If I want visitors to understand the city where I live, I take them up the TV tower. From the top there is a good overview and the city’s structure is nice and easy to read. So, the first time I was in the Ruhr region I went up a pithead tower – but I didn’t understand a thing. All I could see were hills (later, I found out these were slag heaps) and other pithead towers (later, I discovered these were museum pieces). It was pleasant, but it offered neither an overview nor insight. So from then on, I was moving through an area I did not recognise. Using a local train network that, weirdly, did not connect suburbs by travelling through the centre but connected centres by travelling through suburbs. In a car that stood still most of the time but, when it did go, the exit signs on the motorway flew past me with the names of new cities every few seconds. Or on the ICE, which had a lot of Intercity but very little Express. If I wanted to walk or cycle anywhere, I would always be told: no, it’s too far. So I ended up waiting at stops a lot of the time: stops that were near abandoned industrial complexes, stops on the edge of forests, stops between endless railway lines, stops on fields with grazing sheep, at petrol stations, bridges or directly on the motorway. I would often think: nothing is ever going to come here – this place is the end. But then something always did turn up – usually something relatively small. It drove off and, a little later, the city – or what everyone told me wasn’t a city but the Ruhr region – kept on going. Later, I actually did cycle and was amazed by the rapid changes between electric pylons and allotments, harbours and grazing land, homes and workplaces. It was an experience I made repeatedly: there is no end, it keeps on going. And I kept on feeling: I don’t understand this area.

So I tried to buy a map that showed the area. But this wasn’t so easy. There were the individual cities, the north and the south of the Ruhr region but no complete picture. Then came Google Earth, which gave me an »overview«. Finally, I could see the Ruhr region from above. How strange it looked. So jagged, so unstructured and yet actually so even. In any event, different from other urban regions. What kind of urban space is this? It’s not central, not polycentric, not linear but complex, not hierarchical but solidary? Along with many other particularities what strikes your eye at first glance is the extraordinary agglomeration of settlements that appear to be marbled at random with zones of nature and industry. As everyone knows, the Ruhr region developed out of mining and processing coal. This meant not only industrial sites and their architectural remnants, but also that the place is divided up between residential areas, nature and industry. All these areas are subordinate to the primacy of the coal and steel industry, and in between those with a specific use, intermediate areas arose whose purpose would be defined later.

How can the routes along these meeting edges become opportunities for encounters? Aljoscha Begrich

This view from above has been described repeatedly in recent years, from the perspective of urban planning, sociology and politics. Key features of the Ruhr region were identified and its particular structure characterised by the term »Ruhrbanität« (Ruhrbanity). Certain terms, such as »decentrality«, have now become part of the region’s identity, and oddities such as »polystructure« have been absorbed into how the inhabitants describe themselves. But why do people so rarely write about what holds this structure together? You can’t have a net without thread. This accumulation of villages and towns would have dissolved long ago and run away, indeed it would never have been created if they were not connected and still remain so: by tracks, paths, routes, railways, lines, rails, rivers, roads. Everything is connected. There are not just settlements, industrial sites and fields – there are also the connections between them. The traffic routes stretch across the region like an autonomous network of threads. They were generated by the need to transport people and goods. And if I look closely, I can even read the past in them. The veins that evolved out of historic paths across the fields continue to this day to form the basic structure between crystallisation points. The traditional trade route, the Hellweg, is still the central East-West axis. And routes were often not only elements linking residential and industrial areas but also elements of division, creating breaks in the landscape. Railways, waterways and stretches of asphalt connected and separated areas – and thus categorise the landscape.

Its routes are not only the basic structure but also the essence of this region: here, I can experience and understand what is so special about the region, because nowhere else in the world can I ride on a local train for hours without ever changing, take a bus along the motorway or sit in an ICE that stops every ten minutes. And at the same time this is the same region where I can cycle for miles along greenbelt without having to stop at a traffic light or wait for an hour for the next train to take me to the other part of town. The more I travel in the Ruhr region, the more it seems to me that there is no other way to understand this expanse, this non-city, this region, as to roam, walk and ride through it. I can’t climb up a TV tower here, I have to cut straight through. It’s impossible to gain an overview here from standing still. But as soon as I hit the road, I can see how multifarious the places are, the discrepancies in development and the diversity of the people. Because on public routes – even though I am travelling alone – I always have company. No matter whether I’m furtively observing young people and their codes over the top of my newspaper, conversing directly with my fellow travellers or simply suffering together with others at the stop: the experience of these routes is a communal one. And what would this area be without its people?

Experts call the inner sides, where units of space bump into each other, meeting edges. It is precisely at these edges – between fields and industrial buildings, living quarters and green spaces – that paths dissolve. How can the routes along these meeting edges become opportunities for encounters? I have been sharing this question for over a year with six local artist collectives. Because no one is better placed to speak about this area than those who are already here. The strong independent arts scene in North Rhine-Westphalia has produced a wide range of collectives and artists. I have managed to encourage some of them – Anna Kpok, loekenfranke, Stefan Schneider, Peng! Kollektiv, RUHRORTER, tehran re:public – to set off on behalf of the Ruhrtriennale and its audience. To travel routes that they have always travelled, to take a close look again and think about how it could be presented and what could be presented so that people can see what can’t be seen. Many weeks and many miles later, they invite me to cycle along empty parts of Duisburg in pouring rain, to read loose sheets of paper on crammed local trains, to download audio files at abandoned tram stops or to listen to the spoken announcements on Regionalexpress trains. An adventure begins that will continue step by step and is now waiting to meet you on the edge.


ALJOSCHA BEGRICH has been travelling around the Ruhr region for 13 years. He started working as a stage designer at Schauspielhaus Bochum in 2008, and continued from 2013 at Oper Dortmund. As the curator of Truck Tracks by Rimini Protokoll he toured numerous cities, including Recklinghausen and Mülheim, between 2015 and 2017. Since 2020, he has been a dramaturg at the Ruhrtriennale, with responsibility for interdisciplinary and site-specific projects.

 

The map material is taken from the publication: Schichten einer Region. Kartenstücke zur räumlichen Struktur des Ruhrgebiets, published by Christa Reicher, Klaus R. Kunzmann, Jan Polívka, Frank Roost, Yasemin Utku, Michael Wegener, Jovis Verlag, 2011.

Translation: David Tushingham