Interview with Barbara Hammann (by email) by Anna Sophia Schultz, August, 2017
You completed your dissertation in art history at the University of Munich in 1972 and then worked as a journalist and proofreader. How did you get started as an artist and how did you get interested in video?
Music and visual art were, and still are, pivotal interests and practices. After leaving school I didn’t consider myself to have experienced enough in life to be able to immediately take up art. I attended a high school specializing in the fine arts, and my art teacher warned me about the pitfalls of academic study. It took a serious illness before I realized what was really important to me in life. An opera enthusiast, I decided to study stage stage design at the Salzburg summer academy. Salome by Richard Strauss was the topic. My stage design won the Salzburg advancement award and was complimented by [Günther] Schneider-Siemssen and [Herbert von] Karajan. Despite this wonderful support I had no doubts that, in the 1970s, a woman had no chance of working in the opera business. I decided to set out and forge my own path as an artist, in the hope that one day, from this position, I could have an opportunity to put into practice my idea of a contemporary “total work of art,” a performative theatrical environment with music. My first video theatre was Paula und Marianne in 1987, a fictive video dialogue between the painters Paula Modersohn-Becker and Marianne von Werefkin.
Which artists, exhibitions, or events would you describe as especially influential for your own work?
In 1978, I attended a lecture given by Wulf Herzogenrath at the Munich Art Academy; it was about the video artists at the documenta. That was my “aha” moment in relation to video art. Above all, Bruce Nauman’s videotape lipsync opened up “new worlds.” Suddenly I could see that the medium of video offered me the possibility to realize what I’d been envisaging: to bring together moving images and sound, and through the “closed circuit,” which enabled an intimate dialogue, to create a new body image, without needing a large team and without the costs of a film. But where could I get my hands on the video equipment? Back then, the Sony open-reel videotape was the most popular piece among amateurs, but it was far too expensive for me. While I was a guest at a workshop given by Jochen Gerz, Fridhelm Klein from the art academy lent me the extremely sensitive black-and-white Newicon camera with a portable recorder. I made the black-and-white videotapes Frage (question) and the improvised Eating Jaffa TV. I produced Eating Jaffa again in 1979, this time in color and ¾ inch U-matic at a professional studio and used the resulting video to apply for a place in the International Video Exhibition held at Museum Folkwang in Essen. Zdenek Felix invited me to the exhibition, to begin a cooperation project with the video studio at Museum Folkwang, which enabled me to record in 1 inch. Up until this point I still didn’t own my own video camera, which I only got when I was awarded first prize at the International Video Festival in Tokyo for Eating Jaffa TV.
The pivotal event was to see how many important women artists, for example Meret Oppenheim, were not perceived in the 1980s in a way befitting the quality of their work, remaining undocumented in publications. In 1981, I got to meet Meret Oppenheim in Innsbruck during her exhibition at the Krinzinger gallery. My “bread-and-butter” job at the time was writing and reporting, including for the Süddeutsche Zeitung und radio stations. While researching at the Central Institute for Art History I was absolutely amazed to find out that only a few slender publications were devoted to her work, totally in contrast to her male colleagues, many of whom were nowhere near as important artistically but were represented opulently with several volumes. After I examined Oppenheim’s Basel speech, I realized I had all along studied a male art history.
Rhizome by [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari, which I’d discovered in 1977, opened up new horizons of thinking, and these were similar to my associative, non-hierarchical way of looking at the world, encouraging me to keep going in this direction. Then later there was Hélène Cixous and her “endless circulation of desire,” which wondrously expressed in literature my view formulated in Eating Jaffa TV. And last but not least, in Brazil I discovered the writer Clarice Lispector, whose novel The Apple in the Dark became the starting point for the multimedia work of the same name I created in 1994 together with the composer and musician Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris.
I should mention another publication that found me when Dick Higgins led me into a New York bookstore: The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Néel and Lama Yongden. These teachings fundamentally changed how I looked at and perceived the reality supposedly around me. On the trail of David-Néel, I then later traveled through Sikkim and Tibet, and in 2004 I put on the theatre performance In and out of silence with Alison Knowles and Malcom Goldstein, which is performed in the dark.
Many artists have accompanied me over the decades. I was amazed at how many there are; that’s why I’d like to concentrate on those who inspired me at the beginning of my artistic journey. In “visual art”: Dan Flavin, Alison Knowles, Valie Export, Meret Oppenheim, Rebecca Horn, Arleen Schloss, Ulrike Rosenbach, John Cage, Maria Lassnig, Roni Horn, Jochen Gerz, Bruce Nauman, Laurie Anderson, Peter Campus, Vito Acconci, Robert Wilson, Min Tanaka, Wooster Group N.Y.C., and Agnes Martin. This list is missing all the musicians, and since my childhood music means the most to me, the deepest of all the arts. (I studied violin and flute, and was fortunate enough to play in an excellent youth orchestra for a number of years.) The interdisciplinarity of the arts continues to interest me down to the present day, and their separation is something I’ve never understood.
In 1978, you created your first video and photo works that explore questions of identity. One of your first video works, the already mentioned Eating Jaffa TV from 1979, seems much like a study for the work to follow. You are shown peeling a grapefruit, pulling it apart, chewing, handling it, until only unrecognizable pickings remain. You work an image of an object until it is on the verge of dissolving—often using your own body. What is the background to this explorative process?
As I mentioned in response to your first question, I found the “female” attitude informing my approach and access to things, to the world, confirmed by the work of Hélène Cixous, in particular the endless circulation of desire, as in the text To Live the Orange: “And to all of the women whose voices are like hands that come to meet our souls when we are searching for the secret, we have needed, vitally, to leave to search for what is most secret in our being, I dedicate the gift of the orange. And to all of the women whose hands are like voices that go to meet the things in the dark, and that hold words out in the direction of things like infinitely attentive fingers, that don’t catch, that attract and let come, I dedicate the orange’s existence, as it has been given to me by a woman, according to the entire and infinite bringing-together of the thing, including all that is kin of the air and the earth, including all the sense relations that every orange keeps alive and circulates, with life, death, women, forms, volumes, movement, matter, the ways of metamorphoses, the invisible links between fruits and bodies, the destiny of perfumes, the theory of catastrophes, all of the thoughts that a woman can nourish, starting out from a given orange; including all of its names.” [The Hélène Cixous Reader, ed. Susan Sellers, Oxford, Routledge, 2003, p. 87]
Perhaps it’s interesting to know that there wasn’t any advance plan for this videotape, there wasn’t a script. The camera, the monitor, the table, the orange, they were just there, and a long, thick orange nail, which I grabbed during the improvised dialogue. All the conversations that had moved me at the time, all the thoughts I’d had, culminated in this unique moment in an improvised videotape, which in the truest sense of the phrase opened up a world. It was shown worldwide, I won an award, etc. I’ve never again experienced anything so compressed together. The orange used in the black-and-white improvisation of Eating Jaffa TV, shot first, became a grapefruit in the color version because there were no oranges in season.
In many of your works the female body disintegrates, in particular through fragmenting and blurring. Would you say that these works are looking to create a space of possibility beyond gender stereotypes?
Yes, that’s what I feel is happening. I’m a “female” human being; the sense of being human is the main thing, not the gender. I find it intolerable that people are discriminated against because of their gender or race.
In the exhibition Videokunst in Deutschland 1963–1982, held at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich in 1982, you showed your work Mr. and Mrs. Poe in Island. On perversity. A video documentation of the work is in the compilation Videoinstallationen 1981–1986 from 1987 in the collection of the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst. Could you tell us something about the background behind this work?
It is a work about love, the relativity of perception, and the intensity of feelings. Slowness as a tender closeness, encountering and standstill as experiencing a borderline situation between life and death: impermanence. Poe’s text about the hypnotizing of a person in the process of dying, read by the American artist Roni Horn, blends with the rushing of a stream. The images and sounds, in the infinite possibility of their combination, come and go, comparable to when we are falling asleep. In many societies love between women is viewed as a perversity, is a punishable offence. This social convention fails to see that this is love between human beings and thus reveals society’s disturbed relationship to life, to nature, but also the disturbed relationship to death. Shown at various slow-motion speeds, the work is the result of transferring from Super 8 to video, which is why it’s very grainy and the “breathing” of single images unites them into one visual stream.
Also featured in the exhibition was the video installation Neue Welle created in 1983, which is also documented in Videoinstallationen 1981–1986. Drawing on Nam June Paik’s Zen for TV (1963), the 625 rows of a television image are pulled together into a single streak of light that runs across five monitors lying face up on the floor. A magnetic pendulum swings above the monitors and its oscillation changes the shape of the streak into a wave. What inspired you to create this playful work?
First, I don’t think “drawing on” is right, because my work was developed out of a completely different experimental setup. In the first version, the video camera, in closed-circuit mode, was focused on a streak of light, the image of which was transmitted to two monitors and was diverted by a magnetic pendulum. As I had the opportunity to work with five monitors due to the height available in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the light streaks could then be diverted within the oscillating radius of the magnetic iron pendulum above, and I then decided to employ the same “disturbance technique” as Paik. In this spatial situation it simply made no sense to work with a closed-circuit camera version. The starting point of my work shown with one monitor at Lenbachhaus in Munich was thus not the manipulated horizontal diversion used by Paik to generate a streak of light. Because the ceiling of the room in Lenbachhaus was considerably lower and only one monitor was feasible, I pondered long and hard over whether I should show the work next to Zen for TV by Paik, because I was under no illusion what reaction was to be expected. The decision to take the risk was based on knowing where my work originated, and the joy and honor I felt to be present next to my revered colleague.
Several of your works were produced with other artists in a collective. How did such collaborations come about?
There were different reasons. In the case of Kriegskunst from 1981, which originally started with fourteen artists, it was a tremendous opportunity for me to work on a complex project and go through a learning process, something I hadn’t had before because I didn’t attend an art academy. As an autodidact, I was forced to present my ideas on the theme to my colleagues and engage in an exchange of arguments. From the fourteen artists originally involved, in the end four artists, including myself, realized the project Kriegskunst. With the same team we then put on the installation and performance Öffentliche Gelder im öffentlichen Raum (Public Funds in Public Space) at the Künstlerhaus Hamburg in 1982, i.e., we had experience in working together. In a team of four the creative process is different, and the public perception is different than when one is a soloist.
In 1992, together with the artists Annalies Klophaus and Dagmar Rhodius and the gallery owner Barbara Gross, you founded the NET group in Munich, followed in 1985 by Continuum e.V. with Barbara Gross and Annalies Klophaus. What did these groups do?
My engagement for art by women began with the realization triggered by the aforementioned encounter with Meret Oppenheim. When women artists were excluded from contributing to the artistic design and presentation of the Gasteig cultural center in Munich and not a single Munich woman artist was included in the aktuell’83 exhibition in Lenbachhaus, I thought the time had come to no longer sit around dismayed by it all but to do something, so I joined up with Dagmar Rhodius, Annalies Klophaus, and Barbara Gross to form the NET group in 1982. AKTUELL(e)’83 was the first project of NET, Munich, which I organized together with Annalies Klophaus at the POL gallery in Munich. Others involved were the artists Regine von Chossy and Verena von Gagern and the gallerist Claudia Jaeckel-Göbel, who made her gallery space available. This alliance between women artists going public with a complex program featuring film, literature, and politics, which included specific demands aiming to improve the situation of women artists, not only provoked enormous public and media interest but also brought about concrete results. I became the first woman visual artist to receive the Gabriele Münter- Stipendium from the Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung.
The main project in our joint efforts in Continuum was to present innovative and inspiring art by women to a wider public at the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich. The creative interdependence of life and work was the focus. We selected artists from different media and periods, national and international, who had demonstrated the courage to resist norms and had in part worked for years “in secrecy.” The exhibited artists were Monika Baumgartl, Renate Bertlmann, Shigeko Kubota, Lidy von Lüttwitz, and Nancy Spero. We also showed solo exhibitions by Pauline Cummins, Cristina Fessler, and Ute Lechner in the Ladengalerie Lothringerstrasse 13, Munich.
I don’t have to emphasize that this voluntary project lasting several years supported the development of a multifaceted repertoire of activities in a collective. In the later theatrical performances like Z+X Tschaikowsky – eine Oper or Once, to name just two examples, I wanted to work together with colleagues as equals, and not take on the role of dictating director. It seemed to me to make more sense to realize my vision of the piece in an enriching dialogue. This functioned only with very experienced colleagues interested in an open working process, based on a shared “wavelength.”
The interactive closed-circuit video installation Walking on Yourself from 1984 (also in Videoinstallationen 1981–1986) lets the participating viewers walk over a bridge made up of television sets facing upwards, the screens showing them their own faces, which are being recorded simultaneously. You have described the work as “experiencing a new reality.” What’s this new reality made of?
The “experiencing a new reality” arises out of the experience of self when walking across and simultaneously stepping on your own head. The old self-image is dismantled, walking experienced as an “aggressive act” that reflects our media reality. As I walked over myself for the first time I was astonished at how much I swayed to and fro. Our brain modifies this fact, leads us to believe that reality is different, namely that we walk forward in a straight line.
You’ve looked at the surveillance function of video, for example in the video performance Sie werden beobachtet (You’re under Observation). Are there other works that are motivated by this interest?
Yes, there are, like Walking on Yourself described above. In the 1970s and 80s the surveillance function of video was a major political issue and something that occupied many groups and artists; there were fears, and today these are even more serious than we assumed back then given the ever-developing technologies and political decisions. A blanket video surveillance with recognition etc. was the horror scenario—today it is the reality we live with.
The video installation Kalta – Schwarzes Instrument from 1985 (also in Videoinstallationen 1981–1986) invites the viewer to look into a tall black funnel, its tip pointed upward. The gaze into the depths meets a video image of a hand opening and closing. What role does the viewer’s physical involvement play here?
The black funnel reaches up to just about the armpit of a “normal-sized” person, 120 cm. If you’re smaller you have to stand on tippy toes, so that a physical involvement is already needed there. But it is also the unusual peering into the depths that demands a physical adjustment. Some also discover the possibility to experience the object as a musical instrument when they place their ear at the funnel opening, which works like an amplifier.
The Videoinstallationen 1981–1986 compilation also documents the works Dim Sum (1985), Closed Circuit (1984), and The Balance of What (1986). Could you briefly describe these works?
In Dim Sum a color television, its screen facing upward, lies in a black fishnet hanging from the ceiling. The viewer can become active by setting into motion his/her childhood, hidden in the net of his/her memories. Possibly quite helplessly, coming close to laughter or tears.
For the video installation Closed Circuit, eight color televisions are arranged in a circle on the floor, the screens facing the middle of the circle. It’s possible to walk into the circle. In a “magical” circle of light the electronically generated image pulsates in the form of a flaming aura thanks to the feedback system. Closed systems produce catastrophes, but they possess an enormous aesthetic fascination.
The Balance of What? Arleen Schloss (1986) is made up of two black-and-white televisions, which are positioned in a two-part black PVC box that is fastened to the wall at eye level. The two arm-like sculptures don’t touch in the middle. Two thumbs done up in white move in opposite directions across both screens, one of them turned around 180 degrees, going up and down at different speeds, like the needle of a set of scales. They mark the transition from movement to equilibrium; stasis equals death.
How were the documentations of your video performances presented in the exhibition space?
On a screen with or without headphones.
In 1987, theatre-like settings follow, foremost the work Paula und Marianne, created in the video theatre proT in Munich (with Brigitte Niklas), which is in the collection of the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst. Could you tell us a bit more about the work, its background, and the context in which it was produced?
The work is a fictive live-video dialogue between the painters Paula Modersohn-Becker and Marianne von Werefkin. In 1987, proT in Munich invited me to create a video theatre. At the time I was living for a year in Worpswede on a grant, at the Barkenhoff, and so almost every day I came into contact with the world in which Paula Modersohn-Becker had lived. Her presence was very strong still, something I felt almost physically. I admired her radicalness in life and in painting, which made her into somebody extraordinary in Worpswede, but was by no means acknowledged and appreciated by everyone. It seemed only logical to turn her into the main character in my video theatre. Studying her works, letters, the problems she encountered as a young artist, these were things that resonated with me and touched me deeply. This in turn reminded me of another artist who had similar difficulties in her private life and pursuing her artistic calling, namely Marianne von Werefkin. Her visionary élan, intelligence, and vulnerability had all left a deep impression on me, which was reinforced by reading her published letters. She’d been a famous painter in Russia, met Alexej von Jawlensky, and decided to give up her own painting and devote herself to helping her lover develop his talent. Later she would regret having ignored her own artistic work for ten years. It is interesting that her salon in Munich was the spiritual center of the avant-garde. She formulated the parameters of abstract painting in the aforementioned letters before Kandinsky, but left the artistic realization to others. For the video theatre in the Alabama Hall in Munich I came up with a complex video installation, featuring live images of our faces distributed throughout the space. The texts of both protagonists, taken from their letters and diaries, were read by myself and Brigitte Niklas, recorded live by closed-circuit cameras, while some lines were projected using a laser.
In 1991, you presented in the Neue Galerie the video installation Nest für Dachau (1991) as part of the Künstlerbund exhibition. Could you briefly describe the work?
Nest für Dachau is a metal object with an integrated color television. It recalls a buoy tied to a meandering cable. The convolutions in the metal suggest possible movement. A VHS player provides the information. The looped video shows a body fragment resembling a breathing chest.
What kind of things would you specify today for presenting your works?
If you mean all of my works, then I’d have to decide from case to case. In my catalogue raisonné, which is still being worked on, I mention other possible presentation forms for every single work. There is no special specification for Nest für Dachau that would deviate from the original version documented in a photo. One could replace the video player with a media player, although in terms of spatial relations, the larger VHS player seems to be the better solution because it takes on the role of a sculptural counterpart to the metal object. The space should be kept a bit dim so that the screen doesn’t reflect any light and the picture contrasts are visibly balanced.