The photographer and video artist Tobias Zielony, born and raised in Wuppertal in 1973, follows in the photo series Ghosts in the Festival Catalogue the traces of his grandfather, a miner who spent his life in Gelsenkirchen. Shortly after Zielony's birth he died. 

Commissioned by the Ruhrtriennale 2021, the photographer now visited the places of the family narrative. Two weeks after taking the pictures, Tobias Zielony walked along the same paths with the author Enis Maci, who was born 20 years later in the same place. Her stories overlapped with his, the text In the neighbourhood is the result. 

Enis Maci | © Max Zerrahn

We meet at the Café del Sol, somewhere that’s become a fixture. A pre-fab Neanderthal cave. Colonial style, with a West German vibe. A promise, similar to those of the changing rooms in Karstadt, DB lounges and Neckermann travel agencies, so similar to artefacts that have become spaces – or possibly, more accurately, spaces that have become artefacts – of a recently past present.

In Leipzig, I once saw an old man step out into the dusk from a Karstadt hewn from sandstone in exactly the same way that he had previously stepped out of a socialist Kaufhalle on the same spot and, before that – maybe when he was a child – out of Althoff’s department store. It wasn’t Karstadt, which, apart from the staff, only a few incomers were campaigning to save, that was the artefact, but that old man. He’d seen it all.

But the Café del Sol is still there. Its turning into an artefact – and ours – has yet to happen. All this occurs to me when I meet Tobias on the terrace. Orange juice, cappuccino artfully decorated with cocoa powder on top and a waitress whose ponytail is dyed all the colours of the rainbow.

All of this might be a story worth telling, because reading this city as an artefact is very easy indeed.

Between lockdowns I visit a bar in the basement of a Berlin shopping centre. The landlady pulls out her phone and asks me to rate a particular street in Schalke. Is it a good or bad neighbourhood? It turns out that her new boyfriend – a long-distance lorry driver, a long-distance relationship arising from such romantic circumstances that recounting them could never do them justice – it turns out that her new boyfriend, who she’s going to visit soon, lives in this street. It seems absolutely fine to me.

»I cut the bread for them and they run«, Sibylle Baier sings in Alice in the Cities, and: »love them if ever they come, wherever they’re gone.« Alice’s grandmother doesn’t live in Wuppertal, nor anywhere else in the Ruhr. An old WDR (West German Broadcasting Corporation Cologne) documentary shows two migrant workers, the fathers of the teenagers from Karnap belonging to the thrash metal band Kreator. One says they should at least give their music a try. The other wants his son to get a secure job right now. The two fathers are standing on uneven pavement slabs between two pieces of lawn. One of the sons will drop out of the band before it becomes world-famous, the other will stay. In the rehearsal room next to theirs a young man practises flamenco guitar. He respects his neighbours, because their music is complicated too. Both the fathers were still children when the Zeche Carl mine was abandoned. The demystification of America, I read in one film review of Alice; railway lines high overhead, in Queens, in Wuppertal, between the steelworks, I think.

Opposite the spot where Tuffi the elephant fell into the Wupper stands Friedrich Engels, 3.85 metres tall, with Chinese features and a bronze Mao suit, surrounded by tourists, half-way between Paris and Berlin. An artefact. In front of the national headquarters of the MLPD (Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany), in Horst, on what looks like a section of public pavement but the land is actually privately owned – in a way we would only otherwise see in London, New York or Dubai – a statue of Lenin has been erected, 2.15 metres tall and gleaming silver like a Power Ranger.

Tobias and I walk to Ückendorf. In a shop window there is a giant poodle. We watch as the dog clipper takes holds its chin in her fingertips and looks earnestly into its eyes. At the second-hand car dealer there is no longer any sign of those holographic blue and white and bright-pink pennants that ought to be fluttering on a line above the fence.

How do we deal with a life in collapsed backdrops?

Tobias Zielony | © Gene Glover

What Tobias does is place himself in the gap between the idea of something and the thing itself.

Teenagers are standing round a car in artificial light. After the wedding, the car-park attendant advised us to hide the champagne – drinking in public is forbidden – passing a bottle round in a Honda Accord, Schlager songs, good times, hotboxing – unimaginable right now – welcome to our love, the most possible of all worlds.

So how do we deal with the ruins, if every form of speech about them has long since been made productive, commodified? If the words I have were polished on precisely this talk of exhausted seams, periphery, rebirth?

And then, in Bochumer Straße, there’s the amusement arcade that’s been shut for 15 years, faded original decor, obviously you could make a film here, but what good would that do? The stale breath of the gamblers still seems to be hanging in the room. For just a few minutes a day, sunlight lights up the particles of dust on the carpet; for just a few minutes a day, it finds a way in along the unobscured path between the glass building of the science park on one side and the district court on the other.

Later on, a friend tells me that he waited for his parents’ long-awaited divorce to come through on the swing seat at the Café del Sol. While he studied the ads for the weekly all-you-can-eat Schnitzel special, the artful cappuccino in his cup turned to mush. Eventually, he phoned his mother – how long can it take two people without property to get divorced? In the meantime, she had got friendly with the lawyer on the other side and was having a cigarette with him in the open space between the court house and the park. The particles of dust in the amusement arcade glowed. The end of a marriage to someone that even his own lawyer can’t stand. 

What Tobias does is place himself in the gap between the idea of something and the thing itself. Enis Maci

It’s already spring again in the cities: the birds are returning from the south, and the drinkers are sitting in their seats again.

The first time I smoked weed, in the rain, under the poplars at the end of the park. The first time I lied to the police, on the ground floor balcony in Ottilienstraße. My very first memory, at the playground there, my child’s fingers approaching a nettle. Futile attempts to hold me back. The very first clear thought in my life: »Why not?« Then crying.

I’ve never been able to do any tricks. Not on a skateboard, no way. I was always a wallflower, one of the girls looking out of the window, a bit confused, whose permission to belong could be withdrawn at any time.

We turn off at the shaft of sunlight. Beds of pansies, »Neighbourhood Watch«, »Beware of the Dog«. Overgrown gardens, little semis with peeling yellow paint. A woman tickles the back of her cat’s neck and stares into nothingness. Idiots would call this estate run-down. The tenants survived forced evictions and blocked-up entrances and won the battle against their homes being demolished in 1979. In 1992, my mother thought it was so perfect that she imagined living here. Now, the estate is listed as a protected monument.

Where there is now an inexplicable area of new houses that look like they were delivered to the wrong place and a skate park where there’s still rubble already covered in wild carrots, trefoils and prunellas, there was once a coal bunker surrounded by high barriers. When we were kids, we broke in, together with a social worker. He brought a builder’s helmet along for the job. As soon as he put it on, it gave him a magical authority and nobody stopped him lifting up fences, cutting through the mesh and allowing us inside the ruin. We clambered over light bulbs, cans and machine parts and wrote our names on the walls of the grotto. And they returned to us as an echo.

Translation: David Tushingham