Community of surplus: Discussion of the Curatorial Team
The following conversation between several members of the curatorial team was recorded with the aim of describing the approach to the project and the way in which it developed. Discussion participants were: Jochen Becker (jb), Reinhild Benning (rb), Robin Curtis (rc), Stephan Geene (sg), Merle Kröger (mk), Holger Kube Ventura (hkv), Philip Scheffner (ps) and Dierk Schmidt (ds). The discussion took place in Berlin on May 26th.
Point of Departure
hkv: What bothered me about the past Werkleitz Biennials was the division of the four disciplines: art, film/video, performance and Internet. There also seemed to be very little communication between the involved curators. For the 5th Werkleitz Biennial, which I’m organizing as artistic director, a working group was formed and acted along the lines of contents and across disciplines before concrete contributions were considered. The aim was to avoid hierarchical relationships between curators and participants, between “art” and “non-art”. For these reasons, I invited the current team, as well as several additional people, to a preparatory summer camp in Tornitz/Werkleitz. The point of departure for the discussions was a thematic exposé entitled “nation/ al/ien” that dealt with questions such as: What would a German identity be? What is the meaning of being characterized by a nation-state? How can one talk about these things and how can they be criticized? During the course of three days, we came to a position regarding what does not belong to this complex of themes. The title, in particular, was not considered to be very constructive, because “nation/nationalities” asserts exactly that which is to be criticized. The Biennial itself was only a marginal issue during the summer camp.
mk: I didn’t feel myself being addressed as a curator, as you only knew our non-curatorial work. It was an unusual situation to be invited in the name of something I would not have necessarily choosen myself. Then you were faced with people you partially knew, and who in turn all have their own history as organizers.
sg: In the end, the issue became quite an individual and unique form of so-called curating, which at times completely dissolves, particularly in cases where the exhibition organizers are also participants. A “curatorial approach” per se is stupid.
jb: Up until now, I have been involved in self-initiated and self-organized projects, or when invited we have tried to organize ourselves as an internal group. However, this time it was different: there’s a team, but the members didn’t join up with each other on their own. Several people know each other quite well from earlier joint practices and must therefore, deal with the question to what extent a dominant block might establish itself. This isn’t solved in a “natural” way by some of these people simply leaving. The numerous meetings and long discussions helped to clarify questions such as “What are these people engaged in? And what are we going to do together now?” This required a lot of time. For this reason I find an introduction in the form of a conversation adequate because it was in debates such as this one that the decisions were made.
ps: The thematic complex Holger originally proposed with “nation/al/ien” was intensely discussed before it was altered. This process resulted in the following critical questions: If one does a project that already addresses concepts of the nation-state in the title, why is it that the curators are all “white”? Why do most have a German passport? Where are the “Others” in the context of this strange team of non-curators? With such a title, either the group must be put together in an entirely different way, or we must depart from this clear thematic reference and try to look at a less reductive field of work. Instead of saying, “the issues are immigration, migration and exclusion”, we introduced three concepts or fields into the game that allude to the mechanisms of exclusion, the nation-state and racism.
ds: Another idea was to also make a connection to a different point in time, something which would avoid the exhibition contributions overall from turning into a collection of examples that merely illustrate the present lines of conflict and invite indirect discourse, so to say…
hkv: A triangle was created. The first reference or “object” we came upon was Whity, a fairly unknown film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That was in September 2001, when we started with our weekly meetings.
jb: Renate contributed the idea that one shouldtalk about “being white” rather than about “people of color” because we represent the notion of “being white”. A further conflict develops from the fact that we not only have German passports, but that all of us are West Germans – except Robin who is Canadian. Why do West Germans go to East German states and thematize racism there? What is the rationale, and how can you make it clear on site? How do you deal with questions that arise when people who are more metropolitan-oriented bring all these issues to a rural population? These questions led to the idea of covering a broader scope through the use of thematic fields. Take Fassbinder: to what degree does his film work in an East German context. Is Whity something that resonates, can it operate across different fields and thus avoid the above-mentioned conflicts?
mk: If we want to deal with the current situation in Germany, not only as a topic the way some artistic actions and exhibitions do, but to view it as a field, we must return to the FRG and the GDR. We have to examine the ways in which the social climate developed, and also look at the atmospheres that strongly influenced the situation we are now confronting. Fassbinder’s entire context is reflected in Whity, and it questions the society I grew up in – the FRG. Fassbinder examined this climate in a complex way.
The 10th World Festival of Youths and Students
ps: It’s similar with regard to the second “object”, the “10th World Festival of Youths and Students” in East Berlin in 1973. Both are pretty strange icons; none of us had seen Whity, and no one attended the World Festival. We used these two “events” as a starting-point for an investigation. We viewed Whity and were irritated: what’s there and what can be made of it? It was the same with the World Festival. In the end, our research resulted in different intersections between these two and a third thematic field – “Open Borders?”
rc: In this manner we arrived at two objects situated in the early 70s and could thus address postcolonial theory. Since the late 80s, there has been a certain awareness of post-colonial theory, but it hardly played a role in Germany. Neither cultural conflicts, such as racism, nor utopias that had to do with the encounter of different cultures, were thematized in the Federal Republic. Both the World Festival and Whity, were unfamiliar to us all because we were too young at the time. We had to concern ourselves with the ways they were dealt with back then, and also with the awareness that there is a longer history than one usually assumes. However, we can only reconstruct the context of those years. Whity is actually a wonderful example of such an approach: the film is hard to find, is seldom screened, and barely accessible. You can’t get Whity in PAL format, for example. And that’s interesting: why doesn’t this film exist in a format “compatible with our system”?
jb: The World Festival is similarly invisible. At the Zeitgeschichtliche Forum Leipzig, a branch of the Deutsche Historische Museum in Bonn, the crimes of the GDR are shown, but the euphoric World Festival is missing, or at least I didn’t spot it in this collection of GDR slender. I was only familiar with excerpts. If you ask people in the East, however, the event is still extremely present. The issue isn’t the joy in discovering something strange, to put my stamp on, but reconstructing ts meaning and significance.
sg: The selection of the three objects is really arbitrary and there’s something eccentric about basing an exhibition on them. However, it becomes clear that this project doesn’t start off with a theory, but instead it is materially formed. The elements function more in the way they are combined. There are two elements from the 70s, and the third element is situated on another level. Together, the three result in a rather askewed view that opens things up because we wanted it to be an approach and not a result.
hkv: The World Festival represents a projection screen for positive ideas of “society” and “community.” “Internationalism”, for instance, was a word for examination, as it was utilized as a projection screen for the left in the FRG.
sg: The various projections are reversed. All you need to do is picture Angela Davis next to Honecker to make it clear how crazy this World Festival was: 1968 Black Panther liberation in contrast to the stiff bureaucracy of the GDR administration or, the pompous antifascist and internationalistic line. In regard to Fassbinder in general and Whity in particular, I also find many things highly ambivalent. In its attempt to turn some dissident antitheater project into mainstream cinema, Whity utterly failed. The early 70s – that’s a temporal reference that for me establishes many complicated references: perhaps 1989 brought the post-war amnesia to an end and made evident the scope in which history occurs. At the beginning of the 70s, it was not foreseeable what would become of the revolutionary and reformist movements of the 60s, that this movement would peter out in such a way. But, you can already see in Fassbinder, a very skeptical politicalness that in the end situates politics on the level of sexuality, where forced heterosexuality is “abolished” as a matter of course, for instance.
ds: The question remains how the three objects can be portrayed. This applies specifically to the World Festival. For example, will we show it as a representation of “internationalism”? Do we rely on the available archival material or, on articles written by fans, relicts of the event, and even fanzines? Or instead, do we show the World Festival and its context in relation to their economic and political interconnections? Do we make comments and editorial selections? How do we crystallize our interests in this event? Do we voice our fascination or sympathy for this event, if it exists? And if we do so, how can we avoid romanticizing it? These are questions that force us to take on a position of responsibility, especially since Whity and the World Festival are fairly unknown.
ps: Now an impression could be that the third concept, “Open Borders?” constitutes a kind of contemporary intersection of the other two thematic fields. The way I understand it, though, is that we formulated “Open Borders?” as a question as well as a demand, and viewed it structurally as a topical, concrete reference to the opening of state borders.
sg: I think that the increasing – also the increasingly public – awareness that one lives among different national entities, that migration is a crucial part of the transnational European entity, including threatening backlashes and forms of neo-fascism, will be reflected in many projects.
rb: In “Open Border?” those things which do not fit into the other areas will be explicitly thematized, e. g., the gender debate. Then there are also contributions that take this concept quite literally and demand that borders be abolished. From a psychological point of view, this motif is suitable for compiling works addressing the fundamental preconditions of our discussion.
sg: The gender debate also takes place in Whity, in the works referring to it and in the film program itself.
The Curatorial Process
mk: We sent “packages” containing material on the three objects to the people we intended to invite. At first I thought we would get them all back. There was some need for discussion, but not the total perplexity that I had feared.
ps: Instead of the classical curatorial concept – there’s this installation by this or that person, and we want to have it – the folder went out to different people working in a wide variety of fields to see what they would do with it.
hkv: This concept of the three “objects” aroused quite a lot of interest, by the way. For the press, it seems to be noticeably distinct from what one normally associates with “identifying” projects – hose thematic exhibitions that promise to meet ones expectations and allegedly give clear-cut answers.
mk: One danger is that we will produce a lot of misunderstandings. Due to the fact that each artist must develop his/her own thoughts, it will have to be seen whether they function together in the end. While compiling the screening program, we noticed how difficult it is to assess whether a film fits – precisely because there is not a single theme.
rc: Things only really fit when they’re compiled and not placed in individual categories. We can only put together blocks as arguments that then comprise the whole.
hkv: For months on end, debates took place over even the smallest attempts to come up with a title. Small faults were constantly found in the concrete suggestions. We finally came up with Zugewinngemeinschaft (Community of Surplus).
rb: I found the term characteristic for our group, because our work is process-oriented and not result-oriented. The fact that such a puzzling word, which might occur in only as a subordinate clause, was made the title seems typical. The term Community of Surplus, (or in legally correct terms “statutory matrimonial property regime”), is hard to make associations with and resulted from a series of incessant debates. “Statutory matrimonial property regime” is used in marital law and in business. In marital law it designates a property regime by which each spouse retains ownership and management of his or her property during marriage, but the increase in the combined net worth of the spouses during marriage is distributed equally, no matter how much property was brought in beforehand. “Community of Surplus” can be interpreted in a number of ways.
ds: In contrast to the “objects” that have a positive connotation, the title is more negative. The first way this term can be interpreted, beyond its legal meaning in marital law, which we can’t assume many people know, corresponds to and assesses the present debate on an immigration law. In a negative way, the title makes a strange and at the same time specific reference to a community, an institution or a nation-state, while the three objects around which the contributions circle are more or less sympathetic.
mk: I was very much in favor of this title, but when I read it now, I find it has unpleasant overtones: “Community of Surplus” sounds frighteningly pragmatic.
sg: In the context of the debates on immigration the word turns into an accusation implying we only accept those we need – that’s the community of surplus.
jb: It sounds materialistic. I think of East-West and the profits of unification, as booty.
ps: The word has a very directed effect, very strategic. My first association was that a community is constructed according to crystal clear guidelines and afterwards a surplus occurs. That’s a strategic thing, beyond any kind of organic creation of a community – an aspect I can also see in the World Festival. In Whity there are these overtones as well. This “strategic creation of a community” is ambivalent because it can turn into something very effective – but it can also contain more or less explicit power structures and/or mechanisms of exclusion.
hkv: In Hans-Joachim Werner’s film “Vorbereitung auf die X. Weltfestspiele in Berlin 1973 / Preparation for the 10th World Festival in Berlin 1973” from 1972 it becomes apparent to what extent the Festival was also a factor of industrial gain. The entire GDR, with promises that they could attend, started working like crazy, and the cooperatives that surpassed the planned production target were allowed to send more people to the event. It also fuelled the economy.
rc: I can’t imagine that one would be able to immediately relate to the title. People will have to look at the exhibits, at the screenings and other contributions that make reference to the three main objects, and then ask themselves: what do these have to do with a “Community of Surplus”? It’s a question written on paper, something you take along when experiencing the Biennial, as a program. I don’t believe any single object can by itself give an answer. But, it can lead to a very productive question-and-answer game.
mk: No single work covers the entire field. Within the program, and also the entire screenings, we attempt to develop a dramaturgy that allows interconnections to develop. To this end, we want to create as many points of connection as possible.
We and the Biennial
ps: Between the thematic fields and the works stands the question pertaining to the construction of a WE. I see this as something running through all three fields. To what extent is a WE, here and now, possible without exclusion? I’d like this question – it is a question and not a statement – to be posed by many sides and in a differentiated way.
jb: The material we used as a starting-point will be adapted for presentation. At first we thought of it as a catalyst, and if the background of our objects were better known, we could maybe drop this material.
mk: To make the work – the research and this tentative grouping – visible, instead of keeping it in the background as the curator’s secret, is part of our curatorial approach.
sg: We do not want to differentiate between the contributions that were made in response to what we presented as guidelines and the guidelines themselves. In the end, the very special exhibition circumstances in Werkleitz/Tornitz intensify this concept significantly: for someone visiting the exhibition, it is hard enough to decide what belongs to the place, and what was created there by the participants. We don’t want to invest too much effort in making clear “here” is only coincidentally interesting because that’s the way the place is – “here” is where it starts getting really interesting because it’s an artistic contribution – that would lead to great artificiality. What is strangely aural about art would become even stranger and more aural; there’s a name attached to it and that’s why it’san artistic contribution, somebody had an intention – with that over there, no one had an intention, it’s simply there.
ps: The people Holger addressed all do a lot of research, we don’t adhere to this hierarchy between research and finished product as much.
hkv: What advantages and draw-backs would there be in giving a sort of matrix along the saying: “There are three ‘objects’ and it is not a coincidence that the contributions repeatedly refer to them?”
ps: It would be absurd to give instructions, as we did not want to fixate on a clear theme. Through the selection via the process of research, and through the fact that this research remains present, cross-references are established and conveyed. The issue isn’t creating a watertight documentation of the World Festival or giving a really sound film analysis of Whity. It’s about making these thematic fields available for drawing new conclusions, time and time again.
hkv: This group made decisions pertaining to all areas of the Biennial. Not only in regard to the contributions, but also in terms of the project’s overall look, how it is represented, how money is allotted, how decision-making is shared and hierarchies are avoided, etc. I think that is something pretty rare.
ps: But there are hidden hierarchies. The discussion on money always wound up with Holger.
hkv: I don’t understand what that has to do with hierarchy. Of course it’s not the group’s job to worry about getting a hold of money. But, decisions on how to use it were mostly made democratically. That’s something I’m unfamiliar with in institutional projects.
ps: For me, it’s more like cushioned self-organized work. Normally I would think: Does the poster have to be in two colors, just so I can save another 500 Marks? I don’t have to worry about that here, because there’s an institution acting as a cushion that applies for the money. I find that very pleasant too.
ds: We did address and discuss these “hidden hierarchies”, but never voiced a principle objection against them. In such a heterogeneous and large group, no one wanted to take on this responsi- bility, which goes far beyond the partial responsibilities within the group. Often actions were taken with an odd mixture of distance and interest. And, maybe it was only because the responsibility was equally split between the 14 people, that a continuity in the development of the Biennial resulted. But, this was also due to the fact that we left the financial administration to the institution. The onditions Holger and the Werkleitz Gesellschaft presented to us were acceptable, and they also functioned as a regulator and buffer within our heterogeneity. Whether that led to too many compromises is something the Biennial will reveal.
rc: I would have organized the Biennial differently; I would have structured it more hierarchically because I’m keen on knowing where the limits are. I invest my time differently, because I like to know what I’m responsible for. The decision that things were to take place non-hierarchically was Holger’s decision – not mine. There was no con- sensus in that respect.
hkv: Joint decision-making with regard to graphics, public relations and the allocation of money was a concrete demand made by the group!
ps: But, we could have agreed on using the entire sum of money to produce a film. I still think that option would have been great. Not that I necessarily wanted such a film – but that this radical decision could have been an option… In the end, I was sad that it didn’t work out.
mk: And that’s not a game. We often tried to cross the limits when working with institutions, for example by doing a radio show instead of an exhibition. We asked: do we have to do something with the space or can it be something else? And does it actually have to be art? Those were not mock debates.
sg: Developing a project for Werkleitz is different than for some museum. It took a long time before we knew what our position was, what the financial frame was, etc. It only worked because there was trust in the framework’s conditions: we knew Holger and Werkleitz as well.
rb: The guidelines were relatively clear: In Werkleitz we maneuver within an institution, but this institution is not a classical hierarchical one, since it originated as a self-initiative. But it still is an institution: you can break its limits, but then you have to take on responsibility for the people working there. The institution made clear to us the following: If this Biennial breaks with the old concept and only five or ten works are shown, or even just one film, then we, as an institution, are in deep trouble. Did a discussion make sense starting at that point?
mk: These are indeed questions I can ask. Since I’m not part of an institution, I don’t regard myself as being in a position to have to make considerations for the future of the institution by acting obediently from the very beginning. If I “only” act upon the order of an institution, I can attempt to question the limits imposed upon me and see where we come to an agreement – or in case we don’t, say: then I won’t work for you.
ps: But, here it was an absurd situation: we were commissioned by the institution to do something different from what the institution usually does.
hkv: That was an interest and not a commission. I stated that I didn’t find a Biennial along the lines of disciplines interesting, but of course the team of curators was free to do exactly that. But, to produce merely one film would have jeopardized the institution: it may not have received money for the next Biennial. This discussion was held from two different sides. With the group, the fundamental question was: “what do we want to do together in the first place?” My perspective and that of the Werkleitz Gesellschaft was: “we need a Biennial.”