Who would know that a small 20th century power station in Brandenburg would have become the centre for new artistic discussions, culinary creations, as well as a renewable energy enterprise that powers art?
Luckenwalde, which houses the power station, was once a renowned industrial town 50 km south of Berlin. Since the 17th century, its cloth and wool factories were prominent, and later on, the city became a key manufacturer of hats. Luckenwalde today seems to have a very different life. Sending the majority of its workforce to big cities, it presents the qualities of an abandoned town with absolutely silent streets, blinds-down houses, and beautiful, empty industrial buildings. A former GDR factory, E-Werk power station, was one of those buildings when artist Pablo Wendel acquired it in 2017.
As a conceptual performance artist, Wendel experienced financial precarity and unreliability of resources first-hand. The rents in Berlin were – and are still - increasing, galleries closing, and artists have been pushed out of the capital through the last decade. Wendel didn’t only see the potential for a great exhibition, studio and residency space in the power station, but also for financial self-sustainability. He collaborated with the local community and engineers, self-thought some engineering, and transformed the originally coal-based power plant into woodchip burning power station. Not a piece of wood, tile, carpet or metal from the old days is wasted. They are all turned either into art or part of the regeneration of the factory.
Although it is not yet all sustainable, E-Werk Luckenwalde lives on fully renewable materials. Woodchips are donated by the local playgrounds and building companies. Ashes from the woodchip burning machine return to the forest, so that soil benefits from the compost. The factory is located by an unused train line and even the old train tracks have been re-purposed. Wendel says: “Change one thing and you’ll see that everything changes, as it is all interconnected; life, heritage, art, culture, energy, food… We must start from somewhere.”
It is indeed all interconnected and vast what Pablo Wendel and Helen Turner, the artistic director of E-Werk Luckenwalde, can fit in the 10,000 square meter space of the factory. There is electricity that supports the art and the town to an extent; there is art, food, education, local culture and heritage, and more that is cultivating as part of this project. Performance Electrics GmbH is the not-for-profit company that sells electricity to its 26 clients and powers Super Kunststrom, which is E-Werk’s first sculpture commission and offers the public free electricity to charge their bicycles and mobile phones.
The artistic programme is very much interconnected with the town and the building’s heritage. Turner says that the city loves the project. The art programme in E-Werk Luckenwalde opened with an exhibition that responded to the heritage and the potential of the space. Nicolas Deshayes activated his abstract radiators with E-Werk’s electricity, and through her residency, Lucy Joyce created a series of drawings and a live Aktion on the opening day. Aktion involved seven people who have a distinct relationship with the building and its history, such as an ex-worker of the factory and Helen Turner, holding large, mirror covered arrows in different parts of the factory, reflecting and transferring light, thoughts and energy to each other. As part of Power Night 2019, curated by Katharina Worf and Louise O'Kelly of Block Universe, artist Nina Beier invited the local wrestling club for a performance in the impressive turbine hall with people occasionally knocking on the door to discover the space where their parents or grandparents used to work. The artistic team constantly work towards finding ways to explore the space through archive materials, correspondence, and more.
The factory hosted 70 volunteers of engineers and artists, which supported its opening last Autumn. This is also an interesting model for artistic and cultural exchange and surely a very exciting place to be for volunteers, as it creates a real sense of collaboration and togetherness. The metal workshop and wood workshop are shared by artists and engineers. Lunches are eaten together, which are made out of the local products and the vegetables grown in the garden of TRAFO, the low carbon public kitchen bar of the factory.
The kitchen generates biogas in TraShed designed by architectural collective Cherry 26, which is a close circuit model taken from a grassroots method in Africa and is a 100% biological alternative to fossil resources. It works with a large digestor and creates compost from leftover food and organic waste, that through time turns into biogas. In Autumn 2020, TRAFO opened to the public and will host a workshop programme, Essen Für Alle (Food For All) in Spring 2021. The programme will teach foraging, fermentation and closed-circuit cooking in collaboration with Studio Olafur Eliasson Kitchen, Edible Alchemy, Eliza Mozer and artist Luiza Prado de O. Martins. Workshops will emphasise the eco-political aspect of food, and how it can be used as a vehicle for social justice. They were designed to be suitable for anyone, and inspire to explore zero-waste and low carbon cooking methods. TRAFO proposes creative solutions to the global problem of waste.
E-Werk Luckenwalde is an ecological model for the arts and culture sector. Wendel says “When talking about global warming, it is often suggested that we need new technology to save the earth. I don’t believe so. We have everything, that can be balanced and sufficient, but maybe abandoned. It is an epic point that the population constantly needs newer technology that ends up creating a lot of unused materials and wasted energy. We can return to old technologies and reactivate and make use of them. People are alienated from hands-on work. We don’t have basic skills to support ourselves; we don’t know how to fix our own boiler or plant our vegetables. In the factory, we use the original gas tanks. They are easy to fix and will be with us another 100 years.”
With its comprehensive programme, the overall ‘E-WERK spirit’ is a manifestation that speaks of hope when maybe the art world most needs it. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerability of arts on a global scale. Galleries and museums had to shut their doors for a significant time and some culture institutions and venues, such as theatres can still not yet open. State rescue funds for the arts and culture sector have been criticised for being nowhere near sufficient and were taken as testament to the insignificance of arts before the eyes of some governments. E-Werk proposes a cultural eco system, that is self-entrepreneurial and very strongly connected to the local knowledge or material resources. According to Wendel, something positive could also come out of this. “When society is in crisis and weak, culture must operate, but this is overlooked by governments. A project like E-Werk Luckenwalde could be a new model. We developed a lot of knowledge here. We experienced a little bit of relief from artistic limitations, such as venue costs, energy, heat, which are all needed for showing works.” Wendel says that electricity is metaphor for art. E-Werk is also proposing a sustainable model for artistic freedom, which is hard to practice or maybe even to imagine for some nowadays.