My first acquaintance with Kongsi was a strange one. I was interim director of the AKI, the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Enschede and they were a bunch of students who had decided to take it upon themselves to change Enschede through art, and in the meantime see to it that they were ensured housing and a place to work at the same time. Kongsi squatted an old school building and gathered a lot of support from the neighbourhood because of the way they communicated with their neighbours. I had submitted a letter to the Minister for Culture of the city of Enschede and advised him to support Kongsi as much as possible because of the role artist-initiatives can play in cities like Enschede and how much Enschede could benefit from being a city that was tolerant towards artists and their, in the eyes of some citizens, provocative behaviour.
A few days later I had my first meeting with the minister and instead of talking about establishing a fruitful cooperation between the academy and the city, he talked about almost nothing else than these Kongsi squatters and the fact that I had indulged, and even promoted squatting, and that I should see to it that Kongsi leave the building they occupied at the time. Needless to say, we did not agree.
A few months later, Kongsi introduced themselves as an artist-initiative at the Rockarty Festival in Enschede. It was the summer of 2002. The 11th version of the Dokumenta was well on its way. I returned from Kassel and was one of the speakers at Kongsi’s opening. Impressed by the artwork that Kongsi had on display, I told the audience if they wanted to see some of the finest contemporary art, they should go to the Dokumenta but should not forget to go and visit Kongsi as well. The city of Enschede, through the festival, had indirectly subsidised Kongsi for the first time. That winter the artists had to move out of the school building, but they were able to find other spots in the city, and each time they did, they organised exhibitions, performances and parties.
Later I became director of the Hengelo Art Centre, and in 2005 I asked Kongsi to show the city of Hengelo what they were capable of doing. In October 2005, they built “Heartbreak Hotel “in an old industrial building with 4000 m2. Again, they proved to me there and then that an artists’ initiative like Kongsi, given the right space and budget and left alone to do their thing, could come up with a great exhibition. An exhibition with great art ranging from clouds on the ceiling, a telephone system throughout the entire hall, shops, tents, movies, a fashion-design stage, intriguing performances and music. By that time some Kongsi-members had already left for Berlin only to be replaced by new artists. Because of the tight bond between the new and old Kongsi artists, “Heartbreak Hotel” grew into a truly international art-exhibition with artists from Holland, Germany, Spain, Russia and other countries.
Heartbreak Hotel was opened by the Ministers for Culture of the cities of Hengelo and Enschede. Not long after that, the Mayor of Enschede finally asked Kongsi to come back to the same old school building they had started out in. The city’s development plans for that property had fallen through, and the city had seen the proof of what kind of a role Kongsi-like initiatives could have. Kongsi now is appreciated as a solid partner in promoting Enschede as an Art City.
As is always the way, artists are ignored in the beginning, then they are tolerated at best, then they finally get some respect and sometimes, they are even rewarded for all their activities. Most of the time artists’ initiatives do not have the time or energy to fight for that over and over again. Kongsi stood by her roots, endured criticism, and is now on the brink of a new adventure and new success in Berlin. I hope they do not have to struggle as much as before to persuade the city of Berlin to acknowledge that it has a fine new artists’ initiative within its city limits. Kongsi is a real asset to its art scene and a group of artists to be proud of.
I know what I would do, if I were the City of Berlin.