2015 | Forum Expanded
In 2015 Forum Expanded celebrated its tenth anniversary. In this interview, section head Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and her co-curator Uli Ziemons speak about this landmark birthday, the possibilities presented by closed doors and the selfie culture.
The title of your 2015 programme is “To the Sound of the Closing Door”. You're putting forward the theory that the closing of a door does not necessarily mean the death of a possibility. The Retrospective this year is devoting itself to Technicolor, the colour film process that became obsolete in the 1960s. At the same time it's been brought back to life by the love of Jack Smith, one of Forum Expanded's mainstays, and his veneration of the Technicolor B-Movie star Maria Montez. Does the relationship Jack Smith has with Technicolor through Maria Montez more or less express what you mean by “To the Sound of the Closing Door”?
SSS: You could indeed interpret it in that way. Narratives only ever present one possibility. Rather than being about romanticising the past, it’s instead about the unknown possibilities which lie hidden within it and the alternative worlds which come into existence either by striding through a door or closing it. For example, Jack Smith's love of Technicolor: working with the film material at a later date he created a very real parallel universe in which Maria Montez was the muse of Technicolor (and he probably didn't expect to be celebrated in the art world for this afterwards).
How did you come up with the programme title?
UZ: Anselm Franke remembered a quote from Jean-Luc Godard which we used as our working title, but we didn't know for a long time whether or not Godard actually said it. Then we discovered that he really did, in relation to the Nouvelle Vague: “What we thought was the opening of new opportunities, turned out to be the sound of a door, closing forever.”
Which closed doors are you tracing in the programme?
SSS: An example: recently we've got involved in some archive projects. In Egypt in the 1960s and '70s there were some films which kindled the idea of an independent, experimental cinema – but nothing really came of it because things went a different way. When you view such a find today, it seems like a promise from the past. The shutting of a door can have reverberations and the narrative with which you've lived for all the intervening years is held up for inspection – and then the images of the past probably tell of a new present. Not a re-interpretation of it but actually a new present. The beginning of the revolution triggered lots of hopes and Utopian dreams. Where did they come from and where have they gone? What actually happened in that moment? Beyond linearity and causal connections there's a huge scope for possible stories and perspectives. We're looking at moments in which new historical narratives, new aesthetic concepts, new images came into being, often sparked by very real experiences.
How is the shutting of the door implemented in the works?
UZ: There are some works in which the concept of the door is very clearly present. For example, in Beauty and the Right to the Ugly, an installation by Wendelin van Oldenborgh about a community centre in Eindhoven. The centre was founded in the 1970s with the aim of strengthening citizen participation. A large hall was built and all the functions the community centre was supposed to cover took place in this single space. There were no walls or doors inside the building. However, some were fairly quickly added, because the space wouldn't work without them. In Oldenborgh's video work the people involved in the project evaluate it with the benefit of hindsight and discuss what actually happened, which things worked and which didn't.
SSS: We also have examples like Dear John by Hans Scheugl, who focuses upon his private biography: what would have happened if I went through another door then and travelled to America with my lover instead of remaining in Austria? On the other hand, in The Nameless Ho Tzu Nyen weaves a story full of double and multiple meanings about a triple agent in South East Asia. These works produce parallel worlds, alternative narratives and – to stick with the language of cinema – multiple and back projections.
And productions and performances are increasingly being used as documentary strategies. The Egyptian film Barra Fel Share' (Out on the Street) by Jasmin Metwaly and Philip Rick is composed of scenes in which workers play out the consequences of the privatisation of their factory in a theatre workshop – corruption, police brutality and protest are combined with secretly filmed mobile phone footage from inside the factory itself. In Nicolas Cilin's Gineva, Romanian refugees in Switzerland perform their personal situations in front of a blue screen. And in Felipe Bragança’s Escape from my eyes three refugees from Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso who lived in the protest camp on Oranienplatz in Berlin Kreuzberg perform their stories in front of the camera. I act as if I were what I am: I place myself in the subjunctive and in this way create realms of possibility.
The works contain lots of dissolves and reflections, the visual spaces are woven together in extremely complex ways, the images and situations move between different media and different times...
SSS: Lots of different media are used, including archive material. That's absolutely right and is connected with our topic which is the attempt to think about history in a non-linear way – which we also increasingly must do. Grappling with our own history and those of others becomes especially important in moments of crisis. That's actually expressed in many of the works as back projections, multiple perspectives, interleaving and also in collages of words and images.
How do you feel about the fact that the Akademie der Künste has more or less become your home?
SSS: It's great. The Akademie der Künste was an important screening venue for the Forum up until 1999 and a home for many during the Berlinale. I'm delighted that we now have the exhibition, cinema and discussions under one roof for the first time. This means the interrelation between the different formats can be much more easily communicated – and also the fluent transition between Forum and Forum Expanded. Because selected films from the Forum programme are also screening in the Akademie.
In 2013 the exhibition took place in a crematorium, in 2014 in a church. It appears you’re losing your connection with the afterlife this year...
SSS: The afterlife? We've tried lots of different locations: museums, galleries, studios, a former crematorium and a church. Each had its own challenges. That's part of Forum Expanded, to link new spaces with new works.
Of course, we also have to talk about the tenth anniversary of Forum Expanded. How has the media landscape changed since 2006?
SSS: A lot has changed since 2006. The opening of our first Forum Expanded in 2006 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art was already very well attended, but something bothered me about it. I knew the KW well, but something felt different. It was actually the fact that it was filled more with a film than an art audience, which was simply an unfamiliar sight. Since then I'd say you can no longer see such a big difference between our audiences. We've been able to leave a great deal of the discussions about the relationship between art and cinema behind because the audiences on both sides have become a lot more open. It was always important for us to consider the way each work is received as one of its essential components. That included such things as its length. Now, if an installation lasts for 60 minutes the exhibition visitors will accept this, they’ll take the time to watch it if they're interested. And the films we screen in the cinema are also given as much time as they require. That can sometimes mean that a programme only lasts for 30 minutes, but that gives the individual film room to breathe. Having said that, works that are being produced in the discipline of moving images between fine art and cinema, and also in disregard of these categories, still don't really have any workable definitions or their own language.
Which is good, I think.
SSS: It certainly creates a certain kind of freedom. That’s why it was also important for us to find a form which can sustain that. It can be extremely liberating to forego categories and avoid defining through assignation. But that doesn't mean that we won't talk about what we're exhibiting. Quite the opposite, we place great value on discussions in order to find a language. 'Wie soll man das nennen, was ich vermisse?' ('What should the thing be called that I'm missing?') is the title of a text by Harun Farocki. Antje Ehmann and Jan Ralske have given this title to their installation which – with reference to Farocki's idea of a picture archive of cinematic topoi – is about the motif of the door in his work. In this way their installation is intimately related to the underlying ideas of Forum Expanded in two different ways.
Has today's selfie culture brought the former avant-garde into the mainstream? Presenting your own naked body as a political statement is constantly surfacing within film history, particularly in experimental films...
SSS: There's definitely been an urge at times to present your own body as a political body on the screen and to allow it to speak. But the way I see it, there's little connection between that and the selfie culture because the latter's more about social conformity than visualisation. The films which interest us today achieve their individualism through their aesthetic decisions, through the 'how'. And even more so when there's an urge to make something visible.