52

COMMON GROUND Colin Lang in Conversation with Julia Grosse, Suza Husse, and Max Czollek

There is very little global reporting in the German art context, whether online or in print publications. Artists and cultural producers from outside the Western art world are typically marginalized or discussed in simplistic categories. How, then, might one initiate a novel art-critical discourse that would eschew forms of exclusion and build on discussions and knowledge by transforming them into a critical praxis?

Editor-in-chief of Texte zur Kunst Colin Lang sat down with Julia Grosse of Contemporary And, Suza Husse, artistic director of District Berlin, and Max Czollek, author of the book “Desintegriert Euch!” and editorial board member of Jalta, a magazine devoted to contemporary Jewish perspectives, to discuss possible strategies in the struggle against discrimination.

COLIN LANG: Within art criticism, processes of discrimination play a foundational role in the way that one distinguishes or makes distinctions: between what you think is good, what you think is bad, what you think is worthy or not worthy of writing about. When people talk about discrimination more generally, mostly they’re talking about the negative effects of this process of distinction: exclusion, which invariably leads to actions taken against people based on a myriad of factors such as race, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, etc.

Suza, Julia, and Max, you all come from a younger generation and work in Berlin in a variety of media and formats, but perhaps what connects your diverse projects is the desire to shape a new critical discourse in the face of rampant discrimination within the art world and cultural sphere. For the purposes of an introduction, could you describe what role discrimination plays in your respective endeavors and practices?

SUZA HUSSE: District is, I would say, a group of people and quite a tentacular entity in its way of working. One major concern within the organization is trying to understand how to address violence intersectionally; on the one hand, getting an understanding of what it does and how, especially within this German and Berlin context, it shapes culture, lives, and perspectives. On the other hand, we are also trying to overcome violence, or at least make a space together for a different way of relating to each other, trying not to reproduce it. A really big question for us, as a space of production, research, and collectivity, is: how exactly are these relationships shaped that we are enabling, desiring, or engendering? But maybe I should start a bit more generally. District is an art space that is engaged in queer, feminist, intersectional, decolonial practices, and very much driven and inspired by different people that shape more than just our program, that we are in dialogue with. Engaging with politicized artistic and cultural practices is something that is in constant flux. We try to let these practices inhabit and change what we do and the way we work.

LANG: Would you say that the focus is heavily on research? Like you’re searching, in a way, for the forms of sexual violence or discriminatory practices in the way they are first performed, understood, exposed?

HUSSE: Yes, but research for us is also a form of togetherness, a form of conversation. Everyone who has experienced discrimination either directly or indirectly as part of the social structures that we inhabit understands how it works. Some of us can afford not to let that knowledge in. But in talking about violence, I guess for us, a focus would be how people, collectivities, and ecologies live through it − in spite of, beyond, beside, or beneath this violence − and what is left to learn from alternative and resilient practices. How can we imagine otherwise? We try to focus on imagination, political imagination, specifically: workshops, social-performative practices, are often the core of long-term research that goes in different directions. District doesn’t really fit into the schemes of cultural education, contemporary artistic production, or academia, despite the fact that all are in a way entangled in the way we work.

JULIA GROSSE: Contemporary And (C&) is an art magazine, mainly happening online, as our goal was always to be visible and to be able to be read on a global scale, from a young artist in Accra to a writer in Cairo to a curator in London. We founded C& in 2013 with the central question: What does contemporary art from Africa and a global diaspora mean to us? For example, does black America define itself as part of a global black diaspora? Do people who were born in Luanda and have been living in London for the past 15 years define themselves as creatives from an African perspective? From the very beginning we focused on the term “African Perspectives” instead of using this really simplified term of “African Art” or “African Artist.” For us there is no such thing as “Art from Africa” or the “African Artist.” What does a conceptual artist from Luanda have in common with a performance artist from Cairo or a painter from Detroit with parents from Tanzania? Nothing, of course, as each comes from a completely different context! But still there is this tendency to use that one label to describe them as African art producers. I assume you would never do this with European artists. You wouldn’t say “Monica Bonvicini and Cyprien Gaillard are typical European artists! It’s so obvious, just look at their work!” It’s a discriminating practice as well, to simplify those categories.

When it comes to how we deal with discrimination, exclusion, or the canon, we are not interested in deconstructing the notion of it in order to build a new one. Our strategy, I guess, is rather to go beyond by looking and constantly reflecting our practice. We don’t waste energy on the destruction of these notions. Of course, they are out there and have an impact, but we are not treating these issues in every text we produce. As well: for us it’s always a question of perspective. Who is discriminating? Who is the one being discriminated against? If you look at the Nigerian art scene, for example, they have galleries, photo festivals, art fairs, wealthy collectors, successful artists, and curators who travel the world. But, I think, they would never feel intimidated by a “dominant Western art world.” So this topic of perspective is important to us, especially when it comes to art criticism. Who is the critic writing about? Is it a white critic, or is it a black critic writing about the show of a black artist? Because, of course, there is a difference. But what is Black criticism and how do we at C& define it from our perspective? What is important to us is that we have to apply that same scheme to us and our decisions as editors of our magazine. We don’t exclude ourself from that part. My colleague Yvette Mutumba and I come from a Western art historian background educationally, which means by doing such a magazine as black Germans we also, when it comes to the selection of content, have to ask ourselves if it is negative, or perhaps positive discrimination, when we choose to write about this artist or focus on that topic. Just because we do this magazine with this particular focus doesn’t free us from being critical with ourselves. This is something we find super important.

I think that it always comes down to decisions − to not use the word “African Art,” − refering instead to global African perspectives and covering shows in Dakar, Lubumbashi, San Francisco, or Berlin. To call our magazine Contemporary And (C&) was a decision meant to underline the fact that we are concerned first and foremost with the contemporary practice of artists that are our focus, and then, maybe, information such as the fact that she has parents from Tanzania or has been living in Cairo since birth. This information relates specifically to a geographical context, but obviously there is a risk that people start putting you and your practice in a box because of where you come from. I love this very telling work by Mladen Stilinović that says, “An artist who cannot speak English is no artist.” It’s from 1994! But still so sadly relevant today. Whoever denies the dominance of English, or has no opportunity to learn English, will also be barred entry to the “global art village.”

MAX CZOLLEK: If I would have to describe my artistic strategies, it’s probably to use aesthetic practice as a means to intervene on the threshold of society. At the same time, I insist on taking art seriously as a form that supplies a specific framework for action. I’m not interested in doing manifesto styles of agitprop, which is something that took over in German-speaking poetry during the ’70s and lasted until the late ’80s. People are still traumatized by this phase. This is one of the reasons the adjective “political” has such a bad ring to it in art, why the adjective political has been vulgarized. But also with regard to sociological analysis, I am sceptical of applying the term political to art as it marks a very specific field within society, the way Bourdieu would have understood that term. Therefore, I prefer to speak of its relationship to society, “gesellschaftsbezug.”

Coming back to your question, I would say the term “discrimination” goes along with the term “marginalization”. I define the marginal side as the one that always responds to questions, especially in art. You have the adjective “X,“ that may be Jewish or queer, or migrant, post-migrant, and the dominant side expects those art pieces labelled as such to give certain answers. For Jews this amounts to anti-Semitism, Shoah, and Israel – and a performance in the German Theater of Memory that serves to stabilize a self-image of a German society as redeemed and morally good. But also from the side of the (Jewish) artist, there is something very tempting about this functionalization because it allows a relatively easy access to the art world and the public and it gives you a sense of meaning and purpose that most artists need.

I’d say there is a performative effect in what I do with my friends and allies that expands the intellectual level of what I am able to analyze. In this, the question of form becomes much more central because aesthetic manipulation is the central element we have. Situating a marginal perspective as something legitimate means not only appropriating the language of the dominant but also intervening in the field of interest itself, where marginal perspectives are being requested, perceived, and utilized. I’m interested in this messy field of appropriation and projection. With the magazine Jalta, the works in Gorki Theater, and the poetry I’ve been writing, I have therefore tried to move beyond the binary opposition between critical reflection and practice, analyses and activism. We are trying to define a place where our theoretical knowledge is being translated into a critical practice that is, in effect, the execution of those counterstrategies.

I would say Jalta: Contemporary Jewish Perspectives is more on the intellectual side of this process. We founded the magazine because we not only wanted to establish a place within discourse for what we call “de-integrated Jewish perspectives,” but also to establish something like a framework for contemporary intellectual Jewish thought. Such a framework is crucial to stabilize the critical practice I am aiming for. It is a place where you can establish a network of allies and supporters.

What Suza and Julia have been saying is very much along those lines. To not only criticize the canon – that is old school, though still important nevertheless – but to establish a counter-canon ourselves. This doesn’t have to be explicit. It can happen by defining the marginal perspective as the new cool. Or the new smart.

LANG: I’d like to ask about the writing/criticism part of this, because at the end of the day, it seems you all share a belief that through writing one is able to perform or provoke or establish not just a perspective, but a relationship to other kinds of thinking and other issues. Where does that belief come from?

CZOLLEK: The optimism?

LANG: Yes, I am saying this in the context of the disappearance of print publications. Spex just published its last print issue ever. Cabinet is going online exclusively. What you three are involved with doing is fundamentally not the mode of immediate, hyped back-and-forth tweeting of opinions. It seems that ideas are important. In writing, and in criticism more specifically, there is a possibility of a translation which is not otherwise something that we can chat about. And it’s there for somebody to discover three years later.

Peng!, „Haunted Landlord", 2017

Peng!, „Haunted Landlord", 2017

GROSSE: When we started five and a half years ago, the crisis of print magazines had of course already started. We had the idea that we needed to establish C& online, though we were never motivated by the fear that print was going away, but more by the desire to be read by people from all over the globe. We love print as well, and so we produce a printed issue twice a year alongside bigger events such as the Berlin Biennale, Dakar Biennale, or Sao Paulo Biennale. But our main challenge, really, is the idea of diversity when it comes to the visibility of artistic production from Africa and the diaspora, no matter if that is happening in print or online. We felt that there is a gap, at least for us and for other people who are interested in reading content written from a critical perspective which goes beyond the usual art world centers. This is why we started with C&.

Looking at the art pages of the New York Times, Frieze, Artforum, etc., there doesn’t seem to be a focus on truly global coverage of contemporary artistic production. If you talk about global art, why don’t we see reviews about shows in Cairo or Bogotá or Luanda on a regular basis? There is so much artistic production taking place, artist-run spaces, museums, galleries, it’s all happening, but still you read polemic questions in the Feuilletons: Are there any museums in Africa? That’s obviously a form of discrimination.

Funny enough, we started during a time when the hype around art from Africa became a bit crazy and, of course, you sometimes kind of feel like a token. But we know how to use these mechanisms in order to realize and enable our projects and networks to grow. We founded C& as a sustainable project focusing on projects that we thought don’t take place, really.

LANG: So, it sounds like the token attribution, or marginal perspective, as Max described it, is something one can use to their advantage. OK, but what about the problematic structure vis-à-vis group formation? In other words, in the process of discriminating, you create a group at the same time that you then marginalize that group. It’s very interesting what you were saying earlier, Julia and Max, because it sounds like if you fight these battles on the terms of anti-discrimination, you end up getting stuck in the establishment of these group structures. The way you were describing it, Suza, it sounds like the group thing is okay because you’re making something which is constantly in flux and thus never coheres into a definable group as such.

HUSSE: Something not adherent to one label, because those who contribute come from very diverse backgrounds, experiences, and self-definitions, and with a desire for transformation, I would say.

I was also thinking about this writing and publishing and printed stuff. Although it is a very important part of the things we do, publishing is something that makes me feel uncomfortable, not so much because of it being a way of claiming space, which we do in a queer, performative, and cross-social way, but because it always feels a bit like closing down on something, reducing it to just one of its many possible forms. We have this collective called “The Many-Headed Hydra” that has been part of District since 2016 and works with the magazine format as a queer, hydrofeminist, decolonial, and performative device that allows us to hold research, mythmaking, opacity, and entanglement together, but with the ongoing question: What does it mean to fix something into printed form that emerges from collectivities? But at the same time, publishing is a way of making things available and opening up connections across unforeseeable trajectories.

LANG: So, would you say the goal is the process, not necessarily to have a published thing in your hand at the end of the day? That it’s one part of the organism?

HUSSE: I think these books will come out and they will be important as a trace. What we are interested in is intersectionality as a practice and “aesthetics of transformation,” to use Gloria Anzaldúa’s idea, and what forms they might take.

Thinking about the notion of criticism in relation to this space of the margins, or the marginal, I guess you always wonder if you take the position of criticism, how much do you contribute to the progressive logic of the capitalist democracy of critique − improvement – critique − improvement – critique – improvement? Together with Elske Rosenfeld we brought a group of artists and writers together to work with the archive of the different GDR opposition movements, which exists in Berlin. There you’ll find the Grauzone archive that was put together by a feminist called Samirah Kenawi, who was very active in the different women’s, lesbian, and trans* circles in the GDR. In an interview in 1999 she talks about what happened in this time after ’89. People were convinced that the alternative political concepts that they had shaped in opposition to the GDR’s patriarchal totalitarianism would model new political structures. She only slowly got to understand that the compartmentalization, the project logic, and bureaucratization of political organizing were dynamics that marginalize dissidence and political potential. The way she describes marginalization in democratic capitalism is that political space assigned to alterity is constructed in such a way that people and groups isolate and exhaust themselves within it. This frustrated her so much that she moved away from political organizing altogether. I think there is something to say for non-participation also as a way of decolonizing myths of political emancipation. Sometime ago listening to Alanna Lockward I heard about the artist Teresa María Díaz Nerio in Amsterdam who committed their practice to the making of a maroon enclave. Basically an enclave of non-participation, a secret healing practice for decolonial living and for displacing gender, a way of abandoning the democratic doctrine of social political change and inhabiting a maroon state within a state.

District, „Sauna für Arbeitslose“, Ausstellungsansicht / installation view / im Saunabad von / in the sauna of Frida Klingberg, Berlin, 2016

District, „Sauna für Arbeitslose“, Ausstellungsansicht / installation view / im Saunabad von / in the sauna of Frida Klingberg, Berlin, 2016

CZOLLEK: Let me reply to the print question first. I believe in a mixed-method design. Every different art form has different reaches and different effects on people. Theater, for example, can be extremely intense in the moment, but it doesn’t last. Whereas the same experience when translated in, say, a non-fiction book, can work as a wrecking ball cutting through the German feuilleton. So I’ve got no problems with using forms that seem outdated – if they are combined with other, more contemporary forms and if they are functional to whatever ends we are striving to achieve.

What I’m trying to say is that discrimination as a group problem has to be translated to very specific interventions against the construction of the other. And those interventions operate on the aesthetic and the intellectual level at the same time – deconstructing and maintaining difference at the same time. Instead of calling this “post-identity politics/aesthetics,” I have come to call this strategy “de-integration.” De-integration means to strive for a detachment or suspension of the functional role you’re called on to play in your marginalized position disregarding your intentions or actions. If you are Jewish and you are living in Germany, the fact that you are alive is already producing a certain ideological effect for the German self-image, which is for example: The Germans are not Nazis anymore, because during Nazi times, there were no living Jews. Only Jews in hiding that were neither alive nor dead. Schroedinger’s Jews. Against that, your mere living presence defines a space that is already fuelling an improved German self-image.

How do you get away from this? You can leave the country, a lot of people do. Or you decide not to speak from a Jewish position, you go into hiding, which is easier for Jews than, say, a person of color. There is a third position outlined by Hannah Arendt who once said, “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.” That is the point where you take on the things that have been given to you and start to work through them. It is the messiest solution of all because it means you have to move into the space of utilization and dominant desire from the other.

With this I want to return to the question of capitalist appropriation and complicity. True, making differences is a part of capitalistic logic. But at the same time, maintaining your own position of difference is often also the first step toward fighting the logic of discrimination. Both statements are true and I am interested in working with them at the same time – not only the position of the marginalized but also the position of privilege, the point where we have resources we can use. This may be a cis-gender position, a good education, a class position, or a German passport. This readiness is already going to earn you the label of a liberal.

However, if being left means being free of guilt, I am not interested in it. De-integration does not promise moral goodness. It doesn’t provide a deliverance of guilt for a German or any other subject. Rather, it strives for an effective intervention. And the field in which the position of the Jew is being ascribed to you is very effective because there you can use the desire that is being projected onto you to try to channel it into something else. When I am calling for de-integration, the promise is not to be free of guilt but to find a proper mode for an effective intervention in the way societies discriminate against a part of their members.

GROSSE: Relating to that, we often have the same experiences when it comes to conversations or discourses, for example, in jury sessions. If you have a young artist from any African country applying with a concept about the Bauhaus, for example, nothing to do with identity politics, people are so disappointed.

LANG: Regardless of what the model is for a critical project in relationship to structures of difference, structures of sexual violence, marginalization, you kind of need a measure. How do you measure in terms of what you would call success or productivity or effectiveness or solidarity? Where do you find the measure?

GROSSE: We started working with young writers from different African cities by inviting senior critics, but of course we weren’t interested in flying in international writers from Le Monde or the Süddeutsche Zeitung in order to train the youngsters how to write in a perfect “feuilleton style.” So we work with local senior critics from each area to help mentor our younger critics, in order to look and listen and learn from their perspective. When young critical writers we are working with are not aspiring to one day end up writing in perfect “Western” art-critic style, but of course establish their very own voice, that’s, on a small scale, a success for us − focusing on one’s own perspective.

I wanted to ask you two, Suza and Max, how important it is for you who your audiences are? For us it was such a satisfying feeling to see that of the top ten countries reading C& more than half of them come from Africa. In Luanda we visited a very established artist who works with street kids, and one child showed him a picture of the cover of our magazine. That means that an eight-year-old kid is accessing C& from his very own perspective and is relating to it as well as a 55-year-old curator from London. So I wanted to ask you, who are your audiences?

CZOLLEK: I’ll get to that, but first it’s probably more interesting to reply to your question about a measure, Colin, from the perspective of the artist. I always ask institutions I cooperate with what their standard audience would be. It’s crucial for me to know. If I’d be working for Deutsches Theater it would have to be a different show than if I did it for Maxim Gorki Theater, if only because there are different people visiting those places with different expectations.

One of the guys at the Maxim Gorki Theater once said in an interview, “our theater is only successful if we manage to piss on all people’s legs.” A thing I have become interested in working at the theater is dosed injury (dosierte Verletzung). For me, good art almost necessarily means to also shake the self-image of the people who come there and think they are already on the good side. The way I want to treat my audience, therefore, is not the way I want to treat them in politics. In politics, I would always try to reduce violence. In art, I’m not so sure. Art is a controlled space for the dosing of injury, of violence to open things up. And I think there is something within art that is incorrect in a way that politics cannot or should not be. This is why I think it is very important to keep those two fields apart, because they are very different parameters and have very different ethical and aesthetic rules.

LANG: What happens when it is not possible to distinguish between the two − the aesthetic and the political? I think the thing that you’re describing, this dosed injury, it would kind of describe US politics at the moment.

CZOLLEK: It doesn’t seem very dosed, though! (laughter)

LANG: Well, maybe the dosing is for addicts, not first-time users (laughter). I wonder about that, because the point you’re making is, in a way, that there are spaces in which certain things are possible, which have to be allowed. I just wonder what the long-term effect of those strategies is. The elephant in the room here is the shift to right-wing politics. Is that something you guys are thinking about in your own spaces?

GROSSE: Despite the current situation, we do still believe in positive progress, I guess? We sometime say that ideally, in five or ten years, we won’t need C& anymore. That would be one scenario of a success story for us. We are in this situation where we try to go beyond something, but are still in the middle of it. Ideally, in five years you won’t need that anymore, because it’s just normal to have a group show and you don’t look at the names and nationalities anymore. Being inside and outside art centers won’t be a format anymore.

Mladen Stilinovic, „An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist“, 1992

Mladen Stilinovic, „An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist“, 1992

LANG: Is criticism possible without space and distance from current crises? You can’t write in the middle of emergency.

HUSSE: But I think you have to.

LANG: How so?

HUSSE: I feel there are so many levels of this, but also I am quite critical of this, in a way this quite privileged perspective of doomsday. Yes, we are in a deep mess and still we have to do what we do if we feel it’s meaningful. I think doing something queer, feminist, intersectional, art-related, or activist. People dismiss it all the time, it’s so easy. So I am not going to let it be dismissed now. I think now more than even we need to be doing what we do and help each other, and be aware of what’s going on in other places.

In 2016 we did this project called “Sauna for the Unemployed” with an artist called Frida Klingberg as part of a larger project called “Undisciplinary Learning. Remapping the Aesthetics of Resistance.” She started that project with the question, why is there no union for the unemployed? Why are people with an unemployed status not organizing themselves as a political group, which would potentially be really big and diverse? For our project, Frida made sure that she had a very diverse group of people talking to each other about what they knew about society from below. For example, two people – an academic from Mauritius who had struggled to self-fund her studies here and could not find work in her field; the other, a white guy who had worn himself out in the gastro industry – together recognized that they had both been falsely diagnosed with depression while they were still employed. But both of them suffered a totally different health condition that the German health insurance politics do not allow the treatment for unless it’s already diagnosed. Apparently the diagnosing costs are not covered. They both got the wrong treatment, which worsened their condition and actually caused depression. Suddenly there was this moment of realization of what was going on, and that there was a pattern to their being pushed into precarity, living in this unemployment regime, which is very tough, especially when it is combined with disability.

CZOLLEK: I think those last points pull our discussion together. The things we do rest not only on context, which is extremely important, but also on our ability to analyze this context. This is the venturing point from which we are able to identify not only the aspects that are problematic, but also the points and strategies of intervention. That is what we need theory and research for. Why are we putting a lot of energy into being able to analyze? Because this analysis will determine the quality of our artistic interventions.

Concerning solidarity I think we can observe a current renaissance of this term. In the latest issue of Jalta on “Gegenwartsbewältigung” (coming to terms with the present) we published an article by Deniz Utlu. The author is proposing the idea of empathetic solidarity, which is not only strategic in a way that both sides profit, as demonstrated in the German circumcision debate a few years back: the Muslim and the Jewish sides are both affected, so both are struggling against a law that prohibits circumcision. Deniz demands that, beyond that, the Jewish and Muslim side develop a sense of empathetic solidarity, an intrinsic and mutual support to maintain a lasting presence in this country.

And last you are asking about the situation we are in right now. I’d say that the struggle is not yet lost. And because it’s not lost, I am still clinging to my aesthetic-intellectual-political strategies. I do not, however, know if we are going to win this struggle. The only thing I’m saying is that we haven’t lost it yet.

LANG: I think that’s a great note to end on. Thank you, Suza, Julia, and Max.