In It’s digging back, the worlds of thought of director and Ruhrtriennale artistic director Barbara Frey and historian and gender researcher Dr. Uta C. Schmidt, who comes from Herne, meet. During walks through the Ruhr region and while reading Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, they look for cracks, myths and melancholic spirit – the aesthetic and the historical converge.

Barbara Frey | © Daniel Sadrowski

Uta C. Schmidt: First, I would like to thank you – as a result of your invitation, Edgar Allan Poe has suddenly and unexpectedly entered my life. Poe’s story has nothing directly to do with the Ruhr region. But as a historian I find it interesting that connections spring to mind immediately. The way the story begins reminds me of the accounts by writers in the 19th and early 20th centuries who came here from elsewhere and attempted to describe what they saw, heard, felt and smelled. They consistently felt a profound despondency. Viewed historically, this certainly had something to do with the region as a workplace, the hard lives of the working population and the pollution of the environment. It really did depress them to see all that misery. I found it amazing, the way I was drawn into The Fall of the House of Usher and thought: yes, there is potential here to approach this world of historical experience though a different language.

Barbara Frey: Take these lines by Poe, for example:

»I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.«

Here, the self-reflective poet pops up briefly and says: this place is different. It lacks even a hint of the poetic – a sinister thought.


UCS: And for me, as someone who has made a deliberate decision to live in the Ruhr region here and now, aside from the »bourgeois talk« about everything here looking so awful, the place does have a poetic quality of its own.  If I take you to Wattenscheid or to Wiescherstraße in Herne, and we’re surrounded by all these styles of architecture and urban development projects from the 1960s, these are places that don’t look like Zürich or like Berlin, either: for me, they have their own character. Of course, I immediately ask myself: am I starting to romanticise all this now?


BF: In another passage, Poe describes something that can’t actually exist:

»I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.«

What is it that he can see there? I find this intermediate perception very interesting: he looks and he can feel something, even though he knows it can’t really be there. And yet it is there.
The Ruhr is less familiar to me than it is to you, but ever since I’ve been here, I keep asking myself exactly this question: is something emerging from my imagination that has nothing to do with the region or is there a particular melancholy spirit here? And if there is, what caused it?


UCS: The writers who travelled through the regions of the iron and steel industries described the area as jittery and raucous, but they also couldn’t really understand what they saw.  And of course – depending on which stage of production the coking plants or blast furnaces had reached – a very real »atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven« did rise up and there was »a pestilent and mystic vapor« covering everything that was murky and sluggish, ranging from leaden grey to sulphurous yellow – though this really was visible, physically oppressive and damaging to people’s health.

BF: So, the real atmosphere combined with the literary one. And material phenomena thoroughly pervade the soul.

»He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth—in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated […] an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.«

Uta C. Schmidt | © Daniel Sadrowski

UCS: That passage reminded me of an experience I had in Gelsenkirchen: Gelsenkirchen has redesigned its pedestrian zone. I was sitting in the sunshine outside, at a café by the town hall, saying: »How beautiful it all is!« And the man at the next table grumbled: »Yes, but it’s going to need weeding every summer.« Later I said: »You’ve got a wonderful theatre!« and he comes right back: »But it costs a fortune!« There’s always something that prevents you enjoying things. Might this be that spirit of gloom – which, in literary terms, would be called melancholy?

BF: Possibly. Though I don’t regard the people here as melancholy…

UCS: Perhaps this melancholy only affects certain generations. They lost their jobs during restructuring and their purpose in life along with them. And they were also part of the heroic grand narrative of post-war rebuilding and the West German economic miracle. Now they’re no longer part of »We’re someone again!«. How deeply must the notion of work within an industrial society have been internalised by these first post-war generations?


BF: In Poe’s writing, work doesn’t feature at all. It’s more like the opposite: an extremely agitated idleness; the characters are aware of everything and can see through walls. They’re never concerned with a profession or doing a job. Poe was an anti-bourgeois writer. With him, there is never any moral edification, any sense of education, no young hero who sets off on his travels and comes back reformed. There aren’t any heroes at all.
Is the melancholy of Poe, arising out of endless grey days, different from the melancholy that results from losing employment? How do the people who go past those mines and coking plants every day see it? Do they associate something quite concrete and unsentimental with it; that it’s all over now? Or do they romanticise the past?


UCS: There’s no one single answer to that. Initially, among those whose workplaces had been decommissioned, it led to an attitude that can be described as: »Get rid of that crap!« Increasingly, though, we enjoy showing off our unique cultural landscape: we take visitors along to the Jahrhunderthalle or Zollverein. Young people have been using these industrial sites as places to meet for some time now. Which also leads to conflict, if they make noise and leave litter everywhere. And then there are cultural creators – like you – who engage artistically with the region’s past, present and future.


BF: There’s something aesthetic that interests me.

»Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves.« Poe describes a marriage between the walls and nature. The house was built by human hands and now nature is reconquering it.
If you go for a walk around the Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, for example, you can see plants that have self-seeded in the ruins of industry. You can see culture and nature side by side and, in that, a human desire for nature to reclaim everything. After we had destroyed it all. A contradictory, twisted Romanticism. In Poe, the mansion falling down stands for a lonely soul that is collapsing. Roderick Usher has become one with the walls. That’s pure literature.
What enters our souls when we look at industrial ruins where flowerbeds are growing? I’m fascinated when I see a mine or look at the blast furnace in the Landschaftspark from the outside. The longer I look at it, the more I begin at some point to see a giant work of art.


UCS: Yes, a vast sculpture!

I’m fascinated when I see a mine or look at the blast furnace in the Landschaftspark from the outside. The longer I look at it, the more I begin at some point to see a giant work of art. Barbara Frey

BF: How does anyone come to think of pieces of architecture like that? If it had not been thought of, put into words and »calculated«, then it would be unable to stand up. I’m always interested in this transfer process, like in literature. What we have read together comes from the brain of Edgar Allan Poe and it ends up in our brains. What’s exciting about this part of the world is that we’re constantly being provoked into thinking about what we’re actually doing. In Switzerland, you don’t dig into the earth, you don’t go climbing down inside it. Instead, there’s this weird, postcard-like idyll that gets further and further away the closer you try to get to it.
Here, it’s the other way around: it doesn’t withdraw from me, but tempts me towards it and drives me into a kind of productive lack of understanding. On my journeys through the north of the Ruhr region I see all these monstrosities standing around in the landscape and think: they spent almost two hundred years here digging down into the ground, and now I’m being dug into. It’s digging back, it’s turning me over and unsettling me. 


UCS: For me, these questions crop up elsewhere: what human energy has been invested here – the spirit of invention, the labour, the human lives – to yield these raw materials?  Perhaps it’s only possible to understand a little of this when a mine closes down: first, they had to transport every single screw underground and afterwards, all of it, even the tiniest little screw, has to be brought back above ground again. The cost in terms of human energy is unimaginable. At the same time, I can look up in the archive, entirely prosaically, how much profit was made.  I can consider that free from any emotion in terms of the relationship between capital and labour. But it’s more than that. To get close to comprehending that, we might perhaps need the language of literature and poetry. Of course, it’s possible to construct a narrative of industrial history purely through gross registered tonnage. But literature reveals other aspects; it invites you to think about it differently. 


BF: Seeing the head as a mine, the soul as a mine, makes me wonder about excess. Did mining fail because of its excesses?


UCS: Well, mining black coal in the Ruhr didn’t fail because of its excesses, but because it was too expensive and it had to be subsidised too much in order to remain competitive on the world market. And then it didn’t fail – because it was a political decision to initiate the closure of subsidised black-coal mining.


BF: But that does have to do with excess: it goes beyond a certain level and becomes what people would describe as uneconomic.


UCS: Ok, in that case, yes.  


BF: And I find this excess very interesting in Poe too. If you read him as a stylist, he is exploring the very boundaries of what is sayable: everything is incredibly frightening or even more horrifying. For me, there is the sheer delight in art in these superlatives. Art is always about surplus, it’s about paradise and disaster. Beauty and horror are neighbours. And not just in art ...


UCS: Some of my colleagues discuss whether the end of coal mining also meant the end of the Ruhr region.  I see it differently. Here, I would agree with the philosopher Roland Barthes: this particular story may have come to an end. But now the great age of the myth begins. And this is something that people are working on from a variety of locations: there are groups who emphasise the comradeship of the miners, who wear blue-and-white-striped shirts and swear by »hard work«. There are the fashion-conscious who like urban living and say: this isn’t like Berlin, we can create things here, it’s ripe for development. And, of course, you can stand at a kiosk eating Currywurst like Herbert Grönemeyer »deep in the West« and live out the myth there. 


BF: There is something heroic about being able to talk about your own decline and that it will never be the way it was ever again. That way you can hold it slightly at a distance from yourself and mystify it.  Could a part of the melancholy that can be felt here also lie in the fact that coal mining was dangerous and that death was lurking down in the pits? That must have ended up somewhere too.


UCS: Wives, mothers and daughters of various generations of coalminers have talked of an ever-present fear that »he would never come home again«. But they managed to accept this and took good care of Grandma, so that they would benefit from her miner’s pension for as long as possible, to put into one provocative image. It may be that because of the tension in these relationships, a melancholy has written itself into the region and is still here now.


BF: Where are the cracks and the snail trails in our civilisation? What does the hairline crack spreading across the facade of the House of Usher carry with it?
With Poe, you have to take the plunge. You’ve got to enter the darkness, leaving the world you’re in behind and come back again as a reader, enriched by another world. I think this change of world is also interesting in connection with coal mining.
And for me, the character who goes through this change is the miner who becomes a hero, because he somehow manages to give me the feeling that I’ve gone down there myself, as if the whole Ruhr region were in the mine. The ones who really went down the mine have a representative function.


UCS: There were always mines and steelworks, but it was not until the coming of the universities, in the 60s, that there was an educated society in the Ruhr and many people experienced »upward mobility«. That is at least as important to the story of the region today as the mining industry, which, incidentally, contributed a great deal to that educational landscape. However, the specific folklorisation and romanticism of the mines is running full steam ahead.


BF: Could this folklorisation also be a form of mollification? A way of easing the pain of losing a »golden age«, a sense of togetherness? That pain is in all the arts: it is recognition of one’s own loneliness.


UCS: Fortunately, that’s one perspective you can take up in your exploration of the Ruhr region! Because anything else wouldn’t lead to anything new.
And I am challenged to step back from my historical knowledge and to let this literary experience affect me. The ending of The Fall of the House of Usher also opens up associations with the real situation: here is the »deep and dank tarn« and the »voice of a thousand waters«, that not only shouts at the House of Usher in literature but also presents a genuine threat in the Ruhr region.  If the water from the disused mine workings wasn’t constantly pumped away, there soon wouldn’t be a Ruhr region any more.  But in literature, that collapse must come …


BF: It happens through sound – a »tumultuous shouting sound« – and then silence.

»While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.«


Translation: David Tushingham