Interview with Boris Sieverts

An Interview with Boris Sieverts: “Friendly subversion of the urban structure”

Boris SievertsCopyright: Boris Sieverts
Views of a city: Another way to see Warsaw (Photo: Boris Sieverts)

13 May 2010

Boris Sieverts has been offering city tours for years and now, as part of The Promised City, also in Warsaw. Yet, if you were expecting to see the traditional city sights, you’ve come to the wrong tour. Instead, you might end up in an underground car park. The Cologne artist explains why in this interview.

Mr Sieverts, I want my money back. When you show me Warsaw, why are you taking me through tunnels, backyards, elevator shafts and parking garages? I saw far prettier sights in the guidebook.

Sieverts: Guidebooks very rarely help you understand a city. Only art historians are interested in learning how to categorize this or that building historically. There are very few guidebooks that really put themselves in the place of someone who is experiencing a city right now and physically; is standing, walking, driving in it. Yet, a city is something that first conveys itself to us physically; as hardware and the space around me. The political, social and geographical background of a city – its software, so to say – are interesting to visitors where they spatially make a mark. To pursue this and find the places where this mark is actually legible is hard work. The fewest guidebooks do it.

So, what do I need instead of a guidebook?

You could, for example, read a book that is set in the city.

Copyright: Marta Gendera and Boris Sieverts
Photo Gallery: The other Warsaw

Official symbols such as the Palace of Culture and Science or the university play no role in your tours; instead they show what’s behind them or off the beaten track...

You have to read the culture from its waste products. When I speak of waste, I don’t mean the junk, but reduced by its visible sides. If I explore the city from the margins, I notice that in most cases, the city centre has the function of a front parlour, which is a special function. It’s pretty stupid to begin with this special function. So, I begin with what is normal. Once I’ve understood that then I can take a look at what is special.

Why is it that this “normality” is given so little attention?

It has a lot to do with our way of seeing, which is often not a way of seeing at all, but reproducing images in our head. More a matter of memory and yearning than really seeing the present situation. However, my way of seeing was influenced, for example, by my work as a shepherd. As a shepherd, you spend so much time – long stretches and repeatedly – in places for which there are no templates, so at some point you inevitably begin to see things a new way. For example, we were travelling in France along a national highway and herded the sheep on the greens between a building centre and a service area. Seen from behind, from the shepherd’s perspective, a building centre is suddenly no longer a primary system element, but a tin box in the landscape. This tin box all at once becomes an apparition. That is what it is always about for me: to make things tangible as apparitions. For this reason, the information about an object isn’t so important to me.

The focus on the situation was also an important feature of the Situationists, a group of artists and architects in the 1960s who attempted to alter the awareness patterns of city dwellers. They did this to enable a different kind of urban experience. Do you see yourself as part of this tradition?

That, too. Situation is a key word. I don’t guide people through places, but ultimately through situations. It’s not merely a matter of buildings or objects, but of the situation; also not primarily of content, but of the energy of these situations.

Is there a specific Warsaw energy, then?

With the exception of Berlin, this is my first time in a formerly Socialist city. The problem here is that everything is large and therefore visible from far away when you’re approaching it. When I do tours, I like to suddenly enter different surroundings. This suddenness is not possible in Warsaw. For that, there are wonderful expanses here. A good part of the tour that I am working on here is therefore taken by bicycle.

Do you have some subversive intention? Do you wish to show how to emancipate oneself from the usual perceptions of a city?

When I take different pathways than usual, for me that’s friendly subversion of the urban structure. For instance, in hotels there is always one section for employees and one public section. These sections exist alongside one another yet never touch. So, when you cross over to the parallel world you are, of course, undermining the intention behind the separation. However, I don’t do it to drag a building through the mud or to show how banal it is. On the contrary, in my eyes this makes it more exciting. So it’s more rehabilitation of such buildings than polemics. The American architect and artist Gordon Matta-Clark wrote Restructuring architecture by cutting through it. I attempt to restructure cities and buildings in the way that we move through them as a group.

Can we, then, look at architecture detached from the intention it pursues?

Yes, we must, even. I always look at what the architecture actually does. In the face of finished buildings they are no longer intentions that can be negotiated, but realities. So, an underground car park may do a better job with its dark, but impressive series of spaces than the ambitious yet ultimately banal shopping centre above it.

Do city planners have to take the use aspects of architecture into consideration?

For me, the affect aspect is more important: what does it do to me? One thing I have learned from researching my tours is that in the light of actual situations many of the terms that students of architecture are given to assess urban situations can be forgotten and that we should instead open ourselves to what is and how we perceive it. In the end, every city is always very different than anyone may have planned anyway.

Philipp Goll conducted the interview.
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