24h Dahlem / Positions
"I wanted to expose this feeling of uncertainty"
Discovering Dahlem, creating parallel worlds and the confusion of seeing oneself represented as “the Other”: The artist Clara Jo and the musician Robert Lippok on their three-part film installation “24h Dahlem.”
Interview: Christiane Kühl
Clara Jo, you are an American of Korean descent and have been living in Berlin for four years. What did you find attractive about dealing with the collections in Dahlem?
Clara Jo: When I first visited the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem one and a half years ago, I knew immediately that this was where I would like to film. I was completely unfamiliar with the institution and wanted to understand it and its history. I know that the basic idea of the museum was for people to view other places and cultures in order to understand themselves. But when I visited the museum in Dahlem, I suddenly saw myself being represented as the Other. That was a weird perspective shift, and I wanted to understand that perspective. That’s what I found attractive in the work.
Robert Lippok, you were born in Berlin. Do you remember the first time you visited the Ethnological Museum?
Robert Lippok: It was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 1990s. I was shocked by the beauty of the collection. Especially the room with the boats – I had never seen anything like it. And this strange corner of Berlin called Dahlem – that also had something to do with “discovering” for me. Dahlem, too, was something foreign and unknown.
Humboldt Lab’s call for proposals sought a concept linking the museum archive in Dahlem with the archive of the television film “24h Berlin” shot in 2008. Film implies moving images, while a museum archive appears rather static. Interestingly, you decided not to use any images from “24h Berlin” in your project, but only the audio track. Conversely, you depicted the museum in constant motion already in the first part of “24h Dahlem,” with a camera following a guard on his inspection tour. How did you come up with this concept?
Jo: The decision was made on a practical level. I just had the feeling that the TV image material would not fit with what I wanted to shoot. That’s why I opted for the audio level and used it more like a parallel story. Also, considering Robert’s experience, I thought it would be a perfect fit.
Lippok: In 2008, I and my band To Rococo Rot did a recording with of Walter Ruttmann’s “Weekend,” a radio play from 1930, for the Bayerischer Rundfunk. We did an updated version and walked through Berlin with recording devices to capture the sound of a present-day weekend. When Clara told me that she didn’t want to use the image material of “24h Berlin,” I immediately found that very interesting. The audio material of the production is very powerful. You don’t need the pictures to understand what’s happening. We then listened to a lot, searching for good quotes, interview excerpts on migration and people moving to Berlin.
The online archive is huge. How did you make a selection?
Jo: The archive is tagged pretty well. I wanted to do the first part of the film on the theme of “Night,” so we looked specifically for that. The second part, “Day,” I wanted to do on returning to Dahlem.
Lippok: We had the entire sound on a large hard disk, so we could do pure audio research.
Jo: It was almost like working blind.
Lippok: I didn’t find it hard.
Jo: But for me it was almost impossible!
And how did you approach the museum archives?
Jo: I was a stranger coming to Dahlem and I just decided to speak to as many people as possible. At the same time, I knew that I wanted to divide the film into three parts, which taken together would show one day in the life of the museum. I played around with different real scenarios. At times it was strange to work here as an artist; scientists are taken more seriously in the museum. But all in all, we received a lot of support. That can be seen especially in the second part of the film, which I shot in the Archive for Visual Anthropology and the Phonogram Archive. Ulrike Folie and Albrecht Wiedmann were very forthcoming.
I filmed Ulrike at work, cataloging the collection’s films. I fictionalized the scenario by mixing the image material she is viewing with material that doesn’t belong to the collection: strips from a box of editing rests that Gerd Koch, the former director of the South Pacific Department, recorded during field studies. This is accompanied by Robert playing instruments of the collection, which was a further reference to the archive.
What was it like playing these old instruments?
Lippok: I decided not to really play the instruments, because I’m not able to. I just wanted to produce their sounds. I played neither rhythms nor melodies, but tried to understand how the instruments sound in regard to their body, the resonance chamber. So I only plucked individual strings or hit the drums. Very simple. I didn’t process the recording afterwards either, but used them like raw material and created several layers.
The third part of the film is entirely different. While the first two parts are set in the museum and depict a self-contained world focused of just a few persons, “Future” was shot at the construction site on the Berliner Schlossplatz; the hermetic world opens itself up.
Jo: As we all know, that is where the Humboldt Forum will move to – at this point, it’s difficult to visualize what exactly will happen to the collection. I wanted to expose this feeling of uncertainty. I by no means wanted to monumentalize the site, that’s why I combined the construction site with the work at the palace workshop of the Berlin Palace – Humboldtforum Foundation in the edit. The screed was just being laid at the construction site, and in the palace workshop sections of the baroque facade for the Humboldt Forum were being manufactured. That was the situation in 2013. I wanted to combine part three with the others, the Schlossplatz in Berlin-Mitte with the collections in Dahlem, I wanted everything to come together... but somehow I didn’t really succeed in doing so.
Lippok: But that’s the good thing about the Lab: it allows research and incompleteness. What we are now presenting is one version of the project. There will be another one.
To what extent was the work influenced by the awareness that it would be shown in the Ethnological Museum and not in a gallery space for contemporary art?
Lippok: Clara just did her work without thinking about what the audience would think or understand. No compromises. That’s completely correct. Because if you compromise, you don’t know with whom you compromise. You don’t know the audience at all. It’s stupid anyway to believe that gallery-goers are smarter than museum visitors or that children don’t want to watch experimental videos.
Jo: I conceived the film installation as an intervention. It is not placed in the collection but in spaces in between: “Night” in the corridor between the Golden Triangle (Laos, Myanmar, Thailand) and the South Pacific exhibition space, “Future” in the foyer between the entrances to the Asian Art Museum and the Ethnological Museum. I wanted to create a parallel world, so that the visitors could discover areas that are usually invisible.
How did the work evolve from the concept to the installation?
Jo: I made many decisions spontaneously, since I mostly had to shoot at locations I had never seen before. I wanted to keep the images open and empty in a certain respect, so that Robert would have a projection screen to work with. I wanted to give him room to breathe. That’s why there are long takes of places and architectures, to allow a balance between vision and sound. The use of sound is the most radical aspect of the film.
Lippok: A nod doesn’t make a sound, but ... (nods and laughs)
Did your perception of the museum change?
Jo: Yes, very much.
And? How does it present itself to you as a non-European seeing herself reflected in it as “the Other”?
Jo: I still have to digest that. Really, I still have to think about that.
What would the ideal Ethnological Museum look like?
Lippok: Yesterday I drove by the House of World Cultures (HKW) and suddenly thought that the Ethnological Museum and the HKW should be joined, so that there is not only the museum and the archive but also a political approach to the countries, to contemporary everyday life. Different approaches to other cultures, not just via the museum but also artistically; through concerts, lectures, exhibitions. Bringing that together would be an ideal situation, in my view. Ethnological museums virtually cry out for being brought into society in a different way. But the plans are now different. – They should have kept the Palace of the Republic and made a Centre Pompidou out of it, housing the House of World Cultures and the Ethnological Museum. That would have been a killer.
Jo: Problem solved. (laughs)
Artist Clara Jo (*1986, USA) received a Meisterschüler degree (2013) in the class of Olafur Eliasson (Institutfür Raumexperimente, UdK Berlin). She received a B.A. in Photography from Bard College (New York) in 2008. Collaborative performance and film works with artist James Gregory Atkinson have been shown at MMK Museum Für Moderne Künste Frankfurt, Kunsthalle Krems, Club Transmediale, Hessische Kunsthalle Frankfurt, West Germany (received grant from Kulturamt Kreuzberg/Friedrichshain) and HAU2. Groupexhibitions include White Columns (New York) and the Swiss Institute (New York).
Since his youth, Robert Lippok has been active as a musician and fine artist in various formations. In the1990s, he, his brother Ronald, and Stefan Schneider founded the band to rococo rot, which became known worldwide with releases on the labels Kitty-Yo, City Slang and Staubgold, among others. With to rococo rot, Robert Lippok also developed sounded pieces for artists including Olaf Nicolai (Bonner Kunstverein, 2000,Palais de Tokyo, 2002, HAU Berlin, 2006), Doug Aitken (Serpentine Gallery, London, 2001) and TakehitoKoganezawa ("On the way to the peak of normal", Montevideo and Amsterdam, 2000). In addition, to rococorot has collaborated in radio plays for the Bayerischer Rundfunk, among others, and composed a newversion of Walter Ruttmann's sound montage "Weekend". Lippok also performs as a solo artist and with theelectronic duo Tarwater. As a fine artist, he deals with architectural spaces and audio concepts. He participated in the show "space to face" at the Westfälischen Kunstverein (Münster, 2004), among others.
Christiane Kühl is a journalist and theater-maker living in Berlin. Together with Barbara Schindler she is responsible for the online documentation of the projects for the Humboldt Lab Dahlem. The interview was conducted in Berlin in February 2014.