Cities where art imitates life


When the Kerry-based artist Jochen Gerz offered a year of rent-free living, all he asked in return was that the people he chose would chronicle their lives for the first stage of his vast public-art project, writes AIDAN DUNNE

ABOUT TWO years ago an intriguing advertisement appeared on property-rental websites in the Ruhr area of Germany. “Would you like to live rent-free for a year?” it asked. All you had to do in return was to write something every day. The ad was the first stage of a huge public-art project, 2-3 Streets, devised by Jochen Gerz and taken up by Ruhr.2010 as part of its programme as a European Capital of Culture for the year.

In the Ruhr a population larger than the island of Ireland’s occupies a space little more than 5 per cent of the size (although, intriguingly, it still manages a level of afforestation well above Ireland’s). Most of them are German, but there is considerable cultural diversity, including a substantial Turkish community. Once known for its mining and heavy industries, the Ruhr has had to reinvent itself – the last coalmine closed in 1986 – with manufacturing industry now accounting for just 20 per cent of its productivity; service industries make up the remaining 80 per cent.

Jochen Gerz, who is a youthful 70, was born in Berlin, surviving many bombing raids there as a toddler. Active as an artist since the end of the 1960s, he has been consistently drawn to devise works for public spaces, usually large-scale, collaborative, participatory works that hinge on the direct involvement of the public and take a great deal of time and energy. He has managed a string of such projects in Germany, France, Austria, England and Ireland: his Ballymun work, Amaptocare, commissioned as part of the regeneration plan, is still in progress, with an estimated completion date in 2015. His involvement with Ireland, he notes, led to his setting up home here, in Co Kerry, where he and his wife are now based.

As you might expect, the ads that initiated 2-3 Streets generated considerable interest. The internet being what it is, that interest was by no means only local. There were also responses from neighbouring countries, particularly France, for some reason, and Japan and the United States. The appeal of living rent-free is obvious, but, as Gerz puts it, to spend a year in the Ruhr is a serious commitment. “We were looking for people who could make peace with themselves in terms of that commitment.” In that sense, he says, from the 1,500 or so applicants the eventual 78 participants more or less chose themselves.

To get the project off the ground he had talked, as he put it, “to the housing people in the Ruhr cities – not to the art people. And they were responsive”.

Property-management companies were asked to come up with apartments, and they did. In fact five cities expressed interest, and in the end three were chosen: Dortmund, Duisburg and Mülheim an der Ruhr. The idea was that the streets would be absolutely ordinary and typical of the region, and the participants would be part of the local communities, not apart from them.

The Ruhr is well served by cultural amenities, with, as Gerz puts it, “an art museum every 40 kilometres” and a comparable number of theatres and concert halls. But Gerz’s interest is in art outside the museums. He doesn’t use the term, but what he does is clearly related to an increasingly popular kind of art that falls into the general category known as relational aesthetics, as formulated by the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud. Such work does not aim at the hallowed museum context but concerns and involves human relationships in real, social space. The unfolding interactions between people form the artwork.

It’s routinely accepted that art has an important social role. Gerz’s work takes this proposition a stage further. There are artists and writers among the 78 participants, but being an artist was not a precondition, and by no means all of those included are. All of the participants, and indeed their visitors during the year, have contributed to, and continue to contribute to, a book. Everyone writes what they like. Many have kept diaries; others have written about their thoughts and feelings more abstractly; some have written fiction, or poetry or recipes.

By virtue of specially designed software, everything is automatically incorporated in an accumulating body of text that will be published at the end of the year. The current plan is that it will consist of a dense 3,000-page volume. If Ulysses provides a portrait of a city and certain of its inhabitants on one day, 2-3 Streets aims for a portrait of a year in the lives of the inhabitants of several cities, a reflection of their activities and feelings, of the texture of the time and places.

That is not the end of it, though. Gerz has not enlisted 78 aspiring novelists. The substance of the project is what happens from day to day. *“The aim,” an explanatory note states bluntly, “is to change the streets.” Participants were encouraged to develop personal projects that brought them into direct engagement with their neighbours. It hasn’t been plain sailing. There have been rows, disagreements and disaffections. Several younger participants reportedly restrict their co-operation to contributing to the ongoing text. This doesn’t mean that the project is not going to plan, because there is no plan. One participant noted that, at one of the initial group meetings, Gerz became annoyed when asked what his expectations of the project were. “It doesn’t matter what my expectations might be,” he is said to have responded. “The project has the meaning that you give to it.”

Talking to several of the participants individually, one sentiment is consistently voiced: whatever the doubts and compromises involved, it has been a positive and a life-changing experience. Eva and her partner Carsten, for example, moved to Mülheim from Munich. They’re in a high-rise block in a generously proportioned apartment, and they’d like to stay on there. An unforeseen job offer meant Eva had to make a long commute for five months. Even so, she says, it has been worth it.

Every few weeks she organises get-togethers for residents in the block. They have been very successful. Many of the tenants are older widows, she notes. Some have started to write for the project. “One woman describes it as being very hard, and exhausting, yet at the same time she is addicted to it; she feels compelled. She is writing about her experiences during the wartime years, things that she has never spoken about to anyone.”

Carsten, who is a photographer, has worked with another project participant, Christian, on portrait photographs of the residents in their living rooms. Christian describes the process: “It involves a lot of discussion. I talk to the people, get to know them, hear their life stories – and they usually want to talk. There may be several hours of talking before we introduce a camera. Then in some cases we’ve taken over 100 photographs to get the right image.”

For Christian the experience has been, he says, an opportunity to change his life. He had lost an office job and decided that he never wanted to work in an office again. He likes the discipline of writing. “I keep a diary of my daily life. It’s a good way for me to reflect more than I did before.”

Ralf, in an apartment in Dortmund, studied social work with a focus on theatre. He has run theatre workshops with a group of seven performers, devising improvised dramas. “We put on performances in living rooms; it’s living-room theatre.”

Anna, a painter, is Austrian. She had lived in Berlin and close to Hanover before her year in Dortmund. “I like the project. For me the main thing was to make my involvement something that I like to do.” She made a colour wheel, canvassed participants on their favourite colours and now makes coloured panels that hang outside each apartment. It’s a simple idea, but it has been popular and effective.

The nature of 2-3 Streets is that it consists of many such small, incremental social exchanges and interactions. Friendships are made, networks develop. One potential problem is that you change people’s expectations, change the cultural texture of a locality and then simply disappear. Some participants are keen to stay on, and there are signs that they may be able to do so, on preferential terms.

“Jochen Gerz says we are not social workers,” Eva remarks, “but to some extent we are. Our being here has made an impact; it’s had an effect. I know the women are sad at the thought of losing the project, but I don’t know if they can continue with the activities we undertake themselves.”

Gerz hopes that people will undertake initiatives and activities themselves. “It’s the role of the artist to get lost,” as he puts it. “Art is like an aspirin you put in the water. It dissolves and it looks as if it’s gone, but you drink the water and it has an effect.”

In John Boorman’s 1970 film Leo the Last Marcello Mastroianni plays an unwilling slum landlord who tries to transform the living conditions of his tenants, with unpredictable results. In the end a sceptical observer points out that he hasn’t managed to change the world after all. “No,” he responds, “but at least we changed our street.”