In the Wunschbilder project, professionals and non-artists worked together to encourage the participating refugees to find a way to express their hopes and desires. Beginning with their experiences of fleeing their countries and the complicated situation they faced when arriving in Germany, they created images which represent real experiences as well as desired outcomes. These “Wunschbilder” (desired images, ideals) mark one possible path and recognize the power of fiction as a culturally significant technique.
The staged scenes were directed by Mohamad Alraghban (Damascus) and Taisir Al Nakib (Mosul). The photographer Ella Kehrer generously supported
- die KulturMacher / Theaterwerkstatt Heidelberg e.V.
- artes liberales – universitas gemeinnützige GmbH
- Fotoatelier Christian Buck
Project blog: wunschbilder.wordpress.com
When I moved to Heidelberg in 2012, I discovered the Prinzhorn Collection museum, dedicated to art created by men and women with mental disorders. As other artists before me, I immediately felt the need to respond to the collection myself. The participatory piece extrem interessant is just one of several possibilities for me to react to this fantastic collection.
I invited people of different ages and professions to come and take a look at a selection of works from the Prinzhorn Collection, which had been commented upon by the French painter Jean Dubuffet when he visited the collection in 1950. In his list, Dubuffet evaluated the works he saw – usually in just a few words like “extremely interesting”, “pretty good” or even “mediocre”. The exhibition Dubuffets Liste reconstructed Dubuffet’s view of the collection as comprehensively as possible.
With all but one exception, the guests looked at the works in the museum in pairs; I captured each individual situation with the video camera.
extrem interessant shows the conversations that took place between these people. Each of them selected a reproduction of an artwork, so that there were always two images being discussed. The reproductions are not visible for the viewer. That is, only the response was documented.
For these conversations, a pool of 15 works from the collection was presented to the participants. It is a compact subgroup of the exhibition, containing works that Dubuffet definitely saw and assessed. Thus, his opinions could be compared to these responses.
In the dialogue setting, both speakers directly react to the images. They describe their personal impressions, taking a good deal of time with each piece, inspecting the images together, discovering more details as they go along, even bending over to look more closely. Words are often not enough, and gestures come to the rescue.
Because the participants only have copies to work with, they can touch the images and turn them this way and that, which they often do.
In a relaxed, yet concentrated manner, the dialogue partners reflect upon objects that remain beyond our reach, as viewers of the video. This is our challenge: to listen to the conversations and form our own images, which we can then compare to those in the (catalog of the) exhibition. There we can see how our assessment corresponds to Dubuffet’s way of seeing.
Specially created for the exhibition “SIGNALWEGE” in the Rudolf Virchow Center for Experimental Biomedicine in Würzburg, Break it Down uses dance and rap music to explore complex issues involving science and religion and to find connections between the two.
The song lyrics, written in collaboration with the musician Young roDDie (Cameroon/Mannheim), quote biomedical research and existential questions. The choreography interprets biomolecular interactions, such as those between proteins and other molecules.
The exhibition, curated by Ulrike Lorenz and Anne Vieth, was part of “Joy and Hope, Grief and Fear,” an art project initiated by the German Bishops’ Conference, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Second Vatican Council in 2015.
- READ the song lyrics
- READ the essay by Ulrike Lorenz, “Break it Down – Tanz über Grenzen” (German)
- SEE the catalogue for the exhibition “SIGNALWEGE”
- LISTEN to the radio feature by Petra Lange: Radio Charivari / Bistum Würzburg
- LISTEN to the radio feature by Karin Dzionara: NDR Info / Blickpunkt Diesseits
Break it Down uses imagery and ideas directly stemming from the on-site working process itself. The source material is taken from conversations (with scientists from the Rudolf Virchow Center), from improvisation and experimentation (in a dance workshop and in rehearsals with professionals and amateur dancers), as well as from study and discussions (regarding “Gaudium et Spes” – “Joy and Hope” – the Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council).
Specific structures in protein molecules (i.e. “random coils”) as well as actual tasks of proteins in the cell were interpreted in the performance, such as the “motor proteins” that are responsible for transporting substances within the cell and through the cell’s membrane.
The final scene of the performance, as well as the refrain in the end of the rap song – “It’s a jungle in there” – refers to the crowded, competitive environment in every human cell, the so-called “molecular crowding” in the cytoplasm. At the same time, it is a reference to the incredible complexity of the human body – each cell is densely packed and full of many unsolved mysteries. This final scene was reproduced in a life-sized group of dancers, which stood on a ledge above the video in the exhibition.
Scientific consultation: Dr. Katrin Heinze, Prof. Dr. Caroline Kisker, Dr. Sonja Lorenz und Dr. Ann Wehman. Further support: Jessica Lutz, Jugendkirche Würzburg. Co-production video: SkyscreamArts
- Rudolf Virchow Center, DFG Research Center for Experimental Biomedicine, University of Würzburg
- Kunstprojekt zum Konzilsjubiläum 2015, “Freude und Hoffnung, Trauer und Angst” der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz
- Young roDDie
- Tanzraum Würzburg, Studio für Zeitgenössischen Tanz
- Dancefloor Destruction Crew
- Jugendkirche Würzburg
- Skyscreamarts Production
In 2014, I was invited to the city of Schwedt to have a look at some of the “old pictures” in the collection of the former East German state-run oil processing plant VEB PCK Schwedt (now PCK Raffinerie GmbH Schwedt). In the GDR era, the company collected and commissioned several hundred artworks, which were regularly exhibited. Since 1989, however, the art collection has not been shown to the general public.
I asked myself who else should be able to see these “old pictures”? With my project Sag mir wo die Blumen sind (Where Have All the Flowers Gone), I came up with a way of giving viewers – who’d normally have no way to see the collection – an insider’s look at the some of the works. I worked with young people in Schwedt to create a guided tour of selected artworks from the PCK art collection and an accompanying video, both specially designed for the blind and visually impaired.
“Imagine you’re standing in front of this artwork and you can’t see it. What would you like to know about it?” Taking the titles of the works as a starting point, questions were asked for each work. Answering these questions was the task I undertook with my young team in Schwedt: Enrico Frontzek, Mirjam Bunn and Angie Winkel worked with me to create vivid and thought-provoking descriptions of the selected artworks. Viola Brocker from Schwedt spoke both the questions and the answers for the video.
- READ press reviews (German)
- SEE The Art Collection of the PCK Raffinerie GmbH Schwedt in the pictorial atlas (German): Kunst in der DDR
Out of a total of 23 works selected for the guided tour, eleven were presented in a video piece that was presented along with sketches and Braille descriptions of the artworks in an installation in the Kunstverein Schwedt. The tour, offered to members of the city’s Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, began in the exhibition and continued on to the facilities of the PCK refinery. There the visitors not only had the opportunity to touch artworks, but were able to listen to the young artists’ descriptions of the works included on the tour.
public attic / ausgestellter speicher is a work about the things we collect, the things we keep, and the things we decide to get rid of. It’s a work that brings the neglected and the forgotten things to light, and lets us get to know their stories.
For this project, I visited 34 people who were willing to show me some of the belongings they keep in their attics. We talked about the objects, and I asked them to tell me why they keep the items in storage. I used various media (e.g. photography, video and sound) to ‘collect’ these objects, and to construct the ‘public attic’. The installation evoked the character of an attic, and the visitors were allowed to rummage through the things in the exhibition.
- SEE the catalogue for this project
- READ press reviews and essays
- WATCH excerpts from the videos in the exhibition
- LISTEN list of the things I ‘collected’ (narrator: Kerstin Katrin Birn)
- SEE sample questionnaire
Following the inauguration of the Dresden City Museum’s new permanent exhibition, the ‘public attic’ was on display for six months in the Depot der Gegenwart (‘Depository of the Present’).
On the outer walls of the room, questionnaires – filled out upon each attic visit – were displayed, showing the answers the attic owners/users gave to my questions regarding the objects they showed me. To help participants answer the question “Why is this object kept in storage?”, I provided a checklist of various possible reasons (e.g. Reminder / Surprise, Narrative Potential, Investment, Connection to a Strong Emotion, Spatial Considerations, Sense of Duty, etc.; see one of the 34 questionnaires).
In the installation were many boxes and suitcases containing objects I had borrowed from the attics I’d visited (i.e. things I was allowed to share with others). The photos were affixed directly onto the paneled walls or onto the boxes, and the video sequences were presented on two monitors (with headphones). Next to an armchair in the corner, an audio piece recounted a list of all the things I had ‘collected’, in the words of their owners (narrator: Kerstin Katrin Birn).
Now and then in the course of the exhibition, new objects and stories were added to the collection. The exhibition catalogue for public attic / ausgestellter speicher (48 pages, German and English) contains personal and critical reflections, as well as images and narratives.
MORE about the institutions involved:
READ texts from the exhibition catalogue:
- Tobias Bulang, “Life’s Traces, Lost Possibilities, and Child’s Play – Attics as Storage Spaces for Identity”
- Janet Grau, “public attic / ausgestellter speicher”
- Roland Schwarz, “Things and Stories”
4-parts, 2 photographs at each of 2 locations, 100 x 80 cm each; laminated onto 12 mm ESG safety glass sheets (120 x 180 cm), with stainless steel mounts on concrete foundations
In the fall of 2005, with the help of 78 residents of Oschatz and the surrounding area, I developed a series of four staged photographs. The images reveal the insights gained during my extensive on-site research, especially regarding how the people of Oschatz and its immediate surroundings perceive, use, and care for ‘nature’ – a space fraught with competing psychological projections, an area where varying interests intersect.
On the site of the 2006 Saxon State Garden Show, these large-scale images were presented outdoors – i.e. in the constructed natural environment – and have remained beyond the duration of the Garden Show as public artworks. The images (artworks) themselves were not the only outcome of this project; rather, I consider the intangible products to be just as valid, such as the social space that was created during its formation, the conversations that took place, the interactive momentum it had, and the fact that these discussions continue to be relevant.
- SEE the exhibition catalogue Oschatz 51,3° / 13,1°
- READ the catalogue text about this work: Christina Töpfer, “Freiraumnutzung”
The highly obvious “hyper-staged quality” (Christina Töpfer) and the densely arranged scenes were not (only) intended to produce a humorous effect, but rather serve as a reference to local differences of opinion and tensions. Thus, the photographs contain many details and allusions to situations that can only be understood by local residents. For example, the persons looking directly into the camera and wearing T-shirts printed with affirmative statements (“I think that’s quite sensible”, “I enjoy that”, “I don’t have a problem with that”, “I’m quite satisfied”) in each staged photo are references to incidents in Oschatz, which I had been told about.
The four staged photographs were taken at the Oschatz town park and at two farms in the area of Oschatz. I worked with Thilo Fröbel (camera) and Robert Thiele (video, assistence), who had also worked with me in 2004 on Pflege: Zwischen Zwangshandlung und kultureller Heldentat.
After investigating the question of what is kept and what is discarded (and why) in two previous works, public attic / ausgestellter speicher and portable attic, I turned the focus onto my own personal history, and created downsizing.
When I moved to Germany in 1999, I left some of my belongings in storage in the USA. In 2006, my parents asked me to come and get the rest of my things. I sorted these belongings into two groups – what I could take with me and what I would have to get rid of – taking with me exactly as much (size, weight) as the airlines would allow.
The installation downsizing used objects, images, texts, and video to present the story of this process – as well as the stories behind the objects themselves.
- READ press reviews and essays
- SEE and READ the stories of “the survivors”
- READ all of the stories of “the sacrificed”
Although the content was indeed autobiographical, the form and tone of the work was somewhat ironic, a bit quirky, and intentionally melodramatic.
The group of belongings that I took back with me to Germany were called the “survivors”: the actual objects – as well as the suitcase and boxes used to bring them back – were displayed in the gallery in all their mundane vulnerability. They were accompanied by documentation revealing the “reasons for being selected to survive”.
The items that had been disposed of, on the other hand, were named the “sacrificed”. These, of course, couldn’t be shown, and were therefore present only as the subject of the video. Viewers could look over my shoulder and listen as I read texts addressed to the objects I had discarded, and which contained a great deal of (trivial) autobiographical information.
Four staged photographs in lightboxes (60 x 40 cm each) and a digital reference work (images, texts, video sequences)
As a memorial to the writer Irmtraud Morgner in her hometown Chemnitz, I created the artwork Irmtraud Morgner Lesen, which employs a playful interpretation of her work and ideas to motivate viewers to learn more about the author and her work.
For Irmtraud Morgner Lesen, I worked with various contributors over a long period of time. Together we re-imagined, re-combined, and re-created various elements, scenes, and images from Irmtraud Morgner’s literary works. Morgner’s central themes (e.g. utopian ideals, the feminist movement, the cultural and political situation in East Germany) were incorporated into the conceptual process and formed into scenes staged for the camera.
The memorial is now permanently on display in the Stadtbibliothek Chemnitz (Chemnitz Municipal Library), and is comprised of three elements: “Lesen” (“Reading”), “Nachlesen” (“Reading About”) and “Vorlesen” (“Reading Aloud”).
The section “Lesen” presents the photos, and challenges viewers to “read” them. A simple Flash-based navigation nearby directs the user to further information, which is organized into three main areas:
- “Bildlektüre” (“Reading Images”) includes an interactive “Bauplan des Bildes” (“Image Blueprint”) for each of the four staged photographs. These can be used to find out which passages in Morgner’s work are quoted by the pictorial elements. In addition, there are making-of video clips for the staged scenes, as well as other information (e.g. about the actors and locations).
- A selection of biographical information and author quotes are available for users in the segment called “Nachlesen” (“Reading About”).
- The area called “Vorlesen” (“Reading Aloud”) is comprised of video clips of people reading their favorite passages from Irmtraud Morgner’s literary work, which are presented without any interpretation or explanation whatsoever.
For the staged scenes, I worked with Thilo Fröbel (camera) and Robert Thiele (video, assistence).
An exhibition copy of Irmtraud Morgner Lesen has been shown twice so far, most recently in the exhibition Ausstellung “Entdeckt! Rebellische Künstlerinnen in der DDR” (“Discovered! Rebellious Women Artists in the GDR”), Kunsthalle Mannheim, 2011.
- About the Project und competition in memory of Irmtraud Morgner (Frauenzentrum “Lila Villa”, Chemnitz)
One of the surprising by-products of the public attic / ausgestellter speicher project were the generous gifts I received from the families whose attics I had visited, including a wonderful old handmade dollhouse. I decided to incorporate this dollhouse into a second work about attics and their owners. This time, I followed a very different procedure: I asked people to describe things that they have in storage in their attics, and then I tried to replicate these objects in miniature, without ever having met their owners or seen their attics.
The work took the form of a performance and an installation-in-progress over several days. I worked in the exhibition space itself, and placed the miniature artifacts into the attic of the dollhouse when they were finished.
- SEE the catalogue for this project
- READ essay from the catalogue: Susanne Altmann, “Stimmen aus dem Umzugskarton. Gedanken zum Sich-Einrichten in Wrocław, in Wohnungen und in sich selbst”
As I had previously done in public attic / ausgestellter speicher, I asked the participants to tell me why they have kept the item(s) in storage. To make it easier for them, I provided a list of possible reasons, as well as space for adding new reasons, if necessary. These documents were on display as well.
I performed this piece twice: first in Wrocław, Poland (as part of the exhibition Zamieskanie / Sich Einrichten / Inhabiting and then in Dresden, Germany as part of Ohne uns! Kunst & alternative Kultur in Dresden vor und nach ’89.
MORE about the institutions involved:
The performance durch und durch (“through and through”), which was conceived for the festival called WAS IST DAS WERT in Hellerau, plays with tensions between remembering & forgetting, between private & public space, as well as between strong emotions & formally conceived actions.
Over the course of two weeks, we made our way through the city of Dresden (i.e. with public transportation), lingered in public spaces (i.e. tram stops, parks, museums, shopping malls) and continually devoted ourselves to two activities: we embroidered, and we carried on a conversation. We stitched images that had to do with personal losses, and we spoke about private thoughts and experiences.
Before the public performance began, we each chose images that represented “loss” for us, and we transformed them into the patterns we would stitch. Thus, this “loss” – whether already endured or simply dreaded – became the raw material of a social, manual, and artistic process, which in effect enriched it. This enrichment was already accomplished by virtue of the time and work invested – an effort that, considering this painstaking method of reproducing images, was immense.
Typically private actions were not only performed publicly, but were obviously – and unconventionally – staged as well. Thus, this performance was a way of ironically testing the efficacy of a traditionally female model of community building and communication through collective work.
MORE about the artists and institutions involved: