Interview with Sarah Johanna Theurer

Sarah Johanna Theurer Sculpture

Installation view. Courtesy Hugo Estrela / Vesselroom Project

Sarah Johanna Theurer is an emerging curator, currently attached to Vesselroom Project in Berlin. A researcher in ephemeral arts and techno-social techniques and theories of the twenty-first century, she studied cultural studies and media archaeology at University of Arts Berlin before working with Transmediale in 2015.  At present, she is part of the communications department for 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, and in this wide ranging interview discusses some of the intricacies of working in the German capital as well as her first independent exhibition ‘f i n e,’ which ran from April 28 – May 8, 2016.

(f i ne curatorial statement:

To begin with, I wanted to ask you about your broader curatorial interests. What motivates your work and what kind of influences do you think have played the biggest role in shaping your approach?

I like to consider myself a researcher. I think the task of researching is about creating narratives that help me grasp the world that surrounds me. And researching entails both writing and curating. I studied Cultural Studies and Media Archaeology, so although I went to an arts school I come from a very academic background.

What motivates my work is often philosophical thoughts that create poetic images in my mind. While reading I discover new words or notions or poetic images that resonate with my life. I then try to translate this resonance into different contexts, maybe less intellectual ones, in order to see how theory dissolves into life. For me, it’s a lot about making sense, making things understandable, also in order to find a position to present issues/threats. In this sense I would also want to see my activity as politically-informed.

Sarah Johanna Theurer Sculpture

Installation view. Courtesy Hugo Estrela / Vesselroom Project

Rosi Braidotti is a contemporary philosopher, but her writings were not very well known in Germany until recently. But reading her was like an inauguration for me as a research. She brought me to another level of reflection on what I have been taught at University and made it less opaque. Reading her texts was an empowering experience. She argues, that her theory should not be taken as a metaphor but as a tool for critical thought that helps us confront the complexes and context we are living in. See for example this talk she gave at the ICI in 2014

Rosi Braidotti: Thinking as a Nomadic Subject

You’re working at the moment with Vesselroom Project in Berlin, can you tell us something about the space and how you came to be a part of their curatorial team? 

I got involved in 2015 while I was organizing Transmediale Vorspiel. The space is led by my friend Cristina Moreno Garcia who used to rent it as her studio but then, about two years ago, decided to turn it into a gallery-space. Since then she has been working with a team of friends and fellows to program and sustain the space. The latter is always an issue.

In April 2016 I curated the exhibition f i n e, a group show with a sound installation by Adam Asnan and sculpture by visual artist Markues, evolving around Rosi Braidotti’s notion of the nomadic subject.

Sarah Johanna Theurer Sculpture

Installation view. Courtesy Hugo Estrela / Vesselroom Project

How did that particular exhibition came about? What made you decide to work with those artists? 

I knew about Adam’s work for a while and always loved his music and his unpretentious way of practicing it. When he told me he was looking for a space to show his first installation I offered to show it at Vesselroom Project. I kept listening over and over again to the recordings of his piece and sketched out this topic of nomadic subjectivity. We discussed some spatial arrangements for the room but it was all very abstract until I was at another show where I saw Markues work. I understood that these two works had some affinities (especially in the way they engage with ephemeral media and a distorted sense of abstract art).  For me, it’s about making things resonate with their contexts, though it’s true that you usually end up creating this context (more or less out of the blue or out of your own interests).  I wanted to flesh out the idea of the nomadic subject and it made total sense to foster a dialogue between two different artworks, two different artistic intentions.

Adams work is something very self-evident. Although it’s a sculpture, it doesn’t want to be seen really. Humble but very bold at the same time. It is sound – so it takes up all the space but it’s always ephemeral; it’s there but not quite there. The sweeping of two thali-trays layered above one another induce this feeling of being (existing) in a steady flux.

Markues work has similar characteristics, but is made with a very different approach. He reacted in a more concrete way to the topic of the nomadic subject and found this figure of the tightrope dancer – someone who is always in limbo – but dancing. His hand-dyed sheets are droopy textures, permeable room dividers that define a space without defining its actual form. The mattress, usually a place where we relax and are supposed to be ‘in harmony with ourselves’ has these repelling colours as if to say that  your ‘self’ is always in drag, always only a performance of traveling substances in a given frame. But it also has this rich and seductive scent to it; it is inviting, intriguing and you know – just as with the sound – you will never be able to turn away from it, to not sense it. It is overwhelming, but you have your tools at hand: as a nomadic subject you’re always balancing.

Both of them, including the whole team of the gallery, have put a lot of trust in me. I am very grateful for that.

Sarah Johanna Theurer Sculpture

Installation view. Courtesy Hugo Estrela / Vesselroom Project

How do you see a Project Space as different say, from a gallery or studio space? Berlin in particular has a huge collection of different initiatives and institutions, much more so perhaps than many other cities. A Berlin based colleague recently visited me in London for example, and her first question was ‘where are all the project spaces?’

Initiatives like Project Space Festival, which has existed since 2014 give a great overview of the diversity of spaces and their owners’ self-conception. In general one could say Project Spaces are just like galleries but more events-oriented. There are several reasons, like the economic situation of the space itself and the fact that they are mostly run by people who have at least one ‘day’ or ‘money’ job they have to attend to.

Working in informal context is great fun and especially in the cultural sector because people invest a lot of energy into their projects. This is very inspiring. Up to this point where you feel proud of not making a living from what you are doing – as if this renders your projects more radical or different to what others do. It’s as if you cannot and don’t want to a sell because your product is just beyond profane consumption. It strikes me that some people feel like stepping out of the rush of the art market and some people are trying to get into it – both entering and exiting through the Project Space.

There is a huge gap between highly professional and profitable spaces and the “maybe too independent” ones. They are now a very hip thing to have. The photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has one, called Between Bridges, and Gallery Isabella Bortolozzi has one, called Eden Eden. These project spaces intended to be safe spaces for experimentation and collaborative, process oriented work modes rather than producing representable exhibition projects with famous artists. But originally, or maybe it’s better to say for the most part, project spaces are not affiliated to any institution and held alive by hard working individuals that act as facility managers, self-made accounting-experts and self-entitled curators all in one. They are by definition not professional. Very often they have a peculiar curatorial line, not immediately reacting to the movements and discourses of the mainstream art field. These spaces are born out of an interest or a scene-specific topic and they remain until the money is gone, no more public grants can be obtained, or they are kicked out by neighbours complaining about noise pollution.

Sarah Johanna Theurer Sculpture

Installation view. Courtesy Hugo Estrela / Vesselroom Project

With this trend of project spaces and the attention to non-professional or dilettante approaches to work I feel that institutions tend to romanticise the struggles of independence by depriving the project space of the financial risk, thereby repackaging the very idea of self-driven enthusiastic work and selling it back to the people (even their own employees and younger artists). Project spaces thus sometimes have the aura of incubators, start-up temples of neoliberalism. Maybe the project space has already left the art world and dissolved into a commonplace.

What projects do you have on the horizon? Do you have some ideas as to what your next exhibition at Vesselroom Project will involve? 

I am currently working on a workshop-based model of collaborative knowledge production, tackling the advice book (or the self-help book) as a contemporary format. Their pseudo-aspirational poetics provoke this vapid feeling of a ‘keep calm and carry on’ poster. Until now it’s not clear if we are going be able to realize this project and we are still looking for funding. But I definitely want to initiate a reading group in order to take a closer look and find a more ironic than merely critical approach to this mind-set. We want to practice awareness, not this new age awareness, but a critical affiliation (if that even exists). Self-improvement and the ideology of steady growth through self-limitation – again, this is about coping.

By Will Gresson

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