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  • Spore Initiative director Antonia Alampi: “We can’t pretend we are not seeing what’s happening on our streets”


Spore Initiative director Antonia Alampi: “We can’t pretend we are not seeing what’s happening on our streets”

A year after the inception of Spore Initiative, we talk to director Antonia Alampi about how the Neukölln-based organisation works to find common ground.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Located on Neukölln’s busy Hermannstraße, Spore Initiative is a non-profit cultural space working at the intersection of climate justice, ecological regeneration and art. Despite its complex profile, the privately-funded cultural initiative wants to be accessible to local communities and help find common ground between people who may be culturally or geographically distant.

How can we make the best out of the privilege that we have?

Since opening in April 2023, over 16,000 visitors of all ages have come to their lecture hall, seminar rooms, garden, library and cafe to experience their year-long exhibitions, film and performance programming and its collaborative work with communities in the Global South. The space is directed by the Italian-born curator and writer Antonia Alampi, whose career has been defined by her ability to work with artists and professionals from a variety of fields, focusing on issues that pursue social, political and environmental justice.

Spore Initiative focuses on biodiversity and ecology within the realm of art. How do those topics fit together?

We consider ourselves more a cultural space than an art space. Our aim is to engage with cultural practices that exist and can live within everyday life. When we started out, we realised environmental and art discourses are still very Western in their methodologies, [even though] many peoples and cultures have been practising regenerative ecology and art connected to it for centuries. Rather than just being another theoretical horizon, we wanted to engage with people that would embody some of this knowledge themselves, with artists’ work that relates to everyday cultural practice and is not just about the exceptionality of the artistic genius. Generally, we avoid big names and instead work often with artists from rural areas in the Global South. Through that, it trickles back and repays the community as well.

Are you paying artists from the Global South when you exhibit their work in Berlin?

Of course they are being paid! We pay every artist or contributor we work with. Our exhibitions sit in the middle of a process that takes around three years. So there’s a lot that precedes the exhibitions in Berlin and happens first in [the countries and areas of] our community partners, and a lot that comes after, when exhibitions return back in a different form. Recently we’ve been working a lot with Maya community initiatives in rural areas of Yucatán in Mexico, where most artworks are returning for exhibitions in small community initiatives. That circling back really is at the core of what we do.

You’ve been open for a year now. How would you evaluate the past 12 months?

Challenging but good! It’s been a real learning curve, and we’re continuously considering how to engage an urban city like Berlin with environmental and ecological matters – specifically with people that are not predominantly highly educated and middle class. We’re not interested in providing programmes only for kids at Montessori schools. The question for us is: what does it mean to land in a neighbourhood where so many diaspora communities have suffered various processes of marginalisation or silencing? We’ve learned how much of the discrimination and accessibility here too are deeply entangled with ecology, and many of the kids we’re working with have no relationship to nature.

Spore lecture hall. Photo: Hans-Christian Schink

Why locate the initiative in Neukölln?

The founder Hans Schöpflin and curator Osvaldo Sánchez were looking for pre-existing buildings rather than building from scratch, but it was impossible to find anything. So when this land became available, they thought Neukölln made sense for the project, too.

Neukölln is one of Berlin’s poorest areas, with rent having risen at least 150% in the last 15 years. With all the problems attributed to that, does opening a cultural centre focused on art and ecology really serve the local community?

It’s not just about solving direct practical issues however important they may be. It’s also about being in the community, bringing people together. That’s why we talk a lot about wanting to create common ground or engage with food and community singing. We also work with organisations or groups run by migrant women, dealing with traumatic experiences through music, recipes, ingredients – we find food helps form bonds and relations. Just talking about or sharing your own traditions in a context with dignity can be enormously meaningful.

With all the positive intentions of building a space like this, its arrival also contributes to changes in the surrounding area, raising rent yet further…

What does it mean to land in a neighbourhood where so many diaspora communities have suffered various processes of marginalisation or silencing?

I don’t think we can get out of it. But then what do you do, just build in Mitte? The question is: who do you want to serve? We are part of this contradiction. The money for the initiative comes out of capitalism, and the question is: how can we make the best out of the privilege that we have? In any case, the process of gentrification started years before; half my team can’t find a place to live here, not even further out in Britz. The ones ousting people are coming from start-ups or software engineering companies, and we do not have those types of salaries.

How have your aims as a director of a space like this changed?

Hosting has become a much bigger aspect of what we do. We have more and more groups that actually want to organise things here, and you realise that there is a total lack of large, well-equipped and free spaces like Spore. And we realise, too, how fundamental spaces like these are to providing reasons for living and staying in Berlin. I suppose the question is: how can you provide space for group ideas instead of always curating everything for people? We’re really trying to make space for groups that normally would not have access to such an infrastructure. Our garden, too, is open to everyone.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Which local communities specifically?

Well, one strong bond is with different Kurdish communities, including many people that have really kept connection with Kurdistan directly. We’ve done a number of things with Palestinian communities. The café at Spore, Café Arakil, is actually Armenian – the only one in Berlin, I think. And through hosting we’re meeting new people all the time.

The founder and financial backer, Hans Schöpflin, left Germany to make a fortune as a venture capitalist in the US. But the death of his son from an overdose forever altered his priorities…

I don’t really want to speak for him, but I suppose it made him consider what money is for. Right now, we are seeing the importance of having a diversity of funding sources in Germany. Because we’re not dependent on the government, we’re one of the few institutions that can put on certain programmes.

You’re speaking about the threat of restrictions placed on state-backed institutions with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict… 

There’s a lot of self-censorship going on right now too. I don’t think it’s just about funding or about the government, I think there’s fear of being attacked or accused. So far, we’ve made a statement about the necessity of a plurality of discourse and opened our doors to communities, groups or individuals that feel silenced or marginalised. We’ve had a number of groups reaching out to us – we can’t pretend we are not seeing what’s happening on our streets, especially being in Neukölln.

Photo: Hans-Christian Schink

You’ve provided a platform for a writers’ project called ‘Passages Through Genocide’. Do you worry about fuelling division, even antisemitism?

I have a lot of Jewish Israeli friends that came here for that event, and I don’t see why having a critique of what the Israeli government is doing right now has anything to do with antisemitism. ‘Passages Through Genocide’ is the title that a group of writers from and beyond Palestine chose, and we’re not going to censor their title because we don’t see this as an antisemitic statement. There’s actually a court case around whether or not Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip right now, so we decided to stay with the freedom of artistic expression. If there were instances of antisemitism, we would react to them immediately. We always have an awareness team in place, who are trained in de-escalating conflict and support people in distress. We create a safe space where certain conversations can happen, but there is no space for any kind of discrimination, antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, et cetera.

There’s a lot of self-censorship going on right now too.

Has anyone questioned what you are doing?

Well, I am answerable to our board, and we exist within the German legal system. So far, we haven’t been approached. But we really believe that you have to talk things through in a healthy and safe environment – there must be interaction to counter the kind of radicalisation that happens on social media. There’s so much prejudice and assumptions and categorisation. I’m not saying we all have to agree, but we can disagree in a non-aggressive way and listen to each other. I feel that this process of mutual listening and dialogue is not happening at all and that’s the type of scenario cultural institutions like Spore can offer.

Your exhibitions last an entire year; what do you have coming up?

We have two major exhibitions. The one on water protection is in dialogue with groups living along the shores of different rivers in Kurdistan, looking from the past to the present on different ways of dealing with water scarcity. It’s super inspirational with a lot of the stories told through songs, images, drawings, mappings and video installations, with people such as anthropologist Şermin Güven and the Kurdish-Persian singer Hani Mojtahedy. The other exhibition is on forest protection, and we’re working with a group of young artists, farmers and beekeepers from an indigenous Warli community in northeast India, seeing their different methodologies and looking at things that I think in the West we would never normally connect with forest protection, such as the presence of shrines and certain divinities.

Is a lot of the work you do internationally unravelling the legacy of Germany’s and the West’s colonialist past?

The idea for us is to not be only moralistic or pointing fingers but to work with people and highlight different kinds of practices and stories they bring along, which have been violently attacked for centuries yet have survived. That’s why we use folk stories rather than academic texts. We try to not focus on the perspective of victimhood, which, of course, comes with issues of discrimination, racialisation, colonialism, extractivism, et cetera. We focus on the preservation, activation and dissemination of different kinds of knowledge. So, forest protectors from India will meet forest protectors here, and you will see that there is much more common ground than you’d expected. For us, it’s important to find those little tiny things we can hold on to that connect us, more than everything else that disconnects us.