, private or not. We have a contemporary program and we have people coming from outside, like myself, who are bringing a very specific perspective as to why to have a program. Why to have an artistic program, we all have to argue that here.

WVO: That is something that I think is always in discussion in the NICC: what should be the exhibition program and why is it there.

FA: It’s an important issue. One aspect I like here at Künstlerhaus is that they tried to keep to the rule—and I hope it remains—that it should be an artist who is artistic director. Maybe one of the most important reasons I am here at this stage certainly far along in my own development as an artist, is because I feel it is necessary to emphasise we as artists should support holding positions of competence in our own supporting institutions. We should not be saying: I’m not a manager, or only have a curator produce exhibitions. In fact, my competition for this position were individuals who were not artists, who had no experience what it means to develop thoughts or ideas in that field, and execute them, and all that goes with it. I didn’t have the idea to try, until I started to realize there are so few places to experiment really. As it came to happen, certain board members had asked me to come in and think about applying for the job. I know the city since fifteen years, I know the Künstlerhaus and I was very early on invited here, as an artist. I was supported very early on. When no other places were supporting the ideas I was trying to work out, Künstlerhaus did. So I remembered that. The payback should be that once in a while artists should—when they are in a certain position where they can afford to do so—they should come back and give something in return to these spaces. And this space was definitely in need of an overall rethinking in terms of what role in the future.

WVO: What about the position of directors, in the case of the Künstlerhaus too, which are paid jobs?

FA: This is a full-time job, running an institution, but unfortunately the position pays what amounts to what a guest-professor teaching position gets for a few days a month. In fact, the salary hasn’t significantly changed for ten years. So it isn’t really going to be for the money, but it is still important to be paid. It shows that the institution believes it’s worth finding the money. After all, it could just rent out spaces and do without a program. And the reason I think that we have any way a kind of level of programming is that we decided to invest, whatever it is, we decided to invest in that as a form. From my perspective, I know it would develop insights into my own stage of development, and issues, and I will bring that with me later on in my next endeavors.

WVO: What about Stuttgart, what is this city as a context for you?

FA: What makes it interesting, the reason this house is able to survive here, is that it seems there has always been an attitude in Stuttgart which is of begrudging tolerance of new ideas‚ even if it is conveyed in what amounts to not caring at all!

If you look at the urban space, something like engineering or architecture, there are examples that become the model for all the others. So things are first done here before they go out into the world, they are experiments. But it isn’t taken seriously here. Something like Künstlerhaus is another example. New ideas, yes, they let it happen, but no-one thinks it’s a serious international place. They look at the Staatsgalerie and they forget that it’s near to the first, if not the, example in Germany of a 80s post-modern institutional building (designed by James Sterling it is a classic example of post-modernism in architecture WvO).

The region of Stuttgart is one that has had a kind of pious puritan background, and now a kind of esoteric side works well here. One can understand why the reduction to pure forms of engineering in link to nature, such as what Frei Otto developed in the university for example, would be appreciated. The anthroposophic school of Rudolf Steiner was started in the region. There is a kind of mindset. And certainly some of that spiritual or pious side early on went off to the US.

WVO: Stuttgart appears to be such a big city, bigger than Antwerp I would say.

FA: Funny, you see, I would think Antwerp is bigger, that would be my viewpoint as an American. But regardless, it has to do with scale, mindset—Stuttgart is modeled more on a village, limited by the surrounding hills. You still have traces of this old fashioned, puritan side operating regardless. There will be, for example, the set of rules in an apartment house, despite the level of income the house implies, each apartment in rotation must be responsible for the cleanliness of the stairway and steps in front of the apartment house. For those who can afford it, it just means paying someone to do it….Appearances‚ the old order of the village, holding everybody into an idea of a community, a kind of a collective idyllic fantasy, set amidst the growing order of banks and more banks. As culture goes it can be very bizarre.

They have so many diverse architectural experiments, models built and left. There is a stone quarry with the left-over columns standing still, left as 1:1 models prepared for Nazi architecture, there is Stammheim (the prison where the Bader Mainhof terrorists were and are kept WvO) the first solitary confinement prison, built for the new kind of state criminal - terrorists, all the Weissenhof Siedlung model neighborhood (Weissenhof is a small neighbourhood of buildings made by the modernist masters in the 20s: le Corbudier, Mies Van Der Rohe etc WvO). There are all these models here, like the first kind of concrete, metal frame skyscraper in Germany is also here, the first concrete TV tower. It does occur here for some reason, but it’s almost like: via negativa. Because it is not Munich, because it is not Frankfurt, because it is not Cologne, because it’s not Berlin, because it is not Hamburg, because it’s not Düsseldorf….It’s like a place you can find to experiment in because they leave you alone, there’s not this big identity push…but as well, it never becomes part of the urban planning, only just an example, a research test. But inevitably, that attitude allows for situations to nurture for a while.

WVO: What is the art context in Stuttgart?

If we stick to art institutions, my “neighbors,” in my opinion, the larger representative institutions around here have had their time period earlier. Staatsgalerie—right now it’s a place where you might have seen Pissarro paintings. They have a collection, of course, and there is Archive Sohm. The Kunstverein in my opinion was known only for being the largest Künstverein room unobsructed by columns. In the same building is the Galerie der Stadt Stuttgart, going for a new building…more square meters. Then as supporting institutions, there is Schloss Solitude, the castle outside of Stuttgart, is essentially supporting with grants and lodgings a variety of participants from the arts, authors to playwrights to painters. Then you have the Institute für Ausland Beziehungen, exhibitions travel to the IFA posts in different countries. What they show at the moment are Richter paintings.

WVO: Is there a gallery circuit?

FA: Still today, yes, but as well, Stuttgart is kind of infamous for the galleries in the 80s who left. If you look at all the late 80s early 90s Cologne gallery scene, where you had Galerie Max Hetzler, Tanja Grunert, Achim Kubinski, just to name a few—they are all Stuttgart galleries, who really had to finally move to larger operating context. Also Galerie Kubinski, who early in Stuttgart was working with Palermo, Buren, Knoebel, the early exhibitions of Kosuth‚ odd to note, the first German retrospective of Kosuth was in the Staatsgallerie. It is not even possible to imagine that today in this climate.

WVO: What about the original aims and goals of the Künstlerhaus?

FA: If you look onto our elevator’s floor buttons, you’ll see next to each one, a metal plaque with an old title, indicating positions which no longer exist. I eventually used the image for one of our posters. On the third floor position, it says “Gruppenraum.” At one point, there were architects groups, having offices, younger theatre groups, film, you had sometimes science related projects. It was never pure art qua art. They needed a space which you couldn’t find in another kind of institution.

The people who originally formed it were specifically anti-academy, not hoping to make any links to the art academy here in Stuttgart. I actually support that philosophy because we have here in Stuttgart one academy, which hasn’t really embraced many outside perspectives, despite the financial capabilities. There were even professors like recently Joan Jonas and Joseph Kosuth and Henk Visch who all very politely found themselves needing to leave.

The 1970s ethos in Germany rightly held a kind of cynical view on media and control of communication that was developing in link with the State. But the Left was also criticised by a younger generation that didn’t want to operate in the 68-ers notions. The 80s was open to media, to its role in terms of nation and identity, difference, there was a certain notion of wanting to embrace media which was against the old left-wing idea. There was a wish to actually play with it, going to entertainment, and new issues, like with gender coming out. The 70s expression was “communication,” and in the early 80s it held, but was already taking on new inflection. One of the first founding groups in the house was the Stuttgart Kommunications Gruppe. Their production included documentaries, interviews, entertainment, art videos—it was communication. This is the basis I like; I like to keep this link. Now in the 90s and 00s it is a different subject again. I like haus.0 as a program to link to this notion one must have as a multi-voiced institution.

All the media workshops were organised by groups who led them. The building was like a plug-in in which people came in with different kind of studios and led them. As the change comes you don’t have those people anymore, alot of people went to Berlin. This already happened before ‘89. With any kind of desire to work for sure you wouldn’t stay only in Stuttgart, except if you had a great job. This has always been some kind of brain drain. I know there are always people who want the space and they will run it, but it takes time to find them.

Now the trend in the last eight years was to favor more the individual gallery exhibition style. This is something I object to, that doesn’t make any sense in this institution. So we had to redefine what those spaces could be in relation to a whole program. We first renovated the space to open it up. Secondly we connected it to the institution, not to the building, by offering the room with a grant to produce on our equipment. That’s the possibility we can give because we now have up-to-date media workshops. People come one year or half a year in a studio to develop a project in which they can go downstairs, work on the video, work in the audio studio. The circulation is created by having a development grant to support an idea. There is a good reason to come and be in an artist’s house. We should circulate our resources. I would even prefer if they were group projects, but that isn’t really fitting in this time. I am not sure that we are yet in the condition to find such projects out there, at least in Stuttgart. But this will hopefully be the right attitude. One has to be able to predict a little bit ahead of time. Otherwise, if an institution only responds to what is the sense at the moment, then we may have to change the idea of the institution to an institution solely providing technical services—which I hope is not the next direction.

WVO: I was very surprised that with this infrastructure as I found it here there are not more people queuing at the door.

FA: There are many surprises here. People are just finding out slowly now that for members, there is inexpensive rent for new equipment here, so now it’s starting up. But they still are not going to take care of that space. That’s the difference. Before you didn’t have to have a budget for that: you had groups that benefited, it was their space, so they took care of it. The situation now reflects the rest of Germany: there just isn’t the mentality to collectively form and take care of places, or everyone imagines they should take over everything, just inherit it gratis….It’s like—why take care of a space when you don’t get anything out of it directly. So part of my program is through example, addressing these kind of questions. I consider why should you have a program, why should we have media workshops, why should we stress these ideas that artistic practice should be having questions and join in different fields and not just support this pure commercial gallery field etc. So I am hoping that in a long process of four years I will influence enough thought or join a few threads to make that be understandable, and later it will be felt in different ways in the institution.

As might be evident by now, the development of the program, haus.0, involves linking certain foundation concepts of the institution, to perspectives that can open up different future possibilities. The issue of this twenty year institution having an ‘identity,’ was brought up to join the discourse of identity politics, the role of media, contemporary art and society issues where these are being seen in works from different angles. The sense of media, for example, was introduced anew as an institutional structuring point, through how the different video, audio and print collections are developed. It is not just buying latest artist video titles. The program renovated the interior architecture only at key points of communication, from outside to the rooms, and joined that to the work of developing a new website. The haus.0 program site is furthering the sense, like a journal and extension of the program information, showing how the weblinks, essays and projects link together. After a year and half, we receive 20,000 hits a month, for a very basic, gimmick free, even flash free, site. The overall program involves sociologists, musicians, scriptwriters, television, university science departments, and yes artists, and all who work here have developed unique projects that benefit from the philosophy, not of bringing objects or an exhibition to the empty room, but two systems brought into exchange.

There remains as always, all kinds of uneven developments, here on the one hand Künstlerhaus gets better, starts to organise its institutional side, opening up venues for people to come in here again with an array of possibilities; yet on the other hand, the surrounding institution are bunkering down into a conservative and rather local attitude. So for many, Stuttgart at this moment does not seem interested in developing its position amongst others, having some kind of cultural policy with an international vision. As an artist’s space, that’s where we can still function very importantly, reflecting society back through, or perhaps as, a strange ongoing, paradoxical experiment.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh was talking to Fareed Armaly in the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart.