Gelsenkirchen: A City Besieged by Budding Artists

Article published on July 8, 2014
Article published on July 8, 2014

Foot­ball fans will know Gelsenkirchen as home to FC Schalke 04. Real ex­perts may even rec­og­nise it as the birth­place of Mesut Özil. Faced with a map, though, most peo­ple would find it hard to pin­point Gelsenkirchen, a city brought to its knees by Ger­man dein­dus­tri­al­isa­tion. But now a bunch of budding artists are injecting new life.

In Bochumerstrasse, South Gelsenkirchen, the houses are mainly red brick. It's not exactly an ugly place, I decide. There is even the odd ex­am­ple of Wil­helmine ar­chi­tec­ture, or so they tell me. All the same, ne­glect has seen these build­ings start to crum­ble. At street level they har­bour shops and busi­nesses, but most seem aban­doned or shut. A closer look re­veals their win­dows to be some­what askew — the re­sult of rather shaky foun­da­tions. Tear­ing them all down would be im­pos­si­ble. Dangerous too, given the chaos that un­der­lies them. And at any rate, de­mo­li­tion is pricey. The re­sult is that while some re­tain a cer­tain im­pos­ing al­lure, oth­ers have long since at­tained com­plete de­crepi­tude.

And this is now the Artists' Quar­ter, I am told. The city could hardly have cho­sen a more suit­able spot for 'ex­ploiting cre­ative po­ten­tial'. 

The Ghetto of Gelsenkirchen

While au­thor­i­ties have too long ne­glected the Bochumer­strasse district, it is hard to be­lieve the in­hab­i­tants see them­selves as liv­ing in Gelsenkirchen’s ghetto. The at­mos­phere here is laid back; fa­mil­ial, even.

But all the same: 'Peo­ple who live a block away avoid com­ing here,' says Volker, whom the coun­cil have sent, seem­ing to be­lieve him ca­pa­ble of mir­a­cles. 'Most of all they’re scared of the Ro­mas, mainly Bul­gar­i­ans and Ro­ma­ni­ans, who moved here not long ago.'

Mis­trust of these mi­grants runs pretty deep, it appears, although many of them came to the Ruhr Val­ley hop­ing to find work in its once thriv­ing indus­tries. On one par­tic­u­lar street, men and women of 42 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties live cheek by jowl. It’s a headache at times, Volker tells me, but mainly it’s 'a missed op­por­tu­nity, be­cause everyone keeps them­selves to them­selves'.

Along with oth­ers, Volker is fight­ing to change the sta­tus quo. At his side is a band of young artists, sec­ond year stu­dents from Am­s­ter­dam’s Ger­rit Ri­etveld Aca­demy. Hail­ing from all four cor­ners of the globe, these 53 stu­dents have spent the last two weeks be­sieg­ing the bad­lands of Bochumer­strasse, gath­er­ing ma­te­r­ial for works of art in­spired by the lives of local people.

Chris­tiane, heading the pro­ject, is con­vinced that it is work­ing: 'Since the students set up shop here, you can tell that peo­ple want to take part and talk about their ex­pe­ri­ences. On my way to work the other day, I passed an Ital­ian restau­rant. I’d walked past be­fore, and I could tell that the owner was cu­ri­ous. But this time he grabbed me and in­vited me in. He told me the story of his life. At least, I think he did. I didn’t un­der­stand every­thing. He barely spoke a word of Ger­man.'

Proof of this cu­rios­ity does not take long to ma­te­ri­al­ise. As if on cue, a young woman hur­tles into the of­fice and in­ter­rupts our con­ver­sa­tion. Well dressed, thirty-some­thing, brunette, she is also no­tice­ably drunk. Beer bot­tle in hand, she launches into bro­ken, eager Eng­lish, and seems to be try­ing to ex­press the im­pact that the young artists have had on the area: 'This is not a mas­quer­ade, it’s about life.' 

Volker and his two col­leagues are vis­i­bly touched — proud, even, that peo­ple now feel em­pow­ered to waltz in as if they owned the place. All part of the pro­ject’s pur­pose.



The stu­dents from Ri­etveld Acad­emy are based in an old bike shop. It was re­fur­bished in a rush, and with good rea­son. Three months be­fore their ar­rival there was noth­ing here.

The walls are blank, save those bear­ing the hap­haz­ard graf­fiti of local youths. Ply­wood boards pro­vide a par­ti­tion be­tween the two rooms. The larger one serves as a stu­dio, a meet­ing room, but also as a bi­cy­cle shed and store­room. At the back I can hear a drill, and it dri­ves home its point most ef­fec­tively: this is a hive of ac­tiv­ity, of con­stant cre­ativ­ity. Out­side, ban­ners strewn from the front win­dow boast of the pro­ject in hand. The glass front is gi­gan­tic, as if to show that all here is open and trans­par­ent. These bud­ding artists have noth­ing to hide. They are dab­bling, dis­cov­er­ing. And some of them still seem un­aware of the impact of their ef­forts.

It was Joost van Haaften, Pro­fes­sor of Fine Arts at Ri­etveld Acad­emy, who brought them here. It all began last sum­mer, when van Haaften met a so­ci­ol­o­gist who knew the re­gion and who told him about Gelsenkirchen:

'It was like falling in love with an idea. He told me about this place that every­one looked down on, that had been ba­si­cally left to go to rack and ruin. I told him that I wanted to ex­pose our stu­dents to the real world, get them out of their bub­ble. We don’t want their ed­u­ca­tion to leave them out of touch with re­al­ity. They have to con­front it, ques­tion it.'

The Acad­emy of­fers train­ing in all man­ner of dis­ci­plines, from de­sign to fash­ion to ce­ram­ics, and as­serts on its web­site that stu­dents must de­velop an 'artis­tic state­ment' of their own.

Hence, here in Gelsenkirchen, three girls have de­scended upon an aban­doned shop. I watch as one sits in the shop front, spin­ning wool be­hind the glass, whilst the other two clean the win­dow. They are clad in sky blue over­alls. On their backs, the words 'WASHING BRIGADE' are em­bla­zoned in proud gold let­ter­s. While I find it dif­fi­cult to grasp the pre­cise state­ment un­der­ly­ing this particular exhibition, all three students are clearly enjoying themselves. And I can't help but smile.