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 with them about the year they turned 21, 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 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 ten 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 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?
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.