It’s the economy! Or is it?

Meeting Armin Chodzinski and Sibylle Peters

Place: Hamburg
Date: March 27
Travel time: 5 minutes by bike + 380 minutes by train + 2 hours for cancelled train between Cologne and Hamburg + 20 minutes by bike
Meeting time: 7 hours
Reading time: 35 minutes

In 1962 Joseph Beuys did his first ecological action in Hamburg, cleaning up the Elbe. Twenty years later, in 1983 he won the Stadt-Natur-Skulptur competition, launched by the cultural department of the city of Hamburg with a proposal called Gesamtkunstwerk Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg, a city wide restoration project in Altenwelder Spüfelden, where heavy metals dredged from the Elbe were dumped on the floodplains. In 1984 the mayor of Hamburg vetoed the project. It was never realized.

I first thought about visiting the places where Beuys worked when in Hamburg. But I changed my mind after talking to Sibylle Peters and Armin Chodzinski. The Altenwelder Spüfelden are now part of the harbour that changed and expanded a lot since 1983. It would become too much of a pilgrimage to a place that doesn’t exist anymore. And what if they’re right and Beuys is highly overrated in the history of ecological art? There are probably other and more interesting artists who did more for art and society than Beuys.

And art and society, after all, that is up Sibylle and Armin’s alley. They know what they talk about. Both come to arts with a background in science: literature, cultural studies and philosophy in the case of Sibylle Peters, anthropogeography for Armin Chodzinski. They are interested in communicating on the complexity of things, in performing citizenship, in performing research. For them art is a tool to open up research. Through what Sibylle calls “wishful thinking” for instance, or her proposal to do research driven by desires and wants, starting from the self, from wish production, from personal concerns.

We meet at the Fundus theatre, where Sibylle works as artistic director and researcher. Sibylle invited me for There is no business like show business, the play in which Armin has a role as respondent. The starting point of the performance sounds as simple as it is extraordinary: take the average budget of a theatre production at Fundus, 3000 euro, give it to a group of children, and ask them to make a theatre piece, starting from their desires and wants. But it turns out to be pretty complicated. These children have a lot of wishes and they are very different: first task is to channel these desires. In the performance I witnessed, three wishes finally made it to the stage: to do something with horror, with animals and with birthdays.

More about that later in the conversation below. For now the important thing is that the collaboration between children and adults make something possible that seemed impossible before. Wishful thinking here stands for creating new stories, other stories. It is something that children are good in. But the intergenerational aspect is important too. That is what performing citizenship is all about: working together, young and old.

In 2014, Armin and Sibylle created for Hamburg’s Kampnagel – in the framework of Imagine 2020 – the performance Straighten it out! The contractors. They went to London to meet people from the New Economics Foundation to talk about the great transition needed to face climate change and the collapse of social security. There too: this idea of the intergenerational, the search for a new kind of representative democracy and of the contract between the different partners in the project. You could have been a partner yourself, coming to their temporary office installed in the theatre with your desires and wants for a better world. It is about saving the world, no less: Teilproject Weltrettung. It is about cooperation, about delegating your wishes: Delegieren Sie die Weltrettung! And it is about economy. Not that there is any money involved like in No business like show business. There Sibylle and Armin show their different view on money: they try to make it interesting, not disgusting – something more than just a tool for consuming. Here they deal with an other form of economy: an economy of attention, of representation, of sharing.

These projects are made in and with circumstances. They come into being through the organiser, the audience, the participants – through workshops (with No business…) or a preliminary office (in Straighten it out!). The performers, the directors of the plays, are also part of these circumstances. That is how Straighten it out! came into being and that is also how it ended quite abruptly. And that is where this conversation starts.

Straighten it out The Contractors Armin Chodzinski und Sybylle Peters Kampnagel Hamburg, 28.09.2013

Could you tell me something on Straighten it out!, the project you did for Kampnagel and Imagine 2020? I could not really find a lot about it online. The project kind of vanished in time.
Armin: When we started to work on Straighten it out!, we had many plans on how to continue the project. I think it was in January, and I had a show in April, a big show on the question of growth. But then in April I got a stroke and got off the game for nearly one year. So this meant full stop for the project. We just couldn’t work together anymore. I couldn’t even speak or think in the right way. I was ill. There was an ironic coincidence in the situation. For Straighten it out! we went to the New Economic Foundation in London and made interviews about the idea of what we can do with this question of imagine 2020. In the show there was one scene were Sibylle wanted me as an example for this kind of liberal person who works himself out and tries to deal with his body in this competition of economy. I was supposed to be an example for that. Not much later I broke down. So it was kind of …
Sibylle: … a prophecy
A: Exactly. It was sort of a prophecy of what really happens when you try to be part of this competition and about how to survive in this society with all this stress, forced by the questions that are raised through imagining what comes in the future. This meant more or less the end of the work. When we started we had the idea that it could be really interesting to make this contract with people together. The main point of the show was that we talked about things. We made clear what Imagine 2020 could be for us. And then we tried to make this contract with the audience, where they say in what timeline they want to make 2020 happen and in what way. The idea was to use the network to travel to different places, to change and deal with this contract. We had a commission and tried to take this commission to other countries, to other towns. To make things happen you need to make contracts between two people.
S: The Contractors was the other title of the performance. One thing that we were talking about was that topics of ecology and sustainability often put a very personal pressure on people to set up their lives in a more sustainable way. So you have all these things that you feel bad about because you don’t get to do them right. You have to buy your food, clothes and other goods in the right places. You have to refrain from using different kinds of technologies because they are not sustainable. So there is this very long list of things everyone should personally do to live a more sustainable life. We were discussing how this puts a strain on us and how we individually do not feel able to fulfil the whole list. That is how we went back to the idea of the division of labour. You and me could do a contract. You tell me what should be done – an action against the coal power station, let’s say – but you don’t actually want to do that because you’re shy. You’d rather work in your garden. And I’m not a garden person and I feel really like I have to grow my own potatoes, but I’ll never get there. So the two of us could do a contract now. I promise that I will do an action, and you’ll grow potatoes and I’ll get some of them. So we end up with a list of tasks everyone of us has to do from where we try to exchange competences and then create contracts between people to promise this to each other.
A: Our idea was that most people know what has to be done but don’t have the ability or find it boring or it doesn’t make sense for them. With our list of ideas, we did not want to make people have a bad conscience. Instead of feeling guilty, we tried to make a sort of business. The idea was to retail these contracts and ideas. We wanted to create kind of a stock exchange, where special actions would put people together with whom you normally never get in touch with.

Sounds a bit like countries trading CO2 certificates.
A: Exactly.
S: It is a bit like that.

Straighten it out The Contractors Armin Chodzinski und Sybylle Peters Kampnagel Hamburg, 28.09.2013

I like that it works on different levels. Growing potatoes is a very personal and individual act. Taking action against the coal power station goes more towards system change.
A: The idea was that someone has a brilliant talent but most people don’t know what to do with it. For example, at an insurance company, the people who sell are really good in talking and convincing. Nevertheless they don’t even know why to convince people, they convince because they get money to sell it. What’s really your profession is convincing people. I know what to do but I can’t convince people to eat no meat so you make a contract. The idea was to free people from guilt and to moderate their actions. I work in big companies at the moment. Most of the people there are really good informed and know what’s to be done when they read the newspaper. But they can’t because they decided to earn much money. For them the idea that you can exchange this possibility of individual acting could be very helpful. Or when I talk for myself: I really love democratic processes but I can’t do that because when I’m in a room with ten people I’m feeling really nervous. When I ask someone else to go there, I don’t have to feel guilty but make something else instead.

I have a question that is a bit off track: your work in big companies, is that part of your artistic practice?
A: yes.

And what do you do there?
A: I work as a consultant for arts and culture. I invent a program, help them working on the question where to spend money or what kind of art projects to finance. The main problem of these companies is that they want to invest in art, they’re used to do that for over a hundred years. But when they started to spend money on art, like a century ago, they had a reason because the workers said they want culture as part of their life. And the politicians said, well you have to invest in culture. If you don’t invest in culture the workers will start a revolution and take the company away. These arguments aren’t as clear today. Culture functions as a representation or marketing instrument, but nowadays they come to the conclusion that representation is really a dull thing. You can do it much better with a good marketing campaign. But the belief in art is there. Some of the people know that the world is changing and that there is pollution and hunger and the system comes through a point that you can’t support society and they ask: can art help in any way dealing with these problems? And then they ask me an idea how to finance and think about a different practice.

It sounds a bit instrumental: art as a tool. It’s pretty close to the performance we saw today, where you use art as a tool for children to become aware of the economy of the theatre. You use art to create an awareness for the problems we are facing and look together for possible solutions.
A: That’s how it is. But my deep understanding is that there are two main points. (1) Art is something that can make things visible. Or (2) you can make entertaining luxury products. I’m really convinced that art nowadays, at least the art that I’m interested in, is not dealing with luxury products. It’s about making things visible. It’s one of the places where you can try to discuss. Art has a possibility to say “well I don’t know nothing but I try to look at it and try to understand it”. It’s like the horror show you saw today as part of the performance. I think it’s really fantastic. It was our third horror show and it makes you understand every aspect of horror. You can make transparency of the tricks they use, but if it happens it’s purely horror. You can’t get an abstract from that but you can try to understand. But for what reason do you want to understand? It doesn’t help you. But you can learn something about yourself and society.

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But also about theatre. For me the most convincing moment in the horror piece was the part where the children started yelling in the dark. That gave me goose bumps and that says a lot about theatre and the reality of it.
S: I found it interesting that when we talked about The contractors, you referred to trading CO2 certificates. That is a pretty good observation because we both are doing stuff with money in art. We research money in different ways. This is how we met. We both participated ages ago, I think fifteen years ago, in Go Create Resistance. There was one evening about money and that was where I first saw Armin performing. I think we first of all learned how to find money interesting and not disgusting. We were interested in how money works and how it could work in a different way. That is something that is forming both our practices. You can see it in this show. Usually, children learn about money from the position of consumers. They have a little bit of money and then the question is what do I want to buy with it. Consumption. And for the first time, these children who worked with us, look at money as a tool to make something happen, together. Money then is something you can use for a collective experience, to make things better.
A: You can’t work with money in theatre in a different way. It’s only about sharing. And this is really interesting. We had one group that had the idea that they wanted lots of sweets. They wanted sugar, sugar and more sugar. They had the idea about how to consume but the setting in the theatre forced them to share the sweets and the experience. Same thing with the birthday: having one birthday is having all birthdays. Because when you show it, you are not a million selling pop star who is on the stage and saying well, it’s me and I’m having a birthday and millions of people are like wow. They feel ashamed to have an idea that only deals with them. They feel ashamed not spending money for sharing but only for presenting themselves. For me, the most interesting, the most hopeful thing that I learned in this production is that theatre is more about sharing. I think it’s really great what this makes clear about money. It is a pedagogic way to understand.

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The children share, not because they are altruistic by nature, but because of the theatre: there they feel the pressure to share. Something like that?
S: They are confronted with a situation where they feel responsibility to create something for all of them and for others. We had a little conference end of last year, speculating how money could work different. Not to engrain into people that money is about consuming. But thinking about money as something that organizes collective life. We shared very different expectations on how money is supposed to do that and set up money in a slightly different way so that it is better able to do that. We can have a discussion on what art is and what’s good about it, but I think what our practices have in common is that art is always a production process that is somehow put in question. Art gives us a chance to read and invent this production process in itself in a way. And you can focus on these different moments in this production process.
With The contractors there is not officially money involved. The most important part in the show is where we open it up and we create this process where these contracts can come about. But if nobody wants to do a contract, you just sit there. So we kind of set this up, how to organize this exchange of guilt or competences, how to do that as an interesting collective experience that facilitates the process so that lots of contracts are being made. At the very end it’s the most important part of the artwork.

When you talk about it, it sounds like a theatre performance.
S: Of course, it is a theatre performance

But when I read about it on Kampnagel’s website, I thought it was an office you installed.
S: No it’s a show
A: But we did install a kind of office for one day.

Apart from the performance.
A: Yes, to collect some actions for the evening show. We needed that to start with, to make contracts on. From then on it’s an ongoing lecture where we take these contracts and actions to the next town.
S: So there we were very interested in the Imagine 2020 scheme that would bring us to different places in Europe. Then we would have these commissioned actions from Hamburg and exchange with people in Lisbon things that they have commissioned and vice versa. So we would do a European network of action exchange. But that didn’t happen.

You only did the performance in Hamburg.
S: Right, after the first performance we had to cancel it.

Straighten it out The Contractors Armin Chodzinski und Sybylle Peters Kampnagel
Hamburg, 28.09.2013

And so now the project is finished?
S: Yes. You still don’t go on stage so much.
A: No, I think I had five lectures since then, and always on a small scale. Not really productions. And the base for The contractors was that it was deeply connected to us both, our ideas on work, on Europe, and how to deal with it. It was based on that together we wanted to raise questions. Not only for the public but also for us.

You often take the idea of guilt as a starting point.
A: Yes, for Imagine 2020 of course, yes.

Because there is also a lot of pleasure in the exchange, the fact that you’re good in doing things. That’s where the exchange starts. Pleasure is the trigger, not guilt.
A: Yes but the pleasure of one thing always forces one to cope with things you could not do. So this question of guilt is really important. I think it’s really brave to have pleasure. When I have pleasure I always think about why: have I deserved this pleasure while there are problems elsewhere? Pleasure makes me really nervous.

For me that sounds really strange: talking about ecology often starts from guilt, while I think that I find a lot of pleasure in leading what I consider, for me personally, an ecological life. I like riding my bicycle in the city. I do it since I was a child. I don’t like to drive a car, it makes me nervous and aggressive even – dangerous. So I always go back to enjoy riding my bicycle. The same thing with eating vegetarian. It started as an ethical question and ends up as a comfortable habit. That comfort, that everyday habit of riding a bicycle or eating vegetarian among other things, I call a pleasure. When you talk about pleasure, it nearly sounds like a luxury, while for me, it is not a luxury at all. On the contrary.
A: Maybe this is part of my character, to deny pleasure wherever it comes up.

There are more things that link Straighten it out!, your performance for Imagine 2020, with No Business like Show Business, the performance with the children this morning. Behind the performance this morning, there is this whole process of democracy and of representation: deciding with the children, not for the children. But I can imagine that you also have to deal with the deadline for the presentation – what we saw in the theatre today – that puts pressure on the process or the invisible part that comes before. Then, often someone has to take a lead. How do you deal with this? New forms of representative democracy are a real issue today, not only talking about climate change.
S: When we produced The contractors, talking money again, we were still very much impressed by the big financial crisis. In London we talked to people who also were very disappointed or disillusioned about the fact that the financial crisis came and went and nothing changed. It didn’t change anything. There were a lot of conversations about this. It was the time of the square squatting, calling out for real democracy, the Occupy movement. I mean, I’m not quite sure what you read about Straighten it out! in terms of that but it was made in a moment of disillusion. We didn’t make big political claims in that performance. And we didn’t want to. We wanted to suggest to have this kind of simple and smart way to deal with, to not only go back to your individual level. Not just to go back to okay now I drive my bike and become vegan. That seemed the only thing to do because everything else went down the drain again.

Straighten it out The Contractors Armin Chodzinski und Sybylle Peters Kampnagel Hamburg, 28.09.2013

Things didn’t change after 2008.
S: Or 2011.

Or 2011, you mean with the Occupy movement and the square revolutions. But that is already a change, creating an awareness of the 99%. It’s not that things don’t change, it’s just that it goes very slow. Since then you see many other new democratic movements that want to go back to new forms of representation.
S: Yes I know. We were extremely excited about that. We had a huge assembly of activists after 2011, which was called The Art of Being Many, on new forms of assembly and democracy. But I mean in general, in 2008 and 2009, you could hear stuff on TV, I mean, companies that went down in which I would never have thought that we would be able to get rid of them. And then in the Occupy movement, or the other movements, so many people raised their voices and now look: what is the political change? I can’t see any of that. So even a huge world wide financial crisis and an uprising of the many in like 12 different nations, didn’t bring about one political change. That was the situation when we made The contractors. I don’t want to say we stopped working then, because it doesn’t make sense. The question is more about scale. We thought there should be a different scale. Like scale of change, or scale of movement. We try not to go back to individual scale, but use theatre and art to still work on a collective level. Still under the condition that nobody knows right now what it is that has to happen to make things change.

So the problem is that the problems are too big. Like with global warming: you don’t even know what the problem is, so we don’t know what the solution is either. And so we don’t know what to do. But doing nothing is also not a solution.
A: No of course. But this really comes after the crisis. For everyone this fact is clear, that you see the problems but you can’t do anything in a short term action. There is no action to stop this engine. The idea ripens that you have to change life, not only your life, but often over generations. That all problems have needs that only work in the long run. It’s not this immediacy, the whole workers movement, in the last 200 years, would identify with this moments where things broke and seemed to change and after this crisis it becomes really clear that there are much more problems that we recognize but we can’t do anything to solve them in a short term. I think this is really the main point of things that have changed, this is the political crisis. No one really dares to raise an idea that lasts for 50 or 100 years. Which we need more or less: we need a process where we have this skyline. That is why initiatives like Imagine 2020 become more or less like a joke.

And the closer you come to 2020, the clearer it becomes?
A: Yes, and you have this idea that breathes a history of 100 years of political movement, but it came to an end. The political movement is very different today. Maybe you’re right and it is to learn how to get pleasure by riding a bike. And there something changes in the political action, because it’s not rewarded through a moment, it’s not an event anymore. There are no big lights that go up and are like: wow we did it. These symbol actions like Greenpeace, where you get on this ship and everyone is full with adrenaline and heroes were born. But there are no heroes anymore, that sounded really good but it also makes kind of political action for most people really dull.

What always comes back in your work is the idea of economy: when you talk about the state of the world, climate change or ecology, you always go towards economy to find a way in or a way out. Where does this interest in economy come from?
S: Everybody who is politically interested is interested in economy. When I joined this political news crew when I was fifteen, we first had an education in economy. But apart from that, I was kind of surprised that the moment I started to do art in a professional fashion, you are suddenly confronted with these different kinds of economies. In the beginning with the economy of attention, always connected to other economies. I think many artists have this feeling that art is something that is not touched by the economies, that it is the context of art but that art itself is something sacred. But I think the two of us, and many other people, go a different way: you start making art, and then you’re confronted with economies that are grasping your work and put value to some things and disvalue other things. Your name becomes a trademark. If you are aware of this and react to them then it’s kind of necessarily about economy. That’s how it happened to me. Around 2001 we had this activist group that met every two weeks to make actions in public space, and it was more for us to look at our practices and how we could use them in protest actions. And then we were invited to this thing I was talking about before, Go Create Resistance, and suddenly the group, which was formerly about seven people, through this professional invite grew to twenty-five. Everyone was suddenly part of this group because of this economy of attention. What do we do, we can’t work with twenty-five, not as before. Do we submit to this economy of attention and have three people who will assign the work and their names are going to be in the program? How do you react? You have to deal with this economy. Is this part of the work or is it framing? We took the decision that it is all part of the work and that you want to work with them intentionally and consciously.
A: I don’t know from what other point you can look at things. A friend of mine stopped working because he wanted to set up an ecological farm. He had pigs and potatoes and he was focused on how to eat and to the quality of food. Last year, after 10 or 20 years, he had to stop because he was absolutely bankrupt. Everyone in the little village in Switzerland really liked this crazy guy with this good food and they bought some things. But the moment that the mother fell ill and the daughter wanted to study, and things were much more difficult he had to stop and look for a job. Then the problem really started because what kind of job do you want to do with this small and ethical idea of life? Since two years he is a member of a think-tank, dealing with the quality of food in Switzerland under economic perspectives. So I don’t really know how to look at these things, after 1989, from a German perspective, I don’t really know. When I decided to become an artist, in 1989, there was no alternative to not think about economy and a capitalist society. There is only the reflection about the economic reality we live that can give you a clue why it is that way these days. How to look in another way?

It depends on how you look. You know, there is this whole discussion about the anthropocene: you cannot use this term because you put the guilt question with humanity. And there are of course a lot of humans who are not guilty – on the contrary: the majority of all humans are victims of global warming. It’s too general. So let’s call it the capitalocene and link it to the history of capital, colonialism and globalization. But then Donna Haraway came with this beautiful proposal to call it the chthulucene to include something of the monstrosity and the complexity of the problem. So it always depends on how you look at it. Economy is one possible angle, but when you talk about complexity, it’s about much more than economy.
S: Of course there are more topics than economy, maybe not with Armin (laughs). But I think you always come back to it in as far as performance and theatre is a collective art form and you always have to work on how to cooperate, how do they work together, how do they gather, who is speaking, who is visible. All these questions of collective cooperation, when I come back to them, economy is always a very important level in that.

Since we are in Hamburg and since Hamburg is the city where Beuys did his first public action in 1962, cleaning up the Elbe, we should at least mention his name when talking about art, ecology and gatherings.
S: He was part of the show yesterday.

How was that?
S: Just like today we had an animal scene in the show. Beuys came up because we are also working on a bigger project with Manchester International Festival for next year, which is for animals for Manchester. An approach to animals and species very much inspired by Haraway. And that came briefly up yesterday, about animals, that children have lots of doubts about the circus and the zoo as the typical format of encountering animals, because the animals are not treated well, the encounter is not symmetrical, because one species demonstrates power over the other basically. And the children are aware of this. So we were searching for historical examples in performing arts, how to change that. How the encounter between man and animal can be organized differently. And then Beuys and his performance with the coyote came up.

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I bring up Beuys because of the idea of the gathering. In 1983, he got a prize of the city of Hamburg, for Gesamtkunstwerk Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg, a city wide restoration project in Altenwelder Spüfelden, which is part of the harbour now where heavy metals dredged from the Elbe were dumped on the floodplains. He wanted to use the prize money to bring together people from many different disciplines. A gathering. And this is the moment the mayor of Hamburg vetoed the project, because this is dangerous. A gathering. What I want to know, talking about the heritage of Beuys, is: how dangerous are gatherings today?
S: I did a lot of projects in and with the harbour. Beuys was addressing two problems. The one was “disappearing”, or the enlargement of the harbour. And the other one was that the Elbe was basically not deep enough for big ships. That happened even then. What happens when you don’t constantly take a step back, then the water is slung, you get mud, muddy water. You’re constantly forced to take mud out of the water, for decades and that is a very difficult process because the mud is contaminated and you actually have to pay lots of money to get rid of this and at some point it seemed we had to give up the port. The conditions are not made for industrial ships. But to give up the port is something Hamburg can’t do. The city relies on the port, a quarter of the economy relies on it, the history. And if you put your finger on it and think it through to this point, the only sustainable solution is to shut the harbour down. That’s not going to happen of course, not with this government. But that’s something every Hamburg government would have done: we do not discuss this. I can even almost understand the Hamburg mayor: we don’t want international artists here to discuss whether we should shut down the harbour.
A: Beuys and everyone else knew from the beginning that his action would be stopped. You have always this production of event and hero. At the same time, Robert Smithson, in America, worked with these coal companies and developed ideas to how to deal with these scars in the landscapes which are ruined by these companies. He said we can try to make it change, land art can solve this problem. The companies stopped this because they were afraid of his ideas and they knew he was right. It was a real interesting point. But many things that Beuys did were hardly more than pictures, symbols of actions. Most of his gatherings, he used to make a special kind of economy of attention. I’m not sure if most actions of him were really meant to get real. He was an artist for the full hundred percent. Smithson was not. He was an artist who dealt with society, while Beuys was an artist who symbolized society in this Rudolf Steiner way, where everyone was an artist. He is a little bit like Walter Gropius from the other side: he never left the art building. He always talked that he would, but never did. The difference between Beuys and Smithson or someone like John Latham: they really tried to figure out what society did. That is something Beuys never did. He made beautiful sketches, and brilliant sculptures. But I don’t think he is as political as everyone tries to make him.
S: He is really plastic, he did this as a sculptor, not as an activist.
A: He took the idea of the social sculpture from Rudolf Steiner and made it more popular. He had brilliant thoughts. He invented great sketches. But he never invented great political movements.

But there too, the political is in the creation of awareness.
A: I don’t think someone like Beuys wanted to be part of a project like Imagine 2020. But I’m sure that Smithson or Latham would try to get in touch of this idea.

Sibylle, you sent me this document about Performing Research. It also forms the background for the performance I saw this morning. There too are a lot of things that could be interesting to link to an initiative as Imagine 2020. The idea to imagine is already very present in your approach of wishful thinking, that is part of Performing Research. Basically the idea is that research starts with yourself, with the wish production, where children are apparently better than adults.
S: They have more interesting wishes.

Does it have to do with the fact that adults are more formatted than children?
S
: No.

Because Theatre of Research is also going in against this format, the format of academic research, let’s say.
S: The thing about research that starts with yourself is first creating an open space, by saying forget about all the complex ideas you have about research, let’s first start with research in the most simple form: trial and error. If you have a series of that, you have research already, everybody does it. And then you learn that there are certain wishes that are going to be fulfilled and others not. And for those you want to see fulfilled you have to do certain procedures, which has to do with years of education. You’re forced to submit to your own wish somehow. Maybe that’s why adult wishes aren’t as interesting as kids wishes. But they’ve learned to not admit it that easily, because otherwise someone will come and say you wanted this and now you have to do that. This is governmentality: they catch you with your wishes and then you have to commit to something.

Yes, but this is in a way also what you did with the children, you help them canalizing the wishes and finding a way to make them true.
S: There are no methodologies on how to do research with groups with very different people. This is something that generally is important to develop because research is actually not efficient when it doesn’t include the people that are really affected by a certain problem. So we need to create participatory research groups where you have different experts, that are actually confronted with a problem or a wish in the field and who might have artists which are maybe able to facilitate things in this way because the experts are usually academic and scientific people. There are very little ways for them to engage these people in the field. They might try but they fail in so many ways. So in this setting artists are in the middle between people in the field and academic research. They built bridges and suggest ways on how to come together and the wishes are an entrance point for this field position, which here are always children. So a collective research object would be made out of a common wish, a discursive question, academia, and an artistic practice. When you can combine these, you have a collective research project.

The question that often comes back in this Grand Tour, is: what can art do in ecological processes. But here you change the perspective: the question could also be what can children do. They play an important role in this because of their different way of thinking – that is what art is supposed to do too: help us think differently – but also because the children are the future. Ecological art not only has to learn to work with children but also for children
S: Straighten it out! is inspired by something I developed before, with kids and adults together, which is called Zeit-Tausch-Pakt or Pact of Generations. It is a procedure and a performance ritual for adults and children to feel connected through generations. Pairs of adults and kids give each other one day of their lives, and an instruction, how to spend that day. It is not the same day though. Day one is now, tomorrow, in the very near future. This is the day the adult gives to the kid. He or she commits to spending that day with performing a task that is given to him or her by the kid. Day two is 60 years from now. This is the day the kid is giving to the adult. The kid, who will then be an older adult, will spend that day in the far future performing a task that is given to him or her by the adult. Both, the kid and the adult, get something they don’t usually have: the kid will have power over the adult and the chance to change the adult’s behaviour, at least for that day. The kid can make the adult do something, adults usually don’t do. The adult on the other hand gets the chance to send something through time and save it from oblivion, the chance to get something done, when he herself will probably be dead. This can be about remembering something – like in cooking an old dish, paying respect to something, re-enact something. The Pact of Generations then has to be sealed in a memorable ceremony. This ceremony should be devised and performed by kids and adults together.
I’m not into idealizing children. The whole difference between children and adults has to be questioned. It is not quite right. It’s like saying okay you have this one part of people who are kind of vulnerable and not really complete yet. I’m not complete. Everything you can say about kids you can say about adults, and the other way around.
A: There is no business like show business is a perfect project for every age. It is not defined for children. The only reason it’s good to have them there is that there is heterogeneous groups who go to school.

Yes, it’s very diverse. That became very clear with the birthday party, at the end of No business…: how many languages they speak, you have a much larger diversity here than in adult theatre. There was this nice moment when they started singing all these different birthday songs in all the different languages simultaneously. It also leads to new ways of story telling and new narratives to get in and out of. Here, every wish is a new story and it’s through working with children that you get new wishes and new ways of story telling. This is what could help us to get out of the complex situation, dealing with ecological problems.

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S: That is one important reason why I started to work with kids: doing theatre for adults is kind of frustrating, because you very often preach to the choir. You can just address the scene. It’s difficult to address people outside of this scene of colleagues and students. So kind of opposite to what people think that kids are a very specific audience, they are all people. The only thing they have in common is that they are nine years old. Apart from that it’s all people. While in adults you only work with the culture crowd.

 

Here Sibylle has to leave for another meeting. But Armin, born and raised in Hamburg, is kind enough to take me around to show me some parts of the city. We take the tram to the world famous Reeperbahn in Sankt Pauli. He shows me the tension between public and private, between the inhabitants of the city and the developers. The Reeperbahn is a good example where expensive apartments rise next to squatters in buildings and even vans in the street. He takes me to the site of the former Esso building, where activists work together with developers. If you can’t beat them, join them. They have their headquarters and meeting place in a container on the corner of the building site. There, former tenants and neighbours of the building follow the planning and prepare briefings with the developers and architects.

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We walk through the tunnel to take a look from the other side of the Elbe. Armin tells me about Hitler who wanted to impress visitors with a new skyline for Hamburg, seen from the Elbe. He points out the cranes in front of the new building of the Elbphilharmonie, the new concert hall designed by world famous architects Herzog and de Meuron that opened in 2017. These cranes were never there. They were installed there by the developers to create a new history around the building. I think of Hitler’s heritage.

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The Elbphilharmonie is one of the new buildings in the Hafencity district, a new and cold and generic neighbourhood for Hamburg. I try to imagine how it used to be, when it was still a closed terrain for the customs of the harbour. I try to imagine how this part of the city, close to the river, will be flooded in thirty or fifty years, just long enough for private companies to get a return on investment.

The next day, on my way to the station, I have time for one more stop in the Hamburger Kunsthalle to visit the Thomas Gainsborough exhibition. Gainsborough lived through the evolution from public towards private. He made a living in the 18th century with paintings commissioned by rich landowners like the one of Mr and Mrs Edwards on their privatized piece of land. It’s on the poster of the exhibition:

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Mr Edwards has his gun and dog ready to hit anything that passes on his property. I think of Marxist art historian John Berger who wrote about the painting and about Mr and Ms Edwards as “complacent bourgeois”. Gainsborough’s only interest in the aristocrats of his time was the money in their pockets. Around the same time he enjoined painting Cornard Woods: one of these pastoral landscapes referred to as the commons. You can easily get lost in these landscapes where Gainsborough showed the people living in the country with no money in their pockets, who went for wood, food, and other necessities on this last piece of common land.

The Kunsthalle seems to have a special interest in landscapes that don’t exist anymore. They have a whole room dedicated to Caspar David Friedrich. There I found these three studies of ice drift on the Elbe (1820):

 

Eventually it became a sea of ice two years later:

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They also have this famous painting of The wanderer above the sea of fog.

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Friedrich was a hopelessly romantic painter of the landscape. As if he already knew these views would not last forever.

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