frieLand – A Community of People Keeping Potsdam Alive

by fanis kollias

When you hear ‘Greece,’ what city comes to mind? Athens. When you hear ‘England’? London. Germany? Berlin. Those responses are totally natural, since everything happens in the capitals. However, here, I’ll talk to you about a city, and especially about its people, which I suspect you don’t know much about.

From nearly a month, I explored chilly Potsdam, which is about 30 minutes outside of Berlin by train. I found myself in Potsdam for START – Create Cultural Change, and part of the programme was my cooperation with freiLand, which is located in Potsdam.

Imagine freiLand as an intersection of artists, social entrepreneurs, event organisers, and generally creative and innovative people who live together in a 12000m2 space made up of 5 large buildings.  As soon as I met the team that was responsible for the operation of freiLand, my first question was naturally about how they managed to find such a huge space.

What I heard may be a major lesson for us in Greece, since it’s linked to one of the major issues in Athens: the development of the city’s abandoned public buildings. This is the story:

Some years ago Potsdam’s branch of the national power company, the equivalent of the Greek PPC, was housed in the space, but it employed only 10 people. So, at some point they decided that they didn’t need so much space and they moved their offices.

Small parenthesis – during the same period, there was an active movement in Potsdam which resisted the local government’s insistence on not allocating space for creative expression in the city. Also, Potsdam is a fairly expensive city, with 150,000 inhabitants, and the majority of its students live in Berlin because of the high cost of living. The result is that  the elite of the city was doing creative work outside of Potsdam.

Now back to the story – this will give you goosebumps. One lovely morning, the manager of the power company called Achim and Duke and asked them the very simple question ‘Do you want the building? If so, here are the keys.’ And just like that, Achim, Duke and their movement found themselves in possession of 5 buildings with a total area of 12000m2.

Of course, the local authorities didn’t make it so simple, and it was only a matter of time before the first problems began. I won’t bore you with the details, but I can tell you that after disagreements and endless discussion, freiLand is finally operating with everyone’s agreement!

The first day that I visited, I was immediately impressed by the walls full of graffiti, which they paint every year with different designs. Here you can get a taste:

The freiLand spaces, as I said, are shared among various projects that are full time work for some and a hobby for others. From the moment I arrived, I kept hearing about a group that does screen printing. I went to meet them and speak about what they do, but if you want to learn more about what screen printing is, better to google it, since here I’ll give you only an idea through photos.

I’ll tell you a little about the team, exactly as I noted it down when I met them:

  • They can make everything, up to a certain size.
  • ‘If you want to do something perfectly, then focus on something specific’ which is why they have chosen not to do digital printing.
  • Pillowcases, pencil cases, wallets, posters, t-shirts, planners, bags, cards, earrings, and more..
  • They print alongside others who enjoy the process.
  • They also do other jobs.
  • At some point it was just a hobby, but not anymore
  • ..but you couldn’t call it ‘work’ either.
  • They’re not sure how they can make a living from screen printing.
  • They’ve been doing it for 5 years .
  • They were and continue to be part of the movement I mentioned earlier.
  • They didn’t join freiLand from the beginning, not until the question of the involvement of local authorities had been addressed.
  • They don’t plan to move out of freiLand.
  • They feel like they’re a part of the team, and have contributed a lot to set up the space
  • They don’t sell anything electronically, but only directly from their workshop where you can find everything they make.
  • They host workshops demonstrating their techniques.

Their website is here:

FreiLand is full of people like them, but also much more. You can find everything there… artists, designers, social workers, psychologists, dancers, musicians, actors, as well as event spaces, talks, seminars, performances, concerts.. It’s like a small city!

The goal of our cooperation with freiLand was the completion of a mini project which had to take shape within 6 weeks. There were a lot of ideas, but I chose to focus on studying how the creative community of the city works, and the results were quite constructive for me.

I chose this specific topic because I was especially impressed by the differences from how we work in Greece: with zero budget, the continual ‘favours’ we do for friends or for friends of our friends and so on, which means work without being paid, the lack of respect for deadlines, the inability to separate our hobbies from our work and the excessive stress.

Of course, in Greece we don’t have a monopoly on the above issues – they all exist here as well, but in a different way. No, money doesn’t fall from the sky, there are still ‘favours’ for friends, they also miss deadlines, but there is one major difference I have to admit: they know how to separate their hobbies from their work – at least the people that I met. And that alone makes the difference between Potsdam and Athens.

To be able to set boundaries for where you work ends and where your hobby begins is a whole way of life that will guide you toward setting limits on how many friends you can do favours for or by how much you can miss a deadline.

The professionalism that I encountered here in Potsdam, from people who were either working or spending time on a hobby was what led me to focus on this particular project.

So, if I learned one thing from this free country, aka freiLand, it is to set boundaries so I can achieve the best quality in my work!

Written by Fanis Kollias  |  Translated by Katherine Poseidon

photo credits: Fanis Kollias


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