What does it mean to teach as a professor of media art or scenography while also having a professional practice outside the school? How do you combine the two? How do you create an unconditional protective space within the school while also combining it with activities in the outside world in real, functioning institutions, which might include businesses or corporate contexts?
I’m still working on finding the right balance between giving students the protective space of the uniiversity and connecting them to the reality outside. Most of the projects I offer take place over the course of a year. The first semester is based on “artistic research,” where people are entirely free to explore, in a protected space, whatever they need to take a personal approach and a personal interest in the assignment.
The second semester usually centers on practical implementation, either in-house or outside the university context. When you get involved with those outside institutions, you quickly run into restrictions you have to follow, and you have to be very open and flexible to still fit into that.
When I arrived at the HfG in 2012, I started teaching backwards with the project The Art of Deconstruction. The project was not about how to construct space, but how to deconstruct space, and was based on the circumstance that the Kunsthalle Mannheim was about to be torn down: the plan was to artistically play with that building. We had a lot of conversations with the director of the museum, and we were going to work like Gordon Matta-Clark and divide the building into two halves (which had to be done anyway before it was torn down). We were working with a demolition contractor, marking the places in the building where he would put the dynamite, and together with him we were going to precut one of the interior columns – without endangering the main structure, of course.
“When you get involved with those outside institutions, you quickly run into restrictions you have to follow, and you have to be very open and flexible to still fit into that.” – Heike Schuppelius
In the end, however, everything turned out to be totally different. The demolition of the building became an important political issue in the city, and the discussion between citizens and city administration got very heated; the officials said our artistic demolition would be like pouring gasoline on a fire.
In the end, the students were only allowed to use a very small part of the building, so they chose the balcony, as the intersection point between the Kunsthalle and the city of Mannheim. They organized a great evening on the theme of “disappearance.” Guests came from all over Mannheim – a magician, the son of the architect of the old Kunsthalle, the demolition contractor, a person working at a hospice, the artist Roman Signer. What the students did in the end was very well thought through and resolved, but what we ended up with was completely different from what we had imagined at the beginning.
Our most recent project – which we did in Athens with Jonathan at a project space called Circuits and Currents – was another in-between situation, another intersection point between the university and the real world. The space is connected to – and protected by – the school, but at the same time it’s open to the public and located in the city, so it creates a different situation than doing an exhibition in the school. Maybe they needed to open that space up, to feel closer to reality, closer to the gallery art world.
Yes, I wondered about that, too. The situation in Athens was somehow in the “real world,” but perhaps in a limited way. In addition to being connected to a school, it was also in the art world, which can be a pretty separate reality. I’m thinking of the New York art world, for example, where exhibitions and performances are largely attended by friends and peers. The “general public” amounts to only a small percentage of viewers.
For me, the university can be a sort of microsociety, especially for performing artists, where you have all the different aspects of the system: space and freedom to develop ideas, access to performers, designers, collaborators to work with, and finally a public, an audience made up of peers and teachers.
But at the same time, the audience must also include “others” who aren’t just your friends or people who do exactly what you do. There must be a sense of difference. Diversity within the university can provide this, can prepare you for an outside audience that may be a bit less sympathetic. Thinking about the Athens show, it was a very friendly public that came.
„For me, the university can be a sort of microsociety, […] where you have all the different aspects of the system: space and freedom to develop ideas, access to performers, designers, collaborators to work with, and finally a public, an audience made up of peers and teachers.“ – Jonathan Bepler
Maybe you could give a quick recap of the project in Athens so we know exactly what happened.
The artistic research we did in the first semester focused on reenactment. We worked with Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which was coincidentally being made into a movie by Omer Fast at the same time. We were interested in the ruins of Athens, both ancient and modern, the situation in the city at that moment, and we were working on the idea of staging a temporary reenactment of empty places with artistic devices. Although it all turned out to be different, that was the first idea.
Deciding to show the individual projects at Circuits and Currents at the end of the semester was an interesting process. We discussed exhibiting at the school, at Circuits and Currents, and in public spaces in the city before finally deciding to work at the interface between them.
The group decided not to do a group exhibition, but to take the space for ten days so that every student would get the place to play with for one day and turn it into his or her individual project. The space changed a lot over those ten days. And the audience changed, too; at the beginning there weren’t that many people, but it became more and more public. Jonathan had the last day of the session, together with the Greek students, and it was very alive.
Yes, these kinds of projects lead people out of the university and into the unpredictability of the real world. That’s something you do a good job of providing, Heike! [laughs]
A thought that came up is how much these things have to do with being in control versus not being in control of your project. And I’m wondering if we’re talking about different kinds of creativity. Is there a certain way of doing creative work that requires the artist to have as much control as possible, as opposed to a way that’s more flexible and adaptive, more open to external influences and the powers at work?
And to me the latter seems to fit better with a “real” project in the outside world. Even the seemingly comforting zone of a smaller art community, where most of the audience is your friends and acquaintances, does not exclude the possibility that you have to be more open to compromise than when you’re at university.
Yes, I agree, but this kind of openness to variations during a process may require a particularly strong sense of the personal core idea of the artist. Working with the concept of indeterminacy, for example, takes a lot of guts, I would say. Nurturing this core may be a strategy an artist has to have in order to go forth and say, “This is what I’m going to do. Let’s see what it becomes.” This feels familiar to me.
But it occurs to me that, growing up in the real world, many young people may have felt out of place with their own artistic desires. The prevailing views of artwork seem to be “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen” and “People spend money on this kind of stuff?” And then you come to university and experience a sympathetic environment, perhaps for the first time. Then later you tend to find a friendly world that exists outside the institution.
“But it occurs to me that, growing up in the real world, many young people may have felt out of place with their own artistic desires. The prevailing views of artwork seem to be ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen’ and ‘People spend money on this kind of stuff?’” – Jonathan Bepler
It’s not as cutthroat as it might seem at first glance. Do you think this is different in different fields, though – say, in visual art versus scenography?
I wouldn’t distinguish between visual art and scenography. Visual artists, filmmakers, scenographers, architects, painters, etc – they all have the possibility of creating and discarding, but at a certain point you have to respond to purely practical questions. In some colleagues’ opinion, students should be exposed to the “real world” as early as possible. But I don’t agree with that.
After our experience in Mannheim, for our next big project we stayed in the university context and it was really a relief. I think first of all you need to develop your own language, your toolbox, strength, a certain freedom – in brief, your own approach to the field of art.
„I think first of all you need to develop your own language, your toolbox, strength, a certain freedom – in brief, your own approach to the field of art.“ – Heike Schuppelius
What kind of soft skills does an artist need?
We’re all aware of people who are very good at talking about themselves and their work – a skill that falls into that category –, and we’ve seen people become very popular and successful even though there might not be a lot of integrity in their work.
This is at odds with the romantic idea of the artist who only cares about what they’re doing, who is strong enough that a couple of people around them notice, and then society just kind of helps them. [laughs] Which I think is not entirely unrealistic – that’s partially the way it happens. You could believe that the artist’s job is not to serve themselves. I do believe in a healthy mistrust of the persuasive. So it’s a difficult question.
It’s also a character question.
Soft skills also have a lot to do with effectiveness. As you say, there are people who are so good at it that they may make it to a certain point just by marketing themselves so effectively. I guess that also points in the direction of the question of how effective, or efficient, creative people have to learn to be.
It’s a matter of how far you go. In an internship, you get a very good idea about how reality works. But if you’re realizing a bigger project, that’s something else, because then you need the strength to defend your ideas so that they don’t get destroyed out of practical considerations. The other aspect you mentioned, about how to present yourself – the presentations we do in our seminars, talking about your work and your ideas about art in a protected space, is a very good exercise.
“when you produce anything at university, you also have to be able to communicate with people, present small projects. And this so-called ‘crit’ in visual arts […] where people have to present something and talk about it, is a good way of learning to contextualize one’s work for other people.” – Jonathan Bepler
Those steps and those structures exist at university – when you produce anything at university, you also have to be able to communicate with people, present small projects. And this so-called “crit” in visual arts – which we didn’t have in music – where people have to present something and talk about it, is a good way of learning to contextualize one’s work for other people. It’s just one step away from a healthy form of “marketing.”
It also depends a lot on how you want to work in the end: collaboratively, in a team, or by yourself. Theater, of course, is an extreme form of collaboration; the other extreme is the lonely artist working alone in his or her studio. We’re familiar with both contexts. The time at university is the time you need to use to find this out.
Find out more about the Annual Report 2015/2016