Dispute over werkstatt der kulturen: the address of a dispute over direction

The retendering of the Werkstatt der Kulturen is causing outrage. A protest letter to the Senator for Culture calls it a "unique model."

Philippa Ebene in 2008 shortly after taking over as WdK director Photo: Bernd Hartung

In an open letter to Cultural Senator Klaus Lederer (Left Party), the Berlin Migration Council, representatives of migrant self-organizations, and supporters from the arts, culture, and academia have expressed their dismay at his retendering of the Werkstatt der Kulturen (WdK). "Would you get the idea to advertise the Volksbuhne as ‘tender cultural location Linienstrasse 227/Mitte’?" reads the letter published on Friday: "In this step we recognize a hegemonic arrogance that ignores existing work and disregards civil society efforts." In fact, the workshop is advertised on the Senate Cultural Administration’s website as "Cultural Location Wissmannstr. 32/Neukolln."

The state-owned cultural site has been run by Philippa Ebene since 2008. Ebene’s employer is the "Brauerei Wissmannstrabe" association, founded in 1993 for the purpose of sponsoring the WdK when it was launched by Barbara John, the Senate Commissioner for Foreigners at the time, as a place for intercultural exchange and "cultural events of ethnic-cultural minorities" in the former brewery on Neukolln’s Wissmannstrabe.

The retendering of the WdK is agreed in the red-red-green coalition agreement of 2016, which also stipulates the future "adequate financing" of the Carnival of Cultures (KdK), of which the workshop was the organizer from the first carnival in 1996 to 2015.

The background to this is a dispute that has been going on for years about the content of the workshop and the KdK, which came to a head in 2014 between the Senate Integration Department, which was responsible for both at the time, and the WdK. Ebene had spoken of canceling the festival after the Senate initially refused to provide money for a strengthened security concept that had become necessary with growing numbers of visitors. In February 2015, the then Senator for Integration transferred the organization of the carnival to the state-owned event agency Kulturprojekte Berlin.

"Punitive measure against Ebene"

In February 2018, the Senate Department for Culture, which has been responsible for carnival and the workshop since the Red-Red-Green coalition, sparked outrage with an "ideas competition" for the Werkstatt der Kulturen, which, according to the call for entries at the time, was intended to find a new "idea for the place. At the time, Moctar Kamara of the Central Council of the African Community in Germany called this a "punitive measure" against Ebene: The Werkstatt der Kulturen was "perhaps the most important institution for intercultural exchange in Berlin – and the only major cultural institution headed by a woman with African roots," Kamara told the taz in February 2018.

In fact, Ebene is the only black woman at the helm of a state-owned cultural institution in Berlin. The trained actress supplemented the workshop’s offerings with in-house productions and literary, film and concert series on topics such as flight, globalization and post-migrant and post-colonial dialogue.

Clear information about the plans of the cultural administration is demanded

"The Workshop of Cultures represents a unique model in which marginalized and racially marked actors* from civil society are offered a space for empowerment," reads the protest letter to the Senator of Culture: "Which other Berlin cultural institutions can demonstrate a comparable close networking with actors* from the most diverse marginalized communities?"

By advertising the workshop as the "cultural location Wissmannstrabe," Lederer obscures "the significance of a cultural site where a post- and decolonial culture of memory was practiced long before you were able to put a postcolonial culture of memory on the agenda of your cultural policy with the current coalition.

The signatories, who include professors from Humboldt University, the University of Basel, the Californian universities in San Diego and Los Angeles, and the University of Hong Kong, demand clear information about the cultural administration’s plans for the workshop, as well as the "suspension of the tendering process until a transparent, fair, and participatory procedure involving various actors in the city is secured."