Artists are the Best Consultants: interview with Helen Turner

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

‘But what if it were possible to create your own rules?’: Aoife Fannin interviews Helen Turner, Artistic Director and Curator of the groundbreaking E-WERK Luckenwalde project, a German contemporary art institution which provides artist studios, workshops and exhibition programme, as well as clean power.

‘Over the last few decades the world has been ringing alarm bells about our global energy problem – we don’t have an energy problem! Energy is abundantly everywhere – we have a creativity, access and eco support problem,’ explains Pablo Wendel, artist and co-director of E-WERK Luckenwalde, the world's first renewable energy art institution.

The concept behind Kunststrom (or ‘Art-Power’, the unique type of renewable energy produced at E-WERK), was driven by Wendel’s long term interest in electricity and its artistic potential. Kunststrom is produced by a CO2-neutral process called pyrolysis, in which spruce wood chips from local industry are heated and then cooled in a reactor, releasing the fuel. After being introduced to the former brown coal power station, which sits about 50km south of Berlin, Wendel and Helen Turner, acquired the building, with the vision to establish artistic autonomy and challenge current models of existence within the art world.

Residents of Germany, along with museums, galleries and other institutions, can power buildings with Kunststrom through art collective and non-profit electricity supplier Performance Electrics gGmbH, led by Wendel. The building, and the processes that exist within it, act as a ‘functional sculpture’ as Helen describes, uniting art and energy into one entity, supplying art-power to the national grid, while presenting a quarterly contemporary art programme of commissions, exhibitions, projects and events.

As a pioneering economic model, E-WERK is challenging current models of arts-programming. Every commission, exhibition and performance programmed at E-WERK is produced using 100% renewable power and, as a not-for-profit, E-WERK reinvests all revenue from the sale of Kunststrom electricity into its technological development and quarterly contemporary art programme. While the pandemic continues to expose instability and inequalities within the cultural sector, I spoke to Helen Turner, Artistic Director and Curator of the project, about the role of artists, playing with the impossible, and how E-WERK is inspiring a new, sustainable future.

Can you tell us about the beginnings of E-WERK Luckenwalde?

At the end of 2018, amidst a climate of unprecedented environmental concern, artist Pablo Wendel and I decided to open E-WERK Luckenwalde as a Contemporary Art Centre and functioning Kunststrom Kraftwerk. Kunststrom is produced through transdisciplinary interventions, installations, sculptures and performances, ultimately transforming the power grid itself into a large scale art-transmitter. Having started the search for a defunct power station in in 2016 Wendel was led to Luckenwalde where he found E-WERK.

Rather than demolishing the building to build a new, efficient Kunststrom power station, Performance Electrics decided to painstakingly reanimate the building’s pseudo-neolithic conveyor belts, coal bunkers and pistons dating back to 1913. The ‘Dinosaur’, as Wendel lovingly calls the machine, now creaks and groans as it slowly transports locally sourced spruce wood-chips through the tunnels and shafts, which have all been carefully restored. Slow and steady, Kunststrom now powers the building and is distributed throughout Germany.

Performance Electrics decided to painstakingly reanimate the building’s pseudo-neolithic conveyor belts, coal bunkers and pistons

Could you describe some of the previous projects undertaken at E-WERK?

Wendel and I launched E-WERK Luckenwalde with an international programme of architectural commissions, live performances, new commissions and exhibitions. We invited Katharina Worf (formerly Block Universe, now E-WERK Head of Power Night) and Louise O'Kelly (Block Universe) to curate POWER NIGHT 2019, a large-scale annual performance programme powered by ‘Kunststrom’ for the building and neighbouring 1928 Bauhaus Swimming pool. Performance Electrics launched the programme by performatively switching the power ON! With a go-pro camera attached to his forehead, Wendel climbed through the building’s mechanical infrastructure as if he were a piece of coal. This live footage was simultaneously projected into the Turbine Hall for our 1000+ guests to witness Kunststrom history.

Subsequent to this, Nicolas Deshayes’ series of functioning radiators, ‘Hot Springs’ (2016), began filling up with Kunststrom heated water. Throughout the evening performances took place across the 10,000m2 site, which featured works by Nina Beier - who worked with a Luckenwalde wrestling club to enact an incidental wrestling match in the Turbine Hall - Nora Turato and Rowdy SS. Charismatic Megafauna, closed the evening with a feminist punk gig in the 18m geodesic dome, erected by umschichten as the first edition of E-WERK’s E-PAVILION series; a commissioning programme, which invites contemporary artists to realise functioning sculptures for the institution’s public programme.

With funding for the arts now dwindling, many cultural institutions are having to rethink their models of working, can you tell us more about how E-WERK challenges conventional models of art-programming?

Both Wendel and I have experienced the precarious economy of being an artist and working for the cultural sector first-hand. The very idea of Kunststrom was born out of financial desperation. As a conceptual performance-based artist, Wendel 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.

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?

For the past half-century, the art world has become synonymous with hyper-connectivity and global mobility, and as such a contributor to the climate crisis. As a director, how do you limit the footprint of your practice?

In February 2020, before the global pandemic took a hold of the world, we released our ecology statement, which operates as a written commitment to limiting our global carbon impact and taking direct action as a cultural institution. The statement is a commitment to collaboration, not competition; progressive deceleration and playing with the impossible. In this spirit, we are committed to working with global partners and maintaining an ambitious international programme, which does not exploit the planet.

For instance, this September we will open TRAFO, a low carbon kitchen, re-imagined by artist Samuel Treindl and powered by ‘Kunststrom’ biogas. Launching on September 12th during Berlin Art Week and running through into Spring 2021, We will host Essen Für Alle a series of alternative cooking workshops focused on how we can work against excess, curated by Katherine Thomson, featuring Studio Olafur Eliasson, artist Luiza Prado de O. Martin and Edible Alchemy.

A big challenge of mine as a curator is how to create an ambitious international programme and not be reductive, and that’s the same with the limitations of biogas: how can we still create really delicious, exciting, experimental food with a limited supply of gas? It must be possible, and I think that’s what artists are really good at, working with limitations.

A big challenge of mine as a curator is how to create an ambitious international programme and not be reductive

E-WERK Luckenwalde is committed to playing with the impossible and will continue to explore how it is possible for the creative industry to lead innovative ecological and economic change for the cultural sector. As a large-scale experiment, we will constantly push at the boundaries of what is possible, welcoming failure, in order to find new utopian paths and realign culture with political change.

One of the major issues within the climate change conversation is the fact that its fallout is unequally distributed on a planetary scale. As an institution, how do you approach the intersection between the ecological, class, gender, race and representation?

As our Assistant Curator, Adriana Tranca, so gracefully suggested to me; 'with care; to approach these intersections, by paying attention to the different iterations of "we"'. To recognise that ‘we’ is not universal, but rather different, affective and relational.

I try to remain acutely aware that, along the lines of Chantalle Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, every move towards democratic change is intrinsically hegemonic and exclusionary. I try to sit in the camp of radical democracy - the practice of valuing and sustaining dissent in the democratic process as a more important goal than consensus.

I try to sit in the camp of radical democracy - the practice of valuing and sustaining dissent in the democratic process

On a very local, personal level I try to create the temporary political change I wish to see in the world, within the institution. For instance, I aspire towards a non-hierarchical structure within the team, ask friends, artists and colleagues to hold me to account for any programme injustices, and am committed to keeping the exhibition programme at the institution free in order to create barrierless access to contemporary art and disassociate contemporary art with the bourgeois.

I am particularly excited about Luiza Prado de O. Martin’s banquet taking place on 10th April 2021; a communal meal of traditional Brazilian plant-based dishes, probing the relationships between colonialism and capitalism and the resource scarcity they are built on. We will also have several subsidized and sponsored tickets available for each workshop in an effort to democratize knowledge and involve as wide a demographic as possible.

Systemic racism, environmental destruction, a global pandemic and its economic fallout has left institutional and cultural systems in dire need to reflect, reconsider and reform cultural practices. Where do you see the artist's role in this?

During this moment, we have taken the time to consider our institutional practices in a democratic, environmental and economic capacity to assess how we can ameliorate our working models in order to build a more equivocal system.

As a Curator, I have always believed that artists are the best consultants to enact institutional change. Inspired by the Artist Placement Group, our digital conversation series ‘The Artist as Consultant’ provides a paid platform to expose and champion artistic labour and artists’ influence in socio-political change. We have invited artists Harold Offeh, Michelle Williams Gamaker, Paul Maheke, Isabel Lewis, Peles Empire, Bik van der Pol and Kira Freije to personally consult and hold culture accountable for deep-rooted systemic injustice and outmoded practices in our industry. It is an attempt to usurp the familiar top-down hierarchical structure of the art world in which Curators, Directors and Boards make decisions and, instead, put artists in the driving seat towards systemic change. We believe it is important to provide the voices which continuously drive and innovate our industry, artists, with an agentic role to take direct action against institutional shortcomings.

It is an attempt to usurp the familiar top-down hierarchical structure of the art world

What are your hopes and concerns for the future of the industry?

I am fundamentally a hopeful person – well, I call myself a ‘optimistic futilist’! So I am hopeful for an industry renaissance. My main concerns are that life will slip back into the normal pace of the rat-race. But, there have been some fantastic initiatives coming out this summer and you can really feel the whole industry groaning to think ourselves out of this situation. I really hope (and believe!) that our industry is waking up and willing to make steps towards a more conscious and actionable future.