Folke Koebberling and Martin Kaltwassser’s three-part installation Baustoffzentrum, Werdplatzpalais, Filiale Micafil, executed 2007/08 at Zurich’s Shedhalle as part of the project series Work to do! Selbstorganisation in prekären Arbeitsbedingungen (self-organization under conditions of precarious work)
Sønke Gau und Katharina Schlieben In a written new year’s address to the city’s residents, the head of Zurich’s municipal waste collection and recycling services(ERZ) referred to an old alchemist’s dream when he mentioned that “my employees are proud to be contributing to the high quality of life here. Not only do they collect and remove refuse, but the take it to be recycled and transformed: Rubbish turns into electric power and heat, sewage becomes clean drinking water, other components are turned into valuable produce. ERZ contributes to the maintenance of natural cycles and gives new life to formerly useless waste. In other words: Lead turns to gold.” 1
On two levels, the concept of a clean future for Zurich has particular relevance for Folke Koebberling and Martin Kaltwasser’s art and their contribution to the project series Work to do! Selbstorganisation in prekären Arbeitsverhältnissen at the Shedhalle. First, the artists might be described as transformers, too, who produce something of value from ostensibly worthless base material, and second, because Zurich is already incredibly clean and orderly, yet expects to be even cleaner.
The urban environment features as principal resource in the work of Koebberling and Kaltwasser. They put things they find for free in construction site skips, bulk waste collection points and in derelict buildings to new use. Often, this will yield temporary buildings, which by nature of their components reflect the environment from which they have come, and which also raise questions of self-organization and self-empowerment and the accessibility and use of so called “public space”. Working in Zurich proved to be difficult on both levels. Contrary to other places, it was tremendously hard to find discarded material on Zurich’s pristine streets, and the red tape involved in finding an appropriate site in what turned out to be highly regulated public sphere appeared almost insurmountable. Both aspects are intrinsic to the artists’ work, as they reveal unfamiliar dimensions of the public domain, triggering often controversial public debate, and creating political interest that is usually not found in public space.
Making transparent the creative process is at the core of the series of projects devised for Work to do!. Works were not complete on the opening night. Instead, the inherent dynamics of each individual project determined their creation’s rhythm, and the audience was invited to take part in an investigation of how the works were incepted during discussions at various stages of their completion. Koebberling/Kaltwasser began by researching the city and then “displaying” their collected detritus in a mock“builders’ merchant’s” store at the Shedhalle. Items were sorted by potential use, shape and colour in high shelves, providing the visitor with an unusual perspective on Zurich and specific locations and stories behind how and where items had been found. Small placards on the shelf fronts explained the corresponding context as to how, for example, windows and external doors of houses targeted for demolition were first to be removed in order to make the building unattractive to potential squatters. Visitors could also take a brochure listing locations where stuff had been found and other relevant contacts as inspiration for obtaining their own free building materials. The information also provided an impetus to reappraise familiar urban contexts and make different productive use of the potential you discover.
During the second phase a building was completed that would later be re-appropriated as part of the proceedings. The Werdplatzpalais aptly named both after the city centre square where it stood, and the value and growth-related phonetic connotations contained in the first syllable Werd-. The process of re-appropriation took place on a number of levels: not only was the building a demonstration of the useful application of seemingly useless matter, but its creation was also an inspirational act of unorthodox occupation of apparently “public” space by a use for which there would not normally be official backing. The building was made available to self-help groups which otherwise often cannot financially afford space at all or only very little, given the high rents in Zurich. Just before Christmas the Werdplatzpalais turned into a soup kitchen for the homeless.
After the temporary 3-month building permit had elapsed, the construction should have been given away or its components reclaimed for use in another context at Shedhalle if perhaps there was no interest, for instance due to the hard work of dismantling and re-erecting it. Eventually members of an independent working committee for the arts (AG KiöR) showed their interest, and it was re-assembled in collaboration with community activists and local youths as a residents’ meeting facility at the Micalfi housing estate at Altstetten, Zurich, where it stood for another six months.
Though each individual phase of the project is conclusive by itself in content and aesthetics, it is nevertheless vital to elicit the long-term dynamics and succession of the entire work in order to avoid misconceiving specific stages as final without understanding their productive and conceptual origin. It is not ever a finished product that Frauke Koebberling and Martin Kaltwasser’s work yields. Rather, the full complexity consists of the combination of concrete material appeal and the participatory and organisational processes accompanying each transitory stage from inception to use. It creates communities with the corresponding dynamic potential in the public domain.
In this particular case there was a tangible result in the end, nevertheless. All the meetings between the independent working committee for the arts and the municipal planning authorities during the relentless process of obtaining the necessary permits resulted in the decision to ease the required red tape for future art in public space projects. Hence a fitting final quote from the head of ERZ rubbish collection services: “Ultimately the ‘gold’, all the things that have been transformed, find their way back to you, the residents.”3
Notes  Urs Pauli, COE, ERZ Entsorgung + Recycling, Zurich: Letter to all households, Zurich, December 2008
2 Cf Folke Koebberling and Martin Kaltwasser, Ressource Stadt – City as a Resource. One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure, Berlin 2006