Published May 11th, 2020

Moving Into Virtual Space, and Back

In den virtuellen Raum und zurück

Podcast in German: Gregor Kuhlmann & David Morsi, April 9 2020

Niehler Freiheit is a real-life citymaker project in Cologne that wants to create a space for community and culture in a former repair shop at the edge of town. The lockdown caused the initiative to move many activities online, but they continue to reflect on physical space.

Die Niehler Freiheit ist ein reales Stadtmacher-Projekt in Köln, das in einer Werkstatt am Stadtrand Räume für Community und Kultur schaffen möchte. Der Lockdown hat die Initiative dazu veranlasst, viele Aktivitäten ins Internet zu verlagern, aber der physische Raum spielt weiterhin eine große Rolle.

Sketches from the interview with David Morsi and Gregor Kuhlmann, designed by Martin Bangratz for What/Next 2020

These are strange times: attractive public space, usually a desirable feature and the life and soul of a city, now poses a conundrum. The very aim of many citymaker’s efforts, spaces that physically connect people, is to be avoided for the foreseeable future. For Gregor Kuhlmann and David Morsi of Niehler Freiheit, it took some effort to switch their mindset and agree to stay at home and reduce social contacts. But it did not take long for them to return to their activism – in virtual, rather than physical space. When Kuhlmann celebrated his birthday online during his first day of quarantine, he immediately came up with various other ideas and projects. Even though he recently moved to Berlin, his contact with friends, family, and the team of Niehler Freiheit has grown more intense than before – through messaging and videoconferencing. Though he notes that this initial excitement has since gone down, Kuhlmann sees this time as an opportunity to experiment with digital media.

Niehler Freiheit as a physical space usually serves as a shared living room for many. There is now a maximum occupancy, but the space remains a sanctuary for urbanites to follow hobbies they could not practice at home, such as analogue photography or gardening. Exchange between members is just as active as before – just on different, digital platforms. In fact, David Morsi observes, many projects that had been long dormant have become reactivated since the lockdown. Niehler Freiheit includes members from very different fields of expertise, but all of them are connected by a readiness to share knowledge and to learn new things.

One of the core capabilities of a project like Niehler Freiheit […] is that it has been self-taught from day one. The current situation requires exactly these autodidactic abilities.

Gregor Kuhlmann 04/2020

Virtual space is seen as an opportunity by the citymakers, who have accepted that in-person events are off the table for the time being. Instead, they are getting into digital media, learning how to set up live streams. Their online Yoga lessons draw more participants than ever before. DJs have been requesting the garage to live stream sets, using the physical space as well as the digital platform of Niehler Freiheit for exposure. The project thus continues to promote arts and culture in the city.

What next? Both Kuhlmann in Berlin and Morsi in Cologne observe people already reclaiming public space, while keeping their distance, and a lot of eye contact. While virtual communication and events seem to work well enough, citymakers have begun to rethink urban space. For instance, transit spaces could be used for art without gathering many people at once. Kuhlmann and Morsi are also starting their own podcast, Quarantäne-Talk, to encourage communication, not just among experts. Exchange is important, because in spite of the continued activism, uncertainty dominates the conversation at Niehler Freiheit: if and when public events can be held, how rent for the space will be made in the next months, and how their initiatives will change in the long term.

Gregor Kuhlmann is a social scientist and filmmaker. He co-founded LOCOLOR and Niehler Freiheit, and is a member of Urbane Liga, a league of aspiring citymakers.

David Morsi studied Geography in Cologne. He is active in Niehler Freiheit and Urbane Liga and a part of the coordination team for temporary use on Ebertplatz in Cologne.