Interview with Adrienne Goehler
Interview: Hanna Gersmann, Beate Willms
»We can’t leave the world to the experts.«
Adrienne Goehler, the world today is marked by crises, whether we look at the financial markets, poverty, water, distribution, or the climate. Or politics: elected officials have long since adopted Margaret Thatcher’s credo »There is no alternative« as their own. Politics seems to have reached an endpoint.
What do we do now?
Thinking and acting in contexts, developing new forms of organization and movement. Liberating our fantasies on all levels, because man-made natural and financial catastrophes can no longer be solved with traditional methods. The big crisis we have today is also a crisis of expertise.
Does that include politics?
Yes, because democracy is not necessarily in good hands with politicians. However, the experts are failing across the board: the PISA studies on school performance show that it’s not a good idea to leave schools in the hands of schooling experts. The financial crisis shows that money is not in the best hands with the money experts. And for me, Copenhagen was another decisive turning point: the failed climate conference at the end of 2009 made clear more than anything else that the goodwill of governments is limited by economic or lobby interests. We can’t leave the world to experts in business and governments.
What do we have beside these experts, who are clearly implicated with private interests?
We have to work in an expanded form of democracy. Things have to be thought together. In a representative democracy that operates strictly according to divisions of responsibilities and the dictatorship of the 51 percent over the 49 percent, this can no longer be provided. The arts and sciences have a kind of model function in terms of method, in a sense they are the avant-garde of a fluid modernism that is marked by unsure relations and the loss of certainties. For they have to re-confirm their findings over and over. It’s not, »I thought this once, and I’m going to stick to that.« Everything is always in process of being questioned, being recombined, or at least being revised.
Why are artists better at doing that?
Maybe because they are anti-experts? Because they always think in new constellations: in art, there are no sure questions and even fewer secure answers. Instead, art re-interrogates the standard answers.
Does art, do artists now have to save the world after the politicians have failed at it? How is that supposed to work?
No, art would be overtaxed by any kind of rescue function, and that’s not its job. But for some time, the responsibility for documenting the state of the world had been placed in art’s hands. Artists are taking on the task of listening to, observing, and publishing world events. And art can make the invisible visible, as for example Richard Box, one of the artists in the exhibition, who makes electro smog glow, and Michael Saup makes CO2 emissions visible that are created by uninhibited internet use. We need these expanded forms of perception in a larger sense, including sensuality in our actions, no longer acting beyond feeling, taste, smell, seeing, feeling and hearing.
The term sustainability—what the exhibition is about—was also conceived by the experts in very broad terms. But it was so overused that hardly anyone wants to refer to it. What went wrong in science and scholarship? Is it a problem of content or its communication?
There is a whole series of words that have been erected as a rescue umbrella over a reality that is failing us: innovation, creativity, gender mainstreaming, or sustainability. This is why Holm Friebe from Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur snubs his nose at the term and says: »The S-Word! The unsexy word sustainability!« We had a long talk, should we declare the concept lost or recharge it anew? I learned a lot from Ernst Bloch, that the word »homeland« can’t be left to the fascists, for example, but rather should be interpreted as a utopian site where no one has ever been, but for which we all long. We decided to take the offensive: the linking of aesthetics and sustainability.
What does this mean for sustainability?
In terms of our approach to sustainability, this means that we need to divorce ourselves from a technocratic understanding of the concept, and pick up on the 1809 definition of Joachim Heinrich Campe, Alexander von Humboldt’s teacher. »Sustaining is what one holds on to when all else fails.« Or Albert Schweitzer, who defines sustainability as the ability to look ahead, practicing prevention. I owe both definitions to Ulrich Grober, who goes into this in more detail in the Reader. Or quite simply: »Don’t fall more trees than grow!« The word artist Adib Fricke approaches the subject field of sustainability in a word installation.
To remain with the exhibition: How do you define aesthetics?
Aesthetics is the sum of perception. In recent years, it has been delegated to art. I would like to return it to the perception of the population, to the individual. In this sense, it means relying on perception and one’s own senses, and to understand that everything is linked to everything. Wanting to make connections was something that resulted from my brief and very informative interval in government.
Beginning in June 2001, you served as an independent Senator for Education, Research and Culture in the red-green government of Berlin.
Yes, and there I noted that in politics things are not thought, acted or shaped in context, but in terms of departments and who has the authority to do what. What drives the world forward in terms of questions and problems always depends upon the way authority is divided up. Before thinking of the exhibition, we realized that we had to create (FÄN)—Fonds für Ästhetik und Nachhaltigkeit (Fund for Aesthetics and Sustainability) to bring back together things that had been haphazardly separated. We needed something that collected various perspectives and realms, and combined them. For it’s not just governmental policy-making that is divided into departments and responsibilities, foundations and other sources of funding function similarly, just that here it’s not called »realm of authority« but profile. And all sorts of questions don’t fit the usual categories.
That is why you left politics?
Well, I only had a brief interlude in politics, and there I realized that we cannot delegate the continuing existence of the world to government policy. Artists should be observers, should do what politics cannot, and should also develop solar motors or recycling techniques to make society more sustainable. Isn’t that a bit much?
With the exhibition, the project leader Jaana Prüss and I pick up what we have seen in artistic practice, we have not commissioned anything. And its striking that Gordon Matta-Clark, Joseph Beuys, or Robert Smithson engaged with the questions: what’s going on with the planet, what about water, what about biodiversity and what power relations impact upon this, even before there was an environmentalist movement concerned with issues such as air pollution, erosion, or the depletion of natural resources. Art occupied sustainability earlier than other realms. From very early on it dealt with the relationship between nature and culture. If we go into this context of sustainability, in all manifestoes and fair weather speeches mention is made of the fact that there are not only three dimensions of sustainability, the social, the ecological and the economic, but also the cultural. But there is no practical action following on this insight. The fourth dimension, the cultural, is always forgotten. That’s just how it is . . .
. . . all that other stuff, as the former German SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder put it?
Yes, it’s a kind of appendix that’s added at the rear . . . and this is especially true of women and children. Galerie für Landschaftskunst for example works artistically and across the disciplines with notions of nature, landscape and city, Clement Price-Thomas changes perception by way of his artistic engagement with natural phenomena and Néle Azevedo creates with her installations of melting ice sculptures a direct impression of climate change in a poetic sense.
What then have the artists themselves done wrong if they have had these ideas in their head for such a long time, or even already worked on them, but have not made their way into the global discussion?
The art context is not free of its own no-go areas, not independent of the mainstream. The notion of autonomy, of not
being committed to any clients, shaped art in the 20th century. And no one, not even Beuys or the others who were interested in something else than »pure« art could escape from hostilities.
What hostilities precisely?
The suspicion that it’s eco art, social art or political art. The fear of being used by parties or political currents is great. When I was President of Hamburg’s art academy, there was a professor who once was a follower of the German Communist Party (KPD). He almost inquisitionally asked all those students who wanted to paint what they thought they could do for the proletarian with their painting. This lead to people going into a kind of internal exile, they painted in secret. In the 1970s / 80s, in reaction to this, autonomy was celebrated, not feeling committed to any social current. Today, the art market is god. In addition, there are increasingly artists that do not want to befriend this divinity and do not sell their art. Christin Lahr is such an example, who with her work Capital Presents transfers one cent each day to »our« Federal Bank.
Do you understand your exhibition as a rebellion against the current art world?
It is neither about rebellion nor about the desire to serve a certain zeitgeist. It is simply the first large-scale exhibition in Germany that is concerned with the cultural dimension of sustainability. It’s impossible to say whether the concept will be successful. It’s a process, an experiment. But in general, the feedback we are getting is that yes, it’s the right exhibition at the right time. This encourages us to think that we can’t be entirely wrong. Clearly the feeling that the world is not in best hands with the experts is quite widespread.
Why is the exhibition coming only now?
Because we needed three years to convince enough funders of the combination aesthetics and sustainability, for one foundation feels itself not responsible for art, the other not for ecological questions. In the United States, England, and Scandinavia, there have already been several exhibitions in this realm. Germany is a backwaters in this respect. Until now the question of eco-aesthetics, as Rasheed Araeen calls it, has really only been reserved for smaller exhibitions at Kunstvereins or for architectural contexts and always been treated in a monothematic way: climate, Level Green, Beyond Green, TAK Green, low energy house, solar technology.
But isn’t the goal to become as green as possible?
But a truly broad exhibition like ours, with more than 40 positions from art, the sciences, film, architecture, that respond to the burning questions of how life can continue on this endangered planet, has never taken place in Germany. But this is changing at the moment. Next year, the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation) will be dedicating quite a significant sum »on the art of living«. Perhaps in a few years it will be said that expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability opened new paths in the arts, sciences, and social practice: examples to follow !
And is this still art?
Yes, it is an expanded notion of art. For artistic interventions that reinforce social movements against hard political realities are still rather rare. Hermann Josef Hack brings the impact of climate flight to the locations of those responsible, parliaments and pedestrian zones of the consumer metropoles. Gustavo Romano has been concerned with the relationship between money and time since the state bankruptcy in Argentina. The piece Under Discussion by the artist duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla is part of the protest against the US Navy, which left behind lead, uranium, and cadmium—and cancer— on the island of Vieques. The interventionists The Yes Men smuggle themselves into international congresses and infiltrate them with communication guerilla tactics. Art can do all this.
Many of the items in the exhibition are thus very practice oriented. Does your context of questions force artists to again become more like inventors, a sort of Da Vinci type?
The works are targeted at a changed cultural practice. When Christoph Keller brings light into backyards with his patent, Susanne Lorenz, Jakub Szczesny, and Zwischenbericht experiment in their own ways with the purification of water, Jae Rhim Lee researches spores that are to turn dead human bodies more quickly into compost, or Otmar Sattel generates sounds using gas, or when Liebau | Lingk remind us of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, or Miguel Rothschild recalls the sinking of the Atlantides, when the group Superflex question dominant conditions of production by flooding a McDonald’s restaurant, an act that is globally understood. Is this art, is this science, is this practice or something in between? What is expanding what? For they need scientific findings for their work, or simulate them in critical intentions like Antal Lakner, who in times of a dramatic reduction of the habitat for human and plants has found out about their symbiosis.
»We don’t need morality and sacrifice, but pleasure and passion.«
Adrienne Goehler, where is the collaboration between art and science in this exhibition?
In shared expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability, in abolishing the borders dividing art, science, activism, and inventions, sustainability, future viability requires an expansion of our perception in collaboration. In so doing, the borders dividing artistic and technological research are suspended, the lines separating feasibility and idea.
Did the artists and scientists already collaborate beforehand?
Most will first meet in the exhibition. But people like Tue Greenfort or Henrik Hakansson have long been working with scientific issues. The same is true for Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, who is concerned with the loss of biodiversity and in doing so borrows from the knowledge of the movements that work in this field. Surely additional links will result from the exhibition itself. It is something that has been in the air for some time: The arts and sciences are siblings that should gradually come to realize what they have from one another instead of constantly setting themselves apart from one another.
The exhibition as a family reunion?
It’s one good opportunity to reach a mutual understanding. Above all it becomes clear that art is also research and that questions overlap, but that answers are different from those of the sciences. Whereas science always has to prove itself, art can simply take positions. At issue here is perhaps something like a productive mistrust in the sense of a mutual questioning. We need this to approach the various problems that we currently have. Not an exclusive either/or alternative, but a this and that. With the title, we’ve gone out on a limb: examples to follow!
You think so?
Yes, art really lives from its uniqueness. But I am rather interested in the mutual references, what can be thought in more detail, reconceived, or contemplated, and what impetus in art invites to a changed practice. examples to follow! could also simply mean providing inspiration. Exactly! And impulses to act.
Bionics. Copying bees, the »hive specialist« Gerd Niemöller developed extremely light and stable hive structures that can be used in regions impacted by catastrophes using recycled paper and synthetic resin. For him, following an example is his main concern—in as many climate crises and poverty regions as possible.
Where is the distinction between art and invention?
The borders are fluid, it depends on your standpoint. Someone like Christoph Keller comes from an art context that he expands by inventing something useful. The inventor Christian Kuhtz, in contrast, is being shown for the first time in an art context. Lukas Feireiss, Luis Berríos-Negrón, and Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today trace out architectures of change and new ecological intelligence. Dionisio González invents architectural solutions to combat gentrification in his photographs.
According to what criteria did you choose the works and projects for the exhibition?
According to a concern for the state of the world and the value of an artistic approach. Ilkka Halso encases nature to save it from human access. But we don’t want to limit ourselves to the subject of climate change, something that all the foundations are currently focusing their funding and attention upon. Thinking about the state of the world includes the extinction of species, the unbelievable amounts of rubbish and strategies that can be used against it, from recycling and upcycling, as Nana Petzet, Dodi Reifenberg, Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser.
It also includes technological innovations and materials like bamboo, sustainable economics. It is also about political demonstrations of power against cultivated nature, as in Dina Shenhavs work, about starvation as in the work of Dan Peterman, about biopiracy as in the work of Ines Doujak. Each artistic work challenges the individual dimensions of action in its very own way. Allow me to divagate for a moment.
As I see it, art has been given the role of observer, but also of chronicler. Who speaks today about the Balkan conflicts? Today we are in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s the artists, it’s literature, theater, film that today still expresses the horrors that remain after the world public has withdrawn its attention. The same is true in the realm of the ecological. Here there are also long-term observers, for example Cornelia Hesse-Honegger.
What fascinated you about her?
Cornelia Hesse-Honegger collected bugs over many years, and studied them after fallouts in radioactively contaminated areas. Bugs are symmetrical, damaged bugs are all asymmetrical. Her work touched me quite directly. I know quite a bit about atomic energy and fallout, but to see how the destruction in manifest in the most minute levels has something amazingly powerful about it.
What is the difference to a biologist who researches something like this?
Hannah Arendt said this wonderful sentence: »What can art do that others cannot? It can create publics.« Perhaps it is just that which is lacking in these often highly specialized scientific contexts.
How difficult was it to find these artists?
Not at all.
How did you proceed?
It is a process over many years that consists of conversations, travel, unsuspected discoveries, and references. It is a labor of composition. I have been observing the work of some of the artists involved for some time, for example, the work of Gudrun F. Widlok. She works with an artistic device that entirely questions our usual mode of perception.
We all know the posters and flyers that around Christmas time are supposed to warm our hearts when an African child looks at us with eyes the size of a plate and says: with five Euros you can insure my well-being. Then we send off 60 euros somewhere to improve our conscience, where then half is withdrawn as administrative costs. The artist has now cast individuals with a photograph who are economically well situated, but lacking in warmth, affection, in being loved and needed. With these photographs she went to Ghana, for example, and there found families to serve as foster families for these Germans. They said, no problem, send them down.
It is plugging into a resource that they have there in surplus in Africa: human intimacy, family connections, standing up for one another. The opposite of the way we usually see the world: examples to follow!
Were there artists that had to be pushed?
Actually not a single one of them. It is rather that for the past half year, people have been contacting me that have heard from someone who heard that . . . It was in this way that at the last minute Xing Danwen came to us, whose work corresponds wonderfully with the photographic works of Till Leeser, which mercilessly presents the impact of our consumer practice.
Are there international differences, something like a hot spot for aesthetics and sustainability?
This challenging connection has to our knowledge never been explicitly addressed. But as I said, other countries are much further along when it comes to the realm of ecology and cooperation with NGOs and social movements within the art context are more frequent than in Germany of all places.
How sustainable is the exhibition itself?
That was the greatest challenge from the very beginning. How to avoid that a whole insane effort is undertaken for just a month of exhibitions, and then, once documented, to merely disappear into oblivion, to then develop the next project. This ailment is a side effect of our funding structures, which virtually foster the non-sustainable. No artistic project really has time to ripen these days, because there is hardly any money available for returning to them. This is a waste of resources which produces the species of the »grant application artist,« who are constantly having to produce something new, and so they throw in all the ideas they have at the moment, or whatever subject is currently hot. The entire poetry of grant applications already shows that open-ended research in both art and sciences loses out. It’s no longer possible to say: I don’t know how things will turn out, but I have pretty good reasons to try it.
What can you do?
To avoid this kind of wear and tear, we sought out followup situations from the very start. And before the opening of the »mother exhibition« we gained seven additional exhibition venues. Each one will have a face of its own, its own emphasis, because it will expand with a regional artistic, academic questions and those of social movements. We are thus entering curatorial new territory.
How long is the tour going to last?
The last station is in 2013. But I won’t rest until I have gotten the project to reach Brazil: so it could be 2014.
How ecological is the exhibition itself?
Our leading principle is: »make it simple.« We are trying to produce regionally, here at issue is truly leaving things out, building an exhibition architecture with only what’s needed, using renewable resources, borrowing the extant, reusing exhibition elements, minimizing transportation, using empty rides, and for air travel we participate in a program offsetting carbon dioxide emissions.
If the exhibition is only the first step, or reinitializing the link between art and science at the point of sustainability, what comes next?
The idea for this exhibition was from the very beginning linked to that there has to be an institutionalized location be tween realms of authority, a Fund of Aesthetics and Sustainability. Where applications can be made based equally artistic, inventive, and scholarly questions. The boundaries separating various realms of authority are transgressed and transdisciplinary questions are the center of interest. Where everyone could admit, especially politics, that no one really knows how to go on at the moment. Where we could take leave of statements for all eternity, but try things out, feel our way, perhaps go in one direction, that later proves to be an error, or half error. This other form of research stands for the really big questions.
How is the fund going to look, how will it be financed?
I imagine that various large foundations and companies will pay into this fund, and the juries will include those informed academically and ecologically and also those who are aware of artistic connections and know the state of the debate. This is where permeability has to begin.
How much money would be needed for such a fund at first?
I am a fan of pilot projects. We could start off with five, or better ten million, and after five years see whether we have triggered questions for which there is feedback in the society.
The exhibition is called: examples to follow! What examples do you suggest?
Look, think, act: »To make the world a better place.« Not though morality and sacrifice, but through our own heightened perception, with the pleasure and passion in our own action and in a better cooperation and living.