An Insight Into This Year’s 48 Stunden Neukölln

Exhibition at Neukölln Arcaden at last year’s festival, 48 Stunden Neukölln 2014. Photo Tobias Lehmann.

2015’s 48 Stunden Neukölln arts festival is asking a big question: can art save the world? Maleen Schwinger gains an insight into this year’s festival from its directors.

48 Stunden Neukölln is Berlin’s largest and oldest open arts festival with around 300 events and 100 open studios and galleries. From the 26 to 28 June, people can visit different locations in Neukölln and see countless artworks, both in public spaces and in private homes. This year´s theme, “S.O.S. Art Saves the World”, revolves around the subject of rescue, whether it is our souls, ships or the world in need of saving. Under the experienced direction of Dr. Martin Steffens and Thursten Schlenger, 48 Stunden Neukölln is in safe hands. Steffens has a PhD in art history and has organized the festival since 2008. Schlenger joined him as festival director in 2013 after participating as an artist in the 2012 festival. Here they discuss their thoughts and visions for this year’s festival.

The thematic focus “S.O.S. Art Saves the World” suggests something more radical than previous years. In what ways has the artworks’ content changed in response? 

Steffens: I think this year´s festival may be more controversial. We have usually had themes that provoked strong statements, but now one has to be clearer in stating, “Yes, arts saves the world”, or “No, art does not save the world” without pussy-footing around the issue. This year it has developed into two parts; first, the S.O.S. part refers to how we get so much information about what is happening in the world that we are unable to grasp it and don’t know what to care about any more. The festival is about how the artist confronts this issue. The second part “Art saves the world”, on the other hand, represents the excessive demands that artists face while having to function within this mess. There is a lot of strength in that tension field.

Do you often have a favourite project at the end of every festival? What do you think this year´s is going to be? 

Schlenger: Unfortunately, we never manage to see everything, as much as we try. And you can always be disappointed by a project that you thought you would like very much, but also be fascinated by a project that did not initially attract your attention.

Steffens: There are projects you get to know before the festival even starts. The project by “Plastique Fantastique” at Tempelhofer Feld will be dealing with escape by transporting the maritime Morse signal to land. It will be an installation of a big, transparent rubber dinghy, which will serve as a temporary memorial to the victims of drowning. Inside, there will be a sound installation that discusses the subject of escape from different perspectives, including quotations from the Odyssey. Our expectations for this project are quite high. There will be similar projects on the Neuköllner Schifffahrtskanal, which we have planned in advance, and therefore know are going to be good. However, there is always a blind spot in the festival, which makes it incredibly fun and exciting.

Have you had many positive surprises during your time as festival directors?

Steffens: It´s the same as in normal life. When I go to a museum there are always things I like, but there are also banal things where I ask myself whether I am too stupid to understand or simply lack the context. We do, however, have a specific criteria that needs to be fulfilled to avoid any unfortunate surprises, which is: the project should neither be done unlovingly, nor unambitiously.

Festival Directors of 48 Stunden Neukölln, Dr. Martin Steffens and Thorsten Schlenger. Photo Heiko Hildebrandt.

Schlenger: That´s right, this is the criteria that has crystallized. But, in general, the festival is always a frenzy of people going to the exhibitions, intensely arguing and praising, agreeing and disagreeing. The immediacy and impact of the festival and the direct contact between the artist and the audience is very unique. It is different from an absent artist and a work you hang on your wall, which is only talked about (if at all) with your partner over breakfast.

Steffens: Here in Neukölln, you also compare it to your own reality. You walk up to the third floor, past the new café and the kebab shop and you perceive the projects differently because they also tend to be in private houses. An example of this is a project from the Muslim-Jewish initiative that works against prejudice and discrimination: Salaam-Schalom. The fact that it is in private homes makes it more authentic.

How important is the festival for Neukölln, for Berlin, or even farther afield, and do you think it has an impact on Neukölln’s image?  

Steffens: We do not intend to change Neukölln. We are more like a seismograph in revealing what is happening right now. Of course, the Neukölln art community is very important compared to other districts, partly due to conditions like its once low rent, its higher heterogeneity and its creative reputation. Neukölln´s structure of people and places that want to present art together within this structure is also crucial. The festival serves as an event to make them visible. We would not say that we are a marketing instrument or serve to support tourism, but it is about creating a substantive dialogue. If that happens to attract people, then it is a good thing.  

Schlenger: We see Neukölln as a laboratory where all kinds of things happen and the festival tries to mirror these. And this is not merely for Neukölln, but also for Berlin as it is open to the city´s whole independent art scene. The festival therefore has quite a mass appeal because it is the biggest German arts festival, which also shows the range of independent art in Berlin, as well as serving as a springboard for new artists.

Steffens: There are other German arts festivals that took “48 Stunden Neukölln” as a role model, like “48 Stunden Wilhelmsburg” in the similarly independent district in Hamburg. Most other projects took the idea of openness and serving as a platform for new artists from Neukölln. But as we have been directing this festival for some time now, we feel confident enough to build on this and give artists a theme to work with. It is then up to them to develop and present their own statements on it.

This year’s '48 Stunden Neukölln’ runs from 26 to 28 June in various locations around Neukölln. Visit the festival website for further information.

By Maleen Schwinger

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