Some people thought it was a mistake when they received the empty envelope. They called up the sender, the city of Halberstadt, to be told that this envelope was indeed their invitiation to the opening of “Discover the vo d”. The callers had interpreted the void as the absence of something and they wanted to fill that empty envelope, just as one automatically fills in the missing letters of the exhibition title. The invitation had triggered the mental process which the exhibition was exploring.
People in Halberstadt, a small town in the picturesque Harz region in Eastern Germany are experienced void fillers. A woman, who was only a baby on April 8, 1945, when allied bombers destroyed 82% percent of the medieval inner city, told me that she was raised on tales of this invisible city of the past. Wandering around the ruins, relatives would recount to her every lost building, street corner, flagstone. She grew up with a very clear picture of houses and streets that didn´t exist anymore and she shared this vision with the people around her. Even today, the dials of the big clock on the tower of Martini Church are permanently stuck at 11.28 a.m., the moment desaster struck 67 years ago.
To get Halberstadt unstuck from viewing emptiness in their city solely as a traumatic loss was the focus of the International Building Exhibition (IBA) Urban Redevolpment Saxony-Anhalt. An amibitous IBA team made up of members of the city council, town planners, architects, cultural scientists and a scenographer (my former business partner Detlef Weitz) set out to cultivate alternative attitudes towards empty spaces. In a long process involving many different local individuals and groups, they identified and analysed different forms of emptiness and explored mulitple uses of empty space in the town. They succeeded in not filling the empty spaces with buildings, but with new meaning.
When we were commissioned to present the results of this process in a final exhibition in the derelict municipal swimming baths, we not only wanted to show the visitor what had happened during the IBA years. Our aim was to show emptiness itself. Thus, we projected a walk-in videoinstallation unto the floor of the empty swimming pool, just like the people had projected their lost city unto the empty spaces of the destroyed city.
Giving something as abstract as empty space a form, is one way of communicating it, to invite people to experience emptiness for themselves is another. On postcards that could be collected in the exhibition, visitors were asked to visit “empty” places in Halberstadt and go through a series of simple exercises to help them feel emptiness for themselves. Please feel free to adapt these exercises to your personal surroundings and let us know how it felt.