Madhusree Dutta: „This is not a time to be ahead of people, this is a time to be with the people“
Since 2018, the Indian filmmaker, author and curator Madhusree Dutta has been responsible for the interests of the Cologne based Academy of the Arts of the World. Dutta, who studied economics and theater studies, addresses feminist issues and concerns critical of capitalism both in her own artistic work and in the context of the Academy.
In collaboration with curator Eva Busch, Madhusree Dutta is responsible for the current exhibition of the Academy “Geister, Spuren, Echos: Arbeiten in Schichten (Soft Opening)” / “Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts”, which uses three working narratives from North Rhine-Westphalia to open up larger lines of sight.
Thomas Venker met up with Madhusree Dutta, Eva Busch, and later the artist Kathrin Ebmeier on the eve of the second coronavirus lockdown to talk about ghosts, traces and echoes.
All photos by Mareike Tocha.
Eva Busch: I think you can answer this question in many different ways. Generally the idea of „Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts“ poses questions concerning the visibility of different details in the history of labor – which like the visibility of labor itself is obviously very much racialized and gendered. To approach those three phrases (Ghosts, Traces, Echoes) with the project, shaped what we were looking for, what we are giving space to.
But you can answer the questions also differently: The sound that you hear in the entrance is about two people learning a song together in German and Turkish, „Keiner schiebt uns weg“,„We shall not be moved“, “Biz kovulma yiz“. This song was sung for example in Hattingen as part of the protest against the closure of the steel factory Henrichshütte. Fasia Jansen, a political songwriter, was the main person who brought the song from one women initiative to the next women initiative. She was such a strong connection figure for the movements in the Ruhr area and far beyond. This is also a connection to the second and third layer of the exhibition.
And listening to it now opens up even more interesting questions. The phrase, „we shall not be moved“, keiner schiebt uns weg“ – in the context of today’s labor realities which are so much about mobility. It is all about having to be able to move and be moved all the time.
Madhusree Dutta: One connection between the works is, first of all, the location: The exhibition concentrates on the period between the 1960s and 1990s and the region of Ruhr area.
But the front room where we are sitting now is the 2020 room. This is the labor you see every day, all of us see those workers. This is something we take normally for granted, migrating workers, from Romania to Germany, from India to Saudi Arabia – it is all about mobility. It is a new form of mobility put in the context of old mobility of industrial workers. But we are no historians, we are artists. So the question is: what attracted us to do this project? The answer: The artistic legacy of the working class. There has been lots of works, films have been made, plays and novels been written, but the cultural and artistic legacy of the working class itself has not been recognized enough. Today in the age of social media the people would have known fast about a protest like the one at Henrichshütte as the demonstration and the ghosts aesthetics would make good posts.
Eva Busch: This is a good questions actually: Would a happening like this make it into the press today?
Back then several Germanwide newspapers wrote about it. It was and is an interesting gesture to say: „We put on the sheets and personify what we are afraid of in a way“ –
quoting the artist Kathrin Ebmeier, who will join us later on. Those women were afraid of the closure of the steel plant in Hattingen and their city becoming a ghost town, therefore they did put on the ghost costumes, personifying this fear and creating an atmosphere of bold resistance against the prevailing anxiety.
Madhusree Dutta: It was a performance project, it was a visual art project – it is an artistic legacy. Those women imagined and mobilized like a community of film makers, singers, writers, we want to bring this to the attention of the visitors of the exhibition.
Over the past years, I have written a lot about labels dedicated to re-issues, a somehow comparable field. Oftentimes it are reissues from musicians who have not been noticed by their own times and now get a second chance under different cultural conditions. But it is also a question of power, then and now. Because it takes assertiveness to make things visible and audible.
Which brings me to your emotional relationship with the exhibition. Curating this exhibition is a sign, but making it visible in the long term presents you with the same challenge as the women of Hattingen did back then.
Madhusree Dutta: Thank you for asking this. This has bothered me a lot. I joined this institution as artistic director three years back, I always wanted to do this project. I was very much interested in the industrial history of this region. But when I came here, I realized fast that everybody told me: „Oh, that is not Cologne history, that is NRW history!“ I come from Mumbai, a big city, so for me 20 kilometres away is your history and not another history.
A very German thing to say: The neighbor did it, not me!
Madhusree Dutta: It took me three years to justify and fight it through that this history is the local history. But when I finally reached this point, I suddenly asked myself: What do I have to do with this? Well, I have a reversed colonial interest in the postindustrial history of Europe – but what is my special perspective on it?
So this project here in the front room of the exhibition comes actually from that questioning. I wanted to mark and bring in the location I come from and what is happening to labor there. As the artistic director and the co-curator of this exhibition I cannot be neutral, I have to place myself.
These 60.000 people on the streets of my hometown of Mumbai had to walk long distances to their homes in rural areas after they lost their jobs due to corona lock down. It was for a while all over the social media channels and everybody was wondering how this is possible (people in such large number wlking on the streets) during lockdown – before it disappeared again digitally. I justify my position by including this in this exhibition.
Eva Busch: The history of the Ruhr area and NRW are obviously very much interconnected. I personally live in the Ruhr area, I live in Bochum. Last year I already did another project in Bochum concentrating on the history of feminist protests in cooperation with the Akademie der Künste der Welt. This is the context I am situated in, these stories in the research project, they surround me geographically and politically. When I was invited to participate in this project, it was from the beginning clear to me that such a long time cooperation between artists, activists and the institution can not just be about the production of art work, it is also very much about social processes and also about an archival activist approach. But it’s still a question to me what the role of an art institution in Cologne can be in this processe – definitely not one that is free of contradictions. A question, that actually many are asking is: how is memory shaped in the Ruhr area? This history of the Fraueninitiative Henrichshütte is a good example, because as the artist Kathrin Ebmeier and historian Alicia Gorny started to work together with the women at the same time there was another lose group forming to work on the history of women initiatives in the Ruhr area in a wider range, as there have been several approaches that we wanted to bring into a conversation, join forces. Further, the museum Henrichshütte which is run by the Landschaftsverband Westfalen-Lippe really supported this project and helped creating a website for the history of the women initiatives. It was very important to us that the exhibition is not the end of these processes. .What is exhibited now is one possible way to give visibility to it. The processes will go on, in other structures, without the Akademie der Künste der Welt, which is how it should be.
Madhusree Dutta: I get often asked in my position as the Artistic Director of the ADKDW, „What`s the specific relationship of the institution to the Ruhr area?“,
as much as they ask about the relation to the world in general, or to Africa, or to Canada or to South Korea.
We have the vision of the Academy as an incubator for endangered history, our work is about fragile memories, about cultural legacies. The institution is not the capitol of knowledge in that sense, nor the one of resources, but it helps in nurturing the initiatives that are coming up in the field itself.
How can we imagine the genesis of “Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts”. What was the starting point? The ghosts? And how did the web, which is so distinctly interwoven in the end, develop? Since it certainly did not come into existence as a whole concept all at once.
Eva Busch: This is always the question: how do those things come together? In this particular case the „ghost“ story existed first. Actually the museum approached me, but not specificly with the ghost aspect, it was about the general idea of looking into the history of the Hattinger Fraueninitiative.
Madhusree Dutta: From there we started looking at disciplines. Our interest is the artistic legacy of the working class. First of all it looked like a performance art project to us – so we wanted to add one project on literature and one on music; the story of Fasia Jansen came last.
Eva Busch: To come back to the original question: Yes, you start with an idea, confront it to the reality and then question how to place it. It is a back and forth process of imagination and reality.
What strikes me as interesting, is that you speak of artistic disciplines. In my approach to the exhibition, I had primarily a sociological view: “Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts“ deals with work, but also with places and spaces – and with biographies. For me, society and people are in the foreground, the disciplines come second.
Madhusree Dutta: The Akademie der Künste der Welt wants to make art accessible to the people. Art to us is not a gallery production. To us, specifically in this project, art is about local people, local history and local talent.
But isn’t it a fact that an exhibition like “Geister, Spuren, Echos: Arbeiten in Schichten” / Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts” asks a lot from the viewers?
Madhusree Dutta: When I arrived here in Cologne, the institution was in a lot of controversy. Our budget was cut by 40%, because the city was unhappy with us – and the media was unhappy with us.
Why? According to them the institution was running too many projects nobody understood. They wanted more simple projects. Let`s say a dance project came from Tanzania, a literature project came from Palestine. Even though those were simple projects there was no familiar context, it felt elitist to have, for example, a working-class literature program from Palestine. When the language is not known, there is no familiarity and then it is not easy to follow.
So, I came to the understanding that I have to interpret the world in the local context and create a space for it. I think this is~ the way to do it. I bring you what is there in the neighbor’s house, you may still find it complicated but it is not that you are not familiar with it and but still you may not be able to follow it. But actually, you are not trained and acknowledged to look at it this way. It is a question of ways of seeing – which then influences the perception.
What I am saying: complexity and inaccessibility are different questions. Sometimes your own history does feel complex. Alienation is not the result of distance.
Eva Busch: When we started the conversation about the exhibition, I had the curator and writer Irit Rogoff in mind. She writes about doing research as a form of art –(it is quite a common approach in contemporary art today to do research) – and says that exhibiting and looking at research art can be quite exhausting.
We took this as our curatorial task: „Yes, we want this to be complex and it might be exhausting“ We asked ourselves: how can we arrange it in a way it is not only exhausting but also worth engaging.
Madhusree Dutta: And entertaining.
Eva Busch: You can enter it from many different ways. We are not here to just deliver something nice and funny.
That is not what I meant. An example of what I actually mean is the city bike tour with Muriel González Athenas: “Lace, forge, argue: Work in the city”. The title seems harmless, but it deals very concretely with working conditions and job opportunities with reference to influencing factors such as gender, foreignness and racism, precisely since these factors must be taken into account if one wants to understand the processes of industrialization. The tour includes a total of nine stops and addresses subjects such as the role and situation of workers, the colonial trade in Cologne, or the Human Zoos at the Botanical Garden, where, and I quote from the announcement, “people were forced to re-enact their ‘everyday working life’ in front of the voyeuristic gaze of the audience.” An exorbitant amount is put into one item of the program.
Eva Busch: Let me put it this way, this is a way of decentralizing things. We are questioning the one easy history with our work.
Muriel González Athenas as a historian was also quite interested in the idea of layering, to see and bring out what the different aspects of labor from the Middle Age times till today have to do with each other. How do we understand todays status better by looking into the past?
Of course, we try to imagine how this feels and looks in the end, but there is also a performative quality to this curatorial concept that we are experimenting with. Again: it is also about decentralizing and putting things together and seeing what they do to each other.
Why is it interesting to read the dergi/die Zeitschrift, a magazine from Duisburg, and place it next to the Hattinger Fraueninitiative. What do they actually have to do with each other?
Madhusree Dutta: You do not have to remember all the dates of historic happenings; we are not going back to the school class of history – it is more about the importance of being aware of the concept of balances.
One of the fascinating things when I came here, I realized – of course I did read books before – that in this region the history actually exists in layers. That is why you find this also in the title: “Geister, Spuren, Echos: Arbeiten in Schichten“ / Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts“.
Mumbai is a colonized city, it is only a 300 years old city, the history of the city is quite horizontal, the cultural landscape is wide and flat – so this vertical culture, like you find it in Eastern Europe or also here, especially in the industrial area, is fascinating for me.
Before reading deeper into the programing, I wondered why the exhibition in opposite to the film program is so much more about local phenomenas. But now I see, it is as international in its deeper texture. Same has to be said about me questioning the complex of preparing an exhibition before Covid-19 and how to react to those massive changes all around us. Just to find you already adapting to it.
Eva Busch: To us it was clear not to only exhibit a past, an exhibition like this must be all about what it means for today. We are confronted here with objects and immaterial legacies that have to do with the history and legacy of art production of the working class. Artists looking back at them from today’s perspective are interested in what kind of artistic practices existed back then and how they are related to their work today – it does not always have to be that way, but it did not surprise me so much. But still the approaches are very different.
What does all this mean for the future? The future of the working processes as well as the future of the basic social conditions of existence?
This question naturally addresses the transformed working conditions of all of us: home office – which for many years has been an unfulfilled dream in Germany as the companies (in contrast to the more progressive Scandinavian countries, for example) immediately suspect fraud against the employers and thereby accuse the employees of reducing work performance – has suddenly become a new reality to an extent that does not feel too good for the working class. Instead of constant control in the workplace, there is sudden social isolation and at the same time absolute appropriation (since the end of work was dissolved to the detriment of an endless jogging-pants-momentum).
What stands out is this: Hardly any company has the calmness and the sense of perspective in the current situation to lead its employees correctly.
Madhusree Dutta: We are no social scientists, so maybe we are not qualified to answer this. But the question is: what will be the social body of labor in the future? Everybody is so isolated today, either at home or in a room on their own with the laptop and in a zoom conference. There is no public site. We actually do look at the site. This does bring us back to the front room of the exhibition. The talent, the knowledge, the training, the tool everything is stored in the body of the people – and the body has to move for the work. Now all those bodies are for themselves.
I can only briefly tell you that next year, when things are hopefully better, we are planning a major project on hands. What do hands mean to us? Hands as a production unit, hands as a sign of caring for one and another – individual aspects of hands as much as solidarity aspects of hands.
Eva Busch: As you are pointing out the aspect of working from home, I was lately reading an article from the 1980s in a book about women in union work. In this text they were already questioning what the effects of work from home will be. They already stated that it will be a way to exploit people more.
There is contemporary social analysis that state that the capacity to work from home is very much gendered as the socialization – like being raised as a woman – prepares you to be flexible and ready to do all this different jobs.
Madhusree Dutta: We are often looking at working from home as a facility. Another way to look at it is as a a form of austerity.
By working from home, we reduce the burden from the system – they don`t have to run an office, an infrastructure…
Things are now austerity driven. Every political system does that. They give out a call – for the good of the nation you have to cut down your expenses, your facilities, your requirements – you as a citizen has to cut it down. Not that it makes things easier for people. But the idea is that the system simply ask and expect the citizens to make adjustments and sacrifices for the system to keep running and also keep making profits.
Absolutely. And no one is really looking in the back end of all this. Are people really free to do what they feel like in a business environment where others maybe still go to work to please the higher levels of in house structure? And so on. The companies are mostly not helping their people, they do not teach them, they do not listen to them.
I come up with this as you include a lot of sociopolitical implications in your papers. One wonders with the whole processes going on if the people will unit more and we see a comeback of unions as so many also in the cultural context feel isolated and alone in their struggle. Looking at my friends and co-workers pretty much none of them are union members – I am –, but one has to understand the things happening are not happening deus ex machina, they are the result of a long series of decisions and events.
So, long talk, short question: What do you expect to happen?
Eva Busch: I don’t feel very excited regarding the removals of borders in the field of labor, maybe even scared,and I am pretty sure it will go on like this. There will always be people who are so broken and down that they will do the shitty jobs. One of the strengths that I take from the research on the historical projects we do, they are also about creative legacies – but not creative legacies that have been capitalized in the way as today where everybody is always trained to be creative in their jobs. There are very different approaches to being creative as a worker. Something like the ghost protest is the result of an existential crisis – but they did not stay alone, they came together and had a real creative answer. The situation now needs also really creative answers to face the restrictions!
Madhusree Dutta: Since computers came within the last 25 years into our lives, we have access to all information. Everything seems less controlled in a physical sense, we are enabled to move free for work – but maybe only because the capital had an interest in us doing so. Anyway, this phase too has collapsed through the current crisis. Politics are changing. I am sure we will see a different kind of protest culture emerging.
We always use the wording of the late capitalism. But we use it for quite a long time – it is a romantic utopia. I am not so positive this will keep going on, I rather diagnose a slowing down of the process. When economy shit hits the fan, politics regulate things much more, just remember the coalition of the Green Party and the SPD of the Fischer-Schröder era, we had so much hope and they shorten so many social payments and rights during their terms.
I include all those topics into our talk cause of aspects like the Art of Working Class workshop as part within the programing of the exhibition, hosted by Alina Kolar, María Inés Plaza Lazo, Paweł Sochacki. Is this your approach to stimulate the people?
Madhusree Dutta: Yes, it is – even though we did not ask them to do so, it is their agenda.
Eva Busch: The group is working on this idea for quite some time.
Madhusree Dutta: It is their style of language to say „Art of the working class“. They have this concept of mobilising the people by talking large, but it actually works on a very daily and intimate level. They take a bigger topic and concentrate it on a specific location. A first working title was: „Artist of the world unite!“ This was maybe too obvious, but it is their style to work with those slogans.
Eva Busch: Within the history of art of the last one hundred years there were many attempts to create art unions. They exist here and there – and we try it again. It is about an utopian overage – in order to survive and to be active and to achieve something we need to do that.
Madhusree Dutta: Art is still a very bourgeois concept, even today. So to say „Art Workers“ is an important thing to do.
Your references to the „Salons des Refusés“ in France of the late 19th century or the Art Associations system in German sound good, but are on one hand opening a quite historic dimension and also one can argue that for example the art associations failed lately a lot these kind of intentions as they serve more and more the established galleries and their artists and not the more unknown local young ones.
As we are in Cologne, the Tony Conrad exhibition at the Kölnische Kunstverein is a very good example: a great show, but one for a Museum and not a Kunstverein if you ask me.
To come back to the ghost topic and the Hattinger Fraueninitiative. How did those women feel about you coming and asking them to reopen the past?
Eva Busch: There was a lot of questioning: You are interested in this? Why so?
Kathrin Ebmeier, the artist behind this part of the exhibition who will join us in a bit, says this comes from the local ‘Ruhrpott’ mentality of not taking yourself too serious and important. She also told us that it was quite an emotional process for those women as we are talking about a traumatizing time for the city and people. There was this narrative of „Unsere Hütte – our husbands go there to work, we go there to work and our children will go there to work, too“. It was tough for them to learn that the interest to close the Hütte had nothing to do with their agenda, it is the interest of the capital. To be confronted with that perspective and to see that the city will change totally was hard to take.
Kathrin Ebmeier had originally the idea of restaging the ghost protest with the women – but they did not want it. They said: „No, this does not make sense to us. We are someone else now, we are not those ghosts anymore. We are not theatre people. We are partly still activists – we can talk about this but not play the ghosts.“
This was an important change for our exhibition process. First we were, „oh, what happens now to the artistic idea?“ But looking back it was good and important not toinsist and instead ask ourselves again: What can we do?
Madhusree Dutta: I am a documentary filmmaker and so I know: There is this contradiction in all of us, if somebody comes and asks about our history or of our grandmother as an example – we often do not think of this as history. Often people say, „this is too personal, I do not want to comment“, but it is also a portrait of a time, it is a social document. One has to balance this when documenting lives.
Eva Busch: Many of those women said when we came together at the former Hütte that they are happy to see that other women are interested in their history. It is of importance who is approaching them for a project like ours, if they feel a continuity, I think it makes more sense to them.
Madhusree Dutta is leaving the group for a while
The shift “Traces” by Anatolpolitan (Nesrin Tanç, Irem Kurt) is dedicated to literary figures who worked in Cologne and the Ruhr area and questions “their memory in our post-migrant present”. For this purpose, an archive room was set up in Duisburg that is explicitly devoted to the cultural history of immigrants from Anatolia in the Ruhr are (with a focus on Duisburg). The neologism ‘Anatolpolitan’ – based on the term ‘Afropolitan’ coined by the philosopher Achille Mbembe – is intended to function as a positive frame of reference by relating to a region and not to nation-states. This points out that such an archive for the traces of Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian- and Greek-speaking literary figures has not existed until now.
Are there plans for this space to continue beyond the exhibition?
Eva Busch: That is then in no way in the hands of the Academy of the Arts of the World. But yes, Nesrin Tanç wants to create a purposeful home for these objects and explicitly in Duisburg. She has been working for many years as a literature scholar and as a cultural activist on the history of mainly Turkish-speaking female literary figures in the Ruhr region. During research, it became clear to her that the existing archive structures did not contain the material she needed for her work, so she began collecting it. A lot of materials come from private homes and through visits she makes. This has just given rise to many questions, concerning, for example, the relationship between more or less institutionalized archives. Of course, I hope that she will continue the work.
What is the aim of the agency Ausländerrauş [ˈaʊ̯sˌlɛndɐʁaʊ̯ʃ]? Naturally it alludes to ” Ausländer raus! Schlingensief’s Container”. Are there plans for one or two concrete actions or what is going to happen?
Eva Busch: Nesrin Tanç had already founded this agency a few years ago. The agency also appears in her lecture performance “Akkordarbeit im halbverbrannten Wald” (Piecework in a half-burned forest), which she will be showing in Cologne in January. The agency provides snotty replies to very strenuous, oftentimes humiliating inquiries that she receives in her role as a migrant cultural worker: “Don’t you have such and such for us? Don’t you have that for us?”
In response, she found a spokesperson position for herself. The agency Ausländerrauş [ˈaʊ̯sˌlɛndɐʁaʊ̯ʃ], for example, has also created a threatening letter poster using cut-outs from newspapers. In the exhibition there will be one of the threatening letters printed on fabric and an accompanying video showing how she creates it.
Kathrin Ebmeier joins the group.
Kathrin, we have just briefly talked about your part of the exhibition. However, I would like to ask you again directly: With ” Ghosts” / “Geister” you refer to the labor dispute of the women’s initiative from Hattingen in 1987. It was about the preservation of the Henrichshütte steelworks. “If Thyssen destroys our ironworks, Hattingen will become a ghost town,” was the slogan at the time for a demonstration where the protesters were dressed as ghosts. Now, together with the historian Alicia Gorny and others involved, you have reunited former protagonists. How did that feel for you? And how differently do the women historicize the events of that time?
Kathrin Ebmeier: I can answer this question in two ways.
For one thing, I’m not the first person to have made an inquiry. The Henrichshütte is now a company museum, and there were campaigns in 2005 and 2009 that shed light on the labor dispute. Volunteers conducted interviews, which means that there is already a practice of talking about the dispute and telling their own history. I also used these interviews, among other things, as material for the interview collages in the exhibition. The other answer: Since we very immediately decided that we would not work about the women, but with them, and from an actionist position and with the desire to enable intergenerational learning, we quickly found a common ground. I was able to share what artistic practice means to me as a queer-feminist activist, and on this basis we developed a day of action. We, that would be Anja Junghans, Ale Bachlechner, Alicia Gorny and I, together with the women of the initiative.
Are these the same women who opened up to the protests in 2005 and 2009, or new ones?
Kathrin Ebmeier: When we met for the first time at the beginning of April – under Corona conditions –, there were twelve women. But not all of them stuck around, as is the case with actionist groups in general. One of the reasons for this is that there were women who no longer live in Hattingen. But they are still following the project, they are on the e-mail list, and we stay in touch.
Through the work of Anja Junghans, who is the diversity agent at the LWL Betriebsmuseum at the Henrichshütte, an institutionally promoted focus of the examination of the role of women in labor disputes in the Ruhr region and explicitly those at the Henrichshütte has been established. This group and the associated processes of exchange interconnect the collective subject and the individual women’s biographies that have developed in the 30 years since then. We want to go deeper into this and hold meetings with one another. After the day of action, there has already been a networking meeting, where participants from other women’s groups came together to discuss the status quo. Including women from the International Women’s Film Festival, the Hoesch Women from Dortmund, antifascists from Bochum, former equal opportunity commissioners.
The questions that arise: What tasks are there now? Which demands remain the same? How can we make actionist demands via institutional linkage? What can I, as an artist who is extremely individualized, working independently and autonomously, learn from the company-organized labor dispute? How can I specifically join forces in individual disputes, even if my position as a queer feminist is different from that of a DKP communist?
You have mentioned above, that you have collaged original sounds of the participants for the audio collages that can be heard in the exhibition. How did you feel about the process?
I sense a strong identification of yours with the topic, so the selection was certainly not only journalistic or artistic in nature, but also very emotional, wasn’t it?
Kathrin Ebmeier: There is a very powerful quote that the women tell over and over again, “I read the newspaper very differently today, I have become more attentive.”
In some interviews, however, which I decided not to include because they were too personal, specific work biographies came up: disappointments, renewed layoffs, etc.
I have always wondered which of the things they share with me can be translated so that I can say with a clear conscience, on an emphatic basis, that this painful memory or even this anger is presentable.
Eva Busch: This also has to do with questions of capitalization. Exhibiting one’s own biographies and one’s own pain is a capital in art today that may work briefly, but also can easily feel stale. You have to be attentive to that, and I think you succeeded well in doing that. You could have dealt with the suffering differently, the decision not to do so is very important, so that it can breathe and be accessible.
Kathrin Ebmeier: From a feminist perspective, there is something buried in this for further attention: How do I value being part of it? Which women have separated? Which ones went back to pursuing their dream jobs?
Of the 120 women who organized themselves into the women’s group at that time, many naturally continued to meet after the closure of the smelter. Which in some ways was successful, as apprenticeships were saved and replacement jobs were created, and there were not just simple severance payments, but social plans according to which people were reallocated within the Thyssen group.
There was this sad and dramatic break, but it was also followed by many positive things: meetings, new initiatives, networking meetings … Some became equal opportunity commissioners, others became active in women’s shelters, addressed women’s policy issues in a variety of parties and trade unions.
Something new that you created was, among other things, a poster about the women’s initiative in Hattingen, and you also implemented the aforementioned event in Hattingen. How did the women perceive this continuation of their action?
Kathrin Ebmeier: We were so close, met up so much, that they had a lot of confidence in me. We discussed every step with them, for example, we asked if I could use this photograph by Manfred Vollmer from December 1987 of the last tapping. The answer was: “The LWL Industrial Museum Henrichshütte never asked us about that, they had already published it as a postcard.
The choice of photos for the exhibition and the interview transcripts, I edited out individual elements, were also discussed. But they are generally very relaxed, because they have already experienced a lot in life and have developed a practice of talking about their disputes. They always told me: “Do it! You’re the artist and we think you’re doing it well.”
Eva Busch: Some are extremely excited. I sent out an invitation email and got a lot of feedback.
Regarding the photo that was mentioned. Kathrin, you once told me that they pointed out clearly that this was not a funny picture, that you knew what it was about. This is a tragic, painful, existential moment – not a happy protest moment. On that day, it was decided that the work was finished. After all, the women were fighting to keep the steel mill open – and that hadn’t worked out.
But there is no sadness or resignation in the picture, rather a lot of self-confidence.
Kathrin Ebmeier: Exactly! But we still made sure that there was not just the credit for the photo, but also the information that it was the last tapping and that red carnations were distributed to the workers.
The question is always: What representation is there? I hail from the Ruhr area, was born in Hattingen, studied in Bochum and lived in Bochum, Essen and Wanne-Eickel, my family is from here. The narrative of the worker identity has always been very present in my life. And yet even I knew nothing about this women’s initiative. What kind of visibility is there? The Kumpel narrative is so strong, always with a certain local patriotic pride. But the fact that this is linked to many gender disputes and also to migrant disputes and a great deal of pain is not yet adequately represented.
Making that visible is a personal concern of mine.
The idea of networking plays an important role for “Geister, Spuren, Echos: Arbeiten in Schichten (Soft Opening)” / Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts”.
For “Echos”, the artist Aline Benecke rehearsed some songs by political singer-songwriter and activist Fasia Jansen (1929-1997), whose work is closely linked to the labor dispute, with the newly founded Fasia Jansen Ensemble (documented for the exhibition in a film by Aline Benecke). From the 1970s to the 1990s, Fasia Jansen accompanied numerous labor disputes in Oberhausen and neighboring cities in the Ruhr area, thus ensuring that the initiatives were interconnected.
To what extent did Fasia Jansen also play a role for the women of Hattingen?
Kathrin Ebmeier: She was a very important companion. She is even hiding in one of the photos in the exhibition.
When the idea for the day of action and the networking meeting came up, people immediately said: “Can we sing “Nobody pushes us away” / “Ninguém nos tira daqui”?
In the entrance area of the exhibition, there is an audio recording of Samira Yildirim and I teaching each other the song – a response to the fact that there were no recordings of the song, at least none that I could find.
Eva Busch: I have only found one that sounds almost military-like – also, it’s just in German, not in the other languages.
Kathrin Ebmeier: Samira can speak Turkish and taught me the Turkish text. It’s about activation, a thinking ahead, not perceiving threads from an artist like Fasia Jansen as completed, but taking them up again in one’s own artistic practice. Fasia Jansen had a great influence, this name is known to all women. She was a strong motor to get into the exchange.
Madhusree Dutta is coming back, Kathrin Ebmeier and Eva Busch are leaving
The exhibition is accompanied by the film program “Film Works”, which deals with, and I quote from the announcement, “filmic narratives relating to bodies, places, conventions, infrastructures, emotions, as well as the social production of work and the work production of the individual person”. These films, twelve in total, deal with different fields of work, such as the working conditions of female telephone operators at the beginning of the 20th century, the downward spiral of an industrial location such as Salzgitter, the living conditions of working migrants, the route taken by working materials in a globalized world, or the current shadow industry of content cleaning.
Here, once again, the introductory question: What unites the films?
Madhusree Dutta: First of all, we need real happenings! This is not easy under the Corona circumstances. But as artists we have to think how it can be done: logistically and regarding infrastructure.
We are not one of those people believing the situation right now is about limiting our personal rights and freedom, but we do think it is a time to think critically about infrastructure und physicality.
To answer your question: The beginning and the end connects the movies. The beginning is represented by the telephone operators in the early 20th century, a found footage film made in 2006 by Caroline Martel from corporate movies made in the 1920s: „The Phantom of the Operators“. The movie is looking back on the history of women labor.
The program is ending with „The Cleaners“, a film by the German filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck about workers in Philippines who clean the internet from the fake and hate news and so on. This is a completely secret labor. They work really underground, nobody knows who they are, they cant even tell their own families where and what they work on.
The programing is about the history of labor across the century and the continents. It is about a wider interpretation of work – of course work means factory work, but also social production of labor and work in the arts. There is for example one film about the folk cinema in India named „Superman of Malegaon“, Malegaon is a hybrid cinema industry – this also happens in Nigeria, this happens in many other places. The movie is looking at the labor of cinema workers.
There is also one film from the Senegal by Fatou Kandé Senghor: „Giving Birth“ – it is about feminity, creativity and sculpture. In the movie a sculptor creates imaginary bodies – giving birth is also labor. All those films are looking at labor from many perspectives, not only the historical aspects, also the impact of work on our social lives.
The program guide says that the works reopen “old wounds”, upset the order and rewrite the history of work.
Of course, a film like “Superman of Malegaon”, set in the “dusty, noisy and densely populated city of Malegaon”, an epicenter of cloth and film production, immediately brings to mind the current dizzying corona figures in the country.
And a film such as “Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso / Come to me, paradise” is also no longer detachable from the current developments in Hong Kong, a city that is currently being ripped away from its population by China. To what extent has this resulting decontextualization framework always been and still is part of the thinking behind the creation of such a series?
Madhusree Dutta: My first instinct was to look at the history of cinema and the history of labor within, but while doing so the concept of labor changed over time, different aspects and ideas came in through processes of migration and other issues. One other thing of importance: people always claim that we live in the age of laptop and that so people do not look at long narratives, only short durational ones like 10 minutes or 15 minutes will be watched. They say long duration cinema is over. I don´t agree, this is my challenge. There is one very artistic film called „Double Tide“ by Sharon Lockhart, a one shot movie about a woman picking up clams at the coast. It is my engagement, I question: Do we have the attention span for a 90 minutes movie showing someone doing the same thing over and over again.
Let me briefly summarize the basic idea of the Academy of Arts of the World: The academy is characterized by a worldwide approach already established in its name. It is a cultural network whose members are spread all over the world and are committed to critical artistic practice beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries. Together they want to correct false historiography and artistically question the current post- and neo-colonialist living and working conditions.
To what extent has the year 2020 again confirmed the exceptional necessity of such an institution?
Madhusree Dutta: The answer has two parts. One aspect I already talked about: This is a crisis time – and in crisis time the power always wants the citizens to make sacrifices. They should sacrifice what is not needed to survive in the day to day. So: What is not needed to survive? Culture! Arts! Maybe also sports, but sports is a big industry, so nobody will say sports.
But culture is also a big industry!
Madhusree Dutta: But it is still not recognized like this. Maybe mainstream cinema is . . . so this is a time cultural institutions have to fight for their rights to survive and function.
And secondly: this is not a time to be avantgarde. This is not a time to be ahead of people, this is a time to be with the people. I look at my institution as an incubator. We need care work – and art can do that very well.
There was a time when art was needed to break the system. Various kind of avantgarde wanted to break the system, but I do think that 2020 has given us the challenge to change that course and to be with the people.
Do you have a specific audience in mind for the Akademie der Künste der Welt?
Madhusree Dutta: We are all about public culture! If people are too scared to come in, then art has to go somewhere, go to people, physically. We need to concentrate on public culture.
The programme of the Academy of Arts of the World, is built on 4 pillars:
– I found:erased:palimpsest, a public-artistic project in which historians provide their personal, family and social memories,
– II Sites at Stake deals with the different interest-driven influences that contribute to the emergence and disappearance of a space (from private to military and economic-political spaces),
– III Original Fakes deals with production processes that undermine the hegemonic logic of the market,
– IV Hybrid Transactions
Does this four-column area of tension converge in “Geister, Spuren, Echos: Arbeiten in Schichten (Soft Opening)” / “Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Works in Shifts”?
Madhusree Dutta: When I started here in Cologne three years ago I was looking at those four columns very differently. But now they are overlapping: hybridity is getting into fake, fake is getting into site and site is getting into palimpsest.
Which is a great thing to achieve, as the whole set up is not just abstract in that sense, it is a real body of work and experience.
Thank your for your time and good luck with the exhibtion.
Translation of German parts into English by Denise Oemcke.