Rarely has the cultural landscape of Berlin in the 21st Century undergone an earthquake of such magnitude as the one currently shaking its structures. Already influenced by the rightward shift of the German funding system, and confirmed by the ongoing posture of unconditional loyalty to the Israeli state by Germany as an alleged measure to prevent anti-Semitism, Berlin and its cultural institutions are confronted with a turning point concerning the status of historical narratives and the role that cultural production occupies within them. This shift was made visible in a power move advocated by Senator Joe Chialo, that would force cultural institutions and individuals to comply with a highly controversial definition of anti-Semitism by means of a funding clause that from now until further notice is off the table.
For the Berlin-based community of artists, activists, and cultural practitioners advocating for Palestine and freedom of speech, the epicenter of this upheaval is the decision of the Berlin Senat to revoke funding from the cultural center Oyoun, a move triggered by its refusal to cancel an event organized by the Göttingen Peace Prize-winning non-profit NGO, Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. This decision by the Cultural Senat has become a flashpoint, exposing the latent tension between competing paradigms of freedom of expression and diversity in Berlin's cultural sphere. This divide manifests through critical events that have been supported by Berlin-based artists and researchers such as Zoë Claire Miller, Candice Breitz, Emilia Roig, Mojisola Adebayo, Lucas Febraro, and Dr. Anna-Esther Younes along with international figures, such as the writer and journalist Naomi Klein. An open letter that presently has more than fourteen thousand signatures of cultural workers from different disciplines is circulating, among with other concerted actions. Oyoun has decided to challenge the measures imposed upon it using legal means and with support by the law firm Myrsini Laaser. An urgent mobilization of the artistic community has managed to raise more than 80,000 euros for this action on Oyun’s behalf.
Elisa Fuenzalida, along with Louna Sbou, director of Oyoun, delves into the emerging forms of institutionality that Oyoun represents at this crossroads in Berlin's cultural history.
On which premises was Oyoun originally supported by Berlin’s Senat?
Freedom of artistic expression is usually highly regarded, and may offer a more accessible path to the exploration of otherwise marginalized perspectives. However, despite Berlin’s self-proclaimed cosmopolitanism, there is a distinct lack of intersectional, BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) led cultural institutions. This drove us, united by a sense of feeling deserted by the gender, racial, immigration, class, and cultural politics of the Western democracy we call home, whether by choice, luck or force, to found be’kech, a small co-working and cultural neighborhood café in a working-class area. Soon it became a home for minoritized perspectives across a neighborhood undergoing gentrification. Later, we realized the need to scale up. We won a public tender and took over the former brewery building in Berlin’s heavily gentrified district of Neukölln, also home to the largest migrant population in the city. Together with the collectives in our network and beyond we revived this space for us, by us, and, hence, broadened pluralistic discourse across local and international themes. This was the beginning of Oyoun.
Oyoun launched in 2020, and secured funding and support from the Berlin Senat, along with third-party funders such as the European Union, the Robert Bosch and Heinrich Böll Foundations, the German Foreign Office, and the German Federal Culture Foundation, among others.The Senate’s decision to back the project stemmed from its dedication to fostering queer*feminist and diasporic cultural diversity, a commitment rooted in the recognition of the urgent need for more inclusive and representative cultural expressions in Berlin and beyond.
The announcement of the initial funding round in November 2019 saw the Senator for Culture, Dr. Klaus Lederer, praising the Kultur NeuDenken UG collective for presenting an original and professional concept. The concept outlined a space that not only offers artistic excellence in the realms of migrant, diasporic, decolonial, queer*feminist, and class-critical perspectives, but also serves as a meeting point for neighborhood initiatives and communities. Dr. Lederer emphasized the excellence, originality, and professionalism of Oyoun's concept, making their selection in the tender an easy decision.
Oyoun’s mission involves conceiving, developing, and implementing artistic-cultural projects through decolonial, queer*feminist, and migrant perspectives. Since its opening, its programs have served as a platform for critical debate that might not naturally occur elsewhere, as well as reflective experimentation, and transnational solidarity, as Oyoun facilitates dialogue between local, national, and international voices on an artistic level, bridging actors including civil society communities and representatives from culture and politics.
Can you describe the structural aspects of this economic support?
The economic support we received was initially structured as a 2-year funding cycle (2020-2021) and extended to a 4-year funding cycle (2022-2025) aimed at covering operational costs, including program curation, community outreach, and maintaining our physical space. This funding was crucial in enabling us to host a wide range of cultural events and support artists from diverse backgrounds.
What is the motive or clause from which the Senat grounds its withdrawal?
There has been significant public discourse linking the loss of funding to our hosting of the event by the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East on November 4th, 2023. On November 6th, 2023, the Culture Senator, Joe Chialo, mentioned the review of our funding as a result of the event with the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, as is audible in the recording of the 25th meeting of the Committee for Culture, Engagement and the Promotion of Democracy on the sixth of November in the Berlin House of Representatives. Additionally, in response to questions submitted by a member of the main committee, Dr. Manuela Schmidt, Berlin’s State Secretary for Culture, Sarah Wedl-Wilson explicitly mentions the event of November 4th with Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East as the cause for their inspections and review of funding.
After the backlash, and suggestions that the Senator’s decision was itself based on anti-Semitism (while accusing the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East of anti-Semitism), he now claims the funding was simply to “expire” at the end of 2023.
We are currently seeking clarity on these reasons, as they seem to conflict with our understanding of the agreement. However, all attempts to have a conversation or dialogue have been ignored by the Senator and his administration.
What are the legal and symbolic implications of challenging the funding cutoff through court?
Legally, challenging this decision involves questioning the administrative processes and justifications for the withdrawal. Symbolically, it represents a stand for the rights of cultural institutions to operate free from abrupt and unexplained changes in funding policies. It’s a fight for transparency and fairness in cultural funding.
With the abrupt funding cut by Berlin’s Cultural Senate in December 2023, all of us at Oyoun were confronted with the inherent insecurity of institutionalization, which we were all already aware of. This prompted us to imagine alternative ways of sustaining our work. These pathways will inevitably continue to linger within our organizational structure in the future as well.
With the city’s project funding constituting the major part of our annual budget since January 2020, Oyoun has been functioning as an intermediary between individuals and initiatives from different marginalized communities and state, public, and private institutions. We are the only organization running a state-owned building without institutional funding. Obviously the possibility of a sudden funding cut was always there. We were always grassroots, but at the same time, we were very close to being an institution.
As my colleague Dami Choi has said:
Becoming institutionalized comes with dehumanization — tokenism, censorship, reductionism, and a potential for stigmatization. It might offer stability, for a while, but not security. This is the case not only in a few corners of the non-profit sector, but in most socio-politically oriented and artistic and culturally concerned organized movements, initiatives, and projects.
I’d add that this would be even more the case if the organization is run by and centering marginalized bodies.
As a member of the Oyoun team enduring the current situation, it is inspiring to encounter works like The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (edited by INCITE! (2017)).  It is illuminating to once more recognize and criticize the capitalistic (hence naturally patriarchal and colonial) habits, intra-community tension, and the exhaustion that such a hostile funding environment brings about. Knowledge shared in the book gives me the courage to imagine scenarios and options beyond it. It is essential to dream of an autonomous, collaborative, resistant, and sustainable model of work.
More than ever, we must stay vigilant against the system’s inevitable tendency to institutionalize effective grassroots movements. We must be aware of the inherent precariousness that institutionalization entails. Equally, we should not cease to demand the system to transform and for the institutions to care. Organizations close to institutions should continue to exist to serve the community and to secure, albeit temporarily, the momentum to reclaim our place in this society. We must insist to the system that it’s their job to worry about our labor being paid.
Looking back, what were the problematic aspects of the relationship between Oyoun and the Berlin administration from the beginning? Was there any form of contractualization around anti-Semitism and Israel that you needed to sign beforehand?
From the beginning, our relationship with the Berlin administration has been marked by bureaucratic challenges. Conditions from the previous structure of the Werkstatt der Kulturen had to be carried over, including unlimited employment contracts, which now present us with unexpected financial challenges. This situation underscores the complexity of the situation we face, and the need for constructive dialogue with all parties involved, especially the SenatKGZ. These issues have sometimes hindered our ability to operate smoothly.
The “Landeskonzept zur Weiterentwicklung der Antisemitismus Prävention”, including the non-binding Anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction) resolution, has been part of the grant notice. There has been no breach nor cases of anti-Semitism reported to our Awareness Team or to “AGG-Stelle”.
What does the community need to know in the event that a similar situation happens to them, and how can people support you?
Other cultural institutions or funded projects should be aware of the importance of clear, detailed, and written agreements with funding bodies, as well as the importance of regular, non-digital, communication, and they should prepare for unexpected changes in funding policies.
The community can support us by continuing to spread awareness. Keep demanding freedom of speech and expression in the cultural landscape, and, above all, for the the de-linking of politics from funding. Your solidarity is crucial during this challenging time.
What have you learned about the current status of institutionality and about what institutions could be? From where do you see such transformations emerging?
This situation has taught us much about the fragility and the potential of institutionality. We see a need for more resilient, transparent, and inclusive structures in the cultural sector. The transformation, we believe, should come from both grassroots initiatives and from policy-level changes.
As we navigate through the appeals process, our primary goal is to continue serving our community to the best of our ability. We are actively exploring alternative funding sources and collaborations to sustain our operations. This period, while undoubtedly challenging, also presents an opportunity for innovation and community engagement. Even if we end up losing the physical space, we are committed to holding spaces otherwise, all while remaining active and vibrant, focusing on smaller-scale, community-driven contributions that align with our mission.
Several projects are still awaiting us at Oyoun in 2024. It seems like the house we’ve had would not be there anymore and our team will have to disperse. But, as in our slogan, we are more than a house, more than one form of operation. The Senate’s funding withdrawal can never annihilate us. Through our current struggle, we hope to find each other in our communities, and in our solidarity, more desperately than ever.
The cultural Berlin system, inherently, owes us.
Parts of this interview are excerpts from the previously published „Curation as community work in a hostile funding context“, a text by curator Dami Choi written as Oyoun’s contribution for the project School of Commons.
 The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, edited by INCITE!, Republished by Duke University Press, 2017.
Cover: Untitled. (Facade of Oyoun, 2023). Photo by Queer Analog Darkroom. Courtesy of Oyoun.