Interview with Stephanie Sherman, by Pablo von Frankenberg on March 12, 2012 |
How did Kultur Park develop?
This all happened when George [Scheer, executive director at Elsewhere] and I took a trip to Berlin in the Winter of 2007. During a dinner party somebody told us that she has taken photos of an amusement park with trees growing through the center of roller-coasters. It was Christmas Eve and we were going out there, hopped the fence, played around for a good hour and a half before we got caught. We videotaped it and put it aside. Then we got invited to apply for a grant through the foundation Art Matters, which funds international artist research. The next time when we went there we found the security guard and set up a relationship with this guy.
That was not the one who caught you the first time?
It was the same guy but he didn‘t remember. He sees a fifty or a hundred people a day coming through. So we paid to have a tour. He showed us all around, up to the center of things, let us photograph. We were Americans, showing up in the middle of Berlin looking at an amusement park. We knew it was going to be hard to communicate the social care that we had for it and also why are we doing this, why is it useful for us to put all this energy and time in this thing that is not ours and not for us and not for the people around it. As outsiders, one of our strengths is to build up communities that wouldn‘t otherwise meet or intersect. That is the power of the stranger, there is a bit more flexibility. We decided we would do something similar to Elsewhere, we would invite artists and creative groups to come and explore this place and do projects with it. The aim is to start with what is there, to ask what are the different states of time, what is the whole constellation in this place?
How did you get all the information about the park?
First we met with artists who had already done work there, who made a film or a sculpture. Over the time a network has built up. Then George went to the Berlin Treptow archive. He is doing all the historical research. It‘s artist research, it‘s not about understanding a fact, it‘s more about understanding a situation that could become an art project.
What happened when you came back after applying for the grant?
We saw the park open. This was really amazing because first of all, as Americans, part of our concern was insurance and security. In America you could never do this. When we saw the park open it was clear we are going to make a statement about what a public park is. Our investigation was about this land as a place with a fence around it. This was the switch, it now is about what parks are and what they can be, what ‘parkitecture‘ could be and that this concept might be taken to other places, turning a place to a social meeting ground not for the sake of commerce but just for the sake of coming together and exchanging.
The fence is something quite important to you.
Absolutely. The fence makes it a public secret. We never want to lose the myth and these other qualities of this place. When you have to traverse a fence you go through a very physical, kinetic process of coming into that space. One of our artists says the fence is the new ride. Jumping the fence is the same feeling when you ride one of the machines. Even when the gates were open people still jumped the fence because they didn‘t know the gate was open all the way around.
What kind of a fence is it?
It is a very broken fence with many different parts fused together in different times. It’s beautiful, some parts may be original GDR, other parts are from construction sites. Where all of these pieces fit together are holes. It‘s the same thing as in the conceptual part of our project. Where the pieces of history fit together there are gaps where you can leak through. This place feels like a time machine. You are going back in time but you are also zooming to a future.
In the museum world these days, everything is about breaking down the fence, making it accessible. You are focussing on the fence instead?
It‘s also about how you make something open in the most generous way, but also to keep the mystery. Sometimes things die because they become so accessible, if they were not a shared mystery, if it was just like: lay it all out! But there always has to be something more to be dug up. Give people a shovel! That‘s why our artists are making works there that are setting up public interactions and experiences. They only take it the first half. The public co-creates the experience. For example, a group of young architects called Hither Yon proposed a series of projects that will research memory in the park with different age groups. So if you are four to seven years old you do drawings that shall respond to this place as a magical land. And from seven to thirteen you start thinking about it more as a structured experience. Later then it becomes about sustainability. People will add drawings and will make a huge archive collection of all these public responses to it. This kind of research is also about if anybody tries to buy back the park or use the land in a terrible way you can point to thousands of people‘s responses. It‘s an armory against terrible development but also a memory and a story of it of just a moment in time.
The park has undergone a transformation from a communist to capitalist realm, to now a kind of communist, collaborative, independent status.
Totally. But we are doing art and not politics. In the end it is an aggregated affiliation. It is the composite of all these different pieces. It seems like the whole point of our history is that we forget to keep what is good about things or what is useful about certain elements of the system. So let‘s just puzzle it all together, it‘s already all there! You just have to rearrange it in a different way.
The family who ran the amusement park after the German reunification became bankrupt with over 15 million Euro worth of debt. The amusement park is closed down. Who owns the park right now?
The bank owns the land but the family owns everything on the land. The bank can‘t sell it or it is very hard to sell it because it is in the middle of a conservation area. To buy the land you have to follow all these regulations so that nobody really wants it for development. So who owns it? No one really. It is between public and private space.
The artists have to apply for a project to do something in the Kulturpark but they have to fund themselves?
Yes and no. None of us are paid to be here. We get a little bit from Art Matters Foundation and that keeps us going and that‘s how it‘s going to be the whole time. The artists aren‘t supported financially, but their projects will raise money to support their projects. For example we are saying to our light designers, you guys already were sponsored by the electrical company in the past, so you will be a better way to connect to them than we are. People are representing different interests and helping to reach out to their networks to get sponsors. There is hundreds of thousands of euros in the works but zero in the bank. That‘s how producing these projects goes. Another big part is the exchange program. We are going to have university groups that are coming from the U.S. and sending students. They will be attending the lectures and discussions and the students will support the projects as well.
Are you planning to get in contact with the bank?
This is a question right now. We have people recommending that we do but then at the same time, do I need to be alerting them to the fact that I‘m doing a project on their land that I‘m not paying them for? On the other hand our work is very valuable to the bank. They should be supporting us for bringing a whole kind of cultural attention to the place.
Until now it seems that you don’t have many sponsors?
That is a big part of our considerations, we don‘t want logos all over the project at all. The very point is to bring out the jungle and to bring out the nature in conflict with the recent collapsed industry. Logos of sponsors interfere with visual space. I‘m not interested in corporate symbols in visual space. It‘s a tough intention. I would rather have a smaller project for not having all this. At a certain point it starts to replicate the structure of an amusement park which is what you don‘t want to do.
Is the Kulturpark a museum?
No. The only reason why I say that is because it doesn‘t care for things. It cares for the land. You could think about it as an open air museum. It‘s a park. Sometimes museums can function like parks and parks can function like museums. I hope more parks could be like museums. In fifty years maybe you could ask again and hopefully the definition might have shifted enough that we could work with it. I imagine more museums could be in this kind of dynamic shift. Not those clean, perfect spaces, but also museums as places to use and reflect and be a part of a history.
Stephanie Sherman curates site-specific projects that transform places charged with layered histories into participatory environments for social play, collective imagination, public narratives, and collaborative production. She is a co-founder and Executive Director of Elsewhere, a living museum, international residency program, and educational laboratory set within a three-story former thrift store. As a public, interactive archive of cultural surplus, Elsewhere investigates how 20th Century things pattern social, psychological and materio-philosophical life to inform collaborative, 21st Century futures. She has produced interactive projects for PAFA (Philadelphia, PA), The Headlands Center for the Arts (Sausolito, CA), and NC Art Museum (Raleigh, NC), lectured throughout the country, and written curatorial texts for a variety of exhibitions and publications. She holds an MA in Critical Theory from Duke and a BA from UPenn in English Literature.