When we first got started in Berlin we had the pleasure of being introduced to Leah Stuhltrager, the outspoken, confident founder of The Wye; a creative agency and event production company once held in the iconic post office building on Skalitzerstrasse. Leah is a women who’s blatant honestly and unapologetic opinions are not only refreshing but much needed, especially in the realm of creative industries and production where these qualities are not often to be found.  Now, The Wye has moved on from their initial space to find greener pastures, in particular, combining art with tech and focusing on internationalisation, connecting people world-wide. We sat down with her in her home to discuss how she started in Berlin, what’s she’s up to now and (almost) everything in between.

F: Tell us a bit about how you started in Berlin. 

L: I actually started in Brooklyn and I had a gallery in Williamsburg before Williamsburg was ‘Williamsburg’. I came here in 2009 and I came here because the market changed. Brick and mortar (which is what they call physical spaces ) were not getting  traffic in the art world, so you were no longer selling art from a gallery space but you were selling it from art fairs or online or pre-selling, or doing it in more contemporary means than from a gallery that people would walk into off the street. So I decided that I was selling a decent amount of art but that I wanted to get better opportunities for my artists and in 2009 the  bubble burst. The market crashed and it was a really rough financial  year in the States, so people were definitely not buying as many luxury items. So, I decided to take my operating budget and divide it around the world and I decided to come to Berlin.

We started with maybe about 500-700 square feet (about 45-65 square metres) and we were on Alexanderplatz where German Wasted Youth were and many others – it changed both before and after us. Then we moved to Fichtestraßewhich I still have, and we became 1500q feet – which is maybe 140 square metres, and from there we started looking at how to get even bigger and better and more opportunities because we did better business here in Germany than we did in the States.
What we noticed was that there was nothing in Berlin like what we were doing this when when we started this in 2010. There were no accelerated programs, no start-ups or incubators programs, no co-working other than Betahaus, and we were really one of the early ones. We decided that we didn’t want to be a place that was making money or modelled after a landlord/tenant situation, where people would make money off of the artists. We thought that was really a wrong way to go, so we rented a giant building and basically curated it with the top talent in Berlin. We provided the basic hard-costs, so we didn’t make money of that. I built the business with my two co-founders of the Wye to basically support all of the art community of all different fields and related it to technology of different fields. To put all of these people together and create this magical place where networks could be developed and businesses could be developed and research could be shared and it not be built off the backs of artists. We basically did events and services separately and that’s how we made our living and that’s how we started here in Berlin. 
F: What do you think is the biggest chance that you’ve noticed in Berlin since your start here?
L: I think there’s two changes, one of which I’m really conscious of which is gentrification. I realize that I’m part of that and I have to be conscious of it and make decisions that are right for me, but also of what I want to leave behind. It’s not just of this moment. I’m proud to be in Berlin because there are some things in place, such as rent stabilisation, that aren’t in place elsewhere in the world that are actually safeguards in some way for people who aren’t coming here at this point with large amount of expendable funding from London, Paris, Tel Aviv etc… That’s one thing, but when I say that it’s also inevitable. There are a lot of horrible parts to it but it’s not a horrible future. We have to make it as good as we can and try to do right.
The second thing I see is an influx of mediocracy. There’s a million start ups – that’s an exaggeration – but there’s thousands of start-ups, there’s just too many. The amount of ones that are diamonds in rough are becoming fewer and fewer, so the ratio just  is not there. So whereas you used to maybe have ten start-ups and one was doing something interesting and meaningful, you now have a thousand start ups with one doing something interesting and meaningful, and in general it’s still the same people as it’s always been. This influx has just created, in a way, a duplicate or replicate or copy of the most extreme, mass quantity of mediocrity. 
F: What has changed in Brooklyn (in comparison to Berlin) ? 
L: People get really down on Brooklyn. Like, the people of my generation of Brooklyn and I’m forty – I’m not a college kid at this point. They basically went to Williamsburg, Brooklyn because it wasn’t Manhattan and there wasn’t affordability in New York City anymore. It’s not so much gentrification but the one thing that makes me kind of sad is that it would be very, very hard to experiment or be creative with the same kind of freedoms that I had, just ten years ago. When we first got our gallery, our rent was like six-hundred dollars and there was two of us in our storefront in Williamsburg. We had about a thousand square feet and a thousand square foot backyard, and it went up to like four-grand so I wouldn’t be able to be eighteen, nineteen, twenty (years-old).. wanting to have a gallery and wanting to show art because I fucking love it  – not because it’s going to sell and be hung over somebody’s couch. I got into things I really loved, which is art and tech and I don’t know if you were starting as a twenty or twenty-one year old how you would come up with the capital to start if you were an ordinary or regular person with a passion. This has made it really difficult to do things out of passion, not just out of need.
F: What kind of advice do you have for people who are putting on events in Berlin?
L: Originality. Getting out of their bubble. I get quoted a lot of the time and I get boo’d, but it’s okay because I’m just going to say it. There’s this design-thinking that’s very big in Berlin right now as far as strategies of companies and events. It is the worst. It perpetuates people talking and doing nothing, and getting stuck in situations that are just circular with absolutely no foundation and no end result at all.
F: What kind of events do you mean?
L: I mean everything. I mean from government sponsored events, to music events to tech events to cultural events (which I think are the worst, even the museum events here are the worst) they’re just not up to par.
F: What were you most impressed by this year in Berlin?
L: I’m trying to think of a really good answer and all that’s coming to mind is I’m glad that they have roller-skating at SO36 now. Hm, something I liked in Berlin.. this is awful.. something I loved this year is Angela Merkel.
F: What’s your least favourite thing you’ve experienced?
L: Can I be honest? This was not this year, but Art Parasites. The naked person in the picture at Art Parasites… They went through this thing when they would write about all the art shows and they would pose a naked person with all the art shows and do the story. That was their thing. That was so bad, it was utterly offensive to me as actually bringing down even the lowest caliber of what Berlin is considered to be. 
F: What draws you to connecting art and technology?
L: I think that we’d be really naive to think that we are living in an age that will be the same and we have to understand and not at only at what the technology is and how it works but  to look at what directions it’s going and what the possibilities are and what innovation  really is at it’s heart. When we talk about art and technology we talk about people who create things, who are innovative and makes things exist that did not before, whether that’s through a paradigm or something else. To me that’s creative; when you take the art end and people that are using things and making things that really reflect today’s society and making things from scratch that didn’t previously exist. Things that are most interesting to me are things that reflect our society, which isn’t  painting and drawing anymore – in my opinion. I don’t see the difference between a really cutting edge, excellent, creator or artist who uses technology and an excellent amazing person who works in technology and creates or develops things differently. To me the differences between the two fields are getting fewer and fewer. The merging of that is in creative thinking and technology.
F: Is there something in the future of technology that you’re looking forward to?
L: Scared and excited for AI (Artificial Intelligence).
F: Do you think that technology is making us more isolated and anti-social or do you think it’s connecting us more?
L: I think, again I’m going to show my age, we didn’t have computers when I was growing up. We knew who’s house everyone was at. I grew up in Philly. There was just a lot of bikes in the yard, you know? I grew up with everyone’s doors being open and everyone having day-in and day-out fun in the street. That’s how I grew up and I’m very thankful for that. These days the parameters are very different, I don’t think it’s good or bad. I think it’s a changing world and we build on the shoulders of giants. Hopefully the generations that are coming in to be the CEO’s and people in power are going to make decisions and learn from previous mistakes. I don’t think you can say if it’s less or more social because there’s a different understanding of what that means. It’s just different and it’s changed. It’s not the same world.
F: When you mentioned growing up in Pottstown in Philadelphia, can you tell us about Art Club?
L: No..[Laughter] You mean like in my high school? I was a punk-rock girl. I was in high-school and first of all you might not believe this but I was a rebel. I actually graduated from an alternative learning school. There were all the misfits, all the punk rockers, all the metal heads.. I forget if we had to join a club or what but I think we had to join a club, so we all joined art club. Once a year we would paint windows on High St. We would just get together and do different painting  and I think it was mostly males and me.
F: What’s Cyberfest?
L: I started with Cyberfest back in 2007. It started in Russia. It was the biggest art and tech event in Russia. It was held in St. Petersburg  in venues across the city. When Russia’s politics started to change a bit the people that were in charge asked me to come in for a bit of internationalisation to show what Russian culture was, which was different than what people were seeing on television or the international media. They wanted to get opportunities for Russian artists to engage with people in other parts of the art world. in 2012 was the first year that we brought it outside of Russia, to Berlin, and we had over ten thousand people visit. it was a huge success. We were both really happy with how it turned out and in 2013 we ended up in 4 cities including Tokyo, and this year we’ve done Berlin, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bogota and we’re headed into New York and London. I may be forgetting one, but I’m exhausted. 
F: Is there anything else you’re looking forward to doing in 2016?
L: One thing I’m really looking forward to is Convergence.I’m also excited to work on the visual art program of Convergence which is a big art and tech event in London that I’m super honoured to be involved in. It’s held at Truman’s Brewery and Village Underground and Barbican and a few other places. It has a lot of music and they’re really trying to expand their art and tech this year, so I came on as well as a few people I’ve kind of brought with me – my Berlin posse. I’m going to join forces with people there and try to make it something really unique and special.
Also, I got invited to Ireland for a week by the visual arts council of Ireland. I flew into Dublin and we went up to Belfast and we saw 150 studios, maybe. It was like a marathon. One thing that really stuck with me is that there’s a lot of really good video art and film being done. I mean, really good, exceptional. So I asked them if they would be interested in putting together a collection of Irish video art and combining it with Cyberfest possibility or putting it out into the rest of the world. I think that there aren’t that many Irish being put out there. Actually, there are very few countries that are represented in the art world, so I think that has to change. 
More info about The Wye here.