Kite & Laslett, Panoptic, 2012, Steel, mirror foil, wire

Kite & Laslett, Panoptic, 2012, Steel, mirror foil, wire

Malin Holmberg, I am a Free Woman, 2012, Performance

Malin Holmberg, I am a Free Woman, 2012, Performance

Courtyard of the former women’s prison at Kantstrasse 79, Berlin

Margo Trushina, Free Pussy Riot, 2012, Performance

Margo Trushina, Free Pussy Riot, 2012, Performance

Corridor of prison cells in the former women’s prison at Kantstrasse 79, Berlin

Franz Reimer, Mind and Matter Pt. 1, 2011, Multimedia installation

Franz Reimer, Mind and Matter Pt. 1, 2011, Multimedia installation

Franz Reimer, Mind and Matter Pt. 1, 2011, Multimedia installation

Internal balcony in the former women’s prison at Kantstrasse 79, Berlin

Malin Holmberg, This is Where I Keep my Pride, Oil and acrylic on canvas and floor

AES+F, Tondo, 2005-2007, Digital print on canvas

The Berlin Project

Curated by Colet Castano, Fanny Gjoni, Stina Gustafsson, Nora Heidorn & Filippa Forsberg

Former women’s prison at Kantstrasse 79, Berlin

September 2012

With site-specific installations by:
Malin Holmberg
Kite & Laslett
Franz Reimer
Sebastian Schmieg
Margo Trushina
Julia Vogl

With works by:
Marcus Harrling and Moa Geistrand
Post-it Cities
Antonio Riello
Steve Rosenthal

From Enclosure towards Openness:
A Derelict Prison becomes a Space for Artistic and Curatorial Experimentation

Ten years ago, we spent a summer in a cold, derelict prison in Berlin, in which we were initially scared to move around on our own. Five women in our early twenties, we had become friends in London and began to work on our first curatorial project following an invitation from Grüntuch Ernst Architects: Filippa Forsberg, Stina Gustafsson, Colet Castano, Fanny Gjoni and Nora Heidorn. We were full of ideas and had little experience. Today, we would probably laugh if someone proposed to make a project of this scale happen in a derelict building without a technical team and with practically no budget.

At the time of this project, we were around the same age as many of the young women who had been imprisoned there for political activities resisting the National Socialists, such as printing illegal flyers, hosting secret communist meetings, or collecting incriminating materials on the regime. Some only spent a couple of months in the Kantstraße prison before being taken to Plötzensee prison for execution, or to meet their death in the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück. We learned about their stories through the exhibition Die Träume einzig bleiben mir in meiner Kahlen Zelle that took place at the nearby Villa Oppenheim just a few months before our own exhibition. We began to connect with these women and felt a strong sense of historical responsibility to make their stories visible through our project, rather than to simply use the building as a venue for a cool contemporary art show.

After months of planning, drafting, worrying and preparing, we finally got to work in the former prison. We picked up old documents we found strewn on the floors, removed a dead rat, and learned to discern between the original wall paint and coats of sickly greens and yellows that had been painted in some rooms for film shoots for The Reader. Artists arrived from the UK, Sweden, and some locals from Berlin to explore the spaces and install their works.

The artist Malin Holmberg spent most of her time leading up to the opening shut away in one of the larger rooms in the prison, which had a curious peephole in a wall that allowed for observation of the room from the hallway. We suspected this may have been an interrogation room, where an unseen observer could watch what happened on the inside, as through a one-way mirror. Holmberg made a site-specific painting that camouflaged itself in this room by adopting the teal colour of the wall paint and extending its vaguely threatening zigzags from the canvas onto the floor below. Once finished, the painting was locked in the room, and could only be viewed through the peephole.

A hugely ambitious kinetic installation by Sebastian Kite and Will Laslett was only just ready in time for the opening on 10th September 2012. Three large circular mirrors were suspended in the enclosed prison courtyard, spinning lazily in the summer breeze. The work was titled Panoptic, but really it subverted the notion of surveillance in Jeremy Bentham’s design for panoptic prison architecture. In their perpetual motion, the mirrors became a communication device between cells that had been designed to isolate: the walls so thick they muffled all sound, the single window so high up that you could not look down into the courtyard. Kite & Laslett’s mirrors transformed the sense of enclosure within the courtyard and the cells as they flashed fragmented glimpses of cobblestone ground, red brick wall and blue around the courtyard.

Our exhibition in the former prison was open to the public for a week in early September 2012. We welcomed artists, critics, and curators, as well as neighbours living around Kantstraße, who had never been able to see beyond the permanently locked large gate on Kantstraße or over the tall red brick walls at the back of the prison. Some had lived next door for decades without realising there was a disused women’s prison there. During that week, we hosted readings, curator’s tours, film screenings, and discussions.

We had decided to leave many of the one hundred prison cells empty, so that visitors would explore the building and, here and there, happen upon an artwork. We did not want to overpower the former prison and its history with art. But even the empty cells were not really empty at all: in many, inmates from different eras had scratched small drawings or fragments of sentences into the walls for posterity. In others, we tacked printed quotes from letters written by inmates in the 1940s to the wall; intimate and harrowing voices from the past. Our visitors were as impressed by the building as they were by the artistic interventions. Some visitors found this place and its Third Reich history too oppressive to spend long inside.

Eva-Maria Buch
Imprisoned at Kantstraße 79 from 30.03 – 07.06.1943
Accused of aid of high treason and of aiding the enemy.
Executed aged 21.

In a letter sent from the prison, she wrote:

“The solidarity among ‘the politicals’ is beautiful, and even to the others, comradeship can build bridges across all that separates us. […] The prison is also a good vehicle for the mutual understanding of people from different countries. I have met many foreigners here and have had interesting conversations with them, and many things have become clear to me.” *

During the weeks we spent there, we became more and more familiar and comfortable in the building, with its ghosts. Towards the end, we would even walk the corridors on or own to check that all visitors had left before locking up at night. In the course of that summer, the old neon lights on the ceilings gave up one after another.

Shortly after this temporary opening and bustle of activity, the building was closed and many years of building works began. Reading our catalogue for the project ten years later, it was clear that everything we did in the former women’s prison was informed by its oppressive history, and that we left it feeling ambiguous about the imminent changes it had in store. In his poetic contribution to the catalogue, David Stenbeck mused,

“With time, the prison building will transform and change into something else, perhaps a home, full of warmth, or into a commercial cinema, or a subversive bar. What language lies within the material, now? Is the structure quietly being its own atoms alone? And will we ever forgive it?”

We could not pay ourselves or the artists a fee and we struggled to scrape together the money to pay for the printing of the catalogue: an introduction to the precarious realities of working freelance in the art world, which have not changed much. Our nervous excitement and the unique atmosphere of the building, as well as the fantastic artworks we hosted, remain with us as rich and precious memories.

Nora Heidorn & Fanny Gjoni, February 2022

*Transcribed and translated from the exhibition ‘Die Träume einzig bleiben mir in meiner kahlen Zelle.‘ Frauen des Widerstands im Gerichtsgefängnis Kanstraße 79, at the Museum Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Villa Oppenheim. Texts and research: Jörg Petzel and Eckehard Plum.