A Hotel Room for the Price of a Song?

This hotel has a gym, a spa and a private movie theater. There is even original art on the walls. The description indicates luxury accommodation, a five-star resort at the very least. But the cost to stay here is bargain basement: €3, €10 or €15 a night. And this hotel is certainly more adventurous than your average five-star palace: Because, if they wish to, guests can choose to pay for their stay by holding a reading, concert or dance.

The director of this Stuttgart hotel is Byung Chul Kim, who originally hails from Korea. He looks young: His sneakers, jeans and hoodie don't quite match the gray hair, or his 36 years. And the Korean artist has already caused an uproar in Stuttgart: He once lived in the shop window of a pet store for a week, offering himself as a house pet to anyone willing to pay €1,200. "It would have been a good investment," says German video and performance artist Christian Jarnowski, whose work has previously featured at the Venice Biennale and who tutors Kim at a Stuttgart art school. "We will be hearing from him."

Kim studied Western painting in Seoul and has been enrolled at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design, one of the biggest art schools in Germany, since 2005. Kim is a conceptual artist but he is also a hotel manager. And as such, he runs a "performance hotel" that is, if not the first of its kind, then certainly the only one in Germany. The deal is: Whoever puts on a performance may spend the night for free.

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Charming and Inventive Décor

Kim has turned one of the rooms into a gym with an old bike that he has converted into a stationery exercycle. In the pink bathroom, visitors will find a television opposite the toilet. It shows a looped video of local sculptor Kestutis Svirnelis, sitting, pushing and sweating. "It helps," Kim notes.

The art work hanging over the toilet is even more direct. It is a mirror with a pair of scissors stuck to it, an indirect threat to those masculine patrons who don't follow standard procedure in Germany and take a seat to urinate. In the backyard there is a bathtub, sitting atop a pile of rubbish. The garden hose can be used to fill the tub up, and the water can then be warmed by setting a fire underneath the bathtub. But this location -- which doubles as a private cinema -- only becomes truly romantic at night, when films are projected onto the white exterior wall of the neighboring house.

The rest of the décor is equally charming. The curtains are pink, neon yellow and camouflage print, beer bottles make for quaint candleholders and the wallpaper has been hand printed with animal patterns. There are only two bedrooms, one with a couch and the other with colorful mattresses -- no bed frames and plenty of room for sleeping bags and camping mats in between. In this hotel, the customer is not always king. Here the customer is an artist.

Lofty Thoughts, Wild Dances and Sculptural Performances

The hotel is located in East Stuttgart, in a more old fashioned and provincial part of the city -- the sort of place one might see two old ladies tottering around, umbrellas up, as though they were in silent, black and white film. Or another man polishing the bumper on his Mercedes with kitchen towels. This is not the sort of area in which you expect to find such an unusual hotel.

Built in the 19th century, the house was first used for viticulture. Today it is a motley and colorful place, plastered with posters. The evening program for the hotel is written up on a white sheet of paper. Tonight's program is supposed to start at 8p.m.

The show begins slowly, and it's a little embarrassing. An English author, who lives nearby, reads a smattering of his lofty thoughts about love, the soul and death. A dancer bends and winds her body, crying and howling, then beating her fists against the door. A sculptor waves some strange object over the heads of the first row. Squashed together on mattresses on the floor, about 30 audience members sit through it all with serious faces. Nobody smiles but then neither are they leaving.

Bedtime Punk Concert

Kim films the proceedings with one hand and sometimes takes photographs with the other. Occasionally he does both at the same time. His objective is to build up an archive of performances. Twenty-five 60-minute tapes are already full. After the performance, Kim fills out coupons for the three performers because none of them are sleeping over tonight. Only Ralph and Frederick Fuller, twin brothers from London, want to avail of the accommodation. Earlier this evening they were at a Stuttgart gallery, then they were drinking at a local pub -- a pub they would like to get back to as soon as possible.

But they want to pay for their accommodation before they go out again -- with a little "good night concert" as they call it. So they put together a drum set and plug in an electric guitar and a dozen synthesizers. It's the same thing they usually do when they tour clubs with their experimental punk band Kurtz. Only this time the venue is a tiny bedroom and every second member of the audience looks sleepy. "Stick your fingers in your ears," they instruct the audience -- and two chords later, every person in the room is doing exactly that. It's a bizarre scene. Nobody will be drifting off to sleep anytime soon.

The Beginnings of an Alternative Economy

The hotel opened for business in the summer of 2009 and will shut up shop in summer 2010. That is when the city of Stuttgart plans to tear down the building, which stood empty for years before it was handed over to the Stuttgart arts academy for use as part of a temporary arts project. That project is called "District_East" and Kim's hotel is the center point for activities. "There was hardly any culture in the east of Stuttgart and I wanted to get something started here," Kim explains. The hotel is supposed to be a catalyst for artistic developments as well as the beginnings of an alternative economy: The exchange of two transitory items -- a fleeting artistic performance for an overnight stay.

Ever since Kim had first come to Stuttgart back in 2005 he had lived in the same studio in which he worked -- and the place was not all that well heated. Which is why he jumped at the chance, when his course leader at the art school asked him if he wanted to act as a custodian of the old house. He now lives there rent free.

And the idea of turning the place into a performance hotel came to him soon afterwards. "It was more than just a house to me, it was a luxury hotel. A luxury hotel I was allowed to live in because I am a performer," he says. So why shouldn't other performers also be allowed to live in the house? He thought. "I am also a guest," Kim notes. "I am constantly performing: a cleaning performance, a shopping performance, a performance abut service."

A Month's Worth of the Performing Chambermaid

He flips through the guest book, which all visitors sign regardless of whether they paid for their stay with money or with a performance. He recalls the performing guests best. An unemployed Spaniard who played the bongos. An Italian who lived here for a week with his local girlfriend and left behind three drawings. A homeless actor who stayed for two weeks, writing a novel and gave readings every night. A Berliner who didn't want to stay overnight but just wanted to use the bathroom -- she would sing in the shower.

On one occasion an unemployed Stuttgart woman, who couldn't afford her apartment anymore, called up and asked if she could stay for a whole month. She had no money, nor did she have any ideas for a performance. "What can you do well?" Kim asked her. Her reply: She was good at cleaning. So for a month she put on a chambermaid performance. "It was always nice and clean," Kim says. "And yes, it was art." Everyday art, just like the BBQ that one group of travelers threw to pay for their stay.

At the moment there are only a hundred names in the guestbook, seven months after the grand opening. "Most people think that they can't perform," Kim says. "They don't trust their own abilities." But all that matters is doing what you are good at, thoughtfully and with love. "Then it all becomes a performance."

A Business Model for Troubled Times

The best way to understand Kim's approach is to watch a video shown in the hotel's gym: It is a documentation of one of his performances named: "I Want to Ride my Bicycle." Kim is seen wandering through Rotterdam collecting parts of broken bicycles until he has enough to build himself a bike and ride away on it. "With a little love, anyone could do it," he says. It is a statement of intent about his art practice that reminds one of the performance artist and sculptor Joseph Beuys, who is now regarded as one of the most influential artists of last century: Beuys said that everyone was an artist as long as they thought and acted like one.

Who knows? If the idea catches on, Kim's hotel could soon be booked out. Because if you think about it, this style of lodging is perfect for business trips during the financial crisis. After their appointments the cash-strapped businesspeople could earn their overnight stay here, perhaps with a display of the art of knotting a tie, a PowerPoint performance or a demonstration of suit and shirt ironing skills. All done with love and dedication, of course.