Ankara Queer Art Program

"Everything is frequency and rhythm, making and perceiving art a bodily experience": Interview with Vera Hofmann


"Everything is frequency and rhythm, making and perceiving art a bodily experience": Interview with Vera Hofmann

Can Akgümüş



12 Moons site-specific installation, films/videos, Schwules Museum, Berlin, DE, 2018-2019


Can Akgümüş: First of all, I would like to begin by thanking everyone who designed and realised Ankara Queer Art Program, and brought us together by removing all boundaries. There are several intersection sets which help us come together to have this fruitful talk. The first of these is being an artist. The other one is working at a managerial level at an art institution along, and actively taking part in the curatorial production processes of that institution. These are rich but exhausting processes on which I also contemplate a lot. Considering all these processes, I would like to start our conversation with the way in which they work together. I guess there must be certain disadvantages as much as advantages.



Vera Hofmann:Thank you so much for inviting me your program and taking time to look into my work.



Can: When I look at your production processes, I see that the origin of your works and the concepts are mostly related to the problems surrounding identities, being privileged in society, and being deprived of these privileges.



Vera: That is an interesting take on my work. In certain areas of my work I indeed grapple with elements of identity construct(ion)s, the concepts behind individuality and group membership. It is essential to understand one's own situatedness and this includes privileges and deprivileges. Yet this is not the direct category of analysis through which I enter into my work. Though, overall I'm interested in examining the complexities of power and its dynamics – as the causes of privilege and its intersections, if you will – and then the personal and collective effects, affects and the agency specific situations may hold for personal and collective empowerment and social justice.



Can: How do you describe the idea of being privileged in today’s world?


Vera: I think we can all agree that privilege should come with a responsibility to use that privilege for the common good, to share power and to be accountable. A hardest issue with privilege is that it can override the law. Anti-discrimination may be enshrined in law, but it is of no use if those who make up the legislature, executive and judiciary are from the privileged group and their privileges remain untouched and they can continue acting from a position of ignorance, supremacy, greed or trauma.



Can: If we were to create a particular title like “the disadvantages of being privileged”, what articles would you put under it? 


Vera: I am not sure in which direction you are thinking with “being deprived of these privileges” and “the disadvantages of being privileged”. Maybe you can explain that a little further? The problem with having privilege is that it can be deliberately abused or simply just not perceived or acknowledged. And when that is pointed out, the defensive reactions can be very harsh. Privilege can come with a distorted view of a situation, a different perception of what is needed and with a lack of empathy. Activism or “wanting to do good in the world” from a position of unprocessed privilege can then consequentially be done poorly, in tokenizing or painful ways that might even stabilize the original privilege. On first notice the privileged have no disadvantage from their privileged position. But all divide has consequences for both sides. Looking through an intersectional lens we understand more of the necessary nuances. Privilege is a great analytical tool but we also have to keep in mind that having access to such tools is also a privilege. As much as I think it is vital for social change that each of us who is (response-)able to do the life-long, hard, sometimes painful work around one’s own material. I hope we find ways of solidarity and communication with each other beyond individualizing the problem too much. In a privileged position we have to work through our mistakes and understand that our feelings of guilt and shame are part of the problem, too. It think some of us are still not fully accepting how massive and intentional hegemonic structures are and how deeply we have internalized them, that we reproduce them constantly. It would be too easy if it were simple.



Can: You point at the Photo Design course you took at Lette-Verein Berlin as the starting point for your artistic processes of production. At first glance, it is possible to say that you effectively use the language of design and photography in all of your works. I also use photography as a medium and the memories awakened by photography turn into forces that motivate me. How was your relationship with art in the early years of your life before undergraduate studies?


Vera: I think I still use some of the early survival and creative strategies in my art: the distant observations at social gatherings turned into my photographic gaze, the creation of forts and safe spaces or the invention of games to play turned into my spacial and collaborative practises, the ongoing fights for justice in school and uni have reached a bigger scope with being on the board of Schwules Museum, etc. I wasn’t good at drawing or painting or performing, I was more into music, playing instruments, singing, all very amateurish. At one point I wanted to become a professional drummer and study music and all that – but instead I ended up with a B.A. in Business Administration. I was DJing Berlins queer nightlife for around 7 years and was organizing “Berlin’s first polysexual party” for 2 years. As a kid and teen I already made cassette tapes with the newest pop and techno releases broadcasted in the radio from the clubs. A good curation or a finished photo series feel similar to a good DJ set to me, maybe that’s where my memories reside. Everything is frequency and rhythm, making and perceiving art a bodily experience. The art education at the public schools I attended was close to zero. Thankfully my mother introduced me to some of the art canon she knew of in my early years which was basic – but until photography school I did not know contemporary art even existed. I still feel I am lacking quite a bit of foundational knowledge and I feel alienated to the art world at times for neither having had enough access to theory nor all those years of classic art school education to blend in or be more productive in a system that I simultaneously despise anyway. I have always liked media devices, computers, machines. I taught myself to code a bit and to design websites and graphic material. I consumed a lot of TV as a kid to flee the narrow-mindedness of 80s and 90s West Germany small town atmosphere. I developed a fascination for furniture design, wanting to become a designer or an inventor. Also I was intrigued by advertisement. I was disgusted and inspired at the same time by its creativity and effects. I even decided to dive into that genre by working full-time in leading international agencies. Four years of my life I spent trying to get behind the mysteries of such a powerful propaganda tool before I burnt out and quit to start photography school.


My mother became a theatre dramaturg late in her life with a social practise for kids, youth and senior citizens. I helped her out a bit by making the website, some posters and documentation from time to time. Back then I didn’t understand the social impact her work had, being trained to perceive everything under a “professional lens” of polished productions. In retrospect I am very grateful for having experienced her force. My parents are/were activists in the environmental and peace movement and from working class and socialist/communist backgrounds. Activism shaped my early years, attending demonstrations before I could even walk. I still have a memory of the smell of milk powder we packed to send to Chernobyl when I was a 7 year-old kid. I dreamt of becoming an activist on a Greenpeace boat, but was physically too vulnerable. My way into art and photography school started when my body had enough of me cheating on my soul in the highly competitive, exploitative, underpaid, useless world of advertisement. I was looking for a creative medium that I could handle without painting, drawing or performing skills which were needed back then for entering art school. I was drawn to documentary photography. I borrowed my dad’s 35mm camera (that was before there were professional digital cameras or smart phones) for making the portfolio and was lucky to get into the program right away. During the studies the magazine market completely broke down, stock photography was introduced, 1 EUR per photograph, and journalists and marketing people took their own photos with digital cameras, leaving documentary and editorial photographers without jobs. Around the same time, In my third semester, when I was 27, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and died 6 months later. In those highly charged times I found my way into artistic production.







Can: I would like to talk briefly about BENTEN CLAY, your collaborative project with the artist Sabine Schründer. This project has a unique structure; it was designed as a global company and then executed many different events, including solo exhibitions, in various European countries. Could you talk us through the process?


Vera: BENTEN CLAY was founded in Dubai as a global corporation with a cross-disciplinary approach. The focus lies on the production of a long-term project titled Age of an End in which the appearance of the now is analyzed, assessing the limitation of natural resources, their implementations, as well as mechanisms of power and volatility inherent to the human pursuit of control. After an exhaustive market analysis, BENTEN CLAYs Communications and Appropriation department concluded that there is no more precise a verbalization of BENTEN CLAY’s policy than those articulated by the world’s leading corporations—like Deutsche Bank and BASF. We are proud to have established key value-franchise-contracts with these top global players, and, confident about a similar successful future we hereby present BENTEN CLAYs corporate ethos. We understand issues in depth. This is why we keep things simple and clear. We are open-minded and embrace change in a globalised world. As we constantly challenge the status quo, we value the differences that make a difference. We recognize innovation’s social value to gain advantage for everyone we work with. Our vision is to make more than money. Building Social Capital. Investment in society and in our own future.


BENTEN CLAY started the production in 2011, the year of the accident in Fukushima. One major body of work revolves around nuclear waste. The name BENTEN CLAY derives from the world’s first nuclear Final Waste Repository plant in Finland, wherein the material Bentonite Clay is crucial— a superhero so to speak when it comes to securing the world from the effects of nuclear waste. BENTEN CLAY investigates various parameters of the entity „final repository“, particularly regarding trust in the Human Factor. Another topic within Age of an End—consequently as an answer to Nuclear Waste— is the examination of alternatives to nuclear energy. To this end BENTEN CLAY did some field research in Iceland. BENTEN CLAYs interest inhabits the tension between seemingly untouched nature and human excess. The department Research & Development conducts studies around the effects of biological parameters on the environment. BENTEN CLAY has been branching out into a fine publishing house, BENTEN CLAY PUBLISHERS, entering the market with special interest products such as an audio book about Europe’s biggest dam project and its ecological consequences and a map with the location of the World’s first Nuclear Waste repository and the stored radioactive substances in it, made with UV ink. BENTEN CLAY was invited to make site-specific work in Finland, Iceland, Portugal, the Netherlands and Greece and present those internationally in different contexts such as exhibitions, events, screenings, talks.



Can: Cure Master was a one-time experimental Masters in Fine Arts programme you have completed between 2014-2016 in Amsterdam. How this project, whose focal point was to be a “healer artist”, benefited you and your production?



Vera: Studying at the Sandberg Institute is really inspiring because of its unique programs and the very special mix of people. Even though some things in this experiment didn’t work for us students I nevertheless feel lucky to have gotten a lot out of it for my personal and artistic development.

I made a body of work that I comprised in the Contemporary Cure Compendium. For me healing became a very tailored approach. Initially, my attempt was more applied, combining alternative medicine with an art practise. But very soon, I skipped that. It felt appropriative and presumptuous towards the healing arts. That was the most healing, empowering aspect of the journey for me: I just created ‘my own’ remedies, scores and protocols– of course acknowledging that nothing is purely ‘one’s own’, there is a tradition behind everything we do and what we do is a constant remix. So what I did was I first self-diagnosed with the Useless Artist Disease and asked people for remedies and initiated a self-help group, then I led group meditations around the political enemy in the geographic location of crisis, I invited artists to one-on-one overnight sessions in a botanic garden where we, for example, did collaborative writing or photography around the future of such an institution, invented a musical instrument with plants or made a doc film on a trip into childhood with the help of a psychotropic plant from the garden and avatars in Second Life, I made protocols around a breakup, for example hacked my heart rate that turned into a DJ Set, I shared a pre-orgastic vision in a dome-filling installation, I gave visitors the master key to an art institution and wrote a personal narrative about my journey into the world of healing after a loss. I chose coaching formats around nutrition rather than commodifying my art for yet another afternoon entertainment. I did nothing, resisted and rested and overproduced and acknowledged my inescapable compliance – it was a full journey. My approach was multifaceted and I spilled over from the themes I had piling up inside of me that suddenly found expression. A decade of research into the world of healing went into it, as well as my stored anger around biopolitics and the medical industrial complex and our incapacities to care.



Can: How would you describe healing when you consider the rapidly changing conditions and the political climate of today’s world?


Vera: The “rapidly changing conditions” are symptoms, to use health care terminology, of late capitalism and don’t come really surprisingly. As long as we don’t attend to the cause, the divide and the suffering will continue, as does the necessity for healing, I guess that’s clear. Processes for social justice, the end of the war against the living and non-living on this planet, the restoration of the ecosystem and the collaboration of human-kind with nature are painfully slow. I see ‘healing’ as an urgent, anti-capitalist and decolonial project. It needs to be done with care in intersectional, authentic, non-appropriative, non-commodified ways. Healing is about making space for making change, listening deeply, attuning, resting, acknowledging, accepting, attending to the wounds, loving, finding pleasure, working through, giving time, growing, planting seeds, detoxing, nurturing, grieving, taking responsibility, committing, reparing, sharing. It’s a marathon, not a sprint as the saying goes. There is no quick fix, no cure, no toggle, as some make us believe. Pure self-optimization denies our interdependence, individualized therapy can reproduce the conditions under which we got hurt in the first place. Healing is a process along multiple generations and it means different things in different contexts and temporalities. My impression is that healing has its own ways and it happens when we are ready which we cannot foresee when that is. We can only provide the conditions through thorough, steady, dedicated work on all the levels of awareness. That includes finding one’s own spirituality, politics and ethics, cultivating (self-)love and self and community care, daring to be vulnerable, learning about the (co-)regulation of the nervous system, to rest and surrender into the interconnectedness of it all. There are some theories how transformation happens, some say through activism and resistance, others through global consciousness shifts, some through things without or beyond human involvement. Why not all of them together?





Can: I would like to ask about one of your latest projects: Year of the Women. Many exhibitions, almost seventy side events, and tours were realised under this broad and inclusive project. In a general sense, what was the starting point for these exhibitions and events, and the underlying motivation?


Vera: The project happened as a site-specific intervention at/into Schwules Museum in Berlin, the world’s largest institution for the preservation, research and presentation of LGBTIQA+ history and culture. I got invited and elected to join the board of executive directors in 2016. In summer 2017 my colleague Birgit Bosold and I simply had enough of the daily sexism around us, in the museum, in the community, in the cultural sector, everywhere. It was especially sad to see that the much invoked "queer family" is equally a place where privilege, authority, resources, speaking rights, and ‘visibility’ are distributed according to the same sexist, racist and classist patterns as in broader society. We made a sobering inventory of the ten years that followed the museum’s decision in 2008 to establish a new strategic orientation. The museum, which had previously been dedicated exclusively to the history and culture of gay cis men, resolved to become a house that would present the whole diverse and sometimes contradictory spectrum of queer positions and perspectives. The decision was not carried out well: of almost 80 exhibitions shown between 2008 and 2017, almost 50% were dedicated to “classically” gay artists, protagonists or themes. 31% tried to move through multiple vantage points within a more diverse “queer” cosmos, only 12% presented genuinely lesbian positions, 8% showed trans* positions and only 2% concentrated on the specific perspectives of BIPoC. Spurred by the recent global wave of women’s uprisings, we decided to dedicate 2018 as the “Year of the Women*” at the Schwules Museum. For an entire year, the program would explore the positions of Women, Lesbians, Inter, Non-Binary, Trans and Agender (WLINTA*). With the title referring, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to the 1975 United Nations’ International Year of the Woman (an important, but inherently limited step towards changing global, gendered power dynamics); our "Year of the Women*" was set up as a long-term intervention into the entire exhibition complex, including events programming, and collection strategies of SMU as well as into the administrative structures. We intended to both openly challenge the hegemonies within the SMU and the LGBTIQA+ community and to celebrate the important cultural heritage and history alongside contemporary works and discourses of WLINTA* as crucial components of the queer "canon". We wanted the nine exhibitions and over 140 events and guided tours that comprised the Year of the Women* to present the diversity of WLINTA* perspectives and pay tribute to the enormous significance of feminist positions in the queer field. We practised forms of radical care and queer-feminist curating.



Can:There was also a film screening programme, namely the 12 MOONS FILM LOUNGE, as part of this project which I am very curious about. Could you tell us a bit about the process?


Vera: Despite taking up the smallest space in the museum, and working with one of the most easily accessible mediums, I intended the “12 Moons Film Lounge” to serve a very specific purpose: providing an ever-present (queer-) feminist/female* voice for every minute of the museum’s opening hours no matter what will happen with the project. The spatial installation, a queered spa-like cruising fantasy, was designed to encourage bodily interaction. Seating areas were arranged to provoke intimacy and proximity, in tension and harmony with the film programs presented. A dense, year-long program of 91 international queer feminist films and video works was organized into twelve themes, changing on every new moon. The positions offered an otherwise quite rare queer-female*-feminist view on current societally relevant themes in ecology, economy and the social. The choice of works aimed at inscribing these positions into the larger societal discourse and supplementing the running exhibitions, contextualizing them, productively disrupting them or even contradicting them while making the broad spectrum of WLINTA* and QTBIPoC positions visible in front of and behind the camera. Some programs were co-curated or taken over by guests and accompagnied by a side event each. I am currently working on a digital archive and a publication on the Year of the Women*.



Art On Demand, action, video documentation, 2013


Can: Lastly, I would like to ask you about one of the current projects named Art on Demand. This is an international platform which was founded by artists, curators, writers, theorists and the audiences, in other words ‘cultural producers’, all of whom are in collaboration.


Vera: I couldn’t start founding the platform yet due to the current situation even though in these times it would be highly useful; but being productive has its time and place and now it feels like I would  exploit a sensitive situation. After my experiences in the museum, I am more determined than ever to find ways of commoning and accessability to art beyond institutionalized restrictions. The spark for the platform stems from a project I was a part of in 2013 in Finland. We were in the residency Arteles again and supposed to make a final show at the end of our stay but also got told that the locals would not come to such shows anymore. Dissecting the reasons for that disconnect, we came up with a “menu” for an “art home delivery service” where the people could call and order art from the menu. We offered intimate encounters and live art productions at the location of the audience’s choice, like a photo session, live concerts, live drawing, etc. I always thought aspects of it could be taken further so last year I came up with a concept and asked a colleague, Dr. Friederike Landau, to think along, in consent with the initial members.



Can: In this context, what could we say about the notion of demand?


Vera: In light of COVID-19, and in the long run, artists and cultural producers will necessarily have to find new modes of artistic production and cooperation. The project seeks to develop, enable and document new approaches to cultural work and new alliance-building across social groups and sectors especially those who might be further marginalized by the loss of counter-cultural spaces. AOD works towards new forms of artistic self-organization and access. With a radical approach to accessibility, the project addresses the systemic crisis of access to art, which includes the partial restriction of access to exhibition spaces, the shortage of funding, the encouragement of toxic competition amongst cultural workers, the favoring of curatorial dominance and the privileging of able-bodied people as audience. AOD advocates to reclaim art as a commons to be made accessible, addressable and experiential to everybody.


We have to all together negotiate the meaning of ‘demand’ – is it a term that we can keep active when we work in a collective way, practising commons? AOD starts with playing with the ambivalence of the term ‘demand’. Seen not only as the economistic expectation to supply requested goods or services in time, but also as the political dimension of demands as requests and articulations of the struggle for liberty, equity and solidarity. Articulating a variety of demands will spur the reclamation of art as public infrastructure, which will not be left to denigrate due to this crisis.



Can: There is of course a production that is materialised as a consequence of this demand. What kind of a trade occurs through this platform?


Vera: To reclaim accessible art as a commons, the project starts off with the following layout and can be refined further as we go. There is the section ‘Actions’: By ‘offering demand’ artists can announce planned artistic actions or interventions of custom-made artistic ‘services’ to be ‘delivered’ to the intimacy of the home or a specific social or local community; artists and curators are inventing new ways of creating encounter and intimacy; by ‘requesting demand’ AOD users or audiences place ‘requests’, and (groups of) artists respond to these requests in creative, collaborative, relationship-building ways. With this playful and participatory approach, AOD reverses the notion of ‘access to the arts’ because it brings art to the people, instead of waiting for its audiences. Of course we need to investigate the role of art itself and its historical ties to the commission. In contrast to classical outreach programs, AOD employs a self-determined approach to not instructor predetermine people’s access to the arts, but encourages makers and recipients of art to constantly negotiate the forms and logistics of ‘demanded’ art. Each AOD action is co-created in a framework of mutuality, trust and proximity despite (social and spatial) distance. In that sense, AOD concentrates primarily on affective encounters, and builds intimacy, friendship-like connections between artists and community participants. In the second part, the ‘Reflections’, each action and demand will be documented and commented online by involved artists and community members as well as by interested writers and theorists. Past and ongoing artistic actions are being embedded in discourses about critical audience studies, political theories of public and private space, affective politics of art-making and other instructive theories and approaches to understand and contextualize AOD actions, which have taken place in specific places with specific communities. This (self-)reflection creates an ecosystem of knowledge around accessibility, including public/private space, success/failure, proximity/distance, intimacy, economy, labor, which will inspire future actions. If anyone reading this finds this inspiring, please get in touch with me.

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