The Story of Centrum: A Conversation with Mareike Spendel


Situated on Reuterstrasse in Neukolln in Berlin, Centrum is an art project space that has now been operating for nearly a decade. Located on a street with a number of small galleries and project spaces, not to mention a vegan tapas bar, the offices of Berlin’s branch of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany, and a blues bar that serves the best Guinness in South East Berlin, Centrum has consistently produced some of the city’s most thought-provoking exhibitions. This year, the space won one of the coveted grants offered by the Berlin Senate to promote local cultural development.

Project spaces are crucial to the vibrancy of Berlin’s art scene. They act as incubators for young artists, places of exchange between people working in different areas of the arts, and offer opportunities for the kind of exhibitions and events that commercial spaces would be likely to shy away from. The space has moved through several phases of management and curation. Presently, the space is run by Mareike Spendel, an experienced exhibition maker who has worked with some of the biggest names in German art, including Adam Szymczyk, curator of the controversial 2017 iteration of the Contemporary art exhibition “documenta.” Spendel spoke to Artinfo about the mission and accomplishments of Centrum, and about what makes it such a unique space in the ferment of Berlin’s art scene.

Could you tell us about the history of the space and your involvement with it? How did Centrum come into being originally?

The project space itself was founded in 2010 by two artists who came to Berlin from London. I think they wanted to take some time off to try a more experimental avenue in their career, and they thought it was easier to find a cheap place in Berlin. They found this really cheap, run-down brothel which they renovated, and then did their program in between 2010 and 2014.

I had been loosely in touch with them through a project with a photographer, Ute Klein, who always takes pictures for us now. She introduced us and they asked me if I wanted to take over. For me, I was at a moment where I had worked as a curatorial assistant at the Kunsthalle Basel, but I wanted to go back to a larger city. I had studied in London, and ultimately my goal was to go back to London, but then this opportunity to run the space in Berlin came up. It was a personal decision that I thought I had to at least try and do for a year or two, and I ended up here for the last five years.

Would you say there is a particular “mission” you have for Centrum, or a position you want it to occupy within the ecology of the Berlin art scene?

Project spaces in Berlin are all different, and there are different reasons for having a project space. I think the first difference for us is that most project spaces are run by artists, and our project space is run by people who have studied art history or curation. For us, a project space is kind of filling a gap for artists, [particularly] young artists who graduate and who need a place to exhibit. Institutions and galleries don’t take risks, and I think the artists have to somehow struggle through the first years on their own before institutions take them on, before institutions will risk having an exhibition. Project spaces kind of fill this gap, offering a platform for experiment.

As someone with a curatorial background, alongside a team of people who also have studied curation, could you speak a bit about how you and the team have approached curating the space?

One of my colleagues, Max, has been with me almost the entire time. She joined me after about six months. Running projects is only possible through working together and working with other people, because there’s a lot of managerial and organizational stuff, and, of course, the projects themselves. I don’t have a set concept for Centrum. I always try to keep things open, to keep an open mind, to stay open to artists who approach me. I invite artists who I come across; I see their work, or read about their works somewhere, and I think they could be interesting in this neighborhood or in this space. Then there are a lot of proposals by artists who want to exhibit their work here. We had an artist, Chloe Brooks, who was specifically interested in the use of this space as a brothel prior to 2010. Brooks is an artist who works with installation and strips back what has been added to the architecture of the space, to transform it back, and ask questions about how art, or the new function of this space as a space for art, sits in the whole history of the architecture.

It’s probably wrong to speak of a “Centrum kind of show,” but are there specific things you look for in an exhibition? Are there certain narratives you seek to challenge or promote?

I think it can really depend. There have been a few exhibitions that have been about the financial aspects of working in the art world, because, as a project space, you can take a critical position about how artists are being paid, or the prices of certain artworks, and how absurd this can seem from our point of view: earning no money and making art. So that has been a theme. We had an exhibition by Rachel Alliston (which you reviewed), an American artist who showed an installation including a video work with the title “Property of a Private Collection” where she contrasts her own precarious life in Berlin with the life of Rachel Lambert Mellon, a rich philanthropist and one of the richest women in the world. Her art collection, alongside her property, was sold through Sotheby’s for separate auctions after her death. [Alliston] brought those narratives into one video.

There was a project by Joshua Schwebel, a Canadian Conceptual artist who invited people from the Berlin Senate, who are now our only sponsor, to show their own work instead of his. He wrote them a very friendly letter [because they review] all of the funding applications over the year. They process them, and they read them, so they must have their own ideas about what art is and what art should be, and he was interested in turning that into the concept for an exhibition. We were lucky because two of the administrators from the Senate replied and they were very happy to work together. They put on a very beautiful exhibition with their own ideas about Conceptual art.

Recently, I got a proposition from a curator who wanted to do an exhibition about dodo paraphernalia. I was super excited and thought, “Can a project space turn into a museum temporarily?”

Was that the case?

In a way. It was a beautiful exhibition, and it was beautiful because we got a whole different audience. Children came in because we had stuffed birds, and bird drawings, bird books, bird music, birds on t-shirts — everything about the dodo that is imaginable. The works were from a private collection. They all came from one man who, one day, became obsessed with the dodo and just started collecting them, and now he has this house full of stuff. Should that be donated to a museum? It might also be seen as a parody on how museums acquire their collections. What happens to this stuff is an interesting question.

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