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INTERVIEW WITH ELLA ZIEGLER

Let’s start at the beginning. What interests you about social interventions and performances in public places?

The art school that I went to very much had the idea of Bauhaus. I started my studies in the design department where our first year was about basic experiences in drawing, painting and sculpting. I was really interested in that. During my basic studies in design, I realised what art was through a Professor when she gave an introduction to Joseph Beuys’ drawings and works. That opened up the door. Although I am not 100 percent a Joseph Beuys fan, it introduced me into different methods. But it was a process through continuing my studies in the fine art department.  

During my studies I did big inflatable sculptures. But it was always about the nothingness. Inflatable sculptures basically shape a thing through a very thin surface. It’s just the air inside and the air outside and the surface, which is a three-dimensional line in space. But then it slowly developed into the interventions.  

I love to work in public space because things happen, and you think, wow, fantastic, that only happens in public space. People start continuing your work and they do it better than you could have done it.   That’s the challenge of public space that I really like.

I read that you were born in a small village in the south of Germany. How much of this upbringing has been the catalyst for your interventions and your relationship to the urban jungle.

I’m very sure that because I grew up in the country, the urban sphere and jungle was a place that I wanted to investigate. People behave differently, people move differently, people have a totally different relationship to what is outside. In a village you talk and you say ‘hello’ to everybody. I had the childhood experience When I was in the city, I had the childhood experience of wondering why people didn’t say ‘hello’ to each other and I had that moment of being alienated from the urban space by growing up in a village. So for me, it was always investigating how is that place, and how are people reacting when I do this or when I do that? It was more of a research for myself and putting myself into that environment and figuring out how people will react to me when I do this or that. I think my work is investigating city life in a way because in the beginning I did most of my studies in the city.

Your work often deals with how urban dwellers can use public space.

I’ll start with the work and the images that I took in Kreuzberg, Berlin. It’s outside one of these informal settlements. It says, ‘Die Stadt sind für alle’. It doesn’t say the city belongs to us it says, ‘We are the City’. It’s an informal settlement in the city and it’s not allowed but they still do it. I think that’s a big difference. I think you can own the city and do nothing with it, or you can live in the city and do something with it, even though you don’t own it. I like that you don’t need to own the city to do something in the city. Now it’s changed because Berlin has sold out piece by piece to foreign investors. I still think that we can do a lot in the city, although it’s not our city. But that was always my idea. We have freedom in a European western city like Berlin where we can do a lot of things.

But I come from the countryside and I know harvesting. With one of my projects (Harvest Linz, 2005], I was invited to Austria and I made a map of the city of Linz and all the city’s green spaces. The city gardener helped me to map every fruit tree that was on the city’s greens and then he helped me investigate the fruit trees. We made a table with all the fruit trees and in the end we found that there are one hundred and twenty-one apple trees, one hundred and nine pear trees, x amount of nut trees, berries and so on. And because it is public property it is a collective space. Often you think that it is not ‘my’ space it’s the city’s. But the city is ‘we’ again. So what I tried to show was the value of the fruit. I calculated how many kilograms of apples one could harvest in one year, which was more than six tonnes. Then I calculated how much cake, juice and marmalade that one could make from it and then in the end I calculated the value of it. Funnily enough, in Linz, because nobody is harvesting the apples and the pears, the city gardener has to remove all the mouldy fruit from the greens. That is also a lot of work. So instead of using all this fruit, harvesting it, eating it, and making marmalade, people are complaining about it. In the end the value of the fruit was one hundred and three thousand euros, and the fruit is laying on the greens and nobody is interested in it or eating it. This is just one idea of how people could better understand that public space is a collective or communal space, and which is ‘my’ space and ‘your’ space. Like a farmer who goes to the fields, we could just harvest and make marmalade. That work is very much influenced by where I come from.

What I like about your interventions is that they are often invisible to a lot of people and often occur outside an institutional context. How do you feel that an art audience only sees your work as documentation through lectures, publications and exhibitions?

Sometimes I think that maybe it’s too much my own work. I’m very much interested in doing my work and I like to give talks about my work. But I’m also wondering how one can do art by doing these non-exhibitions and by making books. My work is seen by a lot of people, but first maybe they don’t know that it is art, and second, they are not an art audience. Only when I give talks then it is with people from an art context. But when the artwork happens, like with the gardener in Linz, or I go to a grafting seminar on the Czech/German border, there people are confronted with my ideas who are not at all in the art world. They don’t understand it as an artwork.

But is it important to you that your work must be seen as art?

Actually not!

What struck me most after reading Alles in Ordung A-Z is that anybody can make a connection with your work.

It is actually funny because my project with the grafting between Czech republic and Germany [‘Angst in Fear’, 2010] was published in a gardening magazine that my mother’s neighbour reads. They always share the magazine and my mother phoned me and said, “Oh, you are in the gardening magazine”. She understands the work even though she’s a farming woman. But the grafting project is about abstract lines in landscapes, political borders, and territories which were claimed by the first settlers five thousand years ago. When people started to settle down and farm, they started to put up fences and that was the beginning when territories started to become defined.  Before, it was just people walking through the landscape, going from north to south, depending on the seasons.

Earlier this year you went to South Africa and made the work, Turning a Stone Upside Down (2015). Tell me about that project.

The Karoo Desert in South Africa is a landscape that is five hundred million years old and shaped by waters and glaciers.  You can find stones that show traces from this slow natural transformation process which are over one million years old.  The stones have a long history of being moved and being shaped.  So what I did was I just moved a stone upside down with my hands. That was new work from this year and this is the first time I thought about working in an untouched landscape. It’s a difficult field because you are always connected to land art and the context of land art can be complicated. I’m more interested in the stone as object and its connection to the soil. I just like the tenuous movement of the landscape, which is slow in this case, and what’s happening there with my hands by turning it. I also dug out a bush, turned it 180 degrees and put it back. There is also a similar piece that I did grafting the branches in Kunstverein Arnsberg, where there was a hazel bush and we cut the branches from the north and the south and we just swapped them. The bush I turned is also a similar principle where the branches from the south are now facing north.

Often your work is about connecting with strangers. It must feel nice when a stranger says yes to your projects. I like the narrative from the work Blossom (1999) where you rented a spotlight to put on a beautiful Cherry Tree in Glasgow and the neighbour gave you permission to light up the tree from inside his house.

Yeah, it was in his bedroom. It was a student house. It was very nice. A big part of my work is to communicate with people and to discuss and share my ideas. I also thought that I should ask somebody to do something really impossible and see what the reaction is.

Like the work, Cycling Over the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (2003) where you wrote to the technical manager to ask if you could bicycle on the roof. You must have thought that he would never have agreed.

Exactly, but I like the story. My work is very much about telling stories and methods of narration whether it is open-ended or has a happy end, or if it is not working out. But a lot of things don’t work out about my work, but I still use it.

It’s very humorous that work. I was imagining the technical manager opening the letter and the reaction on his face. Your work is often a variety of social situations where unrealised projects are often the artwork. Do you think that he was shocked to receive the application?

Haus der Kulturen der Welt is a place where they realize fantastic projects and do interesting stuff. He was probably not too shocked because they are always working with artists. But it’s totally impossible to ride on the top because the roof is too steep. 

Are you only interested in performative interventions or are you also interested in making material works?

When I was only making art without teaching or my family, I was working on seven or eight projects at the same time. When you are working on a project in a public space, sometimes you have to wait a long time until you get a reaction. Sometime it’s good if you don’t look at the project and then you come back and you see the project from another perspective and think, I must tell the story like that or like that. When I began the interventions, it was really the time for works in public spaces. The 1990’s were a time for political discussions about how the institutional context works.  I was wanting to escape from that. I wasn’t wanting to produce material works. I have four big photographs and that is the body of my work actually. I’m still skeptical about producing material works that just end up in storage. I have smaller projects that I also sell, but not through galleries. I’m trying to stay as independent as possible of demands from the institution. I’m more interested in the performative part of the work, not the secondary life in a museum.

One of those performances was titled Star Wars (2006).

That was in a church in Sierre, Switzerland with a century bell that you could control by organ. I was in contact with a fantastic technician, a crazy inventor who has a cable car in his garden that could drive/fly 50 metres in his garden with a real traffic light. He’s an unbelievable technician and has totally strange ideas but his wife does not completely understand what he is doing. He told me that I would have to play the song on the keyboard while he recorded it on a floppy disc, which we would then have to put into the computer at the church. He played the floppy disc and it worked. It was 1980s technology. We then had to ask the priest if we could play the song on the century bell. He wouldn’t have known the song and that it was the intro, The Evil Comes from Star Wars.

Do you like that people find your work humorous?

When I studied art to become a teacher we had to study psychology and at art school we also had to do one course in psychology. I was writing about humour in arts because I was bit irritated that people were always laughing at my work because you think that they don’t take it seriously. Or it is not serious. The book, Das Lachen, where the French philosopher Henri Bergson investigates humour, says that humour is very personal and it’s your personal way of talking and thinking. It is something that is very original. So I was encouraged by that to continue.

Another project that you are involved with is Salon Universitas.  These are nomadic evenings organised to encourage conversations and collaborative research between artists, writers, historians, scientists and other disciplines.  Can you tell me a little bit more about this?

In Kassel we have the opportunity to be part of a University where we have access to natural sciences, social sciences, philosophy, languages and literature departments.  If you look at the trend of interdisciplinary work, all the art schools that are not working with Universities are totally old-fashioned. We have all the departments that we can communicate and collaborate with and I am really trying to encourage the students to do this. Some of our students study art, sociology, art and language, art and mathematics, and I encourage them to see how they could bring the disciplines together.

A friend of mine Lucy Powell, who is also an artist,  does it in Berlin but calls it Salon Satellite, and we call it Salon Universitas, because we do it at a University.  We are a team of four, which is always a student, Lucy, me and another professor. Then we invite people at the University, five students, five professors, five assistants, so we are around sixteen or seventeen people. And the students tell us what they want to talk about.  For example for the students who studied sociology and art, we did a Salon about intuition. We invited a professor of psychology, a researcher from the department of social science and a performance artist, who then gave talks about their perspective on intuition. Other Salons we have organised and curated have focused on Biological Design, Gravitation, Angst & Fear and Work. For us it is a big challenge to bring different departments together and to experience the different approaches, working methods and knowledge cultures. My discovery is that theory is always subjective and has to be questioned, and knowledge is always interlinked to personalities, to feelings, and to ethic questions which depend on our personal identity.

Interview Berlin 2015