Minor Matter. Photo: Kat ReynoldsMinor Matter. Photo: Kat Reynolds

“The Other Way Around” in Essen

Ultimately, everything that determines our thinking and existence is in a state of instability. Questions are raised, debates initiated, one’s own assumptions critically examined. Lilly Busch reports on the Ruhrtriennale in Essen.

The Zeche Zollverein in Essen: once a significant motor of German industry and doubtlessly a site of exploitation of bodies and nature as well, the former hard-coal mine is today an industrial monument and dynamic artistic workspace. Since 2002 it has been the home of the choreographic centre PACT Zollverein, which during these days serves as venue and experimental field for “Episodes of the South – the Other Way Around”. The project series, launched in 2015 in Brazil, is coming to Europe, right in the heart of the Ruhr region, as part of the Ruhrtriennale and in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut São Paulo and the Lehmbruck (Duisburg), Folkwang (Essen) and Ruhr (Essen) museums. Here, habitual perceptions and expectations on the part of the public are challenged in striking and impressive ways.

The participative format “Conversations with Objects” raises these questions, encouraging both the invited guests from various fields and the public to speculate together on an artwork that all view as if for the first time, and to enter into conversation. They discuss with and about objects that have defined our world in a certain way, whereby the course of the conversation is unpredictable, arising from the situation. Above and beyond art-historical and scientific approaches, any manner of interpretation is permitted – bodies, biographies and emotions generate knowledge as well. The guests include musicians, ethnologists and journalists: persons who deal with the ways in which political issues can be expressed and negotiated, whose perspectives are now coexisting in an open space. Just as the meeting of the participants from South Africa, Greenland, the USA and the Dominican Republic, Germany, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Ireland and Greece is preceded by journeys that have been made, the format itself is a physical movement, a kind of performance, in which one approaches the object with one’s body, acts in space.

Metal bars

On one of the evenings, small, heavy metal bars lie in the middle of the room. The musician Neo Muyanga discerns faces in them, perhaps they are masks? How did they end up in the safekeeping of European museums? Where is their original context located? But perhaps they are of Danish design, as film director Arnbjörg Maria Danielsen claims with a wink of an eye. She then points to the engraved letters “DK” and is convinced: “’DK’ stands for ‘deutsche Kultur’ (i.e. German culture), and that is pretty heavy!” Ethnologist Kelly Gillespie views the objects as a symbol of the history of exploitation of natural resources. By contrast, choreographer Ligia Lewis wonders “How would these objects move by themselves?”, and tries to lift the bars.

In fact, “DK” stands for “Duisburger Kupferhütte” (i.e. Duisburg Copper Works): the objects are so called “Masseln”, cast ingots, a product of local industry from 1960-70, to make the material transportable for further processing. A number of knowledgeable audience members had spotted the connection with Ruhr industry and shared their thoughts. In this way, in conversation about the same object, the historical weight of colonialism becomes palpable, fiction is conceived with ease, and a bit of local history disclosed.

Movement of thought

Most of the Episodes have to do with movement or are movement, like the lecture-performance by a group of Greenland musicians. And above all, they encourage movement of thought: overcoming established categories, allowing the simultaneity of perspectives and forms of knowledge – this demands flexibility. Even if one believes one is speaking from a similar vantage point, no one is safe from falling into stereotypical thinking or reproducing dominances – staying in motion is thus a necessity.

The reason is that ultimately everything that determines our thinking and existence is in a state of instability. There’s something frightening about this, but also potential, as Ligia Lewis shows in her dance performance "Minor Matter", in which three dancers form fragile statues together, as if they were holding their bodies up against stone monuments: a constellation is tried out, remains stable for a brief time, then collapse follows – and a resolute rearranging. Nothing can be permanently defined or codified; this fundamental principle of the project series seems to be reflected in the essence of dance.

Fixed insights or results are intentionally not sought. Instead, questions are raised and debates initiated, for instance on dealing with institutional structures inherited from the colonial era, or on the development of artistic subject positions. “Episodes of the South” is a training in understanding views as being by nature details, excerpts, and in critically examining one’s own associations.

The events are an encouragement to listen, critically reflect and become creative – three indispensable abilities for any kind of change. Freeing oneself from binary divisions such as “here” and “there”, and “either – or” is truly an exertion of thought. In Essen, “Episodes of the South” make clear for a public in Germany: making this effort to take other ways around, is as necessary as it is enriching – personally, socially and last but not least aesthetically.

Lilly Busch studied literature in Berlin and São Paulo, and has worked in the area of theatre and dance at the Goethe-Institut in Munich. She is currently studying for her master’s in dramaturgy in Frankfurt am Main.

Translation: Edith C. Watts