On the Harbor – A conversation with geheimagentur

The following interview took place on April 7th, 2018, between three members of the geheimagentur (1,2,3) and Nuriye (N) from Das Archipel in Hamburg. Working anonymously, the geheimagentur is an open label, collective and practical exercise in the 'art of being many'. The geheimagentur is composed of two, three, many. In 2016, Das Archipel was one of the destinations of the cruises that departed from Alternativen Kreuzfahrtterminal (AKT) – the alternative cruise-ship terminal. On Das Archipel, nine women welcomed the cruise passengers. Yoga, tea, texts, the sound of rippling water and the soft swaying of the pontoons sought to lull visitors into a deep relaxation and help them imagine utopic islands. In 2017, Das Archipel was part of the Access Points by geheimagentur in the framework of Theater-der-Welt-Festival. In response to how to realize a non-economic harbor, Das Archipel proposed doing nothing. Instead they made a Jacuzzi, referencing Theodor W. Adorno’s words "Rien faire comme une bête, lying on the water, peacefully looking into the sky, just being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfillment, might take the place of process, action, and satisfaction."

N: What was the trigger behind geheimagentur’s occupation with Hamburg’s harbor?

1: The trigger was a performance about Somali pirates. As a start, we asked ourselves why pirates are so beloved at children’s birthday parties, meanwhile piracy in everyday life is viewed as a major problem. This was in 2011, when pirates were aggressively fought with military force. Our interest in the harbor of Hamburg grew when preparing the piece. Somali pirates live in incredible poverty, and it is fairly easy to observe which vested interests produced this. Meanwhile, on trade routes several kilometers away, the world’s riches pass by. If you think about it a little further, you arrive at an entire network of shipping lanes and their hubs, the harbors, and how the world is connected through the transport of containers. That was the starting point for our general interest in harbors, and because we live in Hamburg’s, this city’s harbor.

2: In 2011 there was also a trial against Somali pirates in Hamburg. That’s what we, and the children we worked with, asked ourselves: Why does something happen somewhere on the oceans, and then there is a trial here in Hamburg? The network was suddenly visible and tangible. This provoked other questions, for example how does maritime law work, how is our access to the water organized, and who decides what happens on the waters?

N: And how did you begin focusing your work on the Hamburg harbor?

2: Already some 12 years ago, the geheimagentur made a (harbor vacation). The idea to take a vacation in our harbor was then connected with the questions that emerged from our work on pirates.

1: Hamburg likes to claim itself as "Das Tor zur Welt" (the gateway to the world). The harbor in Hamburg is incredibly important to the city’s self-conception in an economic, but also a touristic sense. The harbor only exists so to speak in these two areas – firstly, as a gated container port, and secondly as a wallpaper viewed from Landungsbrücken. In a city with major housing issues, the observation of surface, on water as well as land, is interesting, and begs the question: who is allowed to use these surfaces, and why do we have so little access to them? How can it be that one-tenth of the city surface purportedly owned by the municipality, is technically under the jurisdiction of the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA)? The HPA is incredibly non-transparent. It makes the laws, determines how the waterways are used, carries out punitive measures for infringement and defines the sanctions. The HPA is a land owner, legislator, executive- and judiciary power all in one. This doesn’t hold with our understanding of public grounds.

3: Once again it becomes increasingly apparent that the harbor is subject to both a local— access to the water–and simultaneously a global logic.

2: But the harbor has a problem, it is not growing. That’s why it depends on cruise ships, an industry that is currently still growing. What is fascinating about this cruise ship boom is that it’s not bringing any money to the city, especially not the harbor.

3: Perhaps the cruise ship tourists goes shopping in the Hafencity, but how much profit this generates is an open question. Nevertheless, everybody thinks that this industry generates considerable profits.

2: Buzz alone doesn't pay the taxes, even the third cruise ship port was financed by the city of Hamburg, which is different in other countries, where cruise lines pay for the terminal. Once could say our city has a tax-financed environmental catastrophe. The summer, in which the third cruise ship terminal opened in Steinwerder, we opened the Alternative Kreuzfahrtterminal on Reiherstieg canal. At AKT we invited, among others, an author, that writes about the dark sides of the cruise industry. He described how far from reality the promotion of the cruise industry is, far more fictitious than our performance pieces.

(Everybody laughs)

3: Even more fictitious than our harbor, are the cruises themselves! Supposedly claiming that cruises from Hamburg provide the easiest access to the sea is a total farce. Travelers barely see a thing. All-inclusive entertainment, everything related the sea is glossed over. That’s why we wanted to make a cruise that does not do that. That for one, doesn’t exploit the crew and destroy the environment with tax money, and secondly, one that doesn't blank out the realities of the seas.

N: AKT was part one of your examination, part two followed in the Baakenhafen. What were you hoping to achieve there, or rather, what role did you play together with us, Das Archipel?

1: As earlier stated, the waterways in Hamburg’s harbor should be public space. Like roads on land, waterways are technically accessible, however there are extremely few points of access to this public space. In St. Pauli I might be able to jump in the water, but there are not many other possibilities. So what we need are access points, from land to water and back, a crossing, even just temporarily. And so we founded the Free Port Baakenhöft. (In Mai 2017 this was already prepared in the framework of Access Points). We built a harbor and along with its infrastructure, including a ship welcoming station, a harbor-bar, a shipyard, and a pier with gangway. It was incredibly exhausting and instructive. We had to work together with many institutions of the city. The HPA, Hafencity Management (they own the land), the river police. Our plans were seen as so enormous, that the institutions bogged down by difficulties, simply redirected them at us.

2: Of course we tried to look for partners. There are and have been many similar projects in this city that have dealt with issues of access to the harbor, and rethink the current harbor. Das Archipel is also a platform, a crossing between the solid and liquid, that should be part of such a harbor. Briefly, in terms of chronology, between AKT and Free Port Baakenhöft we traveled the world, from the north, to the south, from east to west to research and learn what other access points there were, and who was fighting which fights.

3: Of course Hamburg is not the only harbor city that has forfeited public space for the construction of high-security zones which serve large-scale commercial interests. But tell me, who went north?

2: Nobody, but it sounds better.


3: Some of us went to New York, some to Venice, Hongkong and Lagos. This research produced the performance Ports at MS Stubnitz 2016. And we founded the Hamburg Port Hydrarchy that is imagining another development for the harbour. From this we developed Free Port Baakenhöft. The shipyard was inspired by the Battle of Mau Mau that we joined in New York, this idea that you can just build something and put it on water. The idea for a ship welcoming station came from Venice—a city that is much more affected by the cruise industry than Hamburg. There, activists protest with different actions. For instance, they insults cruise ships entering the port, with a PA system from the shore amplifying "fuck you! You are not welcome here!" This public announcement creates a public space. Publicly addressing the cruise ships and and its passengers opens up and intervenes into their privatized space, a sort of performative contradiction. From this observation we developed our ship welcoming station. (In fact, Hamburg already has a ship welcoming station which plays the anthems of Liberia and Panama multiple times daily, because so many ships carry their flags). Moreover, we visited the seaman’s club in Venice that takes care of seamen on cruise ships. We know that the seaman’s club in Hamburg learned from their colleagues in Venice that seaman on cruise ships are also in need of help. That wasn’t clear to them before.

In Lagos we were able to see the informal trade between Hamburg, and in this case, Nigeria. Therefore, at Free Port Baakenhöft we introduced the African Terminal. Newcomers in Hamburg tried, together with geheimagentur and other culture professionals, to introduce a self-organized trade between Hamburg and Gambia.

1: And what of course could not be missed in Hamburg, was a harbor museum. Actually two of them! At the harbor bar you could keep track of which documents: sketches, diagrams, calculations were needed to make the Fee Port a reality, as well as which ideas could be possibly implemented in the future. We also had an archive, the Hydrarchiv, which was first and foremost a place of veneration. In the process of making the project we quickly learned that we weren’t the first to deal with Hamburg’s waters. Hydrarchiv, which was developed together with "cultures of the metropolis" students of Hafencity Unicersity, was a collection of other projects. A lot of single initiatives, from autonomous bathing clubs to the Schaluppe project. The funny thing is that when you propose a plan to the HPA, they say "impossible, it has never happened, will never happen". Collecting all of these projects, we wanted Hydrarchiv to show that this is not the case, as well as offer a source of inspiration to dare others to go on the water. The Free Port was consciously not called Free Port, because the port is always understood as a point of connection, a place of transition. The harbor, a port from hard to liquid, the airport, from land to air, the spaceport, from earth to space, or the USB port, from hardware to software. Free Port needed to be called Free Port, to mark the transition point between one mode to the other, physically manifested in the gangway.

2: The HPA in particular did not want to permit the gangway. The Baakenhafen interested us as a place because it is seemingly the last harbor whose future has not been determined, planned or invested in. Furthermore, its near to the city, and has a special history.

1: It was the site of the Africa-terminal, the main trading hub for German colonialism. Bremerhaven is also important, but Baakenhafen is the port from which the colonial troops were shipped from to quash the uprising in Herero. A place full of violence, exploitation, and horror. Now there is this huge empty hall, the "Kakaospeicher". This would have made an ideal place to deal with this chapter in history. This, of course, provided the foundation and impetus to build the African Terminal here—which also functioned as a research center for post-colonialism.

N: What a rare occurrence to stumble on an undeveloped area in the city! I keep asking myself whether it would not need a legal basis to justify it? The commons, for instance, space that belongs to everybody but also needs to be cultivated by everybody. Basically, a third form of territory, aside from private and public. A space that is open for discussion. Everyone that wants to produce this space would be a discussion partner. What are your thoughts on this?

2: For us it was explicitly about water as public space. Water should be a space that belongs to everybody and no one. That’s why it should stay in public (meaning state) hands. From New York we took exactly this question: Why isn’t water treated like parks? Which possibilities do we, as neighbors, have to access water for free? Why is there no talk and planning about how we can use the water together? This is bothersome, especially because there are places like Baakenhafen, that’s decommissioned. Nothing happens there, there is barely a road, let alone a abandoned one, but you are not allowed to play there! Especially in a period where the harbor doesn’t have much monetary relevance for the city anymore, we should ask ourselves if it shouldn’t become, at least partially, und public ownership. This is not impossible, just take a look at Amsterdam.

1: We are arguing that public space should be treated as such. This should act as a reminder to those within the city to reassess their own demands. We are happy to help them satisfy the public’s demands, whether they want to or not.

3: It is intact absurd how much public funding we spent to make this supposedly public space public again. This brings us to the problem of the HPA, which ought to be a municipal, public office, but which acts like a private company.

1: Exactly, the Free Port was an immanent "bürgerliches Unterfangen" (civic undertaking).


2: Within the brief period that the Free Port existed revealed that we, collectively, need to establish an alternative harbor now. It is needed and would be used immediately, and there are already actors, like Das Archipel or Schaluppe, that would do so. However, we cannot generate the profits a container terminal does. Our bitter conclusion is that, after three years, we were tired of fighting the HPA. The only reason we were able to fight so long is because none of us have a boat, instead we were able to flee the scorched earth behind us without any personal damage. However, breaking ties with the HPA is not an option for others, like Das Archipel.

1: Ah, I wasn’t that frustrated in the end. I am happy with what all came out of it—to see so many different people work collectively towards one thing, like the pier for example. We built, talked, danced, and swam—the continuum we cultivated was incredibly liberating! I know it was temporary and against massive resistance, but for that brief moment…

2: People from here, Mumbai, Belgrade, Venice, California and so on. People with such different experiences were brought together and were able to enjoy being in a real alternative harbor, and to think about such alternative harbors of course.

3: And I think you said in an interview there, that this building together makes it possible to practically learn cooperation. It makes this possibility visible.

N: (Laughing) Thanks for quoting me.