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Beyond the Traditional Blueprints of Art & Gentrification

A Reader

Ed. Tirdad Zolghadr



Tirdad Zolghadr

Provisional Global Snapshots

Tirdad Zolghadr

Capitalizing Antigentrification

Suhail Malik

Financializing the Development of Urban Neighborhoods: Thoughts on the Relationship between Art and Gentrification

Laura Calbet Elias

The Community Land Trust: A Model for Berlin’s New Stadtbodenstiftung

Sabine Horlitz

The Land: From Pastoral Idyll to Sacrifice Zone

Marco Clausen

A Landscape Study

Katya Sander

Pigeon Towers and Donkey Paths

Marion von Osten

Was ist das Land? / What Is Land?

Marion von Osten

To “Conquer a Province Peacefully”? How the Seizure of Land on the Rivers Oder, Netze, and Warthe Drove a Government to the Brink of Ruin

Simone Hain

Rural Urbanization: Commodification of Land in Post-Oslo Palestine

Khaldun Bshara

Who’s Afraid of Ideology?

Marwa Arsanios

Land Reform: Utopia and Infrastructure: Historical Planning and Current Developments in Rural Brandenburg

Maria Hetzer

The Red City on the Planet of Capitalism

Bahar Noorizadeh

Redistributing Risk: Tuleva as a Case Study

Kristel Raesaar

A Speculative White Paper on the Aesthetics of a Black Swan World

Penny Rafferty

terra0: An Introduction

Paul Seidler

Speculative and Practical Responses to Problems Bemoaned in the Provisional Global Snapshots

Tirdad Zolghadr



How to get the better of gentrification, even by means of—of all things—contemporary art (CA)? This book contains a collection of texts that emerged from REALTY, an ongoing, long-term curatorial effort featuring public events, commissioned artworks, university seminars, and multiple research groups, both formal and informal in nature. Curated by Tirdad Zolghadr, the program focuses on strategies to overcome CA’s complicity in processes of renewal and displacement within inner cities as well as the countryside. Within the field, the search for a response to this complicity has increasingly met with frustration and cynicism. Instead of theorizing our failures yet again, REALTY moves from the spleen of melancholia to the vulgarity of suggestion, however embarrassing. It aims to understand how the growing traction of CA can be used to maximum effect in the here and now.

The topic is all the more relevant in the midst of the pandemic. If ever there was an opportunity to rethink CA’s relationship to land and location, it is now. The commodification of land and housing is at the heart of our most pressing concerns—concerns that are both ecological and sociopolitical in nature. Moreover, the latter-day strictures imposed by the pandemic on international mobility amount to a historic opportunity. Rarely has criticism of the artworld’s extractive logic of one-place-after-another been louder. And rarely has the valorization of local context been as promising as it is today.

To deconstruct the dumb logic of fly in/fly out is not enough. Critique and catharsis are great, but they only really bear fruit when positioned as the first step of a larger process. Hence, the insistence in this book on workable responses, imaginative scenarios, and blue-sky thinking that goes for conditions of production within CA itself. At this point, our appetite for change still needs to be formalized by means of new support systems, protocols, and educational templates. Resistance to capitalism will remain a trite slogan so long as artists see no other choice but to do capitalism’s bidding—as smoke screens, cheap labor, or small-time developers.

Since 2017, REALTY has been supported in many ways by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin. It also received support from the Dutch Art Institute and Sommerakademie Paul Klee Bern. Recent writing and editorial work has been made possible by the Foundation for Arts Initiatives (FfAI). (Another upshot of the REALTY program is my third novel, HEADBANGER, which explores this book’s contents from an autofictional vantage point.) The focus on Berlin and its surroundings as a case study in this book is due both to KW and to my having lived and worked here for much of my adult life. To counterbalance this quasi-Prussian perspective, about half the contributions are from further afield.

Though interdisciplinary in spirit, the book’s onus is unapologetically to art and the purchase it offers—one advantage of CA discourse being that it is informed by practicalities and theoretical research alike, and thus more sweeping in its mapping of references than journalistic or academic discourse often is. The challenge is to then steer this momentum toward a dialectic of falsifiable positions. By this I mean that this is a book that tries, rather loudly, to convince; and not just anyone. (The very fact that you’re reading this book suggests your membership in the privileged niche audience we had in mind.)

The book’s first editorial essay plots key features of CA at large. KW and the urban developments which have made the venue what it is today figure as a case study. The text also offers a working definition of the term “gentrification,” describing the role of local and national governance within it. It concludes by explaining the role CA has played in creating this mess. My second contribution, however, is a taxonomy of possible road maps out of said mess, an antithetical position to the doom and gloom with which the book commences. This second editorial essay focuses on methods of redistribution, democratization, and decommodification, both as government policy and within the purview of CA itself.

The book’s other contributions range from recent scholarship to firsthand accounts of artistic agency. Suhail Malik’s essay1 contrasts a public mandate for “anti-gentrification development” with an anti-development stance found among creative workers that he suggests is self-serving and ultimately “uses the urban poor as collateral.” Malik’s perspective sheds a helpful light on the laissez-faire liberalism that marks CA, while also helping to contextualize the growing eco-political stance currently found among cultural workers. The contributions of de-growth and other comparable movements have been groundbreaking, but at the hands of CA’s incessant hunt for ramshackle real estate they can serve as smoke screens for a decidedly less egalitarian agenda.

Meanwhile, Laura Calbet Elias’s essay offers an analysis of the financialization processes that currently undergird the workings of real estate development, using a small slice of Berlin Mitte as a forensic case study to demonstrate their mechanisms. Calbet Elias also maintains that critical analysis tends to focus on art’s effect on the financialization of other sectors: she argues that we must foreground the impact on art itself, as an object of financialization in its own right.

Sabine Horlitz’s contribution points to community land trusts as a tried and tested form of collective ownership—one safely beyond the reach of market speculation. This mechanism is being deployed within a wide range of settings as we speak. Her essay also heralds the foundation of a municipal land trust in Berlin itself.

Marco Clausen shifts the discussion to a rural setting, tracing the different histories that have contributed to shaping present-day Berlin’s environs, from the land practices of the Prussian aristocracy to the impact of international finance. He ends by pointing to other genealogies lying further afield, making a claim for a “stewardship” of natural resources rather than an ideology of property ownership.

Katya Sander’s “Landscape Study,” meanwhile, maps the material traces of rural property regimes in Scotland and Denmark over time, culminating in a similarly poignant appeal for land stewardship as opposed to the extractive logic of ownership. Her comparative study of ante-modern agrarian models of property usage suggests new modes of custodianship and what-if scenarios.

Simone Hain’s seminal report on the draining of the rivers Oder, Netze, and Warthe places the construction of the Prussian landscape we now take for granted within a broader historical context. (Berlin itself was largely wetlands until the eighteenth century.) Hain describes the human toll of what was at once a monumental engineering experiment and a disastrous state-led land grab. But she also offers a narrative of how a form of modernization based on enlightened technocracy emerged from the very muck of this eighteenth century catastrophe.

This reader also features Maria Hetzer’s captivating description of communist land reform in the GDR, undertaken in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Although Hetzer’s account does not wish to offer a blueprint for the here and now (as she herself insists), it does remind us of the political possibilities a state of exception can contain—especially today, when the regime of neoliberal intimidation appears, perhaps momentarily, to be on the wane.

A comparably dizzying sense of Red possibility marks Bahar Noorizadeh’s research on planning experiments in the early Soviet Union. Her contribution addresses the short-lived school of Disurbanism, which sought to overcome the rural-urban divide by devising radically new lines of settlement. An unabridged version of the essay published here, accessible on www.realtynow.online, also features the correspondence between Le Corbusier and the disurbanist visionary Moisei Ginzburg. This exchange epitomizes the ideological and geopolitical rifts running through the heart of the modernist movement.

In terms of a critical engagement with the legacy of modernism as we know it, Marion Von Osten’s contribution is altogether less forgiving and more entangled.2 While von Osten’s practice as a curator, theorist, and artist unapologetically stood on modernism’s shoulders (see her formal embrace of the grid in her work, her monumental engagement with the Bauhaus, or her work on architecture and colonialism in the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa), the scope and rigor of her plea for an “interspecies” approach, as well as a post-anthropocentric rethink of present-day urban planning, makes the titanic blind spots at the heart of the modernist project all too painfully obvious.

Khaldun Bshara ties the urbanization of rural Palestine to the commodification of land in the post-Oslo era. In a sense, his contribution picks up where Von Osten leaves off, placing a Palestinian history of modernization squarely within a history of both Ottoman and European colonialism. At our KW conference in 2020, Bshara’s wry eloquence and charm allowed him to explain the Israel/Palestine conflict as directly colonial, without any Germans in the audience falling off their seats in a dead faint.

For her part, Marwa Arsanios offers a snapshot of her persistent research in both Colombia and Kurdistan, based on the testimonies of women who have reinvented theories and practices of agriculture within militarized environments. It is in the rural heartlands of Palestine, Colombia, and Kurdistan that land grabs, in all their violent disregard for nature and human dignity alike, can be most clearly understood as instances of clear-cut colonial dispossession.

terra0 represents the most ambitious artist project in this publication, in terms of experimental rigor and potential impact alike. The collective offers a scenario for a fully autonomous forestscape that can be released from human intervention to tend to its own interests and growth via smart contracts alone. Although the terra0 blueprint began as a student project and will remain under development for a long time to come, once this young artist trio realized the staggering implications of their project, they decided to devote their long-term professional trajectories to addressing its technical, ecological, and financial challenges. They have begun with small-scale experiments intended as precursors to scaling up to whole ecosystems.

The two remaining contributions address the chronic lack of support structures within CA, and the part this plays in the saga of art and gentrification. To imagine a life beyond residential capitalism, we do need more than a sheepish sense of being passively part of the problem. By means of her Tuleva initiative, curator Kristel Raesaar explains how you can ensure a pension as a freelancer, even within a fiercely challenging economic environment. Her contribution answers the question of how to develop support systems built by and for their users, with technology no more demanding than an Excel file. For her part, and in the very same spirit of redistribution, writer Penny Rafferty points to recent, ambitious experiments in redistribution within CA, particularly via quadratic voting methods and blockchain technology.

The political economy of art and urban development is a complicated and well-trodden path and soon after embarking on it I found myself indebted to a vast number of conversation partners—kindly experts, activists, and colleagues—who all humored me along this journey. Some encounters were a give and take, others less so. The dazzling Anh Linh, editor of ARCH+, sadly examined me like a fly in his Karottensuppe. To the likes of him, this book revisits many well-known topics (1990s Berlin, Henry George, etc.); to others it might provide a valuable introduction. Personally speaking, it is exactly the kind of book I would have wished for when starting out on my research . . . a manual for the art professional to build upon. To say the least, it would have spared me many, many moments of uncertainty and exasperation, over Karrottensuppe or otherwise.

Above all, it is to the late Marion von Osten to who I am indebted. She not only organized exhibitions in the 1990s that first drew me to CA, but it is thanks to her that I eventually understood gentrification as a dynamic process that encompasses both the urban and rural, the representational and ecological. Although the book perhaps retains a metrocentric bias, it does zoom out to contemplate the city as one fragment of a much larger biosphere. That it strives to do so at all is entirely Marion’s doing.

I would also like to express my thanks to the following individuals, for their part in the long chain of events that led to this book. I would like to thank Tom Eccles, who introduced me to the character-building experience of full-time teaching, and my friend and colleague Suhail Malik, to whom I owe many, many things. I am equally grateful to my collaborators at Riwaq, Ramallah, although I could never bring our project fully to fruition, unfortunately. But the lessons learned are not forgotten. More recently, I owe much to Krist Gruijthuijsen, whose trust and support have been decisive. He took my 2016 polemic TRACTION at face value, offering me four years under his auspices at KW to put the book’s premises to the test. This is how the lion’s share of REALTY’s contents came together. I should also mention other KW colleagues who went out of their way to make the REALTY program happen; Duygu Örs, Katja Zeidler, Maurin Dietrich, Mason Leaver-Yap, and especially Sabrina Herrmann.

Many other people are referenced in my two editorial essays. Others not mentioned there include: Deadline Architects Berlin, Rival Strategy London, Esra Akcan, Michael Baers, Diann Bauer, Carl Berthold, Anya Bitkina, Mathieu Blond, Stephan Blumenschein, Erik Bordeleau, Johanna Brückner, Crystal Z. Campbell, Luca Carboni, Sara Cattin, Luiza Crosman, Tashy Endres, Shahab Fotouhi, Felix Hartenstein, Jörg Heiser, Martin Heller, Dirk Herzog, Andreas Krüger, Alexandros Kyriakatos, Friederike Landau, Stephan Lanz, Maria Lind, Azar Mahmoudian, Luke Mason, Samantha McCulloch, Doreen Mende, Alexis Mitchell, Dina Mohamad, Katharina Morawek, Heather M. O’Brien, Rachel O’Reilly, Sarah Pierce, Hans Rudolf Reust, Kristien Ring, Hannah Rocchi, Rachel Rosenfelt, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Gabrielle Schleijpen, Shirana Shahbazi, Solmaz Shahbazi, Jörg Stollmann, Eric Golo Stone, Niloufar Tajeri, Jonathan Takahashi, Leonardo Vilchis, Andreas Vogel, Ingrid Wagner, and the inimitable Oraib Toukan.