Amy Patton is an artist, filmmaker and editor in Berlin. In 2012, she was an original member of the artist collective ƒƒ along with Mathilde ter Heijne, Jen Ray, Antje Majewski, Delia Gonzalez, Katrin Plavcak, and Juliane Solmsdorf. She left the collective in 2013, after the group’s first public event in Vienna.
Amy: Mathilde, a lot of your work revolves around the idea of building temporary, experimental communities that serve as a kind of model. Some of these groups consist of participants that you choose or invite based on a specific background or characteristics they have in common (gender, for example), but more often they are joined by something apart from their identity, like sewing ability or a shared psychedelic experience. People build communal ties by being themselves while being together, putting their own signature on co-created things and expressing themselves through ritual, art or however they see fit. This approach reminds me of Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea of an “inoperative community,” or a kind of social organization that has less to do with belonging than with not-belonging, autonomy, unity and shared experience.
Mathilde: It Will Be! started with the question as to how we could create a project that involves all of these different individuals, how we could work together on the project, get people involved and give a kind of platform to this plurality—a real mix of backgrounds and ideas. The participants in It Will Be! were refugees, migrants, ex-psychiatric patients, professional artists, fashion designers, personal friends and other participants, but we didn’t have a common, unified “we” in the concrete sense. Everyone was also an individual; it was more like a patchwork … these little pieces came together as a sort of visualization for how community-building could take place. When I think about Nancy and this idea of the inoperative community, I feel like he’s trying to get us out of this prison—if we don’t have gender, and political or religious agendas, then what is community?
Amy: One thing that intrigues me about Nancy, and what reminds me of your work, is his idea of a philosophy that “listens.” There aren’t any static, definitive conclusions; things are kept fluid, stay open. The work is always in the process of becoming… I think a lot of participatory art tends to flatten this aspect under a heavy concept supported by institutions with no real connection or interest in the so-called participants. It’s all about the Artist—everyone else is an afterthought. Here, the people involved seem to have more of a say than they often do in artist-led scenarios, which can feel pretty oppressive.
Mathilde: People have to have their own voice, and it should be taken seriously in the work. It shouldn’t just be one perspective. I think one of the things that attracted me to the idea of working with marginalized people is that they’re bound to be a bit on the outside, and I wanted to use art to transport meaning and give people voices beyond what you might read about in an article or something. I’m not interested in using a fixed form like a magazine interview or a documentary. A documentary always has a kind of agenda—it’s always trying to impose a truth on things. But a project like this is like, “Let’s do this thing together, let’s share.” It just opens up a space for experimentation, and there is generally a lot of enthusiasm. There is a strangeness at first before you know each other, but by getting past that and doing this thing together, you get to know the other person and share their experiences, etc. Of course I am very interested in how these models of collaboration are constructed, and when they can be successful. I would like to develop a structure that ensures this idea of solidarity and community. By working with this material, I’m also trying to find new modes of communication. So the project is also about that.
Amy: I remember how ƒƒ started, some of us hardly knew each other but we met there because we had all been talking about the same thing, and the decision to come together and work as a collective seemed very organic. Obviously the community around It Will Be! and other projects began very differently, with a kind invitation that you extended to various groups. How do you usually approach potential participants or collaborators, how do you work with them, and how do you keep the conversation going afterwards?
Mathilde: In this case it was the Museum für Neue Kunst in Freiburg that wanted to open up the museum by collaborating with other institutions and other groups within Freiburg. The curators were already in touch with local needlework groups. I asked those groups if they were interested in showing in this more public space and making a gigantic, flying carpet together. But I also asked, “Is there something that you would like to communicate? Do you personally want to participate or not?” Of course, there are always some people that just don’t want to do anything. How do you deal with an individual that doesn’t want anything? Mechanisms of creating, participating, creating meaning together—I’m trying to bring that into practice. What structure allows people to come together and feel joy, and work together, but also as individuals? So for me, having done so many projects, I had to think about what kind of roles people could have in this project and how I could sort of activate people or not, and what I need to offer. How can I ask them what I need to offer? The conversation with the participants in It Will Be! was kept very alive after the production of the actual piece, because the “carpet” was meant to become a space for discussion, talks, music, education, and of course for events organized by the participants themselves. I think most participants were quite happy with the result, but of course for some the organization was unclear, and some participants didn’t know their role. So they had to find their role. There was chaos, but chaos is important for finding solutions. It opens up options.
Amy: How do you decide who you would like to work with?
Mathilde: The groups are different with every project. With It Will Be!, as I said before, I was really focused on groups that I felt should be empowered, but it was not a female community. It was more about needlework than being a female; needlework is very much linked to women’s work, but there were men there as well. The Lampedusa group was all male. I was very proud that everyone took the space to say something, and they were very different so I wasn’t pushing any kind of content forward. I was amazed at how many people wanted to be a part of it. One hundred and seventy-eight people, which is quite a lot… The Space Beyond All Illusions was different; the community emerged from the shared rituals around the use of ayahuasca—a hallucinogenic plant that catapults you into another time and space—and the firing of ceramic objects. In that case, I told people that they could participate in this planned ayahuasca ceremony, but I also said that at the same time, we would all participate in the firing of the reconstructed archeological artifacts. The original artifacts date back to 30,000 BC, so they also refer to this other time … a Utopian time. You can project anything onto that pre-historic time; it’s very open. Ayahuasca opens up a time beyond, a time-space continuum that is filled with something. It’s not filled with ideology or rules. We were there for 4 days, and we took ayahuasca, and shared this home or feeling of belonging to a community. The Ayahuasca ceremonies were always in the evening, so during the day we were digging holes, building kilns, thinking about how we can charge these ceramic objects with some energy or treat them as if they were also subjects. Ayahuasca creates a very strong feeling of community. I wanted to extend this feeling of community into making art. People were able to draw or paint on some of the sculptures, and they took part in firing these clay objects. You could say I set out guidelines for the art project in a way, but the people participate and create it. They also change the rules and determine the outcome. I start the project, but at some point it’s out of my hands. Both of these projects were experiments. I don’t even know what I’m doing to be honest… I just started up because I am intrigued by this sense of equality, but I have also been working on this topic of sacrifice, or self-sacrifice. With art, we create together, but we also create this “we”—we define who we are. Art is also very much a transportation of ideology. So if you say art is created with the people, within the people, then it also creates community. Anarchy is not saying, “No, I’m not taking part.” It’s more like, “Let’s pretend we don’t have any rules. What do you want? What do I want?” The more you work, the more spaces you have to negotiate. What do you think?
Amy: I think there’s a permissiveness in art that makes it easier for people to be open and engage in new sorts of social configurations… people are more inclined to enter into experimental scenarios and try different things than they would during a regular business meeting, for example, or standing in line at a department store. Art implies certain unorthodox forms and logics that would be unthinkable elsewhere. Here it is actually expected and encouraged, so why not use it as a space to negotiate new ways of coming together…
Mathilde: Right! The question is, how do you organize society so that community can come out, but without the organization imposed by a boss, and the control mechanism that makes sure that what the boss is saying is actually happening. How you define yourself and whatever living creature comes in, and make a place where everyone can come in with their own abilities, on their own terms. I like art to be between people … moments where people feel at home, feel joy, life, whatever. To be a place where people can bring their faults and good sides, talents and lack of talent. I appreciate it much more than if they are told to do something or paid to do something, or there is some kind of demand placed on them. This model is very different from a community of control and order, and this is exactly the kind of thing that we should find words for. This positive “other” … we have to find experiments, and find models for the production of meaning and behavior. It sounds very vague because the issues are so big, but I think that it is very clear that if you don’t want patriarchal order then you have to find an alternative.
Mathilde: I remember the first ƒƒ exhibition in Vienna, Temporary Autonomous Zone, and how the biggest challenge we found was how to actually “do” this. I mean, how can you produce on equal terms?
Amy: I think the idea behind ƒƒ is to create something of a habitus for people—in our case, female artists—outside of these rules you mentioned before. That was and is the basic premise, so to speak. That everyone in the group is equal. Things can get tricky when the physical work is produced, of course, because the actual decisions manifested are so concrete. One artist’s creative decision can automatically preclude another artist’s idea, and not every single person is always willing to compromise. So then what? It can get complicated. But usually, one or three days later, it all becomes very fluid again and things work themselves out. Art gets made; the exhibition goes up. I think what’s great about ƒƒ—or maybe this is true of collectives in general—is how it really does become about that interface between you and the others, the experience of creating something with people you may not know so well and the feeling that you are both sharing in an experience. You start out with the idea that you want to change something, but actually the experience changes you.
Mathilde: Yes, that’s also what I like about ƒƒ… so why did you decide to leave the group?
Amy: I think after Vienna I was ready to go off and do my own thing. As much as I enjoyed working with ƒƒ and doing the show in Vienna, doing everything as a democracy can be frustrating. There were some personality clashes within the group and some of the discussions became pretty heated, which is I guess is inevitable when several different people are all trying to do the same thing in different ways, and everyone is used to working alone. We all put a lot of work into coordinating everyone, organizing events, getting everyone on the same page… I didn’t really have the headspace for all of it. But it was a good experience, and I got to work with amazing people—really wonderful artists. I loved collaborating with you, for example. Our experience photographing all of those testicles is something I would never have come up with on my own. It was weird and great. I miss the costumes.
Printed in: Performing Change, Mathilde ter Heijne, Published by Sternberg Press in association with Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg