October, 2017. A talk with Lisa Susanne Schorm and Heiko Pfreundt, co-founders of Kreuzberg Pavillon project space. Interviewed by Rūta Stepanovaitė. Transcribed by Vaida Stepanovaitė
Rūta Stepanovaitė (R. S.): Hello, Heiko, Lisa – could you please tell me more about the beginning of your activities which encouraged visually impaired people to be involved into your artistic practise?
Heiko Pfreundt (H.P.): I think it was 2014, or 2015 – the time when I was working at the university in Berlin and someone from “Students Without Borders” approached me. It was a huge network of different subjects that people studied there and the thing they all had in common was impairments of different kinds. My task was to teach people who don’t know anything about how to deal with people with different needs. It was really interesting to think about the audience and about people with different emotions, different perception of things. This gave me the idea to think about the visually impaired person as the “ideal” person in my exhibition concept. I called it “The Verbal Art Show” – together with Lisa we launched an open call to artists, it matched our desire to make different exhibitions with an aim of letting the audience feel that they are also part of the show. During the exhibition, we handed the objects to people and if they were fed up with carrying them around they could give them to another person. So they were all connecting with one another and it was all very lively with lots of small performances instead of a single central one, and this way everybody was activated in space. We made this show in three different cities, and in one of these we wanted to invite more visually impaired people. We made an invitation over the phone, we did not make any printed invitations. There was a number that visually impaired people could call and learn where they could go this week, so we had our exhibition announced on that telephone number.
R.S.: So it was already there, you just joined this line?
H.P.: It was already there. I found it interesting to deliver the message about our exhibition via totally different media that no one I knew normally used. Most of the exhibitions are advertised in printed matter, such as flyers, they are not promoted orally. On the second day of the exhibition the visually impaired people arrived. It was amazing, it was unusual for them to be so present. In our case, we wanted to have a very different idea about exhibition making, so we had to think about totally different groups that could be involved. And it is very interesting to think about something as somebody else.
R.S.: And the other two cities that you’ve mentioned?
H.P.: We started in Berlin, then we were invited to Bremen – my hometown, where I was also working at the university, and then Bergen in Norway. The tactile concept – moving objects around the space – was actually conceived by Lisa. When we talk about relational aesthetics, we are also talking about tactile age, and social aesthetics are also tactile aesthetics. The distance between the viewer and the object does not exist anymore.
R.S.: Did you emphasize that this kind of exhibition was meant directly for people with visual impairments or was it open to everyone?
H.P.: No, we just used the channels of visually impaired people to communicate, tried to find out where they communicate and get the information.
Lisa Susanne Schorm (L.S.S.): It was a side effect, not the primary purpose.
HP: This is also very important. There are a lot of books that try to make the works of Old Masters into touchable reliefs and I think this is a huge problem. All these bookshops think that they have found a super cool approach but it’s not about adapting the visually impaired people to visual life – this is, in my view, the wrong approach. Do it the other way around! It is exciting to see the whole universe of feelings and experiences being promoted rather than being turned into a disease.
R.S.: Actually, it’s the kind of thing I was also thinking a lot during research, that sometimes by making something specifically for some group it results in actually excluding, not integrating them.
H.P.: Yes, true.
L.S.S.: It seems to me that you are saying that these people need to be integrated and not have a culture of their own. That’s kind of diminishing. Our event was defined beyond this one focus group. It was a different approach towards exhibition making: being experimental, not having anything installed, having a flow of artworks, making them actually approachable instead of making you just look at them.
H.P.: Speaking of trying to set up tactile environments – it was one of the ways to break through some kind of visual experience for people. Also, maybe we had to change our approach, as we see ourselves more as space makers using the means provided by art practice because we are actually asking for a totally different practice from the art field. This is what we emphasize. If you want to make something that is tactile really interesting, maybe you have to work with your eyes closed to disconnect from the visual instead of transforming these offerings into something for visually impaired – workshops for artists to work blindfolded, acknowledging the surface and the tactility of things could be a good example. Otherwise this tactile thing doesn’t work. Creating the environment for tactile art practice would actually be the ideal practice, but nobody has done it, everybody is so linked to visual culture.
R.S.: Do you believe in a universal approach, creating a universal environment in exhibitions for different kinds of people?
L.S.S.: I don’t think so.
H.P: I think so.
L.S.S.: I don’t know if it’s the right approach to make something for every individual. Even if you are not impaired in some way, you have your own desires, you know what you like and what you don’t like, and sometimes you don’t get something. And you don’t need to be integrated in something to get this – maybe it’s not for you, or maybe it’s for you.
H.P.: But the way we approach our own shows – we always try to make a seductive event that people would be interested in.
L.S.S.: Sure, but this doesn’t mean that it is directly trying to get everybody here, we just try to make it interesting and that is not the same thing.
H.P.: Don’t get me wrong. A seductive event is something that doesn’t target a certain group but is aware that it can exclude groups. In a way, we work with this method of inclusion and exclusion indirectly. Our events are also a bit out of this world because they try to set up a new way of thinking, they don’t want to work with the old way of setting up an exhibition, they want to add a certain communication method just to make it approachable for the people that were previously excluded. We want to change the whole setting and set everybody on zero.
L.S.S.: It’s not about the inclusion, it’s about making something exciting that I would want to experience. It’s not: I think about a certain target group, now it’s my group, I want to attract it here – no, I want to do something that would be exciting for myself which is the hardest thing to do.
H.P.: There is a universal level of curiosity, I think.
L.S.S.: I don’t believe in making something in line with the audience, I believe in something that you think is really great.
H.P.: Where is curiosity located? It is not really located in the eye, it’s in the fingers, you know that. People want to touch things, people are curious, they want to touch paintings. I think it’s also about what kind of bodies you activate, what you address.
L.S.S.: Sure, but I don’t like to make exhibitions with things on the wall, for me it’s not exciting to make something like this. I want to make something where people find themselves within the art, not only as the audience, but as part of the whole experience.
H.P.: It’s all about the inclusion, you don’t want to have only a certain group of people inside your show, Vanessa Beecroft style. This is something I call universal, because it can deal with any type of audience, and if it’s the audience in wheelchairs it doesn’t create a problem.
R.S.: You mentioned wheelchairs, also you talked about how you communicate about certain events, but have you thought about how these people could get to your place? Not only hear about it on the phone, but how they can reach you physically?
H.P.: We have a problem, our lavatory is not approachable for people in wheelchairs.
L.S.S.: We can’t provide wheelchair access because we can’t change the design of the space we have and we can’t have another space because it’s too expensive. There are people in wheelchairs and it’s not a problem, somebody carries them over the stairs. It creates communication – if it’s not the ideal space to enter with a wheelchair, there will be some solution to be found.
H.P.: And most people who come are trained for the non-ideal situation, so they actually bring some interesting knowledge to the place. Basically, you create a place where you learn from the audience, so the audience feels respected because they see places developing, it’s resonating towards them. I use the audience response as a material – how I use it is the artistic expression of freedom, but it’s definitely a response to them.
L.S.S.: We are talking about the physically impaired, also people in wheelchairs, but maybe you need to have a website in simple language for people to understand what you are actually doing.
H.P.: This is a huge topic I worked on at the university.
L.S.S: For me, it is a desirable way of thinking: to translate the website we have into simple language. That would be more interesting to me than thinking about the wheelchair.
H.P.: For me, it’s just the knowledge that there is no prototype of human, so we have to step beyond this idea of a prototype. It’s very predominant in our culture to look for role models in impaired groups and it’s the wrong thinking. This is why we don’t need to work so much on the personalities but rather on spaces and settings.
R.S.: What do you think could be the ways of sharing the knowledge with the institutional level? For example you make something good happen in your space, how would you share this experience with institutions?
H.P.: This is very difficult, this is why we work with our project space and not at an institution. We work on a very free and uncontrolled level because we want to have an open artistic practice and see how much we can get from this. Institutions have a certain structure, they employ people with certain background and artists are being put in place to create some visual content. We wanted to create a space within the practices of art, focusing on, let’s say, the curiosity in the practices of art.
L.S.S.: Maybe it’s also not our main concern what do we do with impaired people because we are trying to create a space that is really welcoming to everybody, to create a hospitable situation that maybe cannot be found in many spaces, not trying to exclude anyone – doesn’t matter how much they know, who they are, if they are disabled. We are trying to create a very diverse audience.
H.P.: Artistic expression is all the freedom that we have, but it is also fancied by institutions. But was your question how to direct this knowledge from the free fields, from independent spaces into the governmental ones?
L.S.S.: We haven’t really thought about this yet. The only things that we are learning happen on the side of what we are actually doing, and at times like this we get to reflect on that. We have a certain view on this topic that is more of a side effect than “oh, we want to change this, spread the word about it”.
H.P.: But that’s really good because it sounds more intuitive it’s not your job to care about the impaired people. It’s already a bit problematic, especially if you are trying to adapt a group of people to the functioning world, that’s already wrong. The thing you can do is be very curious about this world and not make it pathologized. There is this quote by Gottfried Benn: “The artist is creating the pain, not the therapy”. It is interesting to unify in not being perfect. Institutions all want to be so perfect because they have to justify their being in the economic system.
R.S.: And for the conclusion, what about the reflections and the feedback on what you’ve done? Have you received any, especially about the tactile exhibition, from visually impaired people who participated?
H.P.: They don’t give you the feedback that you want immediately, that you made a perfect setting for them. You have to work on a very continuous approach. I just did it in my hometown once, where I know people from the visual impairment society. If you do this on a constant level it will evolve into something more nuanced and interesting.
L.S.S.: Also, it is a challenging approach to the institutionally impaired.
H.P.: What’s that?
L.S.S.: When we were in Bergen in Norway, people were really taken aback with this concept, it was not what they were expecting, there was nothing that was really shown there. They had to loosen up a bit.
H.P.: They don’t want to be the object, they want to be the subject judging the object. Nobody wants to become the object, and the impaired people don’t want to be the object of tragedy, we all have to sit in the same boat, create the environment for everybody. It would be good to have a long-term relationship and determination and treat all people as equal. And maintain it – which is the most important thing.
L.S.S.: Heiko made an artwork where he had this photo and some white and black dots on it, like Braille, and he used a nail to create this surface. It formed the names of famous women photographers in Braille.
H.P.: We made a student exhibition that also had a good starting point – I was teaching a class and told the students we were going to make experimental photography for visually impaired people. We made tactile pictures.
L.S.S.: But one blind person said the he could not read it because it had to be a certain size and format. So that was interesting.
H.P.: You cannot make a successful exhibition for visually impaired people on the wall, so we made it on the handrail. I learned this from a Youtube video, from a visually impaired street artist who was leaving messages on the handrails at train stations. So I said that it’s our new exhibition space – the handrails – and it is something anyone can benefit from. You have to break all these traditions of representation.
L.S.S.: And maybe you need someone to translate Braille for you, and then you become the impaired person.
Cover photo: Lisa Susanne Schorm and Heiko Pfreundt at Editorial project space in Vilnius, Lithuania, November 2017. Photo taken by Vaida Stepanovaitė.