ART AS A NECESSITY, A RECOVERY,
A DRUG, AND A NEIGHBORHOOD.
ON DIE BALKONE AND ON WHAT
TO GO BACK TO AND WHAT NOT?
Övül Ö. Durmusoglu and Joanna Warsza
It was in the first weeks of the quarantine. It became clear that the more isolated we felt, the more we were in need of intimacy and contact, intellectually and emotionally. So we decided to come together -at a healthy distance- in a popular park for our neighborhood. It was a warm sunny afternoon despite the state of exception. We sat on a bench and talked about hope and possibility, which brought us to talk about the balconies and their political history as stages of resilience and as places both private and public at the same time. Balconies as terraces of openness and hope, as well as platforms for authoritarianism and supremacy, as thresholds from which we can encounter the world during the confinement of the domestic: which is safe and sound for some, but not for others. The emergency exits to take a breath of fresh air, catch a moment of sunshine or a smoke. We talked on how they became unique sites of everyday performance or even civic mobilization in times when staying home reveals itself as a privilege. How they turned from luxury terrasses to the signs of democratisation. Every architecture school has its own way of designing balconies. Everyone has their own way of inhabiting them. Especially now. We decided to reach out to the balconies of the world, against isolation and individualization, not leaving everything in the hands of the virus and the fear it generates.
We also talked about our condition of being independent curators at this moment. Independency means in reality a lot of dependence: on grants, moods, circumstances, encounters, favours and interests. And yet there is something we have always attracted us to staying so at least partly (next to our respective teaching assignments) and that is, in the first place, proximity to artists positions and their vulnerability, secondly the deep feeling of freedom privileging art and content and thirdly responsiveness to urgencies when institutional channels are blocked or too slow.
Longing for art as a bodily encounter, mixed with a feeling of horror vacui and the unwillingness to join yet another digital exhibition or guided tour, we decided to address an invitation to the artists, writers, architects, choreographers living in our neighbourhood Prenzlauer Berg to share some signs of life on their balconies and windows during the Easter Weekend in a form of a public exhibition of sorts. We realised that this was the moment: We were all here and on our own in our quarantine spaces and not hectically traveling as usual required by our work responsibilities. Therefore, we started from our friends, who invited other friends, and made us reach out to strangers. Our invitation was picked up very fast and the whole initiative grew with a snowball effect. With zero budget, no opening, and no crowds, the project turned into an intimate stroll (within current regulations) to search for signs of life, art, and points of kinship and connection. Thousands and thousands of people left their screens and came over. We were deeply moved by the warm reaction and curiosity of different publics.
Prenzlauer Berg is one of the neighbourhoods about which many have prejudices. It is generally considered as an area of privilege, shaped around the needs of the nuclear family and made of only playgrounds, ice cream parlours, bio-markets and restaurants. But Prenzlauer Berg is also home for artists, theater people or writers. The quarter has an important history of artist squats, takeovers, one-night exhibitions and many East-German artists have lived here since the 1980. In former East Germany, just as in communist Poland, what was public, in a sense of non-intimidated or uncensored art and life, frequently happened in someone's kitchen rather than out in the open. Specifically, Prenzlauer Berg is a place where home-made resistance against the GDR hit critical mass. Today many locally and internationally acclaimed artists, often disconnected from the locality, continue to live here. Actually more than we expected.
And as two women curators coming from two major working class minorities of Germany, we decided to join our forces and visions, to collaborate for a way of art making that we both believe in. In less than fifteen days, this neighbourhood initiative/exhibition put people closer together then any regular contemporary art event. It made neighbours reach out to each other, it made various art communities intermingle, over 50 artists including their families. We chose to create an equally in/visible and open public frame by challenging GPS in our hands and GPS in our heads. To protect people's privacy we didn't give artists addresses, we created a map with dots - with a generous help of Józefina Chętko - and a list of artists living in the area, but you would not know who did which work. In that sense it was an anti-hegemonic stroll, beyond a particular authorship. Our only curatorial choice was not the list of achievements of certain artists or its symbolic value but the postcode of the area and the question how can we relate to our isolation and the pandemic, starting from where we live.
Invited artists, curators, writers, architects, choreographers didn’t seek our curatorial approval of their statements and contributions as in a standard setting, and we were in no means the symbolic gate keepers of the content. Everybody was producing what they felt like at the moment, on the threshold of life and art, private and public in the windows and balconies. Be it a swing hanging from the door, an action of spring cleaning by throwing unnecessary stuff through the window, or reading poems through an intercom. Artists Lina Majdalanie and Rabih Mroué actually did invite all the neighbours of their house to part take, who activated their windows and balconies and the whole building spoke.
In the Covid-19 public debate in Germany, the artists and curators are not considered ‘system relevant’, and perhaps for good reasons. We cannot save lives, but we can support them with a grain of meaning, situate ontologically, tease a narration, shape thoughts and experiences on what is private, public and political, show signs of life from windows and balconies, experience something together through hope, empathy, joy and sadness. “Die Balkone” brought us a lot of belief in art, and re-made art into almost a drug. Art as a way of thinking about the world, as a way of building bonds and relations, as a way of creating meaning, and in this project, as a way of fabricating a non-digital community in isolation, piecing together a neighbourhood, remembering that some can’t stay home. Art presented from within domestic spaces also felt more intimate somehow. And this could be one thing to learn from that experience, to zoom into where one lives, to take time, to stop the hectic acceleration of production and consumption.
It was an urgency that put us into motion, to break the helplessness, which is intensified by the media. The postponed exhibitions and events, fired museum educators, collapsing budgets, the feeling that whatever we do we can only do in the digital, and without asking who profits from them. In the meantime, when some of us can lock ourselves in and some of us can’t, when we are mourning our losses, some governments -the Polish and Turkish sadly included - are taking dangerous decisions to consolidate their power that may change the course of the future after Covid-19.
We are now often asked - by various media from different parts of the world - : How was this project different from what you realised before? What did you learn from it? What not to go back to? And we do ask ourselves the famous Bruno Latour question: “What are some suspended activities that you would like to see not coming back?” What do we want to keep and what not?
What our initiative also asked is to look at our vocabulary of production and exhibition making, the language use. We tend to forget many things in the professional artworld. One of them is the joy and sense of communicating, sometimes it is that simple and that powerful. We also forgot that we do too much, too fast and too hectically, yet we can not live without each other only behind the screens. Now with the obligatory slow down, we also realised that we forgot the agency that art has in public sphere and space to respond and to express needs and urgencies. Especially now public art reveals itself as part of healing, as a means to produce imaginative forms of publicness in the times where many gatherings for the upcoming months might be risky. It offers itself as a medium to relate to each other avoiding crowd-making. It comes forth as a powerful agency to reshape publicness, to create forms or care, support and societal well-being or just a random encounter. What is public and counterpublic in public art? What is art’s role in the construction of the public sphere, and of society at large? Many of us, not only cultural workers, are in need of situating ourselves in that moment, looking for ontological meaning outside of the museums in the eerie city landscapes. This is an extraordinary opportunity for art to reach out, to rethink our interdependencies to each other and to non-human and finally perhaps to offer us some screen quarantine. We often read in curatorial and artistic statements about the power of art to recontextualise the status quo, and create different narrations, but it hardly happens. “Die Balkone” as a spontaneous instance of art in public made us believe again that art CAN BE in fact a way of creating freedom within confinement, a way of shaping relations, reunderstanding intimacy, a way of overcoming fear, and a way of creating moments of togetherness.
To be able to translate what Naomi Klein very recently phrased as “to kick the door of radical possibility open” to our field of contemporary art meant challenging exhibition/project making structures and codes of working. To go on the ground, to start from where we know best, to realize a response, a connecting gesture in a short while, a smoke sign to tell one another “I am here, I am alive” with zero budget, no commissioning frame, no commissioning at all, no funders, no opening, no spectacle, no fly in and out, no view and preview, no VIP and no champagne, no market in the way we usually exercise in the professional contemporary art world. The common concern we all had with the participants has been more substantial than the ‘normal’ codes of conduct. It was a form of bonding, solidarity and conversation with the medium of art. We need to highlight that we are absolutely against working for free and any form of exploitation, but if there is a need for engagement there are these rare situations where one can do something just because it feels like it, where the economic aspect does not play a role. And of course it would be even better if under normal conditions there would be more fairness and equal pay in a very hierarchized artworld. We also have to say that the city of Berlin was extremely responsive with offering a quick support for free-lances, and not on a national belonging but based on who works, creates and pays taxes here, on who - in other words - who is a neighbor.
It is the neighborhood concept that turned “Die Balkone” relevant for various cultural contexts. We received questions for possible sister editions from India, Ghana, Chile, Indonesia, France or Poland. Although the requests come from different countries, we don't think we should follow a Biennale model where we fly around the world and implement it in various contexts. Those places and local curators and communities will know the best how to make their own editions. You are a neighbour always and everywhere, and everywhere you should think how to live together and if art can be useful it it, especially now, even better.