On the 1st of March E -WERK Luckenwalde launched their all or nothing Kickstarter campaign to bring the award-winning beach opera ‘Sun & Sea’ from Lithuanian artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, to an iconic empty Bauhaus swimming pool.
We were honoured to be asked to create a small collaborative collection to help support this crowdfunding project. The limited Universal Works. x E-WERK collection is available to purchase on their Kickstarter page.
Ahead of the launch we spoke to Helen Turner, Co-Artistic Director and Curator at E-WERK, who with the team, helped transform a former GDR brown coal power station into a renewable energy provider and space for artists and audiences to engage in creative practice.
She explains all about the renovation of the plant, how ‘Kunststrom’ (green electricity produced through art) works and more about the Kickstarter project.
Universal Works x E-WERK collaboration. Image by Diana Pfammatter, courtesy of E-WERK Luckenwalde and Universal Works.
Hi Helen, what do you do at E-WERK Luckenwalde and how did E-WERK all begin?
In 2017 Performance Electrics gGmbH, led by my partner and artist Pablo Wendel, acquired the former brown-coal power station, E-WERK Luckenwalde, with the vision to reanimate it as a sustainable Kunststrom (art power) Kraftwerk. In 1913 the factory was built to produce energy for the city of Luckenwalde using brown coal, but in 2017 Performance Electrics began resurrecting this beautiful brown coal power station into a renewable power station and contemporary art centre, powered entirely by its own energy production.
We also aspired to create alternative economic models for the cultural sector by selling renewable Kunststrom electricity to the national grid. In 2019, As part of POWER NIGHT our annual performance programme, Performance Electrics formally switched the power back on. Today E-WERK runs off 100% CO2 neutral Kunststrom energy, which powers the building, our contemporary art programme and is also fed into the national grid to Performance Electrics clients throughout Germany. I curate the space together with the E-WERK team to deliver a quarterly contemporary art programme of international, interdisciplinary exhibitions, events and site-specific new commissions across the 10,000m2 site.
Universal Works x E-WERK collaboration. Image by Diana Pfammatter, courtesy of E-WERK Luckenwalde and Universal Works.
Tell us more about the power station’s history, what was the process of renovating the plant from coal power to the sustainable “Kunststrom” power that is today?
The building was built over 100 years ago and is a municipal gem, devised as such to convince the general public of the heroic benefits of electricity. An imposing stained-glass window showing a fist emanating lightning bolts crowns the E-WERK Luckenwalde’s main entrance. Directly inside, the dramatic aesthetic continues in a corridor of bare lightbulbs. In the 19th Century, electricity occupied the terrain of the impossible, the heroic, even the occult - exactly the place good art and the avant-garde should occupy. In contrast, 21st century electricity is a generic commodity sold and distributed on the market as efficiently and prosaically as bran flakes and beer. The magic is lost. With this history of electricity and metaphorical potential inherent to the architecture, it was clear E-WERK was the perfect location to reactivate electricity’s mystique. When reactivating the building’s mechanical infrastructure, the big problem the team faced was understanding how the power station once operated.
As a way to elucidate the site, Pablo spent weeks climbing through the engines, furnaces, conveyor systems, examining every nut and bolt in an effort to understand the machine's working order, but rather than finding answers Pablo just found more questions. He needed first-hand help from the people who knew the building the best - the former workers. The local newspaper, Märkische Allgemeine, caught wind of Performance Electrics’ ambitious plans to reanimate the building and visited Pablo to hear more. At the end of the interview Pablo announced he was looking to hear from anyone who had ever worked in the power station - requesting their help to understand the building. Luckily, several of the men, including Herr Bernd Schmiedl, E-WERK’s former Production Manager, featured in our Universal Works shoot by photographer Diana Pfattermatter, were still alive and thrilled to hear of Performance Electrics’ plan to reanimate the building, coming forward with souvenirs, stories and knowledge of the building. Having worked in the power station for over 30 years, these men had priceless information about the practicalities of how to operate the power station - an essential key for reactivating the machinery from 1913, which had lain dormant since 1989.
E-WERK Engine Room circa 1928, archive image. Copyright of E-WERK Luckenwalde.
How has the renovation of the power station impacted the town of Luckenwalde?
When I first visited E-WERK the overwhelming feeling I had was that of potential. We wanted to create a poly-institution, meaning an institution with multifarious objectives. We wanted E-WERK to be a think-tank, laboratory, workshop, contemporary art centre, production site, power station and research laboratory all at once. I wanted this to emanate across our programming and also ensure the public had an influence on what this place could be. We make it our mission to create a welcoming place that is resolutely public property and invite individuals to come forward with ideas of how to use the space.
Contemporary art has an awful reputation for building barriers, but because of the interdisciplinary character of the project, a collision of energy, contemporary art, engineering, architecture, urban development etc. we have been able to create key access points for the local community. We work with the town of Luckenwalde on a daily basis, drawing on their knowledge and skills as electricians, plumbers, historians, artists and city developers. We have had extremely positive feedback from the town of Luckenwalde, who are delighted to see the power station back in use again - but without the coal smoke dirtying their laundry.
E-WERK Luckenwalde Turbinenhalle/Turbine Hall circa 1928, archive image. Copyright of E-WERK Luckenwalde.
E-WERK Engine Room, 2019. Copyright of Ben Westoby and E-WERK Luckenwalde.
What is “Kunststrom” exactly? How does it work?
Kunststrom is produced through transdisciplinary interventions, installations and performances in public spaces using renewable and sustainable energy sources, such as biomass, solar and wind power. Performance Electrics creates unique art projects that feed Kunststrom back into the National power grid. This makes the power grid itself, which is capable of releasing energy anywhere, the transmitter of art. This metaphor of the grid directly illustrates the way Performance Electrics operates. Artists, designers, architects, art historians, engineers, economists and other experts from various disciplines collaborate partly on a project-by-project basis, partly permanently on various projects, thus creating a synthesis between art, technology and business.
As a non-profit energy provider, Performance Electrics channels 100% consumer profit back into the contemporary art programme at E-WERK Luckenwalde and Kunststrom technology in an effort to challenge conventional economic models, serve a public and thus a purpose. As such, all Kunststrom customers, including museums and private households, permanently support Performance Electrics and contemporary art through their utility costs. As the only not-for-profit electricity provider in Europe, Performance Electrics challenges the profit orientated rulebook of industry. By “contaminating” the industry with cultural philanthropic models, Performance Electrics subversively proposes alternative models of capitalist society. Anybody in Germany can switch to Kunststrom electricity. Please follow this link to switch today!
E-WERK Luckenwalde entrance, 2019. Copyright of E-WERK Luckenwalde and Ben Westoby.
E-WERK Luckenwalde Turbine Hall, 2019. Copyright of E-WERK Luckenwalde and Ben Westoby.
What are your plans for POWER NIGHT 2021?
Launched in 2019, POWER NIGHT at E-WERK is an annual, experimental and interdisciplinary platform for live work, bringing together historic architecture and cutting-edge performance art, powered by Kunststrom electricity. Every year E-WERK appoints an international guest curator to programme POWER NIGHT in collaboration with E-WERK and to connect artistic concepts with the real production of energy. Performers are encouraged to map the raw spaces of the former coal factory and the listed buildings with their bodies, objects, soundscapes and installations, creating live environments across spaces such as a nearby abandoned Bauhaus designed swimming pool and E-WERK’s galleries, which include a 360m2 Turbine Hall and outdoor sites.
For 2021, E-WERK Luckenwalde has invited Lucia Pietroiusti (Curator of General Ecology at the Serpentine Galleries, London and Curator of Sun & Sea (Marina), the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale to curate POWER NIGHT 2021. She will curate a dynamic programme of live events, across the 10,000 m2 site of E-WERK Luckenwalde, including the newly erected 18m diameter FLUXDOME designed by architectural collective umschichten. For POWER NIGHT 2021, Lucia will focus on themes of eco-mysticism and present new live works by artists including Himali Singh Soin (a co-commission with Haus Der Kulturen der Welt and Serpentine Galleries), Isabel Lewis, Karrabing Film Collective (a co-commission with Serpentine Galleries and Shanghai Biennial) and Tabita Rezaire. The event will take place in September during Berlin Art Week.
E-WERK Luckenwalde aerial photograph, 2019. Copyright of E-WERK Luckenwalde and Tim Haber.
When did you first begin highlighting the importance of art and sustainability? Can you tell us more about Performance Electrics gGMBH?
In 2012, Pablo founded Performance Electrics gGmbH as a non-profit electricity provider for the generation and transmission of Kunststrom (art power) in Stuttgart. The idea of Kunststrom was born out of financial desperation. As a conceptual performance-based artist, Pablo was repeatedly invited to participate in exhibitions around the world, albeit for free. This false economy of culture in exchange for opportunity was unsustainable and thus, in an effort to pay the bills, the dream of Kunststrom was born. Rather than paying an energy provider Wendel decided to become the energy provider.
This idea, however, was more than just an endeavour to survive, it was a drive towards autonomy. As an artist one is either subservient to the commercial trends of the market or cultural trends of the institution. But what if it were possible to create your own rules, your own autonomy, your own sustainability? Since 2012 Performance Electrics has been doing just that through a diverse catalogue of Kunststrom generating sculptures, performances and installations.
Sustainability has always been an issue close to Pablo’s heart. He has a very close relationship with nature and is hyper critical of the excess and growth of capitalist society. His work as an artist has always been occupied with taking action and when we launched E-WERK we were both sick of the talk of sustainability, rather than action, that permeated the art world(s). We were determined to start doing something, to play a part, even if that meant failing or only achieving 5% of our dreams we still felt this was better than not trying.
Stadtbad, Luckenwalde, 2020. Image courtesy of E-WERK Luckenwalde, LUBA and Stefan Korte.
We are so excited to be involved in E-WERK’s Kickstarter project. How did the idea of taking Sun & Sea to Luckenwalde's Bauhaus swimming pool come about?
We are thrilled to be partnering with Universal Works! After knowing Sun & Sea (Marina) from the Venice Biennale 2019, and seeing the ripple effect (people would leave the work literally moved to tears) I knew this work was powerful, that it had the agency to affect people and the potential to create systemic changes. So I decided I had to find a way to bring the sun to Luckenwalde, to show our audiences, who are a diverse group of Berlin and international audiences and non-art audiences and who may not have had the opportunity to see it in Venice.
A friend mentioned that its curator, Lucia Pietroiusti, was taking the work on tour and one of the destinations they were looking for was an abandoned swimming pool. For our grand opening in 2019, Katharina Worf and Louise O’Kelly of Block Universe curated the first edition of POWER NIGHT and invited Rowdy SS to create an immersive live work in the Stadtbad, which was incredible. I knew it was possible to use this space effectively, so ultimately I seized the day, reached out to Lucia, who to my absolute delight was up for curating Sun & Sea and the second edition of POWER NIGHT. It’s always worth asking the question!
Are there any other exhibitions/events in the pipeline at E-WERKS that you’re looking forward to?
So many! We had a packed programme planned for 2020, and unfortunately (yet understandably) had to postpone everything in 2021, which again got postponed - so there is a whole line up of incredible artists I cannot wait to show. This includes an ambitious installation by Peles Empire called the long sleep of amber, which references Ancient Egyptian and Greek experiments with electricity; The Archive Show, curated by our Assistant Curator Adriana Tranca where artists will create new performative works in response to our century old archive of blueprints, images, correspondence letters and plans; an electronic music festival curated by Khidja and solo exhibitions by Kira Freije and Lindsay Seers. Stay tuned!
To find out more about how you can get involved in this amazing project and get your hands on some of our limited edition collection with E WERK then visit here.