Judith Gerstenberg in conversation with Mats Staub | © Frederieke Tambaur

Mats, you have been pursing artistic work on memory for a number of years now.  You collect life testimonies from a wide range of people, save them on various different media, transfer them to an archive that grows over the years and then stage them in a space.  What exactly drives you to do this? Are you more interested in what you can rescue from being forgotten or in the process of memory?

I’m not that interested in preserving things. I like the process that’s contained in the German word to remember: ›erinnern‹ – literally: to internalise – a route that leads inside, an engagement with the self, with people’s inner worlds.  When I began working as an artist, I distanced myself from the term ›oral history‹ because I’m not a historian and I’m less interested in the past than in the present. Or rather: what interests me is the presence of the past: ›what is something from an earlier time doing to me now?‹ I’m guided by something that in Switzerland we’d call »gwundrig«, a curiosity that is combined with wonder and without the connotations – that the word curiosity often has in formal German – of an intrusive interest. The questions I ask in my work are all related to universal themes – love, the family, gender, birth, death, time – all of which are triggered by events in my own life. And I wonder: how do other people deal with these experiences?

Perhaps I can come in straight away there: how did all this begin? Previously you had worked as a journalist and a dramaturg. When did you discover this identity for yourself as an artist?

Actually, what I really wanted to be was a writer. But I had the feeling that I needed to find my way first before doing that. I started studying and soon realised that an academic career isn’t for me. The nice thing about university is that it gives you space and the chance to become really absorbed in something but the constraints of the system are terrible. Journalism was how I paid for my studies: I wrote reviews but I didn’t enjoy it. I could tell that I didn’t want to judge things objectively, I wanted to be touched personally and I actually wanted to change sides. Around that time, I also wrote portraits for some rather obscure publications of people who weren’t famous: night watchmen, hotel directors, mathematicians who worked in insurance. That was where I realised, I was on to something. They were grateful that someone was interested in them, that somebody attached some value to their stories and experiences. And suddenly I saw: this is life, this is interesting. But in journalism no one has any time and there is no room for what seems insignificant. So I couldn’t see a path for me there. I had an opportunity to start as an Assistant Director and Dramaturg at the Theater Neumarkt in Zürich and I took it – and in my third year there I was allowed to do something of my own together with the Design Assistant. Of course, beginners had limited resources: the room that was available was small and we were told two actors was the most we could have. A linguist had told me about an archive containing 5,000 love letters. Not by famous writers but by amateurs who had become fascinating authors because they were in love. It was clear to me that these texts needed a polyphony so we didn’t just cast the two actors, but everyone in the building from the seamstresses to the box office staff to the stage hands. They all read out these letters. We saved them on cassettes and then in that little room we set up an ‘audio bar’ where the audience could have a glass of wine and with the help of a little catalogue and our advice, they could borrow a number of cassettes from the audio library we had set up there and listen to them there and then. The management at the Neumarkt thought it was a sweet idea but they were convinced it would never work in a theatre. I saw it differently: what most interests me about the theatre is as a place where people can come together and for a certain period of time engage in a collective experience. We were sold out the whole time and it was really thrilling how the audience reacted.

The project 5,000 Love Letters was then invited to the Wiener Festwochen, where you were able to expand it. All your works are long-term projects that stay with you for several years. Was this a plan from the beginning?

It’s planned now because it suits me to spend a long time working on one theme and because it’s a wonderful way to travel to collect stories in new places – but it came about then because of the circumstances in which I was living: after my time at the Neumarkt I spent almost two years living in St. Petersburg and prepared a Russian version of the project and then the Festwochen agreed to do it and we used small ads to look for love letters all over Austria – and we received over 3,000 of them. The first person to call it a ›long-term project‹ was Marie Zimmermann, who directed the Wiener Festwochen’s theatre programme and was then appointed to run the Ruhrtriennale from 2008. She suggested that I could expand my long-term project with love letters from the Ruhr region. That didn’t happen because she died – but I did take this idea of growing a project locally in stages and apply it to later works and now thirteen years later with another long-term project my path is leading to the Ruhrtriennale after all.

In the love letters project, you were collecting extant material. However, in your subsequent works you intervened in the lives of the participants by asking them for memories that weren’t already pre-prepared. You watched the people you were asking questions as they asked themselves questions and saw what was going on in their faces.  For example, there’s your lovely project Holidays – a game with one rule that every answer has to be a number and the participants have to respond to questions such as How many people have you fallen in love with? or How many friends do you have that you can rely on? It’s incredible watching those people starting to count in their heads: some of them need several minutes, others don’t even take a second. There’s one grey-haired lady, for example, who is asked who she had fallen in love with and unhesitating says two. You can see her eyes light up and get a sense of the drama in her life. Or the middle-aged man who obviously starts counting over and over again because he doesn’t know who he is allowed to include in his answer. This simple structure reveals so much about these people.

It also reveals a lot about you, because you’re inferring the story, completing it with your imagination. You’re not given any other information and you start asking yourself these questions.

The suggestion that you ask yourself these questions almost has something therapeutic about it.

I prefer the expression ›healing‹. That’s not the main intention of my works but they can have a healing aspect to them. What I’m looking for and want to provide are meaningful encounters and good conversations. We spend so much time on inconsequential things when there’s so much that’s fundamental that we could be sharing. To stick with the chronology: even if it’s possible to find a lot of what’s in my later projects in 5,000 Love Letters, I would say the real starting point for my work as it continues today was the long-term project My Grandparents. Memory Bureau. A long way from home, in St. Petersburg, I became aware that I knew very little about my paternal grandparents, who I thought I knew very well, and what I did know had boiled down into anecdotes and this shocked me. I started asking around amongst my friends and discovered that almost all of them were surprised by how little they actually knew about the lives of their grandparents. However, our conversations about this became increasingly intense and they then became the basis for the project: people could come and spend an hour in my »memory bureau«, sit down in my grandmother’s chair and assemble their fragmented memories of their own grandparents in a dialogue with me. For many of them, taking part did genuinely change something in how they told their family story, because it led to further research and more conversations at family get togethers: I got messages with lots of corrections: things had actually been very different from what they had supposed. 

One of my central tasks is to create a form of presentation that makes it possible to show something personal without being exposed. Mats Staub

You do highlight the process of memory itself, its unreliability, its nature as a construct in order to create a coherent life story, how people formulate their selves, and also the progress of time. As you mentioned, your projects all had triggers in your own life and you are eager to know how other people deal with similar experiences. Do you read biographies?

Rarely. I distrust the life stories of famous people, because they have had to construct an official narrative in order to protect their private lives and this may sound very accomplished but also very polished. What interests me is what isn’t polished: things that are being told for the first time. In my work a great deal relies on the fact that I don’t know the participants and they cannot assume any conscious connections when they’re telling their stories. They need to and have permission to tell me them in much more detail, for example in the project 21, in which I ask the participants about the year in which they turned 21, which was once seen as the threshold to adulthood.  It’s beautiful to be able to recognise in their faces when a memory is coming to the surface that has not been told for decades. I wanted to share seeing that with the audience and that’s why I combined an audio track with a film recording. However, while celebrities are media professionals and able to shield themselves, I have to do that for my participants. One of my key tasks is to create a space where they are protected so they can open up. And a form of presentation that makes it possible for them to reveal personal stories without being exposed.

The key to 21 lies in the fact that the recordings of memories of growing up that I see in the audience are the same ones that the participants are listening to themselves. Three months after your conversation you invite them to come back and listen to the audio file that you have edited. And it is fascinating to see what is going on in their faces, how they are checking and evaluating what they hear and how surprised or touched they can be by themselves. Really it is time itself that is the protagonist of this work.

Yes, in my work I want to make time visible and allow people to experience it.

Here the project that you will present during the Ruhrtriennale, 21, corresponds nicely with Los Años by Mariano Pensotti and Mette Ingvartsen’s The Life Work. But I also find you are a very sensitive portrait artist. Because cutting down your conversations is a very time-consuming business. Out of an hour’s conversation you will be left with about ten minutes.  

Like a portrait painter, I try to whittle down the essence of a person as I have seen it in our conversation. The process of getting there does take many individual steps. The minutes that remain are a concentrated version with around 150 cuts that aren’t noticeable in the end.

Your works form a growing archive of collective memories and constitute a life’s work that, rather than creating a portrait of you, show your way of looking at life and the world. Where else is it going to take us?

There’s no masterplan. One project will grow out of the one before – which is something that can be experienced very directly at this Ruhrtriennale where in the front section of the Turbinenhalle 21 will be presented for the first time in a complete edition and at the same time in the rear section I will be starting my latest project Now & Now, which is based on the moment when people encounter themselves. Most of my projects are open in structure, and can evolve in directions that I can’t predict. With 21 I had the clear vision of capturing a face moved by emotion for every year from 1939 to the present. But as soon as I did a second conversation about one year, it became obvious that it’s much stronger if one year is told from a variety of perspectives. Originally I was just thinking in terms of a portrait of a ›century of Germans‹. I had started it off in Frankfurt in 2012 and had people in front of the camera who had turned 21 during the World War Two bombings or the time of the Red Army Faction. But then I had a residency in Belgrade and I continued it as an experiment with people who were all grateful that at last someone didn’t only want to talk to them about the war, but was asking about their lives. This experience encouraged me to also try out the 21 procedure in South Africa and that was when a door opened to many other places around the world and that is how this long-term project expanded in an unexpected way. However, there were still eleven years without any stories and these are what we have now deliberately looked for in the Ruhr, and we have even found one woman to take part who is a hundred years old, who can tell us about 1942, so that the original vision will now be fulfilled ten years on – and it is also the very first time that the project can be presented in its true size …

… as a living frieze in theTurbinenhalle in Bochum.

Yes, where I can translate time into space. The experience of this project as a spatial installation is very important to me. It requires dedication and time. You can move along and decide for yourself whether to start in the 1940s or at the turn of the millennium. You can choose which portrait you want to watch but there is no fast forward button.

Your work was once described as ›artistic anthropology that science cannot achieve.‹ You’re not only a collector, listener and portrait artist, you also unearth and stage hidden connections, and can point out collective, social phenomena. Is tracking down these connections the reason why you have to carry out almost all the steps on your own?

I have many wonderful colleagues, but all the material has to go through my head, yes. I can’t delegate the editing to anyone else because I am looking for precisely those common factors you’ve mentioned and to do that, I have to know the conversations backwards in order to be able to distil them. Only in South Africa, Spain and Congo I had to go about things rather differently. I trained local associates to lead the interviews and I would be there working as the technician and I would always ask one or two follow up questions at the end and be involved in the editing – this meant that the participants did not to have to explain the circumstances of their lives to a privileged foreigner.

You once said you had two kinds of project. The long-term, more profound ones such as My Grandparents, 21 and Death and Birth in My Life (in the latter you initiate conversations between two strangers about their experiences of death and birth) and shorter, more playful ones like Holidays, My Other Life. Where would you place Now & Now, that you’re beginning now and developing for the Ruhrtriennale 2023?

In between.The first impulse for Now & Now came to me on a walk after my retrospective exhibition at the Centre culturel Suisse in Paris 2019. After so much looking back I had a physical need to turn my attention away from the past and to point it in the direction of the immediate present and the near future. On one hand this turned into a game with one’s own reflection, which one hundred people from the Ruhr region have now been invited to do; on the other hand in this work, I am also returning to the form of letters so there is a connection with the Love Letters project. All the participants will write a letter in 2021 to their future selves – I will keep these letters and return them to the participants in 2023 and then they will write another letter and explain to their former selves what has happened since. From these letters we intend to produce a book and as we are looking for one participant for every age from 8 to 80: it will be a loop like 21. The transformation that people undergo in their lives – that’s still actually my favourite subject.

Finally, we should not forget to mention that right now you’re doing what once prompted you to take up art: you’re writing a book. How did this happen?

I looked back on my role as someone who starts conversations and listens and then in the end always makes himself vanish: I cut my voice out of all the interviews. I thought it might be time to put in an appearance, with part of my story – and that of my paternal grandfather. I was always fascinated by these grandparents’ love story. She was a Professor’s daughter and he was a farmer’s son: an impossible couple in Switzerland in the first half of the 20th century. They met in 1928 at a German missionary station in Tanzania. In March 2020 I finally achieved the ambition I had put off for many years and visited the place that they met. There I was surprised to come across and archive and far more about them than I had ever thought possible. Shortly afterwards my journey was abruptly cut short by the pandemic, I had to leave the country and was unable to practice my profession which is based on being able to travel. Instead of being able to take up all the wonderful invitations to festivals in Avignon, Adelaide, Makhanda, Milan and Moscow, I was stuck in my flat in Berlin. I saw that the time had come to continue looking for information about them online and in books and to write about them and thus to keep my »appointment in the past« as W.G. Sebald once described it. But it’s not finished yet: everything I do from the heart takes me a lot of time.

More about the project: Mats Staub: 21 – Erinnerungen ans Erwachsenwerden (Vollständige Edition)
15.8.-25.9., Turbinenhalle at Jahrhunderthalle Bochum