Culture as a uniting element

Interview with the editors of the Community Lovers Guide Berlin, Francesca Weber-Newth and Isolde Nagel

Francesca Weber-Newth and Isolde Nagel are the two editors of the 2013 published The Community Lover’s Guide to Berlin,1 a guidebook to non-profit community projects in Berlin. Francesca is a sociologist and Isolde an architect based in Berlin with a special interest in urbanity and curating.

The launch of their book took place some weeks ago in the form of a bike tour through Berlin, visiting some of the featured projects. The book is one of the local editions of the larger project The Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe,2 initiated by Tessy Britton, Laura Billings and Maurice Specht in the UK and Netherlands in 2011. Since then, nine editions have been published and more than thirty are in production around the world.

Editors of the Berlin Guide: Francesca Weber-Newth & Isolde Nagel. © Francesca Weber-Newth.

Fran and Isolde, how did you two come across the Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe (CLGU) and get involved in making the Berlin version?

FWN: I first came across the Hackney edition, edited by Laura Billings. Hackney is a borough in London close to where I grew up and it is also the area where I am doing my PhD fieldwork. I was asked to write a chapter, and that’s how I got familiar with the larger project. Laura mentioned a Community Lover’s Guide for Berlin. As I live and research in Berlin, I was keen! I was told somebody else was also interested, so we got in touch and joined forces. Isolde knew about the book series through the Rotterdam Guide, so we came together through these different channels.
IN: I have lived in Berlin for many years, so I already knew some of the older initiatives such as Schokofabrik3 and UfaFabrik4 from my student days. It was interesting to explore how they had developed over the years. We wanted to see whether they had kept their enthusiasm and philosophies, which was really exciting to see. Those two initiatives managed to both sustain themselves in Berlin without losing their relevance to present times. Through them, we found out about other initiatives such as ID22 — Institute for Creative Sustainability5 (Institut für Kreative Nachhaltigkeit). It just went on like that, people telling us about other projects.

In the book, you write about the range of projects you chose, some younger initiatives that have just been started and others that have existed for years. During the book launch, you also mentioned that some initiatives ceased to exist during your research process. Can you expand on this?

IN: On the one hand I think it is connected to the whole history and urban development of Berlin. The free and empty spaces that once existed became part of a market that is becoming more and more exclusive. Sometimes, a project is started with a lot of enthusiasm, but at some point you realise how it outgrows its capacities. There can be different, often banal things that can ‘kill’ a project, such as suddenly having to pay rent, or other changes of external conditions. There are also people who come to Berlin for just a short period of time, initiate something, which then disappears, together with the initiators. Some small projects might merge with others or might also be maybe taken over by bigger ones. 

When you chose projects for the book, what were the common features that were important for you?

FWN: The common basis was non-profit and inclusiveness, even though we need to be careful with these terms. It was important to us that people from all socio-economic strata would be included. Inclusiveness, no matter if male or female, black or white. Still, we have cases such as Schokofabrik which is a project that concentrates on a women-only community. The ‘exclusiveness’ has a particular function; to support a certain group of potentially vulnerable people.
IN: The projects we chose were also about urbanity, the ‘kiez’,6 but also Berlin as a city with its open spaces, particularly expressed in urban gardens. We featured three in the book, but there are many more in Berlin. We realised that some initiators, such as Frauke Hehl, are active in many different projects across the city. Sometimes, it needs those engaged ‘crusaders’ who start something but then don’t mind leaving a project after other people take over.
FWN: We wanted to feature projects where you can feel the energy of the people, where great characters do great things together, in a truly collaborative way. The kind of projects, where people are open for others and their ideas, without putting forward their own interests and achievements, so newcomers can also take part.

I agree, it might be difficult to achieve, but barrier-free access is important for people to feel invited and enabled to participate. I think often people don’t engage in something because they don’t feel like they have the right to do so. So who exactly is the target group of the book?

FWN: I believe the aesthetics of the book reveals quite a bit about whom we’re trying to reach — it tries to be appealing to everyone. It’s not too heavy on text. People don’t need a PhD in order to understand what it’s all about. The images and colours illustrate the diversity and energy of the projects. Its goal is to motivate, inspire and give confidence to readers so that they might go ‘Hey, I could do this, too!’ This might exclude some, but it’s supposed to be uplifting. The people who started the guides wanted them to have this identity as a way of encouraging others…
IN: … by showing how normal it is to be involved in such projects. It’s not such a big step, after all. 

Definitely. I think that without knowing the story behind them, many nice projects seem so big and impossible to reproduce. It’s great to find out that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. Through their open nature, projects such as the CLGU or urban gardens enable people to make their own local versions without having to re-invent the wheel. It’s a sort of empowerment that is supported through simple things such as a software or a website…

IN and FWN: Yes, exactly!

How did you promote the book to a wider audience?

IN: We went to Amsterdam to participate in the conference Borders to Cross,7 which was quite a large international meeting of activists from all over Europe to discuss topics such as co-creation, collaboration, community-driven change and activism. We felt very much at home there.
All the people who came together were in one way or another engaged with these topics, either through research, politics or as members of grassroots organisations. The different sectors for once came together to collaborate in fruitful ways. It was really exciting to see people who usually don’t meet dialogue. Also, it is really affirmative to meet other activists who do similar things. It gives you a feeling of not being alone.
FWN: We presented our book in a workshop entitled ‘Art and Culture: Reclaiming Public Space’, together with the group Teatro Valle Occupato.8 The goal of this workshop was to show what impact culture can have on the development of cities. It was combined with the work of the European Cultural Foundation,9 which was a wonderful context to discuss the purpose and meaning of culture and art for social change. We looked critically at calling art a ‘tool’ or ‘method’, and agreed that it can be something to give hope…
IN: Culture is a uniting element. Everybody knows and values music, everybody can sing or paint. Maybe not everybody has confidence to do it, but it creates a loose and relaxed basis to get together, without a specific result or financial benefit in mind. It’s more about exchanging and getting to know each other.
FWN: Which raises the question of how art and culture can sustain themselves without stable financial support. Cultural actors cannot always be expected to gift all their energy to projects, they also need to pay their rent. We must collaborate with bigger actors in order to sustain small cultural movements. The book is supposed to show what is possible without money and the State. We made this our own philosophy; we also worked on the book on a voluntary basis, and all the authors of the book did the same. Still, there is a limit.
IN: In the book we also feature networks that were founded to do exactly that — support artists and cultural actors, such as the Netzwerk Freier Berliner Projekträume Und -Initiativen (Berlin network of project spaces and initiatives). 10 They have clear political demands such as honoraria for artists, the improvement of project spaces, and basic institutional support. The network came into being out of this discussion, asking about real needs and aims.

I thought it was interesting that you also featured projects such as Rütli-wear11 to show how it did not turn out to be financially viable. It’s an ambiguous question: how far can one go without sacrificing oneself too much? How was it for you, how long did you work on the book?

IN: Around a year, wasn’t it? Including the breaks, when we had to wait for our contributors’ texts for example. The process of finding and visiting projects and then choosing the suitable ones took quite a long time.
FWN: It took a bit longer than we expected because of our work commitments, as we both work full-time. Also, we were not so familiar with the topics from the very beginning, so it was good to let things grow slowly. It sometimes needs the time for things to develop, also in our own minds. We got to know many of the initiatives later, so it was not really a linear process. We could continue doing this endlessly, and still have the feeling we’ve only scratched the surface. 

I don’t think the book is about being complete. What it offers are entry points to a lot more…

FWN: Yes, I think just by visiting a project’s website, a whole world of new connections and other things opens up. It also engages people in talking to each other and maybe finding out about other interesting things…
IN: Many Berliners don’t even know some of the initiatives. Maybe some of the more famous ones, such as Prinzessinengarten12 because it’s been in the newspapers quite often, but still it does not mean that people go there. It always depends on one’s own context and situation in life. 

It’s interesting how the ‘kiez’ works in Berlin and also other big cities. People tend to stay in their own district. It’s great to have your own neighbourhood, but at the same time it is always nice to ‘travel’ to other ones to expand one’s views. Which makes me wonder – how do people who are not familiar with grassroots initiatives know about them and the book?

IN: If a person knows the Community Lover’s Guides (CLGs), it is always a nice way of getting to know a city from this kind of perspective. There are more and more books being edited as we speak. To get some publicity a journalist from the magazine Zitty is currently writing an article about our Berlin edition. Also, we want to get in touch with the Senate to ask about integrating the book in their marketing scheme of Berlin.
FWN: It’s a bit problematic with projects like this. It is challenging to find readers who are not already convinced and interested. It seems to be a general problem which is difficult to overcome. With our two different networks — Isolde in the art world, me at the university — we hope to reach out to a wider audience by word-of-mouth.

It is challenging, but I think also a lot about accessibility to the book. If it was made tangible, for example as a printed copy in a bookshop, maybe even passers-by might get interested…

IN: We tried to collaborate with bookshops, but they were not too enthusiastic about it. Since we used print-on-demand as a publishing model, it competes with book sellers. But they let me display and distribute our postcards… I always carry a stack of them with me!
FWN: The idea was also to be self-sufficient, and as I said before, we tried to make this our own philosophy. . We did not want to print a huge load of books and then not be ecologically sustainable if they didn’t sell, so went for print-on-demand.
IN: I think the publishing model suits the book really well. People can visit the website, they can read and browse online. It’s not necessarily a book one HAS to have on the bookshelf.
FWN: It is a ‘guide’, after all. Hopefully it encourages movement beyond the pages of a book, and onto the streets. There are also some fun discussions amongst the CLG editors to develop the platform, maybe a CLG application. We will see…

Is there a community amongst the CLG editors as well?

IN: We were quite surprised about all the people who showed up in Amsterdam!
FWN: It was great meeting the other editors in person. That was a wonderful  experience!
IN: Yes, and people were discussing all sorts of crazy ideas about how to develop the books further…
FWN: And everybody had their own way of doing it, so that was really interesting to see.

Are there guidelines for the guides?

IN: Definitely for the graphics: they all have the same visual language and graphics, only the colours are different. There are some rough specifications about how long each article should be, how many projects would still make sense, but then it was up to us what to do with it. Content-wise, there were no restrictions.
FWN: I had the feeling we had all the freedom possible, like “Do what you want, it’s your book!” It was up to us to set our focus and how to approach people.
IN: The only thing is that essays are always written from the inside of a project. Even though there were also some who wrote about projects from the perspective of an outsider.

Is there a platform of exchange amongst CLG editors and the initiatives?

FWN: The great thing in Berlin is that many of the initiatives already know each other. So an informal network of exchange already exists, where group members get in touch with each other if they want to start concrete collaboration. On a bigger scale, our website communityloversguide.org is the official platform for the whole project. It’s the hub where everything comes together. But it’s much more than just a website or a platform — it provides a tool through which initiatives can find and get in touch with others, in their city and beyond.
IN: We also use social media like Twitter and Facebook as a link between editors and initiatives. Tessy is amazing at keeping us all updated on the latest news on citizen-driven change and participation.

Websites and online contact hardly replace physical contact. I find it quite difficult to feel a project’s real nature only by looking at its online presentation. 

FWN: Exactly, that was the point of the bike tour. We wanted people to get in touch with the projects beyond the pages of the book. It’s so different to actually meet the people behind the project and interact with them.
IN: It was also our working method throughout the research process. First, we looked at the website, but then we really felt the need to check it out.
FWN: Sometimes a project does not even look that great on the internet because people don’t know how to ‘sell’ themselves, but it still is a great project with interesting people involved. So I think, it’s important to look beyond the packaging. What you were asking before about the outreach to people, those are things we’re considering right now after the book is out and there is more space to breathe. Maybe we’ll do another bike tour, or try other ways of collaborating and networking…

Berlin book launch at the urban gardening initiative Prinzessinnengärten
Berlin book launch at the urban gardening initiative Prinzessinnengärten. © Katharina Moebus.

You collaborated with the Transeuropa Festival13 to do your book launch as part of their program; how did that come into being?

FWN: The initial contact came through Jonmar van Vlijmen, the Amsterdam CLG editor. He is a member of the European Alternatives14 network and suggested that we do as he did, doing a bike tour to launch the book. The organisation explores the potential for trans-national politics and culture, with a focus on democratic participation. So they were the perfect partner for us to collaborate with, and it was great to be part of their festival programme.
IN: And it fitted perfectly with the timing of Borders to Cross which was just right after the festival. So first we had our Berlin book launch, and then, a week later, an international one in Amsterdam.

I thought it was interesting how European Alternatives (EA) put forward art as a disruptive power when it comes to social change. 

IN: One thing we realized in Amsterdam at the conference was that art was not one of the most important topics. Energy, water and other more essential fields stood more in focus, so I think we really have to pay attention so that art is not swept aside. Art should never become just the ‘soft factor’ that can be sprinkled on top of everything to make it more fun and better-looking.
FWN: And I think EA had to fight really hard to keep art and culture in the conference programme.
IN: One thing that crossed my mind in Amsterdam was the topic of citizenship which really includes everyone. This might be the connecting factor through which everyone should feel responsible for our planet with each one of us being one of its citizens.

Our book talks a lot about the topic of agency, a term deriving from sociology. What is your definition and position towards this term, what does it mean to you?

FWN: I feel this is quite problematic, with the grassroots projects in the book we show what is possible without top-down state intervention. But, if such initiatives are successful and function well, they could become excuses for governments to not do certain things. In this way so-called ‘agency’ can become an instrument of governments and something potentially non-democratic. We need to ask: what are my responsibilities as a citizen and what are the responsibilities of a state? ‘Community building’ is often constructed as an issue of self-help, the idea that we have to help ourselves if we want dynamic neighbourhoods. With our book, we did not want to write a manifesto of what people should do, but provide a platform of possibilities and ideas.
IN: It does not take away the responsibility of the government.
FWN: There’s a thin line between where whose responsibilities start and end.
IN: We’re not saying if all the power is with the people, we’ll live in a better world. To protect certain interest groups and minorities, we still need laws and politics. The political processes need to be there and function well, but in co-creation with the people.
FWN: It’s also a question of having to and wanting to — citizens shouldn’t be filling in the gaps that politicians don’t manage to take care of. 

Many of the people involved in the community projects seem to replace some of those gaps though — if I think of how the German state deals with unemployment and how work is defined… 

IN: We met a lot of interesting people during our research, most of whom demonstrate different models of living and work through their own ways of leading their lives.
FWN: We would never have known those people in this kind of depth without this project. Their stories only started to unfold with our conversations and over time. 

Thanks for your time and the interesting conversation Isolde and Fran!

IN and FWN: Thanks, our pleasure.


1 Walsh, F. and Nagel, I. eds., 2013. The Community Lover’s Guide to Berlin. UK: Blurb Books. www.blurb.co.uk
2 More info: www.communityloversguide.org 
3 Schokofabrik is Berlin’s largest women’s centre started in the 1980s to support and empower women, lesbians and girls. It offers counselling, education, services, and recreational activities. More info: www.frauenzentrum-schokofabrik.de
4 UfaFabrik is an international centre of culture and ecology located in Berlin. More info: www.ufafabrik.de
5 ID22 is a Berlin-based non-profit civil society organisation supporting cultures of sustainable urban development and innovative housing. More info: http://id22.net/en
6 ‘Kiez’ is a German expression for one’s particular quarter/neighbourhood; it is most commonly used by Berliners.
7 http://borderstocross.com
8 The Teatro Valle has been occupied since 2011 by a group of artists, musicians, directors, technicians, and creative staff to protest against privatisation and government cuts for the arts. www.teatrovalleoccupato.it
9 The mission of the European Cultural Foundation is to ‘bridge people and democratic institutions by connecting local cultural change-makers and communities across Europe’ to power Europe by culture. More info: www.culturalfoundation.eu
10 More info: www.projektraeume-berlin.net
11 Rütli-wear is a social clothing project for young people and students from the infamous Rütli-school in Berlin-Neukölln. More info: www.ruetli.biz
12 Prinzessinnengarten is an urban garden in Berlin offering local food, home-grown herbs, plants, and environmental workshops on upcycling, gardening, making, preserving and much more. More info: http://prinzessinnengarten.net
13 More info: http://transeuropafestival.eu
14 See above. More info: www.euroalter.com