The making of a DIY Museum
and other archives



Interview with Elisabeth Hampe
Edited by Nicole Bradbury

#archive #museum #DMSUBM #GDR #history #anniversary #material #document #stages #messy #black

                         photo by Hannah Aders
Sasha
You were commissioned to structure and work through the archive of HAU. And you beautifully described it as “a cellar room with a messy carton box containing photos, newspapers, articles and documents, not an organized archive”. That resonates with my feeling about what even fancy organized archive is. It's still messy carton boxes. So you told us that you were there for six weeks, right?

Elisabeth 
Yeah, it was nearly three years ago. There was the celebration of the 30th anniversary of HAU, and they asked me whether I wanted to pre choose and digitalize documents, photos, and videos for a slideshow for this event. The slideshow was supposed to show the history of the theatre and visualize some developments and highlights. There is this external cellar room from HAU which contains a lot of binders and boxes with newspaper articles and photos, evening and program leaflets, festival leaflets, and so on. It starts with the time from when Nele Hertling was directing the Hebbel Theatre, continues with Matthias Lillienthal's directorship and then goes to the current times with Annemie Vanackere. And that's already where it kind of splits because the most recent documents are digital ones, of course. And of course that digital archive has a completely different access than the cellar room. And because you asked how it was to go through the messiness: it’s funny, because in a way it feels more “authentic” if you go through something that's messy and not curated. Because order often comes with an elimination process. From some of the documented shows there are more than 50 printed photos. So no one ever said okay, these are the top top five photos of that performance, but it’s an actual pile of photos that you can go through. And it feels like someone put it there 25 years ago in that binder and I'm the first one to open it. Which is probably not the case, but that's how the messiness feels like, like you could actually discover something or go through “original” material. No one seems to have tried to add another narrative to it so far. But of course, before it even goes into the archive there is a process of pre choice. So who chose to document what. For which performances did you invite a photographer, which artists did you invite to perform in the first place and so on. But no one’s put a lot of effort into curating the archive, let's say. Now I pre chose what might go into the slideshow. There were some big names that hadn't been that big at the time, like Marina Abramovich or Robert Wilson, or even Tilda Swinton.
At the same time, I tried to give a little push to female directors and dance makers, or artists of color, because especially in the earlier years, there were definitely fewer. Even though I wanted to find the “highlights” of the stage history, I wanted to remind of some of the less popular artists as well. Because if you only  select the very big names, you often end up with mainly white male theatre makers.  So I tried to kind of balance that out, without trying to change the history.

Nitsan
I find it interesting that HAU has a distinguished creation in the city and the kind of respective to not create their own curation in their archive is quite a choice. Or not to rethink their own history and relate to it says something about their current situation. Because I think they have something about trying to be very much 'a theater of the now'.


… to go through the messiness: it’s funny, because in a way it feels more “authentic” if you go through something that's messy and not curated <...> No one seems to have tried to add another narrative to it so far



… for me, what might be different to many people from the western part is maybe the feeling that I have already “experienced history”.


Elisabeth
It's true, that's interesting. I think also that practically, there might just be a lack of time and resources. But still I wouldn’t agree that HAU’s program is not relating to their own history. I think there’s an awareness of that, there’s just no beautiful shiny archive. But also the directorship changes every 10 years. So of course there is definitely a decision in prioritising the here and now instead of taking great efforts into documenting and archiving one’s own legacy.

Nitsan
As a person who was born after the fall of the wall with family background in the GDR, do you feel that your GDR background has influenced your way of sorting through materials?

Elisabeth 

I don't know if  it affects the way I sort, but probably very much my relation to history. Because, at least in Germany, for me, what might be different to many people from the western part is maybe the feeling that I have already “experienced history”. Because the reunification  was kind of an historic upheaval, something drastically changed from one system to another. A whole political and economic system was changed and assimilated,  which caused many insecurities of social dynamics, income, values, ethics and so on. I didn't experience it firsthand when the wall came down, since I was born in 1991. But I experienced it through my family, and their friends, and my friends’ families, and through their stories and worries and biographies.  All of this echoed till many years after, because the structure and mindset didn't just disappear overnight. I only grew up in areas that have formerly been GDR, and all the institutions, my kindergarten and school had been former GDR institutions,  most of my teachers and all of my family members had been from the GDR. And of course, that strong echo kind of faded over the years. And yeah, I think up until I was 12 years old, I think I was mostly surrounded by people who had a GDR related biography as well. Because even in Berlin it didn't mix and mingle so much right away. But still, I had all the advantages that a white person growing up in a rich Western society has - that kind of coexisted. Everyone experiences history, as major changes in society and their personal lifes.  And I happen to have that very certain angle and experience of history. But it also developed.  For Caroline Creutzburg’s video installation “wabe[]ost”, we’ve interviewed people with GDR biographies. 
And I realized that so many things that feel personal in my life were actually political, or were part of this historic change. And that I share it with so many others, and we often don’t even know that we do. And coming back to the archive: yes, I think I always go through material with my very biographical influence.  If it’s a German archive, I often realize that most of the material concerns Western Germany, it mostly revolves around white people and centers a male perspective.  And I try to reflect my whiteness as well when I'm working with materials. And, that I don't have this overall neutral view of things.

Nitsan
The term Neutral  is a question, what is neutral?

I try to reflect my whiteness as well when I'm working with materials. And, that I don't have this overall neutral view of things.


Elisabeth 

I know, it's a concept that's connected to whiteness. Being neutral, clear visioned, enlightened, understanding the whole world from a totally unbiased point of view. Which of course doesn’t exist and which is very predominant in institutionalised archives I think.

Sasha

So since you started to speak about the  video installation wabe[]ost that you were working on could we take a perspective of how probably this is your experience of a person who has roots in the GDR? Do you feel that it influenced your perception of these new ethics that are changing through which we are living? Do you feel that it helps you to understand the current changes, and to be more sensitive to them? How did your previous experience influence your current practice regarding  your work in the Deutsches Museum für Schwarze Unterhaltung und Black Music (DMSUBM)? If you can also add your personal experience, I think it also would be interesting if they are different.

Elisabeth 

It's a good question. I haven't thought about it. In my personal life I think I'm a very critical and reflective person, and it might come from my parents always questioning the system they lived in and they continued doing that even after the wall came down. And I think this might be something that I learned from them, that I took on and that made me reflect critically on what's going on around me.
During our research for the museum project DMSUBM, I was very happy when we found some black artists from the GDR. They are way harder to find than the FRG artists, partly because there were fewer, but also because the GDR media material is less accessible. But everyone in the team was interested as well, I must say, it wasn't just me. During our research, we found the German GDR- Schlager singer and music journalist Tina Daute
(one of my favourite songs by her), who's actually from Chemnitz.  I showed her songs to my family, and I was super excited.  But they looked at my screen, and were like, “No, we don’t know her. We didn't listen to Schlager. We listened to Michael Jackson”.  Which is so funny, because I thought I found something that's connected to me and to my family, but they've never heard of her, it was just a projection.

Nitsan 
For me, it sounds beautiful, making a museum and working to create an archive, and still having personal desires within it. I think it's really important to mention.

Sasha

I suppose that is a completely different feeling.  It's kind of a treasure, because it's something that's really hard to find. And you feel like an explorer. So you discovered something, I think it's beautiful. We have this question about the medium of life arts. And I think it could be related to both working in a theater archive, and your work in this pop culture archive. So this is like performance based arts, in which the medium itself refuses this material object that could be documented on, so how was working with that? When you were in the HAU  archive? Did you question yourself? What was it? The point, in general, is that you didn't have a lot of time to conceptualize all these things, and probably didn't have enough resources. But in general, do you think that there is a request from people who even commission this work? To think of how all these mediums are non-material objects? How could they be documented?

Elisabeth  

I think that's an interesting question, because it sets the act of archiving even earlier. With life arts, before you even have something to put into an archive, you already need to ask yourself, “What are we documenting? How are we documenting it?” Because that then becomes history. Which is different to other archives like fine arts or literature. For example an original letter of Goethe, which is definitely in German archives, it's the document, it's the material itself that's in the archive. You can ask yourself if you want to archive it or not and if yes which ways to preserve it and so on. But in the case of life arts, you already have to ask that question before, “What do I want to document so I could archive it?” that's a big difference. And also, of course, that you never have the original. You always have one perspective of what has happened. I guess that the best medium for documentation is still video and photography.
And I think it's especially interesting during the pandemic times now, because there are so many video performances and streams. The second version of DMSUBM for example only existed as video uploads. Of course we’re missing the actual presence and liveness of the event, but it's also interesting what’s happening. Because it makes life art more accessible and durable, it's in this vast archive of the Internet on YouTube. And I think that's interesting how this changes, the accessibility and good documentation of it. Because oftentimes, performances aren't documented at all. And now for the event to happen, to actually have an audience, it needs to be documented, to be filmed.

… in the case of life arts, you already have to ask that question before, “What do I want to document so I could archive it?” <...> you never have the original.


Nitsan

It is almost made for the film. It's reason for it to happen is no longer for live audience, it is for a recording, regardless if someone will ever watch it. I'm wondering, because you spoke about how you got to work with the archive of HAU, but maybe you can tell us about how you got to work on DMSUBM ? How did it come up?

Elisabeth  

It came up in the times of my studies that I developed a more critical or analytical view for popular media and television, and I realized how much representation matters and how many problematic projections there are in Germany. And during my studies, I met Joana Tischkau as a friend, but also as a colleague. And, of course, as a black German choreographer, she had a way more personal experience with that kind of representation, of racism. We started working together, and I’ve been working as her dramaturg from then on. So that was already a topic like popular culture in Germany, and the representation of Black people in Germany. And then she initiated this Flausen residency, where we joined with Anta Helena Recke and Frieder Blume. And that's when we started to do the first research for the museum. First we collected all the black German stars we already knew. Right away we noticed how many there were. A lot of singers are also thought of as US-American, like Snap(“Rhythm is a Dancer”) or Milli Vanilli (“Girl you know it’s true”). But they were produced and lived in Germany. We started to realize the amount of stories and people, and  started researching people we didn't know before. Especially the older ones we had never heard of, singers like Billy Mo, Ramona Wulf or Beauty Milton.



Nitsan
And how did the format of the museum come up? When? Why and where in the process did you decide this needs to be a museum?

Elisabeth  
That’s a good question. When HAU had this Detroit festival, two of us had the chance to go to Detroit for two weeks. Joana and Anta went there, and visited the Motown Museum, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. And it is just so different, how the basic idea and setup of a museum works in the US, or in Detroit, compared to Germany. It is a very accessible and affective way to give education, with life-sized puppets, realistic soundtracks, music and singing songs together during a guided tour. And I think that's when we realized that we wanted to create some kind of museum that works differently from the German state institutions, while citing it still. In Frankfurt and Berlin our museum consisted of two parts. The first one is actually a sort of messy maze with a lot of material, and the second one is this modern art pavillon that only contains a few exhibits in the room that are loaded with this “holy” aura.

First we collected all the black German stars we already knew. Right away we noticed how many there were. A lot of singers are also thought of as US-American, like Snap (“Rhythm is a Dancer”) or Milli Vanilli (“Girl you know it’s true”). But they were produced and lived in Germany.

There were two guides who performed a very communicative, entertaining tour through the museum, which was very much inspired by the Motown Museum. The museum always comes with a life program like talks, performances and concerts. That is one part of the project, in which we actually show the material and get into a dialogue with it and with other artists. Another big part is that we really perform the institution, of course. We really wanted to show that there is no German state museum, actually, neither for black artists nor for popular culture, even though you can easily fill the walls. The performance of our museum shows the lack of that. You know, we have the important guests, speeches and this conventional logo with the German flag colors we’d usually never use, because it's super cringy for all of us. But in that case, we throw it out wherever we can. 


… there is no German state museum, actually, neither for black artists nor for popular culture, even though you can easily fill the walls. The performance of our museum shows the lack of that.

Nitsan
I'm fascinated by this act of inventing museums. I can really see the line between the US, because there is so many private made up museums. I think it's inspiring to just make up a museum and to create something that does not exist, and needs to exist. And to create it as if it's completely institutionalized, even though it's like a pop up.

Sasha
I'm super fascinated, I also agree that it's a great idea. This approach of faking the state initiatives.  I think it's a beautiful way to sabotage and also to question the way they do stuff, because there are all these questions of recognition. They just immediately came up. I'm wondering about your artistic practice, because you're a dramaturg, and you work with choreographers as well. How do you feel that your own artistic practice has been influenced by this experience with different kind of archives? Did your practice change? Did this idea of making an archive, or writing your memoirs take place?

Elisabeth 
I don't know, if it’s in relation to that, but I organized all my documentations and materials neatly. I realized I needed to put an order into it from very early on, because at some point, it's just too annoying to go through it and put in an order afterwards. But I think that maybe also comes from valuing these leaflets, because I saw what happens, what kind of aura they get when they're 30 years old and the paper turns yellow. To actually have this printed out thing that right now is such an ordinary object but will become something that's more than that. And regarding the museum... So it is pop up and at the same time we invest so much work to make it look like a steady institution. The amount of work that goes into setting it up for seven days is huge. So we tried to 
document it the best possible way with video and photography, because the way it's set up now will never be here again. For instance, some artists gave us personal material, like the German Soul and RnB singer Joy Denalane who lent us a jacket of one of her music videos. And we only had that for one exhibition. So, of course, we put a lot of effort into documenting that we actually had it in our museum before we give it back.

Sasha
Do you see the traces of these archives that you worked with? On the stages of these recent years? Do you feel that it's present? This heritage?

… valuing these leaflets, because I saw what happens, what kind of aura they get when they're 30 years old and the paper turns yellow.

Elisabeth 
Well, referring to “wabe[]ost” and the GDR history, I don't think that's very well represented on German stages. There were the two anniversaries in 2019 and 2020 of the fall of the wall and the reunification. Each time there's an anniversary, suddenly, all the art institutions are interested and want to show something with a GDR connection. But for the rest of the year, it's completely irrelevant. Sophiensaele was doing this festival “Das Ost-West-Ding” for which the piece 'wabe[]ost' was produced. All of the artists who were showing their works at the festival were actually dealing with GDR history in very different kinds of ways, with different approaches. And all of them tried to tour those works through Germany, but most theatres in western Germany would just not be interested.
They said it was irrelevant for their audiences, who couldn’t connect to those GDR topics and stories. So in the best case people toured in Berlin, Dresden, and Leipzig and so on. So those theaters whose audiences have a similar history or clear connection to it anyways. That I found interesting, also a bit shocking, still. I think the statement saying a West German audience not being interested in GDR biographies is both problematic and untrue.
And referring to your question to the Deutsche Museum für Schwarze Unterhaltung und Black Music, I think that's the thing that we really wanted to show what’s missing . And even though it’s an art project, we also created a unique archive that just didn’t exist before. But I think, I hope, things are slowly changing on the stages right now.


Nitsan 
I think it is so helpful, how you are at least helping me see those ways of anniversaries as a way of giving representation, but actually to the people that would never get any representations post GDR and also others. And how its kind of a cycle of denial of a certain history that's close to you in a search for another. And I think a lot of trend. Also, at least in Germany, presenting artists of color feels very trendy right now with the Black Lives Matter movement, where it needs to be represented as much if not more than other narratives. But it's just so comfortable, I think, for institutions to ride on trends. Just like anniversaries. That's how it functions


Each time there's an anniversary, suddenly, all the art institutions are interested and want to show something with a GDR connection. But for the rest of the year, it's completely irrelevant.

... the statement saying a West German audience not being interested in GDR biographies is both problematic and untrue.



“Ooops, we missed it the last 20 years or so. So let's jump on it now so we did everything right,” without actually changing the structure behind that.

Elisabeth 
I totally agree. It was also a bit crazy for us with the museum project, which opened the first time in summer when the Black Lives Matter movement just got really huge. Suddenly, there was so much interest from the press and other institutions. It might also be that the idea itself was interesting to them, but sometimes it felt like they just had to connect with this topic now all of a sudden. I think it definitely shows this trend riding, that they realized, “Ooops, we missed it the last 20 years or so. So let's jump on it now so we did everything right,” without actually changing the structure behind that.

Nitsan
To be politically correct or so.

Sasha
How does the work with history help you to face this very moment?

Elisabeth I think it helps me understand. It helps to orientate in the world, and to understand that a lot of things aren't personal things or personal problems, but they grew historically. And there are political and sociological problems and power structures that grew and continued. I think that's really important that I continue learning from working with archives as well. And I think, of course, in regard to the GDR history... Interviewing and speaking to people with similar biographies really helped me to understand. I have so many parallels to people I sometimes never met. I realized how much the aftermath of the German division shaped my personality, and the person that I am in this society and in this world.

                      photo by Dorothea Tuch


… speaking to people with similar biographies really helped me to understand <...> how much the aftermath of the German division shaped my personality...


*photos by Hannah Aders, Dorothea Tuch and Elisabeth Hampe.


© 2021 All rights reserved to Sasha Portyannikova, Nitsan Margaliot and the interviewees.