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Low Bros Trerstrasse 61 CityLeaks 2013 | © Robert Winter
Low Bros Trerstrasse 61 CityLeaks 2013 | © Robert Winter

CityLeaks Festival: The Urban Art Biennale Reinterpreting Public Space

Picture of Henry Oliver
Updated: 28 December 2016
Once every two years Cologne’s streets and walls are transformed by artists from all over the world, in a festival of urban art that causes its citizens to reevaluate the way they interpret the urban space around them. This is CityLeaks, an urban artistic NGO organized by Cologne-based art association artrmx e.V.. The festival features a vast array of artistic forms and genres including installations, large-scale wall paintings, urban hacking and dance, through which artists play with the characteristics and roles of the spatial diversity that builds the urban cosmos. Gathering over 40 artists from around the world, previous editions have featured a global selection of street artists including ARYZ, Axel Void and BLU. We spoke to festival curator Georg Barringhaus to learn more about the festival and its effect on Cologne’s burgeoning Urban Art scene.

How long has the festival been running for? What inspired its creation?

CityLeaks is a biennale with its first edition taking place in September 2011. One of the essential incentives to create this platform was to oppose the commercialisation of public spaces and to support the growth of the global urban art scene. As the title already states in its reference to Wikileaks, there was also a political motivation behind the program’s launch. CityLeaks is convinced of the political power of art. Furthermore, the public space in Cologne is quite poor. We have a lot of low quality architecture in the city and public art that is missing colour and substance.


Tell us a bit about the contemporary art scene in Cologne. Has it seen a surge in growth recently or does it have a more culturally significant place in the city’s history?

Cologne has a long tradition of promoting and selling contemporary art. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the European metropole for art business. Cologne still has a lot of galleries, some of which are actually from that time, but today art is being dealt elsewhere (e.g. London, Miami, Sao Paulo). Today’s contemporary art scene is still interesting though. Besides the galleries there are two annual art fairs, the famous Ludwig Museum, and art associations and foundations such as the Kölner Kunstverein. Another contributing factor is Cologne’s School for media arts (KHM, Kölner Hochschule für Medien), which helps to bring young talented artists through Cologne’s art scene. Then of course, there is the recent development in urban contemporary art. As well as the CityLeaks urban art biennale there are further galleries dedicated solely to urban/street art and graffiti (Ruttkowski;68, Die Kunstagentin, 30Works, ArtyFarty Gallery). Seeing the festival, the art fair, and the galleries bloom, you might even say Cologne is on course to be one of the epicentres of Europe’s urban art scene.

Berlin is known as one of if not the greatest city in the world for urban art – does Cologne attract many of the same internationally renowned artists the likes of Invader, Banksy or Shepard Fairey, and if not do you think it will in the future?

Cologne is not yet that attractive. The galleries mentioned above curate their shows on an international level but the city itself is so tiny, it still needs to garner reputation before reaching that stage.


Tell us about the alternate forms of installation to the traditional mural being showcased at City Leaks.

CityLeaks conceives the notion of urban art from a rather broad perspective, one which includes all forms of art that take place in public space or are somehow related to it. The kinds of installations now go by the term ‘urban artistic intervention’. The festival includes pieces from performance arts, video/media and digital arts (e.g. video mapping), urban hacking, installation art and poetry (and obviously muralism & graffiti).

With this variety of artistic forms we are capable of intervening in all kinds of urban spaces and architecture – it doesn’t have to be a facade, it can be a plaza, a park, a bridge or even the street itself. We are able to showcase an abundance of artists and forms in order to address a variety of topics and issues.

Hackings and performances can be way more direct and aggressive in their impact on the spectator than a mural. Art as a unique experience is something hard to obtain by presenting merely visual art. This becomes even more prominent when we get back to the political dimension of urban art. As the digitalisation of our world progresses, so too does the importance and relevance of digital and media art.

What is the festival’s balance between unknown or emerging artists and established ones? Does it aim to promote new talent?

CityLeaks works with both emerging and established artists. The global urban art scene is incredibly rich with artists and concepts and the emergence of new artists gets bigger and faster every year. A festival should always be a platform where the visitor learns something new and gets to know new up-and-coming artists and art forms as well as giving new names a chance to enjoy new experiences and progress, a chance for them to get in touch with the ‘elders’ if you like.

Besides that we work with open calls in the fields of performance and urban hacking. It’s a powerful tool in art education and it helps us to reach one of the festival goals – to empower and engage people into interacting with their urban environment.

In what ways do you think urban art is capable of transforming the notion of public space?

Urban art certainly changes people’s perception of public space. It becomes ‘communicative/discursive’, a space in which identities, messages, social and political concepts are exposed and commented on. A living city and, in a broader context, society itself needs discussion about relevant issues. In times of informational abundance the artist can help to define the relevance of certain topics, and citizens can use public space as a ‘message board’ of sorts.

Above all, urban art changes the visual appearance of public space, especially in times of its over-commercialisation.

Could you explain some of the styles and influences of traditional art incorporated by its urban sibling?

So many traditional art forms have an influence on today’s urban art scene. It’s almost impossible to begin to evaluate but let me just drop some connections (perhaps some artists would not see the connections in their work but an art historian would do). Appropriation art has a huge influence on how urban hackers use materials and objects. Dadaism is relevant for urban hackers and performers. Expressionism, too, can be found in the work of so many abstract muralists. Pop Art is everywhere in urban art and the stencil as a tool of mass reproduction is a classic tool of today’s urban art. This topic is actually a very interesting field of study for me.


What does the future hold for the festival?

We are now beginning to conceptualise the next biennale. Recent editions have had huge line-ups and frameworks of programs, which has brought the festival crew to a near collapse at times. With this in mind we might shorten the program a little and focus on fewer, bigger projects. We are also planning on intensifying our European collaborations. Since 2013 we’ve been working on a European network that might help to tap into some more substantial EU funds and help to create a European platform for urban art.


CityLeaks is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s Cologne Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.