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NICE Alumni 2016: Building a “neighbourhood of doers” in Dortmund’s Northern district

In our interview with Volker Pohlüke, co-chair of the voluntary organisation Machbarschaft Borsig11 e.V., we discuss the new spirit and opportunities in north Dortmund.

© Jullian_Sankari

ecce – Volker, in 2010 you were involved in Jochen Gerz’s project “2–3 Streets” in Dortmund. Now you are co-chair of Machbarschaft Borsig11. How did that come about?

When a call went out for volunteers for the project “2–3 Streets” I very quickly made the decision to apply. I already knew back in 2010 that I wanted to keep on going at Borsigplatz. A group of project participants and members of Jochen’s team (e.g. Guido Meincke) quickly formed who said, “Great idea, we definitely want to keep going.” The people in the neighbourhood also got to know us better and we got to know them. And then we founded the community initiative Machbarschaft Borsig11 (“Machbarschaft” meaning “neighbourhood of doers”). The aim of the initiative was to take the idea behind “2–3 Streets” to the next stage. Today, Machbarschaft Borsig11 supports creative community development in the district by means of participatory art. We don’t see ourselves as artists, but as an organisation by locals for locals. In a nutshell, we promote creativity as a form of renewable social energy.


ecce – How has the artist’s idea been developed?

Jochen Gerz had one thing fairly clearly in mind; he said that art dissolves like an aspirin in water, and takes effect. That means you make people into creators – in this case, the locals; they themselves are part of this artistic whole, not mere consumers of art. So as Jochen saw it, the project was complete when the book was published. Whereas we see it as an open-ended project. I often say that we’re a spillover effect from the Ruhr.2010 art project. That wasn’t Jochen’s intention, but he’s followed what we’re doing and I think he sees it very positively.


ecce – You co-chair the organisation alongside Guido Meincke. How do your roles and interests complement each other?

It’s a congenial partnership: I’m originally a businessman. Guido is a philosopher and art historian, so he has a closer link to art, especially participatory art. It’s about social sculpture, in line with the concept developed by Joseph Beuys. You can tell that Guido has absorbed this DNA. We complement each other, because in order to run a voluntary organisation you need more than just an understanding of art – you also have to know how to manage this kind of structure. You have to fight – ultimately there’s also the question of funding. That wasn’t at all easy in the early years. We had to use our own resources and we have to keep on persevering. As volunteer chairs, we can claim expenses for a few hours’ work, but it’s a very, very small portion of what we do. We have to do other freelance work alongside it.


ecce – Your work takes you to Asia a lot, and Guido Meincke is involved in the association Interkultur Ruhr. You’re working in a multicultural district. How important are cross-cultural and cross-national factors?

We’re in a melting pot of cultures here. There are more than 150 nationalities in the Nordstadt district. And around 70 to 80% of the district’s 50,000 inhabitants have an immigration background. So interculturality is a given. Right from the start we wanted to take a different approach to integration. Because multiculturalism is a basic value that’s a constant source of new impetus – for culture and art as well as for society as a whole. We need more of this basic value in our district – some people regard us as a no-go area, and we need to turn that around. It can’t be done overnight, of course, but we’re working on it. That was also the main factor behind the development of the YOUNGSTERS Academy. Young people aren’t just important for Nordstadt, but also for society as a whole and its future. The idea behind the YOUNGSTERS Academy is to reach out to precisely these socially deprived children and young people at the earliest possible stage and provide them with support. We’ve been doing that since 2013 with the help of “leuchte auf”, the Borussia Dortmund foundation.


ecce – The organisation’s work includes projects with young people as well as with an artist-in-residence. How does that all fit together? Do you see yourselves more as an artistic and creative initiative, as a social enterprise, as urban developers ... or as a mix of them all?

As a mix of them all, really. There are certainly some things where you can ask is that still art or has it crossed the line into social work, or vice versa ... that’s what I find so appealing about it. Art is a very important part of our work. Stimulating things, provoking, shaking things up, without convention, simply free – that’s an important aspect of art. For example, we brought sheep to graze at Borsigplatz and ran a brewing project with alcoholics, which made some people ask whether we were crazy. But after the sheep came a “land grab” and the founding of the “Free Republic of Borsigplatz”. In this way, the projects coalesce into something constructive. The message is clear: in Nordstadt, we simply go ahead and do things. When neighbours of three different nationalities (Portuguese, Turkish and German) publish a cookbook together, that’s progress. It’s about restoring people’s confidence. So that nobody says you can only be involved if you’ve being doing a theatre workshop for the past three years – no, you can just get involved.


ecce – Has the initiative changed the way people think?

The initiative has definitely built up people’s confidence. And I think that art is the best way to do that, rather than outreach workers – though they’re needed too, no question about it. A negative perspective would be that social workers simply administer problems – for instance, they might say, “Let’s clear up the rubbish together”. With art, we give people freedom to do their own thing. Ideally, we would work in tandem: outreach workers could be accompanied by artists as they go through the district.


ecce – What other impact has the initiative had?

We’ve definitely had a concrete political impact: for instance, last year our project “Public Residence: the Opportunity”, which we carried out with the assistance of the Montag Stiftung Kunst und Gesellschaft, was recognised as a socially innovative project and honoured with the N.I.C.E. Award. It made an impact in the media and on policymakers. Even North Rhine-Westphalia’s minister for economic affairs thought it was cool and asked for a meeting. We didn’t have to think twice before extending an invitation. As I mentioned, we emerged out of the European Capital of Culture: our project shows that that kind of investment in art and culture can have a long-term impact too. You simply have to keep your eyes open as you walk through the district to see that it’s had an effect.


ecce – The “opportunities” currency started as an artistic experiment. What’s the next stage?

It’s an artificial currency, with the emphasis on art. The original intention, and this hasn’t changed, was to use it to promote art and culture, to initiate community projects and to bolster civic engagement. You can’t buy anything with “opportunities”. But you can do something with them, for the community. And this in turn forces a rethink of our value system. Traditional local currencies create incentives to buy products in the local economy. That would also be a possibility, but at the moment it’s crucial that our artificial currency continues to be used to promote participation. In future, that will make it easier to bring about changes in the way we live in our society. Because we need to bear in mind that we’re currently at a high point, but that can change very quickly. Since I spend a lot of time in China, I know that Asia is catching up rapidly and competing with us. One possible scenario is that in 20 years’ time rather than doing typical work we’ll be bartering amongst ourselves instead. In our “Flavour archive”, for example, we planted various herbs and vegetables, and in line with the urban farming model people could swap produce with each other. The artificial currency would simplify this kind of barter system. In future, that sort of thing could become very exciting and important.


ecce – You also help students find cheap rented accommodation. You do this in partnership with a large housing and property company. Doesn’t that go far beyond the traditional remit of art and culture?

There’s definitely scope within social sculpture for experimenting with alternative economic forms, and VIVAWEST has been a very reliable partner for many years. But at the end of the day it’s also about independence. You need to make yourself as independent as possible. That means, of course, that you have to ask where you can earn money or where you can get money that you can then spend on art and culture. I don’t know whether we’ll ever have a basic universal income. But it would be great if we had a small self-sufficient economy where people feel they’re part of a system of mutual support. I look out for other people, and I get something else from other neighbours in return.



ecce – In big cities such as New York and Berlin, development projects in deprived districts often lead to gentrification and increasingly unaffordable rents. But things seem to be going very differently in your case.

By volunteering in the district, students can get a discount on their rent. A key aspect is that people work together (in this case, again, in partnership with the housing industry) to achieve something that benefits everyone. After all, ultimately everyone wants to improve quality of life in the district. Companies too can say that if you contribute to improving quality of life, we’ll give you a rent discount in return. The VIVAWEST Foundation, for example, recognised the value of our work and since 2010 has provided us with our office here on Borsigplatz, so that we can experiment with new approaches to housing and work.


ecce – So a kind of countermodel? Trendy districts are often treated like consumer products that are bought up by those who can afford them. Here, by contrast, people have to get actively involved in making a difference in the local community.

Yes. Though it must always be stressed that it’s never a linear process. We need a little patience, because it will definitely take more than a year. But I think it’s the right approach. Especially for the future we have ahead of us: in a digital world increasingly dominated by technology, it’s important to create this sense of community and warmth. What’s emerging in the district now is an updated version of the extended families we used to have a hundred years ago.


ecce – You’ve now teamed up with the local initiative KulturMeileNordstadt e.V. and are planning to found a Creative.Quarter together. How did you reach that decision?

When you’re honoured with an award, it emboldens you to say, “We want to keep going”. There’s scope to make more things happen in the community. If you brought everyone on board and helped to unlock all the qualities and talents among the people who live here that can easily be overlooked at first glance, this district would have an amazing potential, particularly in the cultural and creative sphere. Doing that requires a Creative.Quarter: not just because it opens up new funding opportunities, but also because it sends out a signal to people living outside the district. Creative.Quarter can’t just be a name – it needs to be brought to life.


ecce – So you still have more plans ahead?

In order to raise the district’s profile, we need one or two flagship projects to sustain the dynamism. You need a critical mass to support it all. Until you reach the point where lots of people want to get involved because they can see that it works!


ecce – Looking back at the last five years, how has the district changed?

I think you can clearly see that lots of people are now a bit happier. For example, the people who were involved in the project space 103 got a boost to their self-confidence. People are also much more proactive than they were five years ago. The effect is phenomenal, and we need to ramp it up so that even more people are motivated to come out of their homes and get involved. Of course, that’s not easy because some people are in very difficult situations. Taking the first steps requires energy. So we need to create even more opportunities for art and culture to act as a springboard for social participation.