INTERVIEW: INKE ARNS
On Roma architecture as an example of political self-determination, and the curatorial responsibility it takes to bring it to the exhibition space
Practicing exhibition making as a tool for collective dialogue that transcends the limits of the art world, curator and head of the Hartware MedienKunstVerein, Dortmund, Inke Arns remains committed to emancipatory aspects of art and critical thinking.
HMKV’s current exhibition FAŢADĂ/FAÇADE invited Dortmund's Roma community and their project Werkstatt Mallinckrodtstraße to present the redesign of the façade of a residential building in city's Nordstadt district. On this occasion, we spoke to Arns about this ambitious project and the advantages of solidarity between art institutions and their local communities.
Architectures of Community Engagement
AWC: Why is the cultural institution the right context for such an exhibition?
Inke Arns: The cultural institution is an interesting context for this project, but it is not the only one possible. The most important place is certainly the redesign of the Schleswiger Str. 31 façade in Dortmund’s Nordstadt district. It is a visible sign and a practical example of transformation. However, as the Nordstadt is seen as a place "on the wrong side of the tracks" (1) by those who don’t live there, I thought it would be a good idea to invite this project to HMKV’s exhibition space on the third floor of the Dortmunder U, a former brewery (it was actually the first highrise built in Dortmund in 1927). Today it is the city’s cultural lighthouse. We can reach people with the exhibition at the Dortmunder U who usually would not set foot in the Nordstadt.
What is more, we can display more building models and contextualise information in a way that wasn’t possible in the Werkstatt itself. We literally transferred the Werkstatt from the Mallinckrodt Str. location to the Dortmunder U. In addition to the complete redesign of HMKV‘s entrance area and a reading area equipped with books and other publications, the exhibition features some 20 building models, some of them room-high, inspired by Romani building culture. Most of these models have been built in order to develop the redesign of the façade of Schleswiger Str. 31. Some of the models are based on existing buildings in Romania, some are based on buildings that were torn down before being completed, while others are purely fictional. In the exhibition there is also a replica of the Schleswiger Str. 31 building, and I heard that some visitors walk over to the Nordstadt in order to see the original.
In FAŢADĂ/FAÇADE, the link between housing and political self-determination is emphasised. The latter is rather interesting, because it acknowledges the material connection between the economic status and (visual) representation, two terms that are often time seen as two distinct entities. Could you expand on HMKV's perspective on the project?
Housing and political self determination are intrinsically linked. Historically and in the present, Roma communities are among the societal groups in Europe most affected by racism and marginalisation. Being denied a place in society often meant being denied a place of settlement in the city. The Roma neighbourhoods in the cities of Romania resulted from the dividing of the Ottoman city into “Mahalas” (administrative units) and are still often referred to as such today. Although liberated from slavery after 1856, the Roma were repeatedly denied the right to own land after several land reforms and were thus left without a firm place in society. Roma districts are today mainly found in the urban periphery, in industrial or swamp areas, beneath high voltage lines or even next to landfills. Roma buildings therefore mostly come into being as a form of informal living, without building permits and not seldom without a sewer system.
Due to structural disadvantaging, discrimination and violent persecution, it is still hardly possible for many people to establish the basis for a stable existence, which includes suitable living space, educational opportunities, cultural recognition and dignified working conditions.
Against this background, the architectures of Roma communities in Romania are not only manifestations of a unique building culture but also an expression of self-empowerment, in that they elude racist attributions and pervasive prejudices. At the same time, these “dreams of homes” are also projection surfaces and are instrumentalised and criminalised in current European right-wing populism: Discriminatory and tendentious pieces in popular media reported in the course of the Brexit campaign, for example, about “Roma gypsy palaces'', which are allegedly involuntarily co-financed by British taxpayers through a claimed abuse of social services.
Roma families often live in very precarious conditions in Dortmund (and throughout the Ruhr region). As many house owners do not want to rent apartments to Roma families, they often end up in so called „Problemimmobilien“ („problem real estates“) whose owners try to make maximum profit by renting out individual „sleeping places“ („Matratzenlager“) while not investing anything into the maintenance of the building. This is a really terrible – and expensive – situation for those who have to live there.
"The architectures of Roma communities in Romania are not only manifestations of a unique building culture but also an expression of self-empowerment, in that they elude racist attributions and pervasive prejudices. At the same time, they are also projection surfaces and are instrumentalised in current European right-wing populism."
Many Roma families are at home in the neighbourhood around the Nordmarkt and are confronted with, among other problems, the absence of opportunities for political and cultural representation. To address this situation, the City of Dortmund has for several years been active, together with civic organisations, in the fields of education, qualification and the support of families in precarious circumstances, among other things. The Roma cultural festival Djelem Djelem, which is also highly regarded nationwide, was initiated several years ago as a result of the affiliation of various sponsors. In cooperation with the GrünBau gGmbH, the city in turn successively procured residential buildings, which were modernised and, in combination with fair rents, contribute to a concrete improvement in the living situation of many families. That’s what the city did with the building e.g. in Schleswiger Str. 31.
How did the collaboration between the Roma community and HMKV evolve?
Via several intermediaries. In 2016, the Interkultur Ruhr organisation, co-headed by Fabian Saavedra-Lara and Johanna-Yasirra Kluhs, invited the artists Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud to pursue the question of architectural representation in the urban environment in the context of a residency. Who or what becomes visible in the urban space, and how?
Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter have concerned themselves for many years in their works and projects with power structures, infrastructural violence in various social and geographical contexts, as well as with the question of what it means to not be heard in a society. The Fassade (Façade) project originated from research carried out by Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter in 2016/17 together with artists and friends from earlier projects in Romania. The research focused on the question of how an endangered social group develops its own self-understanding and its own representation in the urban context, moving beyond ascriptions and stigmatisation.
The starting point at that time was provided by various projects with Roma communities that had been realised by the two artists together with cultural producers and families in Romania, Kosovo, Macedonia, France and Germany, among other places. One of these projects, Hotel Gelem, was honoured by the European Council in 2012. Important aspects in the collaborative processes co-initiated by Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter consist of dealing with structural and institutional racism, as well as a consideration of questions of cultural and political representation or marginalisation.
An important element of their work consists of various networks of relationships spanning geographical boundaries that arise through collaborative processes and that link their projects with one another. One of these strands extends to the Ruhr region and provided an important basis for the start of work on location in Dortmund.
Following the continuation of research in the Ruhr region, a workshop was set up in 2018 in the Mallinckrodtstraße in the Nordstadt district of Dortmund. For more than a year, residents from the diverse Roma community around the Dortmund Nordmarkt built models here for the design of a building façade in an adjoining street. The models are inspired by the fantastic architectural forms that Roma families have been realising for many years in the villages and streets of Romania. One of the designs was realised in a communal effort for a residential building at Schleswigerstraße 31.
I was curating exhibitions with Fabian Saavedra-Lara, and I knew Mathias Jud and Christoph Wachter from their earlier projects. After a studio visit in the Werkstatt Mallinckrodt Str. in June 2019, I was really amazed by the positive energy that this project produced, and when the team voiced their interest in an exhibition in a cultural institution I spontaneously said "Let’s do it!" I really hope that this project will gain greater visibility through this exhibition at the HMKV.
The notions of engagement with local populations that experience disproportionate political violence in German cities are of crucial importance in this exhibition. How can cultural institutions incorporate such engagements into their everyday operations, and not just one singular project?
Cultural institutions can incorporate such engagements into their everyday operation by supporting the causes voiced beyond one singular project. Together with Interkultur Ruhr and the City of Dortmund we would be pleased to show the house models at other locations in the city and region after the exhibition at HMKV, and would like to continue to support the work of the Mallinckrodtstraße workshop in 2021. Currently, the workshop is looking for a new space, and we are in close communication with the City of Dortmund who already suggested that an empty school building might function as the next venue. Beyond the new space we are also discussing prolonging the contract of Cernat Siminoc (Roger) who leads the Mallinckrodtstraße workshop. He was regularly employed by HMKV during the entire year of 2020 and the first two months of 2021, and there are good chances that he will be employed by the City of Dortmund after that. Some of the people who participated in the project have been working in extremely precarious and exploitative jobs in agriculture (as human harvesters) and the meat industry here in Germany.
"You must understand whom you are talking to, who is your audience, and what is the social situation of the place you are working in. Institutions should develop projects and activities together with local actors. Talk to the specialists!"
How can forms of solidarity and mutual cooperation between institutions and their local communities be strengthened?
It’s funny that you are asking me about institutions – so far, HMKV has been based on rather precarious project funding which has made it difficult to develop even a medium term perspective. To this day me and my colleagues are working on the basis of contracts that only last for one year. A new contract every year, depending on the availability of project funding. Luckily this is changing now: After a ten year (or so) long discussion with the Land NRW we will finally receive institutional funding and will – at least emotionally – have a somewhat more stable basis to work from.
To answer your question: I think it is crucial for the (cultural) institution to be aware of its local surroundings. You have to understand where you are working. I was, for example, very careful about putting too much weight on East European topics because I noticed that there was no such interest in Dortmund or the Ruhr Area (or NRW). However, on the other side I would not allow the surrounding to completely dictate the content of the institution. I have always addressed global themes (ecology, the alt-right, copyright law, whistleblowers, Artificial Intelligence, to name just a few) because these topics matter no matter where you are. What is crucial: You must understand whom you are talking to, who is your audience, and what is the social (as well as political and economic) situation of the place/city/region you are working in. Sometimes you need to embed or frame these issues in specific narratives to connect them to local interests. And institutions should develop projects and activities together with local actors. Talk to the specialists!
Seeing that in Dortmund there are civic organisations focused on various aspects of community engagement, such as education and family support, what was the reaction of the city administration to this project?
One could say that the City of Dortmund is a co-initiator of the project! The project at the Nordmarkt was supported by Interkultur Ruhr, the City of Dortmund and GrünBau gGmbH. It is part of a long term strategy of the City of Dortmund for the concrete improvement of the living situation of Roma families through the acquisition of residential buildings in the Nordstadt district and the modernisation of apartments with fair rents, as well as conveying a differentiated picture of Roma cultures and the promotion of autonomous organisations. HMKV provides a cultural platform and a spotlight for a project that should not be limited to, or mistaken as, social work.
If we take into account the more formal aspects of Roma building culture, one can observe a mixture of “neoclassicism, Baroque and American colonial style”. Eclectic formalism seems to prevail aesthetically, refusing to conform to current trends of functional architecture. Could you expand on the ornamental role of these facades?
Roma building culture is extremely decorative and eclectic. A lot of different styles have been incorporated into it, and it has also significantly shaped the Romanian architectural tradition – just think about the roof shapes of Romani houses that are reminiscent of Romanian church roofs. It is very much about adapting local styles, and combining them with global ideas of the ideal house. Concerning the painted wall ornaments: There are more traditional ornaments (like the diagonally painted corners inside the houses), and more contemporary ones (like the black and white ornament which is reminiscent of Vasarely). We can find a lot of columns and arches on the façade as well as in the interior – real ones as well as painted ones.
Columns are a prominent element of a very interesting residential building featured in the exhibition: It looks like a court building. Why is that? After the court in the Romanian city of Caracal sentenced Dan Finuţu to a term of imprisonment for fraud in the 1990s, he swore to the judges that he would build his own court. Dan Finuţu did in fact erect a monumental building, the façade of which is a copy of the court building in Caracal, 71 km away in the middle of the town of Buzescu. However, while the original presents itself with Corinthian columns, the copy has columns of a Tuscan arrangement, and where the word “JUDECATORIE” stands on the original building in Caracal, “Dan-Finuţu-2003” is found in large letters in Buzescu.
Besides monumental columns there are also a lot of appropriated logos of luxury brands (Mercedes, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Porsche, and the like) featured on many of the façades, like four gold-plated Versace logos that are part of the façade of Schleswiger Str. 31 in Dortmund. These luxury brands are symbols of a good life. However, if you cannot afford real Versace, then just make it yourself, à la „fake it until you make it.“
New Media, Immateriality, & Education
Over the past 20-something years, you have built close relationships with the cultural milieu of eastern Europe, specifically Slovenia. During this lapse of time, artistic discourse has experienced a renewed interest in eastern European post-war art history. What can the avant-garde legacies (for example, the retro-avantgarde) of eastern Europe reveal about today’s political climate which is increasingly marked by ideological discrepancies and manipulation of truth?
Laibach (and NSK) as an artist collective have proven to be extremely visionary artists. Since the early 1980s they have confronted us with our unspoken and continued fascination with nationalism, and totalitarian ideology and aesthetics. Laibach’s concerts (which I first witnessed in 1987 in West-Berlin, at the Quartier Latin which today is the Wintergarten) provided an extremely unsettling experience because out on stage they supposedly embraced totalitarianism by literally „overidentifying“ with it. They did not choose a critical approach, so typical of the left, but they rather did the opposite. Their statements read like “Our freedom is the freedom of those who think alike“ or “All art is subject to political manipulation [...], except for that which speaks the language of this same manipulation” or “Art and totalitarianism are not mutually exclusive.” Wham! Slavoj Žižek coined the term „overidentification“ to describe this approach. They stripped us of our political naivety. During the concerts we realized that literally everybody, no matter how enlightened s/he is, is potentially receptive for all kinds of manipulation. At the same time it was also strangely funny. Michael Benson, director of the film Predictions of Fire (1995), wrote that Laibach/NSK „spent much of the last decade investigating the nexus where art, ideology and religion meet. Their provocative body of work is characterized in part by a revival of taboo nationalist symbols and totalitarian archetypes for purposes of exorcism and catharsis. In their objects, music, theater and artistic actions, NSK [...] both anticipated and, more importantly, revealed the mechanism of the resurgent nationalism currently devastating the Balkans.” (1995)
Laibach have warned about authoritarian tendencies prevalent in Europe today – and they have voiced it during Socialism in the 1980s, as well as afterwards, when the political / ideological situation became more complex. I wrote my M.A. thesis about the Neue Slowenische Kunst (published in 2002), and later also parts of my PhD (2004) and published various articles about this.
How do you look back at HMKV’s pioneering historical engagement with new media, especially in relation to current trends in contemporary art, where the use of new technologies might not be ‘unusual’ anymore?
Some five years ago I published a rant about so-called post-internet art. Re-reading it today I found it quite amusing and I could still use it to describe „current trends in contemporary art“ using new technologies. (2)
Luckily there are many artists around today who work differently, many of whom I have had the pleasure to collaborate with, like Aram Bartholl, Elisa Giardina Papa, Hito Steyerl, Constant Dullaart, Nadja Buttendorf, Sebastian Schmieg, Adam Harvey, Olia Lialina, Dragan Espenschied, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, RYBN, Simon Denny, DISNOVATION.ORG, Jonas Staal, UBERMORGEN, and many others. Check out the exhibitions The World Without Us (Dortmund 2016), Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun (Dortmund 2016), alien matter (Berlin 2017), and The Sea Is Glowing (Rijeka 2020) for more details. Or check out what places like HEK are doing in Basel, or Rhizome in New York, or panke.gallery in Berlin. ZKM in Karlsruhe is good at producing big survey exhibitions. Sure, from time to time there are big solo exhibitions happening like now Hito Steyerl and Simon Denny at Kunstsammlung NRW in Düsseldorf. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. These artistic positions (which I have the greatest respect for) are quite easy to integrate and present in a museum. However, there’s new kinds of wild practices out there, in the networks, that very often resist representation, which are incredibly difficult to link to the reality of museums or institutions. Constant Dullaart’s buying of (fake) Twitter followers and adding them to unsuspecting art world proms belongs to this kind of praxis.
As the use of computer interfaces and communication technologies is slowly losing its specificity as an artistic medium (by becoming relatively ubiquitous) in what ways does HMKV deal with the changing meaning of the concept of ‘new media’? Could we say that the very elasticity of the term ‘new media’ allows for its continuous adaptation to the present moment?
Yes, precisely so. I never really liked the term, but what is good about it is that it is rather flexible. It can be stretched to an extreme, and it can be made to include anything that is still considered as not being part of the „canon“. Wild things, undisciplined practices that are out there. It is a tactical term with a shifting meaning. At least that’s how I am using it.
Algorithmic governance, artificial intelligence and nanoparticles have contributed to the increasing reconsideration of human agency. You have explored such issues in the exhibitions alien matter (2017) and The World Without Us (2016). When materials themselves are acknowledged as a repository of potentialities, how does the artistic practice itself shift, especially in relation to the idea of an autonomous producer?
First of all: Don’t mistake AI for an autonomous producer. Or nanoparticles. Or algorithmic infrastructure. Even if these systems seem to act autonomously, they don’t, and most important of all: Even if they act autonomously, they don’t follow their own goals. It’s just automation! And as these machines or systems have been programmed by human programmers working for big corporations or state bodies, they will contain „algorithmic bias“ (i.e. the white male gaze recognizing only persons that look alike) and they will try to work towards certain goals. But they are not autonomous entities. They are still tools of human/corporate/state agency if you will.
The “alien matter” exhibition I curated at HKW in Berlin for the 30th edition of the transmediale festival in 2017 dealt with the neo-cybernetic couplings of humans, living entities, and technology, and of human and non-human abilities—and addressed the shifts in this power structure. Technologies have become an obvious element of the new object cultures surrounding us. „Alien matter“ is thus not something in the distant future but rather an integral part of our present. The artists in the exhibition revealed the extent to which our supposedly familiar environment has already become alien material. They were interested in such diverse things as algorithms, plastic, pattern recognition, exascale computing, non-human agents, and the fact that technology is becoming, through miniaturization, an increasing part of our everyday, material environment. As such, they succumbed less to the fascination of a singularity in whatever form (the moment computers take control of everything), but instead appropriated the term „crapularity“, coined by Justin Pickard in Alternatives to the Singularity (2011): “3D printing + spam + micropayments = tribbles that you get billed for, as it replicates wildly out of control. 90% of everything is rubbish, and it’s all in your spare room – or someone else’s spare room, which you’re forced to rent through AirBnB.” Florian Cramer writes in Crapularity Hermeneutics (2016) that the popularity of this dystopia is reflected in the growing number of subscribers to the Twitter feed Internet of Shit (currently 437.644). Under the motto, “The Internet of Shitty Things is here. Have all of your best home appliances ruined by putting the Internet in them!” the microblog posts, for example, images of a blue (crashed) screen in a Windows elevator, faulty train station displays, and alerts about a car updating its operating system while driving.
But what happens if computers are at some point no longer connected to devices? If artificial intelligence (AI) gets literally inside things? Then the world becomes truly alien—with intelligent liquids, smart dust, thinking mucus, and feeling fog that can assume different physical states just as the T-1000 terminator can. According to Günther Anders (in The Outdatedness of Things), machines of the future will become one single machine which no longer requires differentiation. All distinctions will become obsolete. “Whether crapularity or singularity, the differentiation of systems into such subcategories as ‘Internet,’ ‘artificial intelligence,’ ‘machine vision’ and ‘pattern recognition,’ ‘big data,’ ‘smart cities’ and ‘internet of things’ will likely soon become a thing of the past.” (Florian Cramer) But it hasn’t gotten that far yet.
You were asking how, in the light of these developments, the artistic practice itself shifts, especially in relation to the idea of an autonomous producer? Well, maybe things get a bit more complex, as there are fridges talking to one another, and robot hoovers ordering dust bags. Don’t get lured into the „it‘s alive and autonomous“ thing but rather question who profits from it, who programs the machine, which patterns is the machine looking for and why etc. Focus on the absurd sides of automation for a change. But always remember: Metadata kills (Adam Harvey).
"You could argue that art institutions are as far removed from society as academia is, each in their own filter bubble. But if you make good use of the institution you can turn it into a powerful tool for new thinking and inclusive discourse or an interface between specialist knowledge and society."
You have written elsewhere about the artistic gesture of re-enactments, a practice of resurrecting past events with the aim of uncovering certain aspects that might become legible in a different way in the present. In what way can exhibition making as a critical practice also work in a similar way, shedding lights on previously underrepresented directions?
I find this question a bit hard to answer without sounding grandiose: Many artists (at least those I am or have been working with) have very sensible antennas for what’s cooking, and it’s worthwhile listening to them. They are researching and addressing topics that only later will turn out to be relevant for a broader audience. It’s been like that with exhibitions I curated e.g. about copyright, oil, the arctic, and the alt-right. Sometimes it’s almost a bit uncanny when you can say: Yes, we already addressed this issue in this and that exhibition, and here’s the publication documenting the artistic projects and which is additionally including a comprehensive glossary. Not sure if this answers your question …
Thinking about it a bit more, an exhibition that did exactly what you described was the exhibition Les Immatériaux, produced in 1985 by the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Curated by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput, the exhibition is considered a milestone of exhibition history. Its complex content—the now proverbial “immatériaux” as a description of the technological and epistemic changes in our relationship to the “material”—cannot be easily reduced to a simple formula. In summary: “Les Immatériaux” asked how the use of new technologies and their “immaterials” would change the relationship between humans and the surrounding material world. The original exhibition press release states “Good old materiality itself reaches us in the end as something that has been dissolved and recomposed in complicated formulas. Reality consists of elements that are organized by structural laws (matrices) beyond human measures of space and time.” These immaterials do not, at first glance, differ from materials we are familiar with, but they are organized according to very different laws. One example is genetically engineered organisms.
Les Immatériaux was an exhibition that was way uncannily ahead of its time. Many issues raised by the show only later became legible more clearly.
Coming from an academic background yourself, what kind of educational role can an art institution fulfil today?
I have the impression that academia today is a rather closed system. It is very much about individual specialisation, and the distance to society of this kind of specialization is growing. Please don’t get me wrong: Specialized knowledge is incredibly valuable, and there are researchers I admire for their in-depth knowledge. But there is no built-in „educational role“ in this kind of knowledge, in the sense of enabling people to think about and address topics that are relevant for society today. Academia in that sense is very much apart from society. That’s I guess why I left academia after finishing my PhD some fifteen years ago – and why I turned to exhibition-making.
Of course you could argue that art institutions or the art scene are as far removed from society as academia is, each in their own filter bubble. Some definitely are. But if you make good use of the institution you potentially can turn the institution into a powerful tool for new thinking and inclusive discourse (with art at its center), or an interface between specialist knowledge and society and you can make it into a site of collective dialogue and action. Institutions that are understood and used in such a way can become spaces to test out new models of thinking and interaction.
I really believe in the power of exhibitions as a discursive tool, as they open up discursive and political spaces by the means of art. For me, exhibition making is something really crucial. It’s always a special moment when, during the setting up of an exhibition, the works start talking to each other, when the dialogic machine is set into motion, and one becomes a witness of this exchange.
The power of art is that it allows us to see things differently, beyond the given. It provides and engages us in narratives that are different from the ones we know from everyday life. These different narratives can change how we see the world. They can potentially destabilize entrenched beliefs. At least a tiny bit.
The interview was contucted via email in November 2020.
Faţadă/Façade runs from 24. October 2020 until 21. March 2021 at HMKV at Dortmunder U, Level 3.
Image: Werkstatt Mallinckrodtstr, Photo by Christian Huhn