Conversation with the artist
B.: Mischa Kuball, please tell us something about public alphabet, the piece you’re showing at the DKM Museum and Galerie DKM.
K.: The idea for public alphabet goes back to my interventions in public space at the beginning of the 1980s. With Megazeichen, for example, I tried to create a light sculpture out of existing architecture, with the given light and through conversations with the employees of a company in Düsseldorf. I wanted to examine the urban sphere for artistic qualities as well as existing systems, urban grids and matrices. This evolved into an attempt to reduce the presence of advertising slogans to their first letter and itemize them in alphabetical order. In doing this I discovered something unusual: If you play the clips relatively quickly one after another, it creates a soundtrack reminiscent of gutteral sounds. This has to do with the sequentiality of the way they are strung together for one, secondly the original audio files, or the noise from the streets. In Düsseldorf in 1997 I created the first public alphabet in which I made my immediate surroundings an object of investigation. That same year Karin Stempel – who was at that time curator of the São Paulo biennial – asked me to propose a piece for Brazil, so I realized public alphabet São Paulo.
At the DKM Museum you are showing video work from the public alphabet Düsseldorf, public alphabet São Paulo and public alphabet Duisburg in parallel. You revisited your concept for this exhibition and supplemented it with a version specific to the place?
The last one did actually come into being as the result of an investigation of the city of Duisburg, though it is not always obvious that the full execution of the concept works. This is how it was in Brazil, for example, where I was confronted with the problem that the alphabet there only has 23 letters whereas the one our culture area uses has 26 letters. Here, informal navigation through the city serves as a parenthesis to the rest of my projects. I ask my way around so the work – as opposed to a GPS system – is given a personal imprint and is based on an urban network. Communication with people was especially important in São Paulo, because I never would have been able to do the lamp transfer otherwise.
You’re referring to the private light / public light participative project, which you realized parallel to public alphabet in São Paulo and which is documented in a series of photographs that you are showing here in Duisburg. Could you say a few words about that project?
For private light / public light I called on 72 families from the most far-flung social and educational levels, all of whom exchanged one light source from their home for one of the standard lamps I designed myself. Afterwards all of the lamps I collected were exhibited in the space at the Biennial. Like public alphabet, the work is based on a form of urban disclosure. This has a completely different dimension in Duisburg or Düsseldorf. You have to realize that the 72 families I visited for private light / public light in Brazil were distributed over a cityscape inhabited by 25 million people. To visit 72 families we had to drive in a car over 3,000 km. In other words to give you an idea of the dimension, we crossed the Federal Republic of Germany three times. Those are unbelievable distances, and not only in terms of kilometers. In Favela, where there are no street names, you can only find a family by calling out for them. Without paved roads everywhere we sometimes had to carry all the equipment I brought with me over long distances. For me, the paths we traveled and experiences we had with the 72 families laid a second matrix over the São Paulo megalopolis territory.
In public alphabet São Paulo there is also the «alphabet eater», in other words an inserted take in which we watch you eating cookies made in the shape of letters. Was this already in the original Düsseldorf version?
No, that was unique to São Paulo, an element that now becomes particularity effective in the comparison. The specific content for the São Paulo concept refers to the topic the artistic director Paulo Herkenhoff set for the 24th biennial. This cannibalism was to be understood in the «culture eater” sense and traces back to Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Manifesto Anthropófago. In his manifesto, de Andrade challenged the euro-centric concept of art history. The European art scene had attacked Brazilian artists and discredited them as imitators or plagiarists. De Andrade took a stand against this by saying: “No, we will not copy European culture, we will eat and digest it.” I tried to take on the «Anthropofagia» subject in the context of the German contribution in two ways: With the ostensible eating of letters in alphabetical order for one. Second, I approached the people and made a symbolic exchange. Placing lamps from private households in the public context of the São Paulo Biennal and making them accessible to 800,000 people means a transformation or, expressed in more exaggerated terms, also an act of digestion. Even that was for me a – somewhat encrypted – part of the «Anthropofagia» idea that is ignored in the Düsseldorf and Duisburg work. I think it proper to show all three versions side-by-side, even in their dissimilarity.
Mischa Kuball, you usually work in a very space-oriented way and have also already realized a whole series of works in the Ruhr region. Are there aspects of urbanity in Duisburg or, in the larger sense, the cultural area around the Ruhr that you find especially interesting?
One thing that is particular to the city of Duisburg is that of all the cities in the Ruhr region, it is the closest to two cultural areas. Duisburg serves as an interface between row of cities along the Rhine – Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bonn – and the Ruhr area, but also as a joint between east and west. What appeals to me about Duisburg is that the city lives internationality. You see it in the presence of banks, shops, restaurants and in Kant Park, or how this park is used. I think the particularization of interests in the public sphere has developed quite a bit in the past 20 years. Duisburg surely has a special status in this regard as well. Following the trends of the late 70s or early 80s, the Königstraße was designed as a sculpture boulevard. Many people do not know that Duisburg has subway stations designed by Gerhard Richter. But Duisburg and visual art – that’s always something of a troubled relationship. In this regard I think Raimund Stecker’s push to place Hans-Peter Feldmann’s David on a neuralgic spot between shopping zone and museum, thus forming a new «joint» in the city, is excellent. Then there’s the repositioning of the Lehmbruck Museum collection, the endeavor to show architecture again and to show what you have. Those are all energies I associate with Duisburg. Of course developing the inner harbor area also had a significant impact. I think Dani Karavan’s Garden of Memories, which works like the invention of a modern archeology and allows one to traverse time periods in actual time, is brilliant. It is because of this that I was especially pleased to work in both the Galerie DKM in the inner harbor and the DKM Museum.
Did working in dialogue with the Garden of Memories at the Galerie DKM on Philosophenweg influence your exhibition planning?
I don’t directly engage in a dialogue, but of course the urban space has developed to an extreme degree in exactly that spot. This is how it came to be that architect Zvi Hecker’s new synagogue was the first built in Germany. I even think Herzog & de Meuron’s conversion of an old granary into the Museum Küppersmühle is amazing. I think Duisburg is a forerunner for regional development. In my view the DKM model is no less important. To me, Dirk Krämer and Klaus Maas are a synonym for what private commitment accomplishes without putting a strain on public funds. For all intents and purposes, it is about speaking out for a region and showing unpretentious presence.
How do you see the work you are showing in Duisburg in relation to your current project New Pott, which will be presented starting October 28 at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum’s art collections?
In contrast to São Paulo, where I only had a few weeks to meet 72 families, in New Pott I am visiting 100 families with 100 different national backgrounds over a period of one and a half years. Once again the people take over navigation; they are the points, so to speak, on an imaginary map over which I navigate between Togo and South Korea and Thailand and Canada. New Pott also has to do with a process of exchange. But this time I’m not trading lamps like I did in Brazil, I take the people’s stories with me. Another difference to São Paulo is that the stories are recorded in the form of video and in their transcription into text. The project has made me aware of just how much my home is changing, that it is always becoming more and more international and at the same time is part of a structural transformation. This process was unfortunately indicated in a xenophobic debate concerning foreign infiltration and questions of German cultural identity.
Do you believe that you as an artist can have an influence on processes like this?
In my view when it comes to the agency of art, you have to keep a cool head: If it succeeds in shifting a moment of the viewer’s concentration to the questions, miseries and stories of these people then it has already accomplished a lot. Many aspects come together to constitute our society, and for a moment we get to know a few of these aspects a little better. As to how intense this encounter is for the individual, I really couldn’t say.
Is the fragmenting of language and ambient, big-city street noise we hear in public alphabet to be interpreted as a critical investigation of urbanity?
Yes of course. I did use the term «guttural noise», in other words a kind of precursor to speech. I think these guttural noises stand in for the idea of language, but one not yet practiced in the widely understood codices. The roar, the noises of machinery, the sounds of locomotion – of airplanes, cars, trains, bicycles and pedestrians – reflects the great, well-known idea of the city symphony, a notion that emerged as early as the 1920s when electrification and motorization changed drastically and with them, the city speed. We could see the Internet’s acceleration of data streams as a parallel to this. Now I can simultaneously twitter, «facebook», send emails and research in the data stream. The dynamizing of data streams also changes our perception of the city and has an effect on the way we navigate within it. Standing in contrast to this are the artistic practices of Hamish Fulton or Richard Long, which contain the realms of experience through the viewer’s own steps and measure these at their own speed. Two positions, by the way, that wonderfully counterpoint or complement my work at the DKM Museum.
Speaking of artists like Hamish Fulton or Richard Long: Who would you name as your most important artistic influences?
I find Bruce Nauman’s body and space, and therefore also individual and society-related work absolutely invaluable in terms of direction. He was a very strong influence. Other than that, there is Lawrence Wiener of course with his connecting of language, sculpture and space. I would say these two are the most important to me of the living artists. Processes triggered by Joseph Beuys have left a lasting impression, especially everything that has happened here in Düsseldorf. But for me it is not only artists that have an impact but also other fields like medicine. Right now I benefit, for example, from very new developments in imaging processes.
Looking back at Megazeichen, you once spoke of a sensibilization taking place among the viewers. This terminology of course always immediately recalls the art of Zero. Do you see yourself as falling in line with this tradition?
For anyone that works with light and comes from Düsseldorf, the connection to Zero is of course a very close one. Zero is to be understood as a clear caesura to an image-language program made incomprehensible through its use as a tool of politics and dictatorship. Zero interests me as an art form to this day. If you look closely, though, the relationship to the Russian Constructivists and Suprematists is much stronger. What always interested me about these artists was that they had a program with which they wanted to have an effect on the world and shape everyday life. But then the political reality overtook them. Society unfortunately rejects its own impetus-givers sometimes, shoves them into isolation or into exile. Even in German society there is this yawning hole, this emptiness that emerged after Jewish culture was extinguished and that I am always referring to in my work, refraction house, for example, or in the context of the Gauleitungsbunker in Lüneburg.
One noticeable aspect of your work in the technical regard is that you tend to work with very reduced means. Obviously for you it is not about exhausting all the technical possibilities we have at our disposal these days. Could you see a certain correlation with the origins of video art here?
I have been working at two art colleges for many years – the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe and the Kunsthochschule für Medien in Cologne – with students who have a greatly facilitated access to the technical world. For me, it is primarily a reaction to a need. If I can express something with pencil on paper, then I express it with pencil on paper. If I need a laser to do that or an interface that can accomplish a certain task, then I have to work with that technology. It should however always stand in direct relation to the intention or the idea of the work. I also follow this approach in my teaching.
Peter Weibel once referrred to you as a «light politician». Would you underscore the prioritizing of the political aspects of your work?
I can live with this label because I see that its implications are in line with my intentions. I myself would never use this label though. Tagging of this kind blocks free access and purports a system of meaning. Every project however, be it Duisburg or São Paulo, demands a direct and individual approach. I take the space as a point of departure. For the work at the DKM Museum I also touch on many positions taken in the collection. This is how I came upon the idea of allowing the São Paulo photographs to «meander” from the outside to the inside. You move, so to speak, in a narrative flow. The result is a ribbon that can be thought of in bigger and bigger terms: 72 of 720 of 7,200 of seven million. It is about an attempt to move oneself forward in very small steps, like Richard Long, to leave tracks and to cover the tracks again. A piece like that works like a connector, it leads from contemporary art into culture, and in doing so into the collection that spans 5,000 years.