Planned as a temporary exhibition on the Rembertikreisel, a traffic island in the middle of the North German city of Bremen, 'Open Air' turned into a violent dispute about the extent to which artists should be involved in matters that don't directly concern them.
The Rembertikreisel is a product of bad 60s urban planning. An entire residential district was demolished, but in 1974 protests halted the plans for new roads and high-rise buildings. The Rembertikreisel remained - a monument to insane city design. Over the last few years Bremen's drug world has used it as a meeting place, and recently addicts evicted from the city centre have been using this urban wasteland as a place to hang out and sleep. Just three weeks before 'Open Air', the parks office, at the behest of the city authorities, rid themselves of the undesirables. The Rembertikreisel was boarded up, the tents torn down, and the junkies thrown out. Trees and bushes were also removed. Politicians from all parties were united in welcoming this solution. Expulsion had, after all, successfully cleaned up Bremen city centre. The Green party representative Uwe Lahl, in a statement typical of Bremen's bourgeois old left, justified the eviction as 'urgently necessary'.
The artists saw things differently. The site of the exhibition, previously bordered by trees and bushes, had now been cleared. Works developed specifically around the drug problem, like Kirsten Starke's felt carpet, no longer worked. Aura Rosenberg's fireplace, designed as a symbolic source of warmth for the junkies, had also lost its meaning. Silvia Steiger's red lamp looked like any old sculpture, and Andreas Walther's walls of anti-racist posters lost their edge. Following discussion between 'Open Air', the artists, and the organiser Andreas Wegner, Marlene McCarty unscrewed the 'tents forbidden' signs, put up by the roads and bridges department, and put up new ones: 'Trousers down!' The artists' groups Büro Bert and Minimal Club drew up social documentation which they sent out as a newspaper supplement. Andreas Wegner put an advertisement in the alternative left-wing daily taz, establishing a connection between art in public places and social problems: 'We wonder whether the parks department was trying to teach the art project a lessaon as well as the junkies.' But even taz suggested that drug addicts had no right to occupy a public space to the exclusion of everyone else. In a hastily convened debate at the Galerie Gruppe Grün, with local inhabitants, drug experts and cultural politicians, the legitimacy of the city's action in boarding up the Rembertikreisel was argued back and forth. The main comment made in connection with the exhibition was that it was a waste of money: the city of Bremen had funded 'Open Air' to the tune of 80, 000 Marks.
Two days after the opening of the exhibition, the confusion developed into hostility: the roads and bridges department removed McCarty's signs as well as Fritz Rahmann's work (three sacks filled with potato-sized stones from the foothills of the Alps). This act of state-authorised vandalism was upheld in court, and the artworks are still in police possession.
When art gets involved in social decision-making processes it puts itself in the firing line. 'Open Air questioned the fabled ineffectuality of art. The very choice of the problematic Rembertikreisel as a site for the exhibition had focused the artists' perspective on the social environment. These artists weren't freeloaders who turned up in the middle of a crisis - they predicted the problem, sought out the conflict and dtnamised the discussion. Their contribution was not appreciated, and that's fine. But if Helga Trüpel, Bremen's cultural guardian, could call the exhibition a 'successful provocation', it's important to realise that sometimes, the defence of art for art's sake can render it sterile.