A Horse & Pony Story
Carrick Bell’s fly was down. I was told this is something his jeans just “do.” That night, however, a trouser swap was simply not a priority. With under thirty minutes until the opening of another exhibition at Horse & Pony, the Berlin project space he co-founded and co-directs with his partner Rocco Ruglio-Misurell, Carrick had too little time for trivial wardrobe malfunctions.1 The priority was booze, which arrived on cue when Rocco hauled a crate of beer from the cellar at my behest. Not because I couldn’t have done it myself, but because I didn’t want to.
In the corner, I was sprucing up an office desk-cum-wet bar specially for the occasion. I had found a yellowing philodendron that was quite right for showing off the wares: a generic Chardonnay, a screw-top red, the aforementioned beer, and a bottle of ginger brew too small not to elicit complaints. This last inevitability was one of my favorite parts about interacting with visitors as volunteer bartender at Horse & Pony—a position I had willingly filled for over a year.
And what a banner year it had been for them. In 2018, they presented four exhibitions of varying complexity, closing out the calendar with Running Room, the group show for which we were preparing. Compared to commercial gallery standards, their output is conservative, dangerously low even, but a commercial enterprise Horse & Pony is not. The project space, like other such artist-run venues, is operate solely by its founders and exists outside the market—a position that comes with as much privilege as it does precarity.
The privilege of running one’s own project space is, of course, the ability to customize its program according to the most personal rubric; many project spaces in Berlin are one-dimensional playgrounds for art-scene cliques. By contrast, Rocco and Carrick developed theirs, after acquiring the venue in 2011, according to an enthusiastic mandate to share.
“The way that we approach what we have here is: ‘Look at this fucking amazing thing we have. We probably don’t have a right to it. It’s not ours. Let’s see what other people can do with it,’” explained Carrick during a one-on-one meeting on December 7, 2018. The result is a platform conceived “with the aim of providing artists, curators, and other project spaces the opportunity to extend or act outside of their existing practices.”2 The space, he said, is the program, and the program is what others bring to it.
On the question of who has a right to the space, something Carrick suggested “they probably don’t have,” the jury is still out. Radical political history or not, the issue of gentrification is as prevalent and complicated in Berlin as in any other city. Located in Neukölln, a predominantly working-class and immigrant neighborhood, Horse & Pony is in close proximity to, if not exemplary of, this issue—a condition that, although respectfully acknowledged, does not deter Rocco and Carrick from their mission. If anything, the pressure compels them to continually assess their efficacy as artists within a community sometimes skeptical of their presence.
After five years in operation and nineteen exhibitions, it would appear the verdict is in their favor (despite the sporadic neighborhood noise complaint when evening events get too festive). Their model has certainly proven successful, and their efforts have garnered attention from artworld press and peers. Carrick is modest about the former and excited about the latter:
“I don’t take our profile for granted. It’s really amazing to have people who know the space and have been to the space…That’s really gratifying. And it’s really nice to not really worry about having an audience. But then at the same time, at every single opening, three-fourths of the people are different, which is wonderful.”
The precarities of not being (nor being labelled) a traditional gallery, an identity stressed by the fact that Horse & Pony’s façade is both signless and glazed with frosted panes, are equally real. Among them is occasional confusion experienced by newcomers concerning what Horse & Pony is, does, and/or how it manages to function. Some of these people sometimes live up, down, or across the street, but more often they are are acting on word-of-mouth or social media recommendation. When a man in a red knit cap entered Running Room, surveyed the exhibition, and said “Uh, I’m looking for the art show,” I assumed he belonged to the recommendations camp. When we told him he had found the vernissage, his surprise at being the first visitor at T plus forty minutes touched a nerve, and not only for reasons of pride. Artist-run, nonprofit-facilities are bedeviled by the popularity machine, and attendance is as much a metric for their survival as it is for any cultural institution, especially if they are eligible for state sponsorship. Large crowds signal social capital for places like Horse & Pony; visitor numbers evidence worthiness to funding agencies.
Berlin’s Senate Department for Culture and Europe is one agency, for example, that annually “bestows” monetary prizes “honoring Berlin-based and self-organized art project spaces and initiatives that are rooted in one arts discipline (visual art, music, or literature) but take an interdisciplinary approach.” Applicants are required to explain how they “intend to appeal to the public” and describe the “kind of public” to whom they are appealing. Applicants must also detail the “(long term) effect” they “intend to achieve” as an organization, a case perhaps best supported by past activities, which can be demonstrated in “photos, videos, and [online] documentation.” A room full of people could later translate into a pocket full of cash. In 2019, twenty awards are slated for bestowal to the tune of €37,000, “subject to the availability of funds.” Based on the prerequisites/conditions for the award, Horse & Pony fit the bill as candidates, but at the time of writing, they have yet to receive the prize.3
Assembled by curators Thomas Ballot and Thomas Butler, with works by artists Jesse Darling, Aude Pariset, Ari Sariannidis, and Anna Solal, Running Room claimed to put “into perspective the different practices of the participating artists and their production of counter-narratives within the context of what Dutch architect Rem Koolhass [sic] has coined ‘Junkspace.’”4
To clarify, in 2001, Koolhaas’ essay on “Junkspace” was published for the first time in The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping. It was not exactly a ringing endorsement of our times. The text describes a toxic, all-encompassing condition of the world: “If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, Junk-Space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet. The built […] product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace. Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout.”5 Koolhaas conveys a deep distrust for this remaindered zone that he calls “the body double of space, a territory of impaired vision, limited expectation, reduced earnestness.”6
Twelves years later, Hal Foster’s “Running Room,” became a response to “Junkspace” by arguing that, within the inescapable Junkspace dimension, there are still “fissures” to discover or forge—conceptually and physically—that grant deviation from it.7 These exceptions are the essay’s namesake: “…in Junkspace we have passed beyond distraction to immersion. There seems to be no choice but to seek running room inside its world.”8
I assume Ballot and Butler believed they had found fissure potential in Horse & Pony, and they took Foster’s appeal “to pressure these cracks”9 as permission to mount their show: “Within a space almost mimicking the ‘postexistential’ condition of Junkspace, the artists were invited to engage with the urban history of this exhibition space located in Neukölln and marked by successive transformations.”10 The “urban history” and “successive transformations” they reference are by now a baked-in part of Horse & Pony’s mythology, which goes like this:
A long, long time ago the location was home to a butcher’s shop. Then it became a döner factory for manufacturing spindle meat. Then it sat vacant and in disrepair for five or ten years depending on who you ask. Then it got a facelift and became what is now known as Horse & Pony in 2013, and it has been trotting along since. The facelift, however, was not a total makeover. Bits and pieces of the location’s past still adorn its surfaces, like ornamental tiles, decals advertising processed meat, a scary staircase, and an even scarier basement—elements that Ballot and Butler referred to in their press statement as “‘authentic’ architectural traces.”
I have wondered why Ballot and Butler stated that Horse & Pony’s interior almost mimics “the ‘postexistential’ condition of Junkspace.” If the space actually mimics Junkspace conditions, would not that have supported their concept? Mimicking Junkspace would imply a critical distance or dimensional separation from Junkspace—mimicry as method for accessing running room. Perhaps with Junkspace being everywhere and inescapable, they were unable to make that assertion. Alternatively, if the space almost mimics Junkspace conditions, meaning it fails to achieve sufficient critical distance from those conditions in order to fully mimic them, then would not the space simply be Junkspace? This would have also suited their needs because it would have further highlighted the artists’ attempts to engage the running room/Junkspace conflict within an explicit model context. It is as though they were avoiding tagging Horse & Pony as Junkspace proper out of courtesy to their hosts. Once a postexistential purgatory always a postexistential purgatory, I suppose. Perhaps “almost” allowed them to acknowledge Horse & Pony’s “urban history” for the sake of their idea without having to partake in the larger discussion that an unequivocal Junkspace tag would surely activate—the discussion about how and why those “successive transformations” created the Junkspace conditions that became the exhibition venue they occupied under the aegis of running room (viz. the passage on gentrification above).
When I am feeling generous, I am inclined to oscillate between these conjectures for the reason that running room (interpreted by Foster from the German Spielraum, “which translates literally as ‘play room’ or ‘room for play’”) is in its conception is innately tricky, double-natured, and provisional.11 It relies on ambiguity to exist and sometimes existing ambiguously requires ambiguous principles. For your typical group show, running room is the perfect premise.
The regularly changing guard of curators, artists, and guests accommodated by Carrick and Rocco at Horse & Pony has ensured a diverse range of collaborations and encounters over the years. Speaking generally about these experiences, Carrick diplomatically stated: “We have to take responsibility for anything that happens in the space and then also not take ownership for the things that other people have done.” It is, he said, “like the worst of both worlds.”
Compared to previous events, the crowd was modest yet steady the opening night of Running Room. Nobody became white-lipped with rage because there wasn’t enough Pinot gris to make a spritzer. The cops didn’t come, which was a shame. There was just a record number of men who ordered “one ice cold beer, please” and insisted on grasping the bottle like they were collecting semen from a bull. They were palm-testing its temperature. Unsurprisingly, it was never cold enough.
Running Room was on view at Horse & Pony in Berlin, Germany December 3, 2018 – January 13. 2019.
Photos: Frank Sperling
- Until recently, Horse & Pony was stylized as HORSEANDPONY Fine Arts, so for clarity the organization will be referred to by the former designation (as is still written on their website) throughout these footnotes. ↩
- Bell, Carrick and Rocco Ruglio-Misurell. HORSEANDPONY Fine Arts. www.horseandponyfinearts.com. Accessed 3 Jan. 2019 ↩
- Division I A Funding for Artists, Projects, and Independent Groups, Berlin’s Senate Department for Culture & Europe. Information sheet on awards for art project spaces and initiatives for 2019. 2019, Berlin. www.berlin.de/sen/kultur/_assets/foerderung/foerderprogramme/bildende-kunst/2019_info2_projektraeume_engl.pdf ↩
- Ballot, Thomas and Thomas Butler. Running Room. Berlin: HORSEANDPONY Fine Arts, Dec. 2018. PDF. ↩
- Koolhaas, Rem. “Junkspace.” Junkspace with Running Room. Notting Hill Editions, Ltd. 2013, 12. ↩
- Ibid., 14. ↩
- Foster, Hal. “Running Room.” Junkspace with Running Room. Notting Hill Editions, Ltd. 2013, 62. ↩
- Ibid., 58. ↩
- Ibid., 62. ↩
- Ballot, Thomas and Thomas Butler. Running Room. Berlin: HORSEANDPONY Fine Arts, Dec. 2018. PDF. ↩
- Foster, Hal. “Running Room.” Junkspace with Running Room. Notting Hill Editions, Ltd. 2013, 64-65. ↩