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26. Februar 2009

“You have to deal with the corrupt apparatus of culture”

von Sabine Falk und Christoph Schäfer

An Interview with the Critical Art Ensemble was held on August 16 th 2008, in Hamburg. The CAE was represented by Steve Kurtz, Lucia Sommer and Steve Barnes. They were asked about their artistic contribution to the exhibition “Natur/Kultur”, curated by Anke Haarmann and Harald Lemke in the late summer of 2008 in Hamburg–Wilhelmsburg. Sabine Falk and Christoph Schäfer were interviewing for THE THING Hamburg, Margit Czenki recorded the discussion.

Sabine Falk (SF): There are some artists and artist groups from Hamburg who have been involved in IBA art project last year and who decided not to be involved any more. One of the strongest arguments was not to work in favor of gentrification as an artist. As we appreciate your work and you are leaving on Monday morning, we would like to ask you about your position. Do you see any contradictions in this project? Do you have any questions about the whole thing and what are your questions?

Lucia Sommer (LS): There is contradiction in everything we do—we can’t escape contradictions in the society we live in.

Steven Kurtz (SK): Yes, the “we must be contradiction-free” position is not one of ambivalence, it is the position of purity. And I know no greater way to retrogress any faster then to say I am in a pure position. We are not. And it has been known for decades and decades—going back to modernism—that all resistance is dependent on those it resists for its funding and for its infrastructure.

© Critical Art Ensemble, »Peep Under the Elbe«, Kultur / Natur, Wilhelmsburg, Germany, 2008. In a series of mobile performances in August 2008, CAE worked with residents of Wilhelmsburg to use on-site testing kits to explore the quality of the canal water near their homes and leisure sites.

So, anytime we approach any institution it is always going to be a negotiation. In this case, we did not know about IBA when we got here. We were just invited: “Come to this eco-festival, this is the kind of work we are doing, we are interested in tactical media like you guys do.“ And when we got here, we found out the funding source is very controversial. But I think that even if we had known about the controversy from the beginning, I doubt that it would have changed our minds about coming. We’ve taken money from all kinds of horrible places and been in festivals sponsored by the most loathsome corporations ever. You know when you go into an exchange like this, that funders are trying to get out of it what they can, and you try to get out of it what you can, to build resistance. One way to give the minimum is to deprive the funders of a return on their investment. That is what we go for. We always take a very anti-monumental, deterritorialized stand.

So in this case, you noticed we did two projects. We did one for the “Tonne”, which has nothing to do with Wilhelmsburg whatsoever. It has to do with privileged people coming together to view art. And thinking about what some of their problems are and identifying some of their sources of self-identification. If done well, perhaps there is a way we can inject a different kind of political consciousness into what they think and perhaps how they behave.

“Nothing that IBA can exploit”
And then we did our project for Wilhelmsburg. And there is pretty much no public trace beyond a pamphlet we made. I’d like to see IBA make anything out of that! Now we did a lot, we did a lot of performances, we met lots of people, we empowered people with tools, we tested the quality of the local water, and gave them water testing kits to monitor their own environments. They do not have to just listen to IBA, they have their own way to think about their environment; and now some of them do not have to depend on experts, or wait for the city to test the water quality, or wait for scientists to do it. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to monitor your environment. The tools to do it have been optimized and they are relatively cost effective. What will remain of these activities? Nothing that IBA can exploit. When we went for the bus tour the other day, the journalists were complaining, “Why don’t we get to see any of your work?” The answer is, because our work here is not for you. You will not see anything because it deterritorializes itself as soon as it is done.

SF: Is it always like this, that you do not know anything about the structures you are invited to?

SK: Not always, sometime we know quite a bit about them.

SF: Didn’t you feel the need to have some information about the structures here?

SK: No.

SF: Why not?

SK: Because we have to come and experience the structure. If we had asked, everybody has their particular answer. Kultur/Natur have their answers, Christoph has his answer, and if we go over to the bar across the canal, they have their answers…

SF: …but you always have to ask someone to get some information….

SK: Yes, but it is much better when you come, and then a variety of people can tell you the information while you are experiencing what’s actually happening and looking for yourself. Like the issue of gentrification—it seems to really be on people’s minds sitting here, but it’s not so much on the minds of the local people. Every time we brought this issue up with the people fishing in the canals, they had little say about it.

One of the things we were doing was also trying to encourage populations who use the canals for recreation to move around a bit. If you want to fish and eat fish, it’s healthiest if you catch them in the South Elbe. Or, if you want to swim, do not go to Reiherstieg. That canal is too polluted, you should swim in the South Elbe.

© Critical Art Ensemble, »Peep under the Elbe«, 2008

LS: We were just talking to some fishermen, 100 yards from here.

SF: Does he sell this fish?

SK: No, he is not selling it, these fishermen (anglers) do not do any commercial fishing. We were talking with people who use this waterway for leisure and fun.

LS: Also a lot of people here fish to supplement their food supply because they can’t afford to buy fish in the shop. To return to your earlier question, about why we did not ask more about the structure here: what festival could we go to where these kinds of contradictions don’t exist?

“It’s a Walmart strategy”

SK: We work on a first-come-first-serve basis. Anywhere we go with institutional support it is quite likely that Nokia, IBM, Microsoft and so on is sponsoring it.

Christoph Schäfer (CS): Yes well, but maybe I have to talk a bit of our side. We have been part of the project last year, called “Wilhelmsburger Freitag”. It was started as a project financed by the cultural board of Hamburg. More and more it became clear, it was IBA that was just starting at that time. In the summer IBA began a very aggressive marketing campaign. I would say they used new guerilla tactics of marketing, where they went to community organizing spaces, to all cultural centers and so on. They piled their publicity stuff up there.

SK: It’s a Walmart strategy.

CS: Yes, it was. But in kind of alternative places, in a more microscopic way, which was interesting. And for us after half a year of practice it became quite evident that IBA is working on the ground in a very rhizomatic way, it is very participatory, it talks to everybody and on the level of communication it controls everything, it controls the images, and none of the critical content is getting out. This time Nature/Kultur is talking for it self. The mediation of the poster says, “Come to Wilhelmsburg, if you are a white middle class person, there is water ready to bath in”.

SK: That is not true.

CS: It calls Elbinsel summer 2008, that is the new image of this Elbe island, nobody called this area “island” before, it was Wilhelmsburg and everybody hated it and detested it.

SF: As if we had elections in the city and actually I think that all projects, including yours, is like the politics of the green party…

SK: Yes.

SF:...so you have to think of the role of the artist, who are doing politics and being paid very little

SK: Well, we have been paid nothing, we are losing money doing this.

© Critical Art Ensemble, »Peep under the Elbe«, 2008

CS: Oh my god!

LS: We got a project budget.

SK: And we spent the budget just flying everybody over.

CS: It is getting worse and worse.

LS: We used Andy Warhol Foundation money for it. Which is another foundation…

SK: …Another foundation that has done some rather corrupt actions in the art market, although it is far better than most.

SF: Isn’t that close to »Wochenklausur« from Austria? Do you know that? And their kind of politics, because it sounds a little bit familiar to me. To use some foundations, to use their money just to do your kind of work, to have a certain end for the projects, and dedicate the money to that end is in some aspects what »Wochenklausur« succeeded in doing.

SK: I think it is either that or do nothing. With the apathy and purity strategies you cannot do anything. One thing we have to remember is that the artists are not the enemy here, even if they are working here in Wilhelmsburg. The enemy is IBA, right?

CS: That’s right.

SK: And that is where you have to keep the focus. And as I said, all these things require negotiation. There is no way that we can do any work if there is no money. And the only organizations that are handing out money for cultural events are usually those that need, as Rockefeller put it, “social grease” on their side in order to cover up their corruption. By “social grease” he meant making a spectacle that makes predatory profit machines look like benevolent organizations that care about the quality of life in the social sphere—the arts are good for that. So you know that you are in a conflicted relationship the minute you say, “I am going to enter into cultural resistance” because you have to deal with the corrupt apparatus of culture.

© Critical Art Ensemble, »Peep under the Elbe«, 2008

CS: But the situation here was completely different, let’s say 4 years ago. The budget for art in public space was nearly double, it was completely unlimited. There is a very new process in Hamburg, that you have a law, that the senate decided….

SF: …it was not completely unlimited…

CS:…. the budget was double, but you could do what you wanted. You could apply for it and they could say no, you can’t do the project. Now they installed this law and they say we want you to spend the money in areas where we want you to do urban development. And this stopped a situation which was relatively free, and not so politically loaded. But Hamburg in the 1990s was quite famous for it’s public art program…

SF: Karl Weber…

The relationship to money?

CS:..and still later. Today the budget is half of what it was and it is only spend under specific conditions, which are….

SF: How much is it now??

CS: I think it is 125.000 Euros

SF: And it was about 200.000 euros some years ago, that isn’t much.

CS: It was 500.000 Euros, maybe now it is 250.000, I do not know.

SF: It is very little and it is still going down…..

SK: Like everywhere……

SF: So private money came more and more the focus. My question is: Did you have many discussions about this part, when you started with your artist group, to become clear about your inner politics?

SK: …about the relationship to money?

SF: Right.

SK: Yeah, of course. We figured that relationship out a long time ago.

SF: In which years?

SK: I would say it was in the mid nineties, because before that time no one ever wanted to sponsor anything we did. And at that point there was kind of a turn-around. We really had to think about what does it mean if we do a show at the Whitney Museum, what does it mean if do something at ZKM (Karlsruhe), what does it mean if we go to Ars Electronica. We had to figure that out. But in the end, I am a believer that action is better then apathy.

© Critical Art Ensemble, "Cult of the New Eve", ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany, 2000. This science-theater project examined the appropriation of Christian promissory rhetoric by industry and scientific specialists and how it is being used to persuade the public of the utopian nature of the new biotechnologies.

SF: Is that a kind of American pragmatism?

SK: Yes, I suppose it is.

CS: But I think you have to have a chance, that is one thing. I do not know the English word for “Hebel”, an amplifier…

SF: That means you can put some power …and have some influence…

CS: Leverage?

SF:..on a heavy weight and move it.

CS:….. I am not this kind of the pure artistic positions that you mentioned, it is also an idealistic content somehow...

SK: Sometimes it is a belief in “pure” ideology, sometimes “pure” politics…

CS: Yes.

SF: It’s more about what happens in between and some artists trying to get money and to use it like park fiction for example.

CS: But what I wanted to say is, that of course you can use contradictions in certain moments. And sometimes you can have this moment of leverage. For us, the moment of leverage, when we started last year, seemed to us as if the cultural authority wants to show some sovereignty vis a vis IBA and makes its own project. And then, in the process we saw it is not like that at all, it became completely part of it. And that was kind of dramatic, it was all sucked in and the whole leftist scene in Hamburg saw us and said, well they take part in this, maybe its not so bad. Or they were saying, everybody is being bought. There was not much chance to get out of this. Also well for Ligna the radio ballet group, for instance. Now concerning you I thought, that you a have a scientific approach…

SK: Sometimes.

“It takes a long time for culture to change the economy of a place”

CS: In a way and that gives you a certain moment of leverage. When you described the moment to me when you said you found the poisoned canal or the most poisoned canal was just in the area where IBA is planning their leisure time area at the water. I thought ok, that could bring a moment of…

SK: …a new authority…

CS: Because maybe you could show us which area this is where IBA is planning.

SK: I try to. IBA is planning on doing these big concerts for the young people [Editor’s note: in Dockville] and they are trying to construct kind of a youth culture to get more of the students to come out here, which would be fitting with their strategies, it seems. But if they are going to use culture as a strategy, it takes a long time for culture to change the economy of a place. It can be done: New York City is a fantastic example for that, but it took thirty years and a lot of violence before everyone but the wealthy was finally run out and it became this indefensible place it is now.

But cities fluctuate and they are very dynamic like that. Now, Hamburg isn’t a financial center like NYC so the money is not going to come about as easily. It is one thing to clean up the East River in New York and it is another thing to clean up Wilhelmsburg for the wealthy. When you think just about the cost to clean the waterways in Euros per square meter... just think it is kilometers and kilometers that need to be dredged and flushed. That’s going to be extremely expensive to do. They are only going to be able to take it chunk by chunk, and then they are going to have to convince people to move here, which I think, you know if you look at this riverside now: this is not some place that white middle class people are going to want to move to. They’re not going to want to live next to the rendering plant. And this is all grand speculation, because according to scientists at the water bureau there are no plans to clean anything up in Wilhelmsburg. All funding for water is going to maintaining the river for shipping.

LS: Have you ever been here when the plant is going?

SK: The whole neighborhood reeks of rendered fat. It’s going to be difficult to move that industry. And once they manage to move it out, they will still have all the people to deal with. That can put up considerable resistance.

SF: You’re always dealing with this missing resistance, because we live in Hamburg for quite a long time. Wilhelmsburg is still a place that people rarely visit. And now with these Art projects, for example, which are planned on a long-term basis will increase the amounts of cultural capital Wilhelmsburg has making it more and more attractive. This is one point of the politic. But the resistance is usually pretty low. There is possibly not as much resistance as in the USA, I guess. There are some cultural differences as well.

LS: We should never discount the possibility of resistance. If people who know resistance is necessary discount its possibility in advance, what hope is there of changing anything?

CS: Yeah. I don’t see it like that.

SF: I think the government wants to knock out any kind of resistance. The city makes plans to become very attractive for people to move here and they want to show: “OK, we have diversity, and there are all these possibilities. This city is so big and the harbour hasn’t been explored till now, we have more than any harbor-city in the world and that is the point, to let someone who lives here be proud of belonging to Wilhelmsburg. After some time he will not live here in Wilhelmsburg any more, but he doesn’t know right now. This will happen in eight years.

SK: Well, probably longer than that, the way they’re going about it. And the amount of work that is going to be necessary before they are going to be able to attract the demographic that they are looking for. I don’t know what evil is being done, other than making a spectacle here.

CS: But they make plans. That is what they do. And they don’t alter them, as far as I know. What artists do has no effect. They don’t want it not to have effect. They just want a spectacle. I see it a bit different from Sabine and the point I wanted to make is this: I think there is a chance of resistance here and there is a chance that there is some explosive information in this. But the question is of course: How does it get out?

SF: I didn’t say there is no chance of resistance; I said that the kind of politics they are doing with cultural projects, going along with the IBA, is to lower the resistance, the need for resistance. People see: OK, we are so rich, we have so many possibilities and we have such a lot of very high level cultural workers here, that why not let them go ahead. That’s my point and in fact activists are really good, but it is still a question of context. Therefore I was asking for the beginning of your project and you said you had a lot of discussion about politics, because I think that can’t ever stop. It is a question of cooptation.

“…as little left to co-opt as possible”

SK: You know, cooptation doesn’t change that much. It is not a wildly dynamic variable; it is something that is always happening. Right? That’s why we are interested in the tactical, because we know as soon as we develop a successful one, very quickly we will have to let it go and move on to something else.

SF: And don’t you ask what happens with what you started at a certain point? What’s going on after you’re leaving?

SK: After we’re leaving? Yeah, usually we know what is going on. It’s being marketed for a little bit and then it dies. It becomes no more use as a marketing tool.

LS: That’s why CAE pursues this deterritorialisation, where the project disappears. So there is as little left to co-opt as possible. We leave. It is not like what happens with so much community art, where it becomes monumentalized and it becomes co-opted.

SK: It becomes fixed and then it does the exact opposite of what it is supposed to do. It’s like activist organizations that don’t disband. Take for example Artist Call Against Intervention in Central America or the Women’s Action Coalition—they were great organizations partly because they came to an end. They didn’t continue and say: “We have money in the treasury, we could keep this going, let’s just pick up another issue.” They thought: “Our specific function is over. Shut it down.” And so it didn’t turn into a bureaucracy and it couldn’t be co-opted.

For us, at a smaller scale, we have no prestige capital to exploit. We are not part of the art canon. Our signature means nothing in terms of generating wealth. Instead it’s like: “What did they do? Where are the images we can exploit?” There are none. Are they going to be able to exploit all of the ephemeral time that we spent with people here, talking to them about their situation and giving them tools and new ways to approach their environment? They are not going to be able to exploit that. You can’t find it, it’s gone. It’s over.

CS: Mmh.

LS: All that is left of anything is a little bit of empowerment of people.

SK: We are trying to start to instill a sense of agency, which is the first step in installing resistance. People must believe they have the power to do something, and they must not think, “There is nothing I can do, the problem is bigger than me” or “That’s the way life is.”

SF: What do you mean by agency?

SK: Agency means to believe that one’s actions can have an effect in the world.

CS: I think these would be fantastic final words, but somehow the mechanism here has adapted itself exactly to this kind of practice, that you are doing. Let’s stick to do some technical stuff on the ground. We will make out of it, what we want.

LS: I think it’s a mistake to overestimate the power of power. The minute we start doing that, we lose our agency. And my guess is, whatever IBA has done that seems unique here—probably it is not really that unique. Probably there are other places in the world where they are doing the same thing and it would be very interesting to look at those.

SK: The strategy of cultural invasion is not new, in fact it is ancient. It’s not always intentional, but can occur as collateral damage following economic imperialism. And that’s where the model was taken from.

CS: Of course, yeah. I would say five years ago, we had discussions about the Hafencity, which is this project that has always had problems to be realized, but in that phase we thought what they need is a militant movement they can control in the Hafencity. They need a riot that doesn’t get out of control. In Hamburg there are riots and one day there will be a riot in Wilhemsburg and then I think it will start to be very expensive here. But now it’s still this invisible, somehow grey zone, smelly, flood, endangered and so on. They have many programs, they do. Did you hear about the students getting subsided to live here?

SK: Yes.

CS: You know it all, right?

SK: We did our homework once we got here. We might not ask in advance, but when we come here and are able to validate or invalidate what people tell us by our own experience, that’s when we do the investigation.

SF: And you always trust in your validation?

SK: More than I trust what people tell me who I know have a political agenda.

SF: I mean, because of the cultural difference. I lived for one year in Los Angeles and it was completely different than living in Hamburg. In the first six months I didn’t really notice it and I guess it’s the same with New York.

SK: Yes that is really different, too.

SF: And I mean how can you trust in this sense, your validation, because you have this totally different cultural background. And therefore I ask for American pragmatism, because it maybe much more European to say: No I don’t go ahead with this art project, because I know I am used and I don’t want to be used for a certain kind of politics. I don’t know if it is a European privilege, I don’t think so, I think there are really cultural differences even in the art world and therefore I insist in this point.

“IBA is not the real power here”

SK: Well there is the difference in models, maybe. But when you go to very conflicted areas and there are very strong agendas, there is no way I am believing anybody. I want to hear what everyone has to say and then walk around and see what is actually going on in the environment. In this case, I think the Anti-IBA supporters are greatly exaggerating the threat of gentrification. As far as I can tell, as I look around at the infrastructure of this island, the condition of the canals, the quality of housing, and the kinds of businesses and jobs that are here, there is not much here to work with. And understanding the many different places undergoing gentrification we have been active in before, the infrastructure that was exploited in those, is not here. It is just not here.

© Critical Art Ensemble, "The Body Proud", Kultur / Natur, Wilhelmsburg, Germany, 2008. This performative installation invited visitors to the art opening to experience free massages while viewing data concerning the exponential increase in neuromuscular and psychiatric disorders and pharmaceutical drug use accompanying the expansion of the technosphere.

Second, IBA is not the real power here. It’s the Port Authority that has ultimate power. It seems to be able to what ever it wants whenever it wants. I do not think that the Port Authority will go along with any of IBA’s crazy schemes. There will not be grand floating youth hostels, nor will the public housing be rebranded as the “International Quarter.” The Port Authority will not even allow for the removal of the fence that separates Wilhelmsburg from the harbor area!

SF: But Hamburg is the city in Europe with the most millionaires. They have the money.

SK: Millionaires in what? Are they Millionaires from land-speculation? Is that what they use their investment money for? Because you can have all the millionaires in the world, like in Silicon Valley, but they don’t do anything with land, that is not what they do. They invest in technology, that’s what they know about. And you might have many millionaires, but are they land-speculators?

LS: And the question is, will IBA get the money? They might have all these plans, but if they don’t get the investment, if they don’t convince enough investors to finance those plans, than it is not going to happen.

SF: That is exactly their goal.

LS: Yes it is their goal. But these processes are struggles. It’s like the cynical position of just saying, “we are going to be used”—you can’t assume from the beginning that they are going to win. It’s a struggle. We’ll try to get what we can get from them and they’re going to try to get what they can get from us. It’s not written in advance. We have to fight for it.

SF: Did you have any project where you didn’t succeed? Where you said “we were so stupid to join in”?

SK: (laughs) Oh yeah. Although it hasn’t been so much that we were stupid to join in, but that our tactics were wrong. It’s more our fault. The mistake wasn’t joining in—the mistake was we were not smart enough to win the battle. Our tactics weren’t up to the job.

SF: Can you tell us about it?

SK: OK.The only time I wished I hadn’t joined at all was: We did this project on new genetics and reproductive technologies and it caused a scandal in Vienna. We were challenged by the Archbishop of Salzburg to a television debate. We thought, “Well, OK, we may as well go on national TV and use it as a platform.” As it turned out, the Archbishop really cashed in on our cultural capital. He played us. All he really wanted was to go on TV and talk about abortion, which did not have much to do with our project at all. And at the end of it, we got to say some things, but mostly it was this guy giving an anti abortion speech. And I said, what the fuck. That guy just played us like a violin. We had generated all this publicity and boom—he came along and got himself on prime time on TV. That was one time I wish we had said, “I don’t think we’re going to do it.” But in the end I always say, if you’re going to win you have to play. And when you have to take a beating, you have to take a beating. And we have taken some. I have taken a really bad one recently, as you all know. (Laughs.)

SF: Are you coming back to the IBA next year? (CS laughs.)

SK: I doubt it. (Laughs) I doubt we are coming back to IBA again. If we were invited to Wilhelmsburg again, we would do a project. I can imagine coming back. We liked doing this. We have allowed ourselves to be exploited in order to get another benefit. For example, I did a project once at the Adelaide Art Festival. It’s this horrid thing, really the worst kind of commercialized pretentious white art, music, theatre, and dance—it has it all. And the reason I did it was because they would pay me a lot of money. A curator got me just this incredibly large amount of money to come and do some work and give some talks. And then we were able to take that money and fund an action with an Aboriginal rights group we were working with.Critical Art Ensemble was…

SF: That’s really like Wochenklausur, right?

© Critical Art Ensemble, "Renaming Project", Victoria Square/Tarndanyungga, Adelaide, South Australia, 2002. Local citizens had been requesting that the city council dual-name Victoria Square with its local Aboriginal counterpart, Tarndanyungga. In this tactical media intervention, CAE worked with local Elders, activists, and other concerned parties to rename the square by direct action.

SK: Yes. We wanted to rename the central square. To our mind, Victoria Square should also have its traditional name—Tarndanyungga. Its a sacred spot for the Indigenous Australians. And in Australia most of these places were dual-named. The city council was holding out and we were able to take that money and to fund an action where we bought new street sign with the traditional name, took down the old signs and installed the new ones. We announced why we did the action in the local newspaper and threatened to continue if the name wasn’t changed.

SF: You got a picture on your website, right?

SK: Yeah. There’s a number of photos on the website.

LS: Eventually it was given that name.

SK: Yes. Now I can say that it was not necessarily because of us, but it did happen very shortly thereafter. For CAE this is negotiating the cultural sphere. It’s give and take. Sometimes you win, sometimes you get your ass kicked. That’s resistance. There’s no resistance without a bloody nose. And there is no money or action, if we don’t take it when its offered!

SF: I still have this thought that its a little bit naive to think, that you can come over and have some conversations with people living here. How do you know that you know that you have a clue of how people are thinking? Because the cultural differences are there and they are pretty huge between America and Europe.

Dealing with cultural differences
SK: That’s why we are trying to get an idea of people’s life. We won’t do anything big. We are doing a very smart, tactical, narrow project. There is no grand plan where we drop in and figure out the many ethnic groups of Wilhelmsburg and how they live their lives and then intervene in some way. Of course, that would be ridiculous. We wouldn’t even hope to do that. But even with cultural difference, for something that is specific and material, even in the most alien enviroments it’s not hard to have a meaningful exchange of information. Local people fish in the canals and eat the fish. The fish from the river will be healthier to eat than the ones from the canals. These are just facts to be exchanged. It’s not some great dissolving of difference.

SF: That’s not dealing with cultural differences?

SK: It is dealing with them by minimizing them. If we were doing a project about an abstraction like time, that would be difficult in terms of cultural difference. But I think there are places where people of different cultural backgrounds can come together and communicate well.

LS: Even in the project that you did with the Indigenous Australians there was that different conception of time.

SK: Yes, that’s why the project took forever.

LS: But you were still able to do something.

SK: We still did.

SF: I still have to think about this text of Hal Foster: "The artist as ethnographer". Where he’s criticising that artists are mostly doing self-production by doing projects with people. That it’s mostly self-production of the artist or the artist group. It’s also a critical point for artist groups over here. What do you want to become? Do you want to become famous, to show in galleries. What do you want? You want to empower people; you want to be political. Okay, you can say that this is a project that realizes green politics i.e. and say: this is my critique for this project. I feel that this text is still very important and that we are not going beyond this text.

Community art is the opposite of what tactical media does
SK: I think Hal Foster was critisizing a very specific emerging movement known in US as “community art.“ CAE never claims to work with communities, because we would be organizing around a principle that doesn’t exist in dense urban areas. In Wilhelmsburg we were working with people who use the canals for recreation, not with the community. And two, the principle of community contradicts the goals and aims of the left. That is, we’re interested in inclusion and difference. The concept of community is a sociological concept that refers to a social formation that is based on similarity and exclusion. So, if it doesn’t exist in deep urbanism or it does exist as a small localized social constellation, it is completely in opposition to what we promote. It’s the worst principle that has ever been organized around. One of the reasons that CAE organized around tacticality was to separate ourselves from the community artists. Foster had certain movement in mind when he wrote about that. And certain people, like Mary Jane Jacobs.

LS: I think Foster was also critiquing how that movement of „community art“ takes people as objects—the “community“ tends to become the object of the work. Which is the opposite of what tactical media does. Tactical media organizes around issues, not demographics.

SF: How is park fiction located in this whole discourse?

CS: Oh, we had this fight at the beginning. The word community doesn’t translate well in German, I would say. We worked with the concept of production of desires and had harsh discussions with the local head mistress about the identity of the „Stadtteil“. „Stadtteil“ is „Quartier“, identity of the neighbourhood.

SF: The idea of the identity of a neighbourhood is what Hal Foster is exploring in his text?

SK: In dense urban areas where tens of thousands of people live in a neighborhood, it’s hard to say it has an identity. There may be a dominant group that makes this claim, but it excludes many.

CS: Yeah, of course.

SK: You cannot organize around a territory. Your idea of desire, okay, I get that.

CS: A machine is something different than an identity, I would say. It does also something different than a proper democracy. But on the other hand, I would also say about certain principles, technically they can be correct. But also sometimes its very important to tie yourself to an area and not dissolve your organisation, I think. Its sometimes very worthwhile to fight for land also, for the territory and for the meaning of the territory. For us its not too bad, we had many meetings against gentrification. Meetings in this park. Its an example that you could do it in a different way. Which is a threat here, also. Because people constantly refer to it: why don´t you do it that way? Just don´t ask people here. Or they ask and they don´t realize, what they want, anyway. You have here this fake participation of participation, that is this kind of integration moment, that tries to organize actually a moment of identification with IBA. That´s, I think, the most problematic and also with the participation of critical art in the context, because they want to create this identification and they succeeded with some people. It affected me that Anke talks IBA, as if she is IBA. I wouldn´t have expected this. I would have expected, that over a year ago, one would have said: we, the IBA, think, this and this has to be done. This is nature and this is culture. It would have been a clear attempt, to have a distance toward it.
(Some part of what Christoph Schäfer said at this point, is missing because the recording tape was changed.)

SF: He cited Adrienne Goehler, who was a former president of the art school in Hamburg. And she’s from the green party.

CS: Can I finish my thought!? And I think its simply not true what she says. Because there are two factions of capital fighting in the city, industrial and speculating with land and this whole image industry. For instance the chamber of commerce, a very important institution in this town, the chamber of commerce, they have this guy, a lawyer, their attorney for the infrastructure in the nineties. he turned into the guy who was working on the olympic nomination. He wanted to get first over the Elbe. And when that failed, he started a foundation called »Hamburg Maritim Foundation« and clearly went into this image direction, that has nothing to do with industrial structure anymore. At the moment we are at the point where the developement is changing into gentrification and image direction. Which doesn´t say anything against you right now. It says something about the strategic position of IBA urban planning, its one of the facettes of urban planning. And the position of art is being pushed into the city at the moment.

LS: This is a very postmodern thing.

CS: It is! I think they will also run on empty gas. Maybe in five or six years they will say: oh, it all didn’t work out. We didn´t get more money. The creative people didn´t come here and if they came here they didn´t make so much money.

SK: Probably.

CS: In this moment it is this Mackenziesation of urban developement, that´s going on. Which is a real problem. They had actually Mackenzie counselling.

SF: He´s an advisor.

CS: Yeah, advising the city of Hamburg. He only put money into three directions: maritime, talent, what was the third one? I think metropolitan, don´t know, growing the city. So, talent would be people like you, like us. Somehow we are more in the center of power than we used to be. Thats the problem of negotiation.

„We don’t feel that we have compromised“
SK: Negotiation, thats how we started this whole discussion, this might be a good sign off.

CS: That’s why we have a meeting on Monday, because its not so easy for all of us. I´m not completely convinced. My local knowledge is not ...

LS: AIDS activist and artist Greg Bordowitz says that negotiation is not the same as compromise. We definitely negotiated here, but we don’t feel that we have compromised.

CS: For me, one point that was a bit, maybe: how do you make this public? [shows the flyer]

Steve Barnes: This is all we did.

SK: We didn’t want to make it public. We made a hundred copies.

LS: There are three display cases. (Shows graphic on the flyer.)

SK: The people who fish here talked to us. Most of the culture we met here is not about reading information pamphlets. That’s not their communication style. So we hoped that by the personal contact we would have more of an impact.

CS: Of course there is this potential for an image damage here. And all IBA at the moment are creating this image of a metropol, fantastic place, that is metropolitan artistic and cool. It could be part of an image damage at least.

SF: Did you talk with locals?

SK: Yeah, we talked to locals as individuals in a certain context and capacity. This is kind of going back to your point of what we don’t do. We don’t work with organisations. Because what you end up doing, is not working with people but with an organisation that says that it represents the locals. So, we don’t do that. We learned our lesson about that when we worked with an organisation called the Corn Maya Project, who are great guys and I liked them quite a bit. But what happened was that we weren’t really working with the migrant workers.

SF: Where was it?

SK: It was in Indiantown, Florida. For Florida that’s the capital city of migrant labor.

SF: Sweatshop labor?

SK: No, it’s not sweatshop labor, it’s agricultural labor. It’s the sweatshop equivalent in the agricultural sector.

SF: Was it a union workers coalition ?

SK: That was why we were supposedly there. We were trying to get them to think about a union. They were scared to death. Most of them were there illegaly and if they got sent back to Guatalmala, it was a death sentence, because they were all Indian. We were young and were in a situation that was far too complicated for us to deal with.

CS: We are young and needed the money...


SK: There was a grant given to us to do this project, from the Florida New Forms organisation.

SF: Where did you get the grant from?

SK: From the state of Florida, from the Arts Council. We didn’t take any money for ourselves. We spent it all in the community but...We were young and rather naive to the complexities of agrarian labor. We were influenced by all these ideas of community. We thought we can intervene and help, but we didn’t. It was a hard lesson every politicized person needs to learn.

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