Recently I discovered the past and present works of artists from the Balkans and immediately decided I wanted to head anywhere in the vicinity. The works of many of these Balkan artists, such as Luchezar Boyadjiev and Slovene collectives Irwin and NSK, investigate the dynamic interactions of cultural and visual contexts in regards to urban space and the overlapping identities Eastern Europeans occupy. What interested and inspired me in the work coming out of such nations was how these artists were dealing with the abrupt transitions going on around them; Changing from former communist countries into part of the European Union all the while negotiating new recognition from the West. I wanted to see how artists were reacting to these changes and how these changes affected both the personal and political memories of these nations.
I think we can all agree that at some point almost every Government has tried to cover up its past mistakes through creating new connotations to physical sites, by renaming or reconstruction, or through repositioning the collective consciousness of historical phenomenon. However, Governments are not the only ones with an interest in reshaping the memories of the not so pleasant past. What about people? How do we personally play a role as well in the dichotomies of remembering and forgetting, both collectively and individually?
Well, I didn’t wind up in Slovenia or anywhere else in the newly coined “Western Central Europe” (i.e. the Balkans) but here in Berlin I did find a gallery that was also interested in exploring these issues.
The exhibition Der Blind Fleck (the blind spot) hosted by the Neue Geselleschaft fur Bildende Kunst (NGBK) uses the blind spot, an optical phenomenon, to explore the social and political dialectic of memory and forgetting. A blind spot is produced by the insensitivity of the retina region of our eye, creating a temporary inability to visually access everything in our surroundings. The artists in this exhibit have used the blind spot as metaphor for the way both cities and people rebuild or abandoned in order to make tragedy and trauma inaccessible and unseen. The exhibition displays the power of both physical and psychological spaces, examining how the human mind can also create blind spots through our ability to forget or selectively remember.
For me the exhibit brought up some larger questions and I was fortunately able to address these with the curators Lith Bahlmann and Anke Hoffman.
Jaime Schwartz: What is the significance (if any) of displaying this show here in Berlin? Do you think the unification of Germany is somehow an example (good or bad) of a city remembering/forgetting the past, or somehow parallel to the experiences of those living in former communist states?
Lith Balhmann: Well, in the current discourses about the politics of remembrance and memory, Germany is still a country post-Auschwitz: all political events are somehow related to this dark side of Germany’s past and are subject to interpretation under this historical and political parameter. Berlin itself is based on the past always relating to great narrations of progressiveness and victory in the sense of grand triumph and success. Monuments such as the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate are no longer manifestations of power but have since transformed into physical symbols of memory and their connotation has changed and will continue to change.
However, our thematic approach to the exhibition is not exclusively politically motivated. We didn’t try to draw comparisons concerning questions about the coping with history in the post-socialist EU-states. The exhibition title Der Blinde Fleck serves us in our curatorial investigations primarily as a metaphorical vehicle allowing us to widely associate the very different aspects of the mechanisms and meanings of forgetting, selective disremembering and memory repression. The exhibition shows a selection of international artistic positions, concerning not only the phenomenon of reality, but also illuminating varied social discourses. We chose works that concern issues of obliteration and reduction purely aesthetically and works that actively question the human perception of blind spots, for example, the internet-platform Zone*Interdite by the Swiss artists Chrisoph Wachter and Mathias Jud.
Anke Hoffman: For me, the significance of the exhibit being displayed in Berlin is similar to the predicament of almost every society that has experienced a political (and ideological) transformation. The significance being that architectural symbols and landmarks in a City are constantly being re-interpreted according to the perspective of the current political power. This change of perspective evokes specific historical stories and historical contexts in regards to the ruling power. This has happened in Berlin after the re-unification, and in many other former East European cities that are still in transition. For example in Berlin, street names have been changed, the city has been "cleansed" of former "heroes" without questioning and the much discussed dismantling of the former Palace of the Republic which attempts to negate the 40 year history of a communist/socialist run country with all its ambivalent decisions and ideologies.
So in this example, yes, there is a certain motivation to make such an exhibition about these topics here in Berlin, although as Lith stated, we consider this exhibition to have a wider theme than only the political and historical issues of a national culture. Nevertheless, you can read something about the dealing with history in different transforming cities in the work of Hörner/Antlfinger, who researched individual coping strategies within Sofia, Bulgaria, and also in the work of Hito Steyerl, about the former ideological history of the Yugoslavian "Idea". JS: Do you think there is a difference between not forgetting and remembering? Does one have a more positive connotation? And how are the artists playing with the dichotomy?
LB: I think there is no forgetting without remembering and no remembering without forgetting, however, it is difficult to say which one is politically more dangerous since both options have the tendency to obliterate the past whether through exclusion or through the attempt to control and predetermine how these acts should be introduced into the cultural memory of today and tomorrow. In this context, forgetting has a more negative connotation. However, there are also positive aspects concerning forgetting which can be seen in the large-scale installation Allee der Schlaflosigkeit (Avenue of Wakefulness) from Berlin based artist Klaus Weber and the series of paintings from Albrecht Schäfer. The Avenue of Wakefulness is an architectural model filled with blooming Angel’s Trumpets whose fragrance is said to have a narcotic effect. Weber’s idyllic setting provides a place of intoxicated transgression of the existential boundaries of time and space temporarily withdrawn from reality that is dominated by control mechanisms and security concepts. When one enters this installation, there is a temporary loss of control and loss of the self that becomes a Dionysian experience of “forgetting oneself”. This can ultimately be read as the antithesis of the Apollonian impulse towards harmony and control. Albrecht Schäfer, shows in his work that selectively disregarding redundancies can lead to an active form of forgetting and finally to a cleansing process. In his piece The Sun, 4.8.2007 Schäfer changes every single page of an edition of a selected English tabloid into a monochromatic grey surface, effacing the object’s significance, leading to a white noise of information.
AH: The only thing worse than losing your mind ... is finding it again, to paraphrase director David Cronenberg and the introductory quote from film historian Matthias Wittman’s essay in the exhibition catalogue. There are definitely a lot of positive aspects and appeal to forgetting. Forgetting helps us to overcome some of our everyday feelings of pain and frustration. However, forgetting is a virulent part of these rather psychological and social behaviors.
Beside the works of Weber and Schäfer we have also put this method to work in the exhibition design itself. You enter and are confronted with rather sensual and abstract works and then further inside you come towards the issues of politics, history and research. Once you have walked through the entire exhibition you enter Weber’s Avenue of Wakefulness and find yourself in a idyllic garden setting of bumble-bees and wonderful smelling flowers, allowing you to relax and almost forget what you have just heard and seen...
JS: Do you see people or places having an advantage in the not forgetting/remembering dichotomy? Do you feel on is more successful/holds more weight than the other? For example the video Piece Journal # 1 - An Artists impression vs. the photographs of Richard Chutz and the video of Nina Fisher and Maroan El Sani.
LB: I see those three pieces engaged in the forgetting of history in very different ways. I feel they follow different thematic approaches and thus are open to different thematic discourses. In this sense the whole exhibition possesses no narration but naturally the works correlate to each other and that is of course intended and desirable in a group show.
The photographic series Jetztzeit (Realtime) from Richard Schütz operates in a fascinating realm in-between a fictionalized and documentary-style representation of history. His images question the consequences of fictionalizing history and how this has now become one of the most popular forms of media entertainment. The photograph from his series titled Ausblendung (Fade Out) shows the Palace of the Republic behind a casing-wall, clearly referencing the present political need to erase contemporary evidence of German state socialism by eradicating its symbols and at the same time it’s like a historical déjà-vu to reconstruct the Prussian city palace. This process exemplifies the present relationship between West Germany and East Germany.
Hito Steyerl’s film rather deals with subjective means of giving testimony and individual reconstruction of history that exist for the multiethnic citizens of the former Yugoslavia. These memories consist of very different images, exemplifying that there is not only one single narration.
In Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani’s film Toute la memoire du monde-BNF I deals with the loss of traditional knowledge spaces in today’s internet-based world. Their film addresses how we are currently confronting an information overload while simultaneously experiencing an increase of forgetting. As if the over saturation of information is creating yet another blind spot.
AH: Let me add some other points to my colleague’s answer. First, we did not commission any new works for this show, so none of these artists intended on meeting our curatorial ideas; however, they were all very delighted when we introduced our topic to them and invited them to take part in the show. We did not want an exhibition where all the works deal with all the same issues so we chose a variety of works, some more narrative, others more associative and therefore interact with the visitors in a more subtle and sensual way. We wanted to create a varied response for our visitors so there might be works which are more accessible, more readable than others – in the way of what they are talking about - but there is this underlying unconscious access to art and its topic, which functions best if you mix issues and formats with each other. An exhibition is also a sensual parcours of understanding. JS: Do you think the cultural/political themes this show accesses help or hinder the "healing" process for spaces that have been sites of trauma/tragedy. How does one begin again and at what point is this acceptable?
LB: A trauma - individual or national based – that is not worked through and exposed becomes a danger to repeat itself, or so teaches the psychoanalysis. Ousted contents, painful or shame-related experiences should become regarded, worked out and be integrated in the reality. I think using artistic reflection, as a coping strategy, is a very good method and one that contributes to the healing - and reconciliation process. Oftentimes artistic expressions allow us to change our perspective by actively trying to rehabilitate taboo themes and exposing questions related to these taboos.
AH: To me this is a very complex question and I will try to comment with the example of the recently released film Baader Meinhof Complex that has produced many heated and diverse discussions about this question. The movie is about the terrorist group the RAF (Red Army Faction) that was active during the 1970s, and which is still a subject of national "healing". The German people have quite diverse and often emotional reactions to what happened and are still interested in finding out the truth. In the last ten years much better films on this topic have been made but this new film is a so-called Blockbuster, an entertainment film. So is it suitable to make a blockbuster film 30 years after this national trauma? I think this will motivate a dialogue of dealing and healing in Germany. JS: How do you think the European Union is helping or hurting, for example in countries with recent admittance such as Bulgaria and Slovenia, other "Balkan" States deal with the history of these places?
LB: I think that there is a discrepancy between the economic and cultural integration of the new EU-states. For example, if states like Slovenia or Bulgaria are economically integrated but yet are still in the process of ongoing economic change this winds up creating further cultural segregation from the rest of Europe. The related problems and questions of identity are addressed by Ute Hörner and Matthias Antlfinger in their multi-part installation Sofia Time Travel Experiment – Speaking with the unconscious social mind. The artists used the methodology and ideas of American psychotherapist Milton H. Erickson in order to study the sensitivities of post-socialistic mentalities. He used the idea of mental time-travel to enter into a dialogue with the unconscious mind, and thereby evoke images from the past, and visions of oneself in the future.
In the recordings made by the artists, the protagonists mix autobiographical memories with descriptions of the contemporary historical phenomenon of the urban public space. This “oral history” of the recent past and present in Bulgaria reveals hardly any bitterness. Future-orientated visions reveal longings for safety, cleanliness, and control and insecurities in the face of new social requirements. A collective personal testimonial is expressed in the complexity of the participants´ statements, a psycho- gram of the change of a social system going beyond stereotypes and self-protectiveness. As opposed to strategies of selective disremembering that one is often confronted with when dealing with the post-socialistic past, psycho-social practices used by artistic approaches may be capable of initiating a subjective method of coping with the past, and a more interpersonal exchange.
AH: As Lith mentioned, the work of Hörner/Antlfinger gives a very interesting insight into the souls of people in such a "transforming city". We learn about their fears and hopes. The EU is a big step for all these countries and combined with the hope to be "part of the family" comes the disadvantages and disappointments. Therefore, I think, in regards to whether the EU is helping or hurting a general YES or NO is impossible to state. JS: As curators what is your role in this? does it fall into the remembering or not forgetting? Where do you see yourselves in the exhibition?
LB: At this point I would like to mention the special and unique structure of our institution, the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (New Society for Visual Arts) in which members work together on different exhibition themes. In addition to the changing project teams, a number of groups have been engaged in more long-term continuous work. The development of our concept preceded a discursive working process in the project group RealismusStudio. The NGBK´s RealismusStudio has been in existence since 1973, albeit with changing personal. It addresses contemporary artistic positions on current social questions. In this way, young, less well-known and unknown artists, as well as internationally renowned artists, enter into dialogue.
In this particular case of “the blind spot” my colleague Anke Hoffmann and I did not have a prefab thesis to this project. Our point was to follow a wide spread process of research which aimed to create a room for reflection belonging to our questions on the topic of forgetting, selective disremembering and memory repression. The result of our research is visible in form of the exhibition, a catalogue and a small number of events, including performances, a film- and video program and some lectures. With all this we hope to inspire and make suggestions to the visitors, to make them come closer to their own thoughts and reflections on these themes.
AH: On both sides, naturally, thanks for your interesting questions.
Jaime Schwartz holds an M.A in Contemporary Art Theory and Curatorial Practice from San Francisco State University. Jaime currently resides in Berlin, after many years in San Francisco where she worked for the SFMOMA Artist's Gallery, The Judah L. Magnes Museum and The San Francisco Arts Commission. Most recently, Jaime is the Co- Founder and Director of The Center for Endless Progress, a new gallery and project space in Neukölln. More information can be found at endlessprogress.or