At this point, we pass on a self-portrayal in favour of an abridgement out of a book about the Kulturkosmos by Johanna Ickert.
She describes the early history of the project in the 90ies.
The project U-Site
Mid-nineties, the Kulturkosmos Müritz e.V. arose from a group of artists and culture creating people, mostly coming from Hamburg. The group initially named itself “U-Site” (Underground-Site) and from 1993 onward it organised culture events at mostly remote places. Hallmark of the commonly organised events was their non-commercial character and the wide variety of the thematic orientation that provided room for the most different genres from the areas of music, theatre and performance.
Overarching goal of the group was to establish a counter-pole to the commercialisation of previously alternative culture forums (like for example Techno-Kultur). The criticism passed on established culture industry is formulated on the group’s web site www.u-site.de in the following way: “…competition, marginalisation, commercialisation and isolation increasingly define the pattern. Herewith, solidarity and social action, as well as work, motivated by other reasons than the financial appeal, just as cultural and artistic contents that are hard to merchandise get dismissed. Hereof, neither subcultures nor the “electronic music” scene and its surroundings are excluded.”
According to this, the group intended to create non-commercial events that were uphold collectively and self-dependently and would bring together various art forms, subcultures and scenes. With that, it was attempted to bring (sub-)culture to public areas and make free space reclaimable. The inclusion of political and social themes was meant to bring forward a critical public.
From the beginning of their co-operation it was important to the U-Site protagonists to enhance tolerance and to flag out in favour of cultural heterogeneity. With their events they wanted to create room for perception, cognition and creative forms of collective action and learning. Here, the targeted occupation of unused space in conjunction with music from different genres, as well as installation art work and theatre performances were meant to function as framework for the events. The idea in this context was, to provide a forum for other artists and culture creators in which they could present their work, irrespective to their commercial success. The conjunction of diverse subcultures, as described in the group’s self-portrayal, was meant to open the perspective to new and unknown areas and to bring forward thought-provoking impulses and creativity crossing genre boarders. The deliberate unconventional arrangement of the events intended to develop a specific milieu. Hereby, the focus wasn’t only put on the political or aesthetical nature of the events, but also on the access and intake of milieu knowledge. Advertisement for the semi-legal or illegal events, hold at exceptional venues, was dismissed as a matter of principle; information was only passed on by word of mouth or infrequently communicated via micro medias like flyers.
The U-Site protagonists were primarily searching for exceptional sites with a special atmosphere, which due to its cultural conversion would describe a spatial-symbolic demarcation to mainstream culture. Mostly, the venues in question were unused, abandoned industrial places that, in the course of the East German transformation, had stayed unattended. But not only vacant military or factory buildings were turned into “U-Sites”, also forest glades or the Baltic Sea beach Prora etc. tempted the group to nonofficial occupations, mostly realised with very little means. The risk of illegality, together with the actual safety hazards of the venues were put up with and were even seen as part of the event.
However, the election of the sites was only to a lesser extend motivated by the exploration of their history, but rather by the chance of subjective occupation. Hence, the ambition was to create the opportunity to experience the understanding of a site freely and individually and to “celebrate within the ruins of the past”.
With the airfield in Lärz, the group found exactly this kind of ruin-site. (…)
First events at the airfield
1996 the group was bound for the rural district of Müritz and more or less by accident discovered the unattended area of the former military airfield next to Lärz.
Although the group wasn’t really in search of a fixed location, but rather attempted the occupation of always new sites, the members were impressed by the plenty opportunities the area offered: “We had found a place that suddenly provided opportunities which than again fired our imagination. It was the area itself that proposed the direction, or better the option, to realise a festival there, in the first place.” The airfield seemed perfect to organise a bigger, continuous and annual event: “(…) we initially decided that on this area something continuous that would grow slowly and by itself should come into being.” The request, if it was possible to lease the 50hectare large area with 12 hangars, a landing strip and a small forest, from the Federal Property Office for one month in the summer was accepted. And also the administration and the regulatory authorities didn’t raise any bigger concerns.
After the group had received the approval, 1996 the first “U-Site-Gathering” with around 800 guests, took place. Like at all the other events, mostly friends and protagonists of the U-Site-network from Hamburg and Berlin attended. Due to the lack of advertisement, most locals, except those who kept their eyes and ears open, didn’t know anything about the event and didn’t get integrated in the milieu and its activity.
After the first event, a meeting with the chief officer took place, to evaluate if it was going to be possible to continue the festival or not: “(…) it seemed quite unusual to them that somebody would want to organise an event, without advertising it actively, but this wasn’t really sensed as an exclusion, but rather as an unknown concept how to realise an event.”
Placemaking as starting point for a new group-formation
After the negotiation with the local public authorities it was assured that once a year, the group could organise a festival on the area. Thus in 1997 the starting signal for the first “Fusion” was given... Till the year of 1999 the group members of the U-Site kept living in Hamburg, Berlin and Leipzig and only came to the site for four weeks at a time just before the festival. For this purpose they always transported all the needed material to Lärz. “The group did everything unpaid. Neither for the artistic performances nor all the other efforts anybody got paid (…).” Like established in the U-Site’s self-portrayal, the group believed in the principle that the operational potential of the collective above all resulted from voluntarism and honorary work. There it says: “The U-Site works as a collective to which many different people contribute their time and abilities. Only their voluntary and unpaid effort makes such a project possible. (…)”. Pretty soon the question was raised, if the group should use the area in a longer term and not only lease it for 4 weeks in the summer, but rather semi-annual or even year-round. With all the effort put into the creation of the area, also came along the wish to settle under secure conditions and in favour of a sustainable development. The group had invested a maximum of energy: The area initially barely was cultivatable, first of all, the leftovers of the airport operations had to be removed: “There were tons of steel cables, concrete blocks and so on just lying around (…), it was really quite hard work to even make those areas accessible to a mower.” Besides, water and sewage lines had to be laid and the headquarters building had to be refurbished. But first and foremost, the group had started to reconstruct the buildings as well as the 12 hangars and to decorate them in extensive artistic processes. 1999 the foundation of the non-profit association “Kulturkosmos Müritz e.V.” was decided and the lease finally could be extended to a year-round contract.
With the achievement of the lease contract the work project turned into a housing project. Several group members that before only temporarily, around the festival month, lived in Lärz, now moved to the area entirely. Soon, the wish emerged to fully secure the site and buy it: “(…) the Federation only ever gave us one year lease contracts. So it seemed like: Tomorrow somebody could turn up and despite everything we’d already done here, we’d have to leave. Therefore, buying was a must, so that everything wouldn’t just go down the drain. (…)”
In the following years the group’s organising logic changed in the sense of a continuing increase in professionalism. “(…) So at the beginning, we had a quite loose handling of our budget. (…) all the years we never wrote any financing plans or budgets. We rather went along the line of: That much we’ve got, now there’s nothing left, so now we can’t book any more acts. (…) We always just did what we felt up to. Surely we had to cut back sometimes, but we never really did that by the means of any financing plans.” Although the protagonists of the Kulturkosmos kept pointing out that the up-growth of the festival always had been an “organic growth”, the Fusion 2007, despite the lack of advertisement, already counted 36.000 visitors. In spite of the absence of any kind of general project plan, the festival continuously developed by itself. But, not only increased the number of visitors, also the construction of the area was brought forward and the programme range became much more multifaceted and ambitious. This also gave rise to the enlargement in the area of theatre till the point of the establishment of an independent, international theatre festival, the “at.tension”.
The conflict over the area as a mirror of the development of the relationship to the local residents
1999 the group decided to file an application to complete the purchase of the area. In the local public, this move provoked a broad and emotionally loaded discourse about the question what kind of impact the purchase of the area would have on the region. The debate developed, due to the great attention by the regional press, an enormous self-dynamic: With regularity the local journal printed letters by residents of Rechlin and Lärz, which within 2 years of constant debate turned into a heated dispute. The municipal council of Lärz initially opted for the purchase by the Kulturkosmos, but the mayor of Rechlin, Olaf Bauer, elected the prevention of the purchase as a “major concern of his career”.
The debate on the purchase of the area pretty quickly turned into a synonym for general questions regarding the future of the region. Thus, it was argued that the Fusion-Festival could threaten the welfare and the development of the Müritz-region existentially. The protest against the purchase by some of the locals partly sounded as follows: “Citizens of Rechlin, finally wake up! It doesn’t only concern the others, but all of us! Don’t allow that parts of the Lärzer airfield get sold to the operators of a drug-glorifying event! It’s about our children, our existence and the beauty and reputation of our region!” (“Regionalanzeiger” October 2001: 10).
The tourism association of the Mecklenburger lake-plateau also emphasised the alleged threat posed by the purchase of the area by the Kulturkosmos. Above all it was mentioned that the festival would have massive adverse effects on the still young tourism industry of the region. So it was declared that the festival would anger many tourists because of the associated noisiness. The reputation of the region as the “southern gate to the Müritz National Park” was put in jeopardy. This loss of reputation would have a sever effect on the development of tourism and with that on the development of the entire region. The fact that investors of hotels, the Retzow clinic and holiday villages had already begun to pull back and that tourists had already claimed damage compensations, would yet supply first evidences (ibid: 9). The “Ostseezeitung” printed: “(…) one pleased holidaymaker will tell three other people about it, one angered one however, will warn at least 18 of such a holiday.” At the same time it was pointed out that the consumption of and dealing with drugs would have severe effect on tourism, but above all on the local youth (“Ostseezeitung” 25.10.2001). Another argument was that the Kulturkosmos would have to pay around 1,5 million Euros for the purchase and the clearance of the area and therefore would be forced to expand the Fusion-Festival to pay off the loan. As soon as the Kulturkosmos would have gained the landed property of the Federal Property Office, it was claimed, it wouldn’t pay any attention to the interests of the local community anymore. But in fact, the association agreed to stick to a noise-limit and handed in a professed self-constraint that the Fusion would stay the only major event on the site, however, this was seriously doubted by several of the local residents. That the association “wouldn’t bring anything” to the region because due to its non-profit character it wouldn’t pay any taxes and besides it presumably wouldn’t create any places of employment, was another point of the debate (comp. “Regionalanzeiger” November 2000: 5ff.).
Above all though, the conception, of what the word “culture” would stand for, drifted way apart. For example in an open letter directed to the Kulturkosmos was put that the association members were merely “slobs organising chaotic events” that “under the “disguise of culture would look for profile and profit”. Thus, the initial intention of the association, to fight the pure capitalistic exploitation of art and culture was challenged in its core (“Neue Mirower Zeitung” 27.10.2001).
But, from other directions was also signalised the willingness to compromise. For instance, one resident of Vietzen advocated that the Kulturkosmos should continue to lease the area, so that the community would keep its influence on the events. Hereby, also the possibility of a co-operation was pointed out: “Why can’t the community, the tourism industry, the medium-sized enterprises of the region and the Kulturkosmos try and find a conjoint starting point to market the area collectively and reconstruct, arrange and use the hangars mutually under the device “The youth joins in!”?”. Herewith, it was argued, a wide ranged profession- and vacation-getaway could develop, which in fact would require a lot of time, commitment and also money, but would bring more use to the region than a single-edged major event “of which would profit thousands of party-pilgrims, but that would just make the local’s and many guest’s ears drone.” (“Regionalanzeiger” October 2001: 12).
The supporters of the association, like initially the mayor of Lärz, Hartmut Lehmann, supposed that the Kulturkosmos was definitely trustworthy. According to that, companies operating on the area, have always had a positive impression: Promises were kept, bills were always paid on time etc. Besides, the Ministry of Culture in Schwerin, the Youth Welfare Office, the School Administration Agency and the Culture Office of the rural district of Müritz commented positively on the activities held by the Kulturkosmos. Furthermore, the major pointed out: “Only in a diversity of cultures everyone can discover his clientele. (…) Approaches of the generations and also between young and old have to be accounted for. Just like the older generation lives with brass music and classic, also pop and techno need their place”. Regarding the drug problematic he claimed that this was a problem concerning the entire society, which couldn’t be solved by prohibiting the Fusion-Festival (ibid: 8).
Also the aspect of the region’s demographical development was brought up. Thus, the director of the youth hostel in Mirow pointed out that it was important to create meeting places for teenagers to prevent the external migration. Teenagers didn’t have enough space to be “for themselves” (ibid: 11). One had to fight “by any means possible” for those projects that “make the region more colourful and fertile” and support those who make themselves initiators of such (ibid).
The Kulturkosmos responded to the critic and the proposals by the local public with a continuously high willingness to mediate. That way, they comment in the “Regionalanzeiger”: “May be that the thinking of companies often is subject to the logic (…) that ownership in its most simple capitalistic principle means power and that investments have to generate yield. (…) however, for our work as a non-profit association this doesn’t have any relevance. (…) to us, as people involved in culture creation, the acceptance and respect of the people in our surroundings is of great importance.” (ibid).
Moreover, in the statement once again was pointed out that the purchase of area would form the basis of a long-term guaranty of the project. Regarding the effects on tourism, the protagonists of the Kulturkosmos emphasised that the festival “could lead to a cultural vitalisation of the region. (…) the festival visitors (of which many stay in the region before and after the festival) are already potential tourists to-be.” In addition, they called upon all parties concerned, to stay open for an “honest and constructive dialog about the Kulturkosmos and the chances of a cultural vitalisation of the region.”
In a final voting in 2001 the Kulturkosmos eventually received the permission to buy the area. Retrospectively one can assert that in the context of the discursive process effective changes in the action motives of the involved parties occurred: Thus, during the debate, both, the protagonists of the Kulturkosmos, as well as the local residents reflected fundamentally on their conjoint relation and their relation to the region. The Kulturkosmos in this context contemplated its impact on teenagers in the region just as its possibilities to give an impulse to an enormous potential of cultural development. This gave reason to the KulturCosmonauts to create further action-oriented frameworks for collective learning processes and interaction. This included for example the creation of opportunities to communicate: For instance the Kulturkosmos invited all parties concerned to an open day to visit the area and to collectively discuss all remaining questions and controversial subjects. But also in the following time the association on a regular basis organised events to bring forward a mutual integration. As an example, they organised meetings with an emphasis on local history (e.g. in memory of the CIS-troop withdrawal they organised an exhibition about the subsidiary of the concentration camp Ravensbrück in Retzow), film nights, charity concerts for the support of youth culture projects in the region and much more… With that, clear panels for encounters were created, which, due to their deliberate designation to local concerns became really attractive to open-minded (not only adolescent) residents of the region.
Following further reasons are also seen as responsible for the consolidation of the relationship between the Kulturkosmos-protagonists and the regional residents: Over the years the Fusion-Festival and eventually also the theatre-festival at.tension have come to be the major culture events in the region. The reason for the growing acceptance therefore also goes along with an enormous regional economic success, above all of the Fusion-Festival: The hotels are fully booked, the supermarket-business flourishes and many of the festival visitors stay in the region well beyond the time of the festival. Despite the initial competition and a lack of trust, in the course of time, close alliances and entrepreneurial innovations have developed. Thus, as an example, the canoe-renting-agency offers discounts for those who present their festival ticket and as an alternative to the regular bus service during the festival time, locals offer a shuttle transfer directly to the festival area.