Looking for a(nother) place to call home
It has to be quite tough when you have finally found the perfect place in the world for yourself and then it is gradually being taken away from you. Of course there is absolutely no guarantee for anything in life, but our sense of wanting to belong somewhere and our desire to fulfil this craving prompts us to tell ourselves just the opposite.
Danielle de Picciotto had already moved a lot of times when she arrived in Berlin in 1987. Being the daughter of a US-army doctor, she had been moving from town to town ever since she was born – unsteadiness being the only constant factor in her life. And all of a sudden she found herself in this city that was surrounded by a wall. A city whose complete seclusion from the outside world to her meant a feeling of freedom in terms of really having arrived somewhere. After two decades of restlessness she was finally able to develop a sense of home and a sense of who she is as an artist. The restlessness of her life up to that point seems to have influenced her broad spectrum of artistic output, ranging from music to film, literature and visual arts.
Even though the wall was torn down two years after Danielle had arrived in Berlin, the world that had been hidden behind the wall seemed at first to be a paradise for experimental artists – living in Berlin became even more affordable and thus offered even more freedom. De Picciotto used this freedom to her advantage and conceived the concept for the Love Parade with her partner of that time Dr. Motte, played at Ocean Club together with Gudrun Gut and turned a former vault into an infamous techno club together with Dimitri Hegemann – way before a world in which the Berghain has seemingly become the benchmark when it comes to clubs like these. She founded her own gallery “Das Institut” and played in bands like “Space Cowboys”, “Crime and the Solution” and “Ministry of Wolves”.
I could go on like this forever. The list certainly hasn’t come to an end yet, but the feeling that Berlin was the right place for herself and her husband Alexander Hacke, who you might have heard of as founding member of Einstürzende Neubauten, went away at some point in the cold shadows of this new version of Berlin. Five years ago de Picciotto and her husband were no longer willing to put up with gentrification and the altered conditions of living that come along with it and left Berlin in order to look for a new place to call their home. Their rather utopian guiding principle for this search was to find a place that offers the same possibilities and the same scope for personal and artistic development that Berlin used to offer back in the day.
Hacke and de Picciotto certainly had a shorter journey in mind when they packed their suitcases five years ago, but up until today, they still haven’t managed to find the place they were looking for. Despite not having found what they were looking for, they both gained a lot of experiences, played concerts and de Picciotto created a soundtrack that describes their journey which is called “Tacoma”, named after the American city that she was born in, and even wrote a book about their adventure which is called “We are Gypsies – Der Weg ins Unbekannte”.
Thomas Venker talked to her for Kaput Magazine about her hopes and fears which are both equally part of a journey such as the one she has undertaken and they also talk about the important part that Berlin still plays in her thoughts.
Danielle, you haven’t been living in Berlin for a while now, but you have decided to live a life on the road with your husband Alexander Hacke. When exactly did you make that decision and how long have you been living like this?
We have been nomads since 2010. It was just time to broaden our personal horizons back then. It had gotten very difficult to make money in nowadays gentrified Berlin and so we wanted to see whether it would be easier or in what ways it would be different to try and make a living as an artist in different cities, countries and even other continents. I moved from New York to Berlin in 1987, just because I was fascinated by how “uncommercial” Berlin was back then. It wasn’t about trends, fashion or consumerism, but it was all about being idealistic, about art, music and existentialism. It was a utopia turned reality back then! Nowadays it’s just the opposite. Berlin is hipster-central, city of trends and fashion. It offers a lot of interchangeable art and music. Berlin is still more affordable than other big cities and there are a lot of clubs and things to do, but in my personal opinion the Berlin of today just lacks the style and quality it used to be renowned for.
How about the other cities that you have lived in since then? Did you have to come to a similar conclusion there?
Finding a rough, unfashionable, individualistic place is essentially almost impossible nowadays. That was basically one of the first realisations we had on our journey. Gentrification is a world-wide phenomenon and all big cities are affected by it. If I visit an art market in Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong or Prague, everything just looks the same: the food that is on offer is mostly vegan (by the way I am vegan as well), and the art and music there are pretty much interchangeable.
Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, Prague are some of the cities that you have been to. Maybe you could tell us a little bit more about your itinerary and the experiences you have had in the respective cities?
Our trip started out in Vienna. We spent two months there prior to heading out on an extensive tour of Europe with our project Hitmans Heel and Einstürzende Neubauten. Having completed the tour we lived for three months in Mexico, Hamburg, Prague and finally New York, before heading back out on another tour through Europe. There were briefer stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg, four months in Detroit and then a few more months in New York, as well as two months each in Charleston, South Carolina, Nashville, Austin, Eugene, Oregon and Los Angeles. After this period of time spent in America we lived in Berlin for a month, before I started my book tour through Germany promoting my book “We are Gypsies Now”, as its German version had just been released. Then we went to Bucharest, Hudson Valley, Los Angeles for another few months, Seattle and Budapest. Lately we have been to the Mojave Desert frequently and for increasingly longer periods of time. It would take way too long to describe each and every city and the experiences we have had there. To a certain degree or rather point in time just that can be found in my book. However, my overall general impression would have to be that a lot of the individuality that had once existed seems to be vanishing more and more. Places that lack financial abundance are most likely to turn out most interesting – they are simply untouched, pleasant, humane and cheap.
What exactly is it that you think is going wrong?
As a principle, I do not disapprove of progress itself, but due to the fact that progress mostly seems to be about finding a way to maximise profit and not establishing actual progress, our collective culture just seems to be heading nowhere. Take for example Bjork’s exhibition at the MoMa and Marina Abramovic dancing with Jay-Z showing off her dinghy lips. In the 80s, Berlin would have been emblematic of something that is drastically opposed to things like that. Nowadays, Berlin is part of this sell-out. In our life as nomads we are seeking an alternative. Naturally these are all generalisations and in Berlin and any other city you will be able to find that small group of Gauls who fiercely resist and form the opposition. We have been trying to connect with these people and form a sort of international network. However, as soon as one of these beautiful, affordable, inspiring Gallic bastions is discovered, the advertising industry and corporations weigh in immediately, buy everything, smooth it out and kill any kind of esprit there may have been before. They want to make money and, as you can for example see in Berlin, creative surroundings are very favourable for that.
So far we have discussed experiences that are rather concerned with the larger scale of things. How was it for you personally to leave Berlin behind? Having been on the road for so long, can you even still find positive aspects or has exhaustion gradually started to overshadow everything?
Berlin has been the centre of my life for a long time, which means I have a lot of very close friends there, other contacts, memories. On the other hand I love travelling. Since I grew up in a household that moved around a lot, I can quickly adapt to new places. It even makes me feel more alive and more alert in a way. It’s generally a lot of fun and so far I don’t miss anything, since I keep in touch with friends and acquaintances in Berlin and we keep coming back there thanks to Einstürzende Neubauten. I believe that in life there are moments when you are meant to be doing a certain something. And to me personally that is travelling around right now. It’s not really about leaving something behind, but it’s rather about learning something new.
So has the journey above all been a confirmation for you that your life has been what you wanted so far or have you also been able to derive new insights for yourself from these experiences?
I have come to realise that I have been a nomad ever since I was born. Berlin was the only city that I have ever lived in for more than three years. That is why it is so important to me and that is why its transformation has affected me most. I was born in the States, in Tacoma, Washington. My father was an oral surgeon in the Army and shortly after I had been born he was transferred to Denver. At the age of twelve we had already moved twelve times. Until I discovered Berlin in 1987, I had moved twice as many times. I had never been back to my place of birth until 2014 and so “Tacoma” became a term that signified a sort of mystical home for me.
What exactly was it that lead to the decision to go to Tacoma and was that the decisive factor in recording the album?
Being a nomad and dealing with notions like “home”, “feeling at home”, “home country” etc. all the time, it was the logical conclusion to finally get to know my own place of birth. I eventually made the decision in 2014 and it turned out to be a decisive experience. The city is very poor and pretty much deserted. It is very small, very industrial, surrounded by stunning landscapes. A former gold mining town with a Native American name that can be overseen from an inactive volcano whose top is covered in snow. We wandered around town for two days, being the only people on the buses, looking at the empty streets in silence and we felt a little bit as if we were part of a movie by Jim Jarmusch. I was tearing up all the time and I was overjoyed. It really does make a difference when you know exactly where you are from. Why I am here, that is a different story. But ever since that visit my self-esteem has been changed in a way. I am now connected to a place that I would never move to and that I have only lived in for a very short amount of time.
A connection that urged you to record an album about this journey.
The lyrics that can be found on my album deal with these topics. The mythical “home”, whether it is located at heart, in another human being, or a religious nature or a concrete city, country or continent. The inability to really grasp it properly, to give it a name, to describe it or determine it. That is why a lot of the pieces are purely instrumental. When we made the decision to live as nomads we thought it would be easy to decide on another place to live, above all when there are no driving outer circumstances, such as a job or a new love. We were wrong with that. It is very difficult. Apart from factors like “we want to be close to the countryside, we want good job opportunities, interesting people, a stable economic environment, politics of integrity, environmental awareness”, there is a whole realm of completely different invisible, partially unknown or unconscious, spirits and questions that arise and make decisions a lot more difficult. They lie beyond one’s sway and you get lost in them much like in fog or you get on the wrong track and hit a brick wall. Initially we hadn’t planned on being nomads for more than 18 months – in the meantime we have been living this way for five years and there is no end in sight yet. We have been to a lot of marvellous places, we have met amazing people and impressive artists, but that magical moment like when I came to Berlin for the first time all those years ago has yet to happen. Taking this trip has changed us by a 180 degrees. A pilgrimage of that kind is like life in a nutshell – everything is extreme and all the existential questions and fears all of a sudden seem much more real and urgent. You find yourself confronted with all of your very own original weaknesses and strengths – in comparison to that therapy seems like a joke! Just for this reason alone it was absolutely worth it.
Do you still hold on to the idea of finding a new place to settle down in again? Or do you think that you will eventually be returning to Berlin after all?
I still don’t know what will happen, but I can sense that this adventure will soon come to an end – it might not be for another year, but then I really want to settle down again. I have come to realise that my work benefits from me having experienced new things, but I have reached that point where so many new themes and thoughts, which I want to work on and express as an artist, have emerged that I will definitely be needing a proper studio for that.
As an artist you are very versatile and interested in a lot of things. How does that influence your work?
I have been an interdisciplinary artist from the very beginning. I picked up playing the piano at the age of five and the violin at the age of ten, while I was already painting and writing stories. I have always felt that my art is like a body with different extremities – one of them being music, the other being art and another being language. I go from one extremity to the other, sometimes I use all of them at once, much like as if I was rowing – this would then result in a film or an installation. I love all of them equally, but I can mostly only work with them individually, one after the other, so that the experience is satisfactory to me. That means that I do not paint when I am working on music and I do not make music when I am writing. I have to be a hundred percent focused. When dealing with so many different kinds of media, what you do can quickly become arbitrary if you do not invest enough time into each medium.
To what extent do other artists that you meet or visit while you are travelling influence your work?
Meeting interesting artists while on the road is certainly great, but much more important is how you develop on the inside, which is the main inspiration and guide. To give an example, in New York, we worked on the new film by Matthew Barney as musicians. That is of course great and it only happened because of our stay there, but it is just a pleasant memory really. Those questions that address being without a place to call home and being restless are much stronger catalysts that have a lasting impact on how you develop as a person.
You certainly talk a lot about your reasons to chose the life as a nomadic artist with them and about their own socio-economic conditions. Do these fellow artists find themselves in similar predicaments? Is that something that shows wherever you go and whomever you talk to? Is it in general harder to be a female artist in 2015 than it was back in 1989?
It has always been difficult to be a female artist and not a lot about that has changed. I observed that in Berlin as well as internationally and I myself experience it on a daily basis. Female artists get very little recognition or are not taken seriously – and that is not just how men treat them, but it is how women treat each other, by unfortunately often not taking each other seriously. That is exactly why I have been trying to support other female artists for years, why I have invited them to work on projects together, but it is only a drop in the ocean. It’s been that way for such a long time that I hardly get mad about this kind of lack of respect anymore, but I try to process it through my art and I try to see to it myself that female artists are supported. But it is in principle of course deeply frustrating how little recognition you get.
In addition to that, I – despite the fact that I have initiated numerous cultural projects in Berlin, such as for instance the Love Parade – and Alexander, too, even though he is a founding member of Einstürzende Neubauten, do not get booked. In other cities, artists like us are invited to be honorary lecturers and give presentations or hold workshops to share their experiences. Their cities are proud of their artists and promote them. We get invited to do things like that in other countries, but not in Germany. I don’t know whether the problem is that it is Berlin, since due to the boom that is happening there as a principle young international artists are promoted or whether it is a German problem that you are being overlooked in your own country … naturally we think about these issues a lot and discuss them.
You have mentioned it and one would assume that you are privileged to a certain extent if compared to all the completely unknown artists out there. Alexander is a founding member of Einstürzende Neubauten and the two of you are very well connected, which means that you have access to platforms and possibilities that actually ought to enable you to live a half-decent life as an artist.
We are privileged in that we have been able to continuously work on our art for 30 years and know a lot of people because of that. That does however not mean that we earn a lot of money. In art as well as in music there is a break at the age of 27 and then again around the age of 45, when all of a sudden the interest of a certain age group and therefore the revenue generated through that decreases abruptly. If you have not made it into the mainstream until then and through that receive a steady decent paycheck, then things can get quite difficult. We are still underground-artists when it comes to our tastes and the subject matter of our work, which means that our income is quite limited. Because of that we are basically working away constantly without a break – no holidays, no weekends. That’s the only way we can keep going. Of course it is because of that that we do not have to obey the laws of commercialism, but it is a lot of hard work.
How do you fund your travels?
We have come up with the funds for this journey exclusively through our income and we have to plan everything one year in advance so that there are no gaps. If you do not have a place to call your home and your own, then idleness is not in the cards as in that case things can quickly get very expensive.
Haven’t you at some point had the thought: “Why did I not record this album earlier?” – maybe in a time when you could have earned more money with it?
I actually wanted to release a solo record in 1995, when I had just left my band of the time Space Cowboys. I was not too lucky and that attempt was nipped in the bud – either someone died, my producer or guest musicians just disappeared on me or I was out of money. Since it is my very nature to attach great meaning to symbols and I am prone to reacting intuitively rather than rationally, I decided that I was going to postpone my solo album until the deities and the circumstances in general would be more favourable. So during the following twenty years I worked with different bands, with fantastic musicians and on great projects or I concentrated on my art – until in July 2014 that thought came back and it was almost as if I was ordered to record that very album now, as if I was told that now was exactly the right time. And that’s how it happened, even though I was on a never-ending journey and recorded exclusively in other people’s guest rooms, my solo record came about almost by itself, very naturally, very easy and very quickly.
It is probably almost impossible to remember – but is there still something of the album that could have been brought to life in 1995 in the album that came about now?
The year of 1995 saw the origination of TripHop, a musical style I appreciate a lot up until today. The pieces that I wrote back then were influenced by that and the mystical-dreamy mood that the pieces on “Tacoma” have, has certainly been influenced by that as well.
Your resignation and consequent departure from Berlin was partially because you were tired of the status quo in Berlin and the doubts that stem from that concerning a life as an artist in these circumstances. Has your journey brought back a little bit of energy and courage? Has it made you more optimistic about what lies ahead of you in the future?
Ever since becoming a nomad, I have been happier than I was in 1995. The year 1995 to me marks the point at which Berlin started to be commercialised. Going on that journey was the best thing that could have happened to me and I felt as if I had been reborn. As is well established, artists work until the day they die, as there is no retiring from creativity. Tired artists make tired art or stop altogether, so I am very happy that this adventure gave me new energy and new stimuli. Looking back in history it has been very common for artists to relocate or take extensive journeys, even at a higher age. Berlin is great, but I do not like to limit myself.
What’s next for you?
In August my graphic diary “We are Gypsies” will be released in English. I will be presenting it to the world in combination with my solo record “Tacoma” on an international level with readings and concerts. What’s going to happen after that is written in the stars – Frank Spilker is a good friend of mine.
Danielle, thank you very much for this very intimate conversation.
(Translation: Tanita Sauf)