How Do We Make Art Sustainable? A Power Station in Germany Lights the Way

Part carbon-neutral generator, part contemporary art centre, E-Werk Luckenwalde provides clean energy and affordable studio space

That art has some sort of ‘power’ is irrefutable, although the true nature of that power remains up for debate. Is it: spiritual, economic, political – or all three? There are questions, also, to be asked of its wattage. While we often proselytize about the social significance of art and culture, they can often feel inconsequential in relation to more urgent matters at hand. That’s why culture’s power is seen as ‘soft’ in relation to the ‘hard’ brute force of coercion: it relies, for existence, on other forms of power, more or less tangible. Or, as Nam June Paik put it, stating the charmingly obvious: ‘Without electricity, there can be no art.’

Unless, of course, you venture 30 minutes south of Berlin to Luckenwalde, a town of around 20,000 people in the former East-German state of Brandenburg, where a new contemporary art centre establishes that art can be energy and energy, art. Billed as the world’s first ‘Kunststrom’ (art electricity) power station, E-Werk was founded by not-for-profit energy provider Performance Electrics GmbH in a former brown-coal power station, which was built in 1913 and last functioned during the GDR era. On E-Werk’s opening night, Performance Electrics undertook what is undoubtedly their most ambitious project yet: restarting the power station. Via an efficient process of thermal decomposition called biomass pyrolysis, in which waste pine wood chips, donated by local businesses, are heated to extreme temperatures and then cooled in a reactor, the power station will not only power the site’s galleries, studios and workshops, but eventually be sold to individual clients and the German national grid in order to fund the entire centre.

E-WERK, 2019. Courtesy: E-WERK 

From most angles, the building is imposing, its four floors of poured concrete and vast outdoor space amounting to over 10,000 square metres. But there is charm, also, with the various isolated renovation projects that have been undertaken over the years uniting elements of art deco and art nouveau with the raw simplicity of early-20th-century industrial German architecture and the exposed guts of the building’s century-old infrastructure. Like the joyously dramatic stained-glass window that crowns the entrance, its panes depicting a fist brandishing lightning bolts, the building unites brute functionality and aesthetic flourish in a manner that can only be described as delightfully clunky. 

This was no accident, according to Pablo Wendel, the artist who founded Performance Electrics and, along with curator Helen Turner (also his partner), co-directs E-Werk. ‘People were very sceptical of electricity, initially. They called it “cold light”; they saw an evil in it. Which is the reason why they spent so much time on the details of buildings like this, to make it attractive, to sell it.’ But while opinions on that front might have changed, the majority of us remain naïve as to the mechanisms (literal and otherwise) that deliver our energy on a daily basis. ‘Accessibility is a big part of this,’ Turner says. ‘Electricity is this thing that we all have access to and use, but don’t really understand.’ To this end, E-Werk not only aims to offer the public a renewable alternative to the dominant energy providers, but also to underscore the fact that alternatives are indeed possible. ‘We are a legitimate energy provider’, Turner says, ‘but we’re also trying to do something subversive.’ Wendel is poetic: ‘It’s like we’re putting a homeopathic dose into the grid.’

E-WERK Turbine Hall, 2019. Courtesy: E-WERK  

Wendel is speaking in the building’s grotty underbelly (the literal engine room), surrounded by a seemingly haphazard selection of heavy machinery. Where possible, Wendel salvages, obtaining many of his machines and materials second hand from those in the surrounding community. It is a salvage mentality that has allowed him to benefit from local knowledge (many of those who used to work in the power station remain in the area), and one that he feels society could benefit from. ‘We are a waste society. It’s all about obsolescence, all about throwing things away. It’s about producing things to die so that we can sell new things. That’s sick. That’s capitalism. It could be different.’

The idea to restart a power station preceded Wendel’s fortuitous stumbling across the E-Werk site in 2017, when he travelled from Stuttgart to Luckenwalde in order to inspect a different building. (Even more fortuitous was the fact that the previous owners had undertaken a major refurbishment project before skipping town. And more fortuitous still was that the owner of the property was so taken with E-Werk’s potential impact on the town that he drastically lowered his asking price.) In fact, he had been tiring of the art world long before – chiefly, its inability to effect real change in the real world. When I broached the subject of whether E-Werk is, in fact, a realistic alternative to established energy providers, as opposed to, say, an artistic gesture, he answered quickly. ‘I’m sick of gestures. I’m really sick of gestures. There is so much of this in the art world. I am trained. I am skilled. I can make a change for myself.’

E-WERK Turbine Hall, 1928. Courtesy: E-WERK  

Which is not to say that Wendel is solely focused on the Luckenwalde site, nor that the model could not be implemented elsewhere. ‘Look at our art institutions. They spend more money on their site costs than they spend supporting young artists.’ And could these institutions benefit from kunststrom? ‘If they would change their energy provider to kunststrom, they would support our business, which is a non-profit business, and through this they would support art. All of the site costs of the museum could be invested in the culture as well. That would be a huge flip. It would be an amazing change.’

At times, E-Werk can resemble the revival of a new age commune: in the garden is a vast geodesic dome designed by Stuttgart-based practice umschichten, the first in a newly-commissioned series of permanent pavilions, in which Turner joked about raising cattle. But everyone involved in the initiative seems driven by a palpable desire to make things happen. The seven artist studios that occupy the building’s top floor cost €3.50 per square metre, whereas prices can rise to ten times that amount in Berlin. Turner and Wendel are planning to use the vast reserves of heated waste water that E-Werk will produce to power a brewery and coffee roastery on the site, while the scorched woodchips will be used as soil nutrient. 

Pablo Wendel, 2019. Courtesy: E-WERK

Furthermore, Turner is committed to a future programme that not only involves the local community, embedding the institution in the fabric of the city, but fundamentally challenges their views. (To explain why this might be necessary: In the most recent German elections, Angela Merkel’s Social Democratic Party retained its seat in Brandenburg with 26.2% of the vote. The far-right AfD came in second, with 23.5%.) The opening night, programmed by the London-based performance festival Block Universe, featured a maniacal, expletive-leaden monologue from Nora Turato and a balletic choreography produced by Nina Beier in collaboration with two wrestling clubs: RSV Hansa 90 Frankfurt (Oder) e.V. and the world-renowned Luckenwalder Sportclub e.V., a short walk from E-Werk’s grounds. Elsewhere, as part of E-Werk’s own programme, Lucy Joyce employed the help of seven local residents as part of her project Electric Blue (2019), while in two white-walled ground floor galleries, Nicolas Deshayes has installed a series of wriggling, gut-like radiators, which are heated by the power station’s generators to give off a corporeal warmth. In this, Deshayes’s visceral series perfectly embodies the ultimate ambition of its host institution: serve a public, serve a purpose. 

E-WERK Engine Room, 2019. Courtesy: E-WERK  

There is a question to be asked of how effective E-Werk will be as a mode of critique – and therefore instrument of change – in either the art world or the energy industry. On a practical note, Wendel and Turner don’t yet know how appealing a prospect ‘kunststrom’ will be to the artistic institutions that they are hoping will ultimately become Perfomance Electric’s clients. The notion of signing on with a sustainable energy provider is undoubtedly appealing: Tate, for instance, announced in July that it planned to switch to a green electricity tariff on each of its four UK sites as part of a commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. However, there are other factors that complicate how and where cultural spaces get their power: energy is big business, after all, and with big business comes big money and entrenched interests. But perhaps to be looking for problems at this early stage is to somehow miss the point: change will not come if we cower in the face of the status quo, nor if we shy from difficulty. As Wendel says, inspecting his callouses in the engine room: ‘It’s heavy work, your hands are bleeding, but you have to do it.’

Main image: E-WERK entrance hall, 2019. Courtesy: E-WERK 

Harry Thorne is a writer and editor based in London, UK.

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