Robert Fleck: When you started to make the film installation Warte Mal! about the prostitution phenomenon on the border between post-communist and western societies, what was really most interesting for you? Was it the phenomenon, the people, or was it the very dense life situation?
Ann-Sofi Sidén: I was emotionally so engaged from the start that I couldn’t leave the subject alone after my first trip to Dubí, and I thought – either I become a social worker or I turn religious. That’s what I thought when I understood how immense this business is – a whole generation of women who could have had regular jobs have no other future. How can we let this happen…? It took a long time for me to get away from this project and to do anything else afterwards.
RF: Initially you were invited to Amsterdam, for an exhibition bringing artists to the Red Light District. And your reaction was: “I will go where this comes from”. And you refused the kind of decorative application of art to a Red Light District, which was the basic idea of the show in Amsterdam. Instead you started to work with a real situation.
AS: It’s good you bring this up because I think it’s very real in Amsterdam, too, but it’s different. This is one of the things I wanted to stress in Warte Mal!, that there are so many different levels of prostitution. It’s a grey zone. When I was developing my first ideas for Midnight Walkers & City Sleepers I found out about this extraordinary performance, Role Exchange, that Marina Abramović did in 1975, where she acted or worked as a prostitute in a window for one day. This was still so poignant that I chose to look elsewhere.
RF: But, for instance, you didn’t go to the Czech Republic thinking that you will make a video installation with different screens. Was the form in your mind at all when you started working?
AS: No, it wasn’t. I knew I had to present something in Amsterdam for Midnight Walkers & City Sleepers in the Red Light District in 1999. They even supplied us with certain contacts. But as you said I choose to go to the Czech Republic on the German border instead. I did my first three interviews there – with a police officer, Kvéta and Vanja – and they were shown in a café window on one of the streets in the Red Light District. Afterwards I wanted to go back to Dubí. I guess I had ideas about collecting more material, so that I could possibly write a script for a film. A social worker in Prague warned me not to get too involved, it’s dangerous she said, as I also later learned. But I returned to the motel over and over again and I spent a lot of time just sitting around in a bar waiting together with the girls. This time is reflected in my diary notes, basically things I could not film. They are now represented as text or captured in snapshots that I took of some of the girls who didn’t want to be interviewed. I think I was very much like you, the audience, as you go through Warte Mal!. If you get into it, you can’t get out of it. So I ended up with tons of material, but it wasn’t until I had the exhibition at the Secession in Vienna 1999/2000 that I started to think about what was really important and how to display it all, to formulate the work for an exhibition context.
RF: When you began to interview people, in fact, you made portraits. And these people had never had a portrait done in their lives – you also see it in the diaries and in the transcription. They were never interviewed about their lives either.
AS: I think even if I would ask someone here tonight, “Can I ask you some questions?” most of you would probably say no. Maybe someone would say yes. You wouldn’t push yourself on to anyone. Anyhow, the Motel Hubert in Dubí became my base, they accepted me and my translator. Vanja was still working there then and she had impact because she was in demand, and so after my interview with her she asked Petra who asked Eva and so on. I was in this situation where I had a lot of time, and I returned many times. Then afterwards, I asked them if they wanted to see their tapes. Many of them just said: “Oh, give me the party tape, that’s all I want to see.” Kvéta, on the other hand, she wanted to see her interview and broke out crying watching herself. It was really hard to witness how she encountered her own words, her life. She was very special, because she had taken a step to get out of prostitution. Many of the other girls were still deeply in it. Sometimes they gave me an hour of their time just before they began working in the afternoon, selling their bodies. They lived in it without real distance, I think. Denial is a form of survival and what it comes with is what makes you go on.
RF: I was very impressed to see the piece again. I had the opportunity to see it, three years ago, in the Hayward Gallery in London and today, coming here to Cologne by train, I was reading your diary in the catalogue. Reading this diary, these dense sentences, I was hit and moved by many things, for example that the situation of some of the people you lived with in the motel in Dubí was kind of helpless. Then going through the installation again in the Kölnischer Kunstverein, I had the sense that there’s so much more to grasp in the videos. If you read the work as literature, you really have the feeling that it’s a hopeless situation for these people. But if you are experiencing the work you have the impression of seeing life, in a way. And it’s much richer than anything you can read. For me it’s the power of visual art in a way. In fact, you made portraits of people as a genre, too. I had the feeling that if we look at it as a traditional genre, it’s kind of a group portrait. A parallel to what we did in painting 150 years ago.
AS: Reading an interview is one thing but ‘meeting’ the person’s face and voice, the body gestures is different. Add to that all the other details such as the milieu, the ambient sound etc. There is a difference between fiction and plain reporting. For instance it would be completely different to read an interview with a character in a Dostoyevsky novel than to read about the same person in the words of Dostoyevsky. Maybe we would not even recognize him or her.
Talking about portraiture, I saw an August Sander show recently, brilliant photography. Alfred Döblin said about Sanders work: ” Entire stories could be told about these photographs, they are asking for it, they are raw material for writers, material that is more stimulating and productive than many a news report… Those who know how to look will learn from these powerful photographs, and will learn more quickly than they could from lectures or theories…”
The background to how I ended up working in the Czech Republic may be of interest here. I lived and studied in West Berlin for two years just before the Wall came down. I left Europe for the US where I had my base for eight years, and during that period I felt I was not really in contact with what was going on in terms of the East-West reunification. Then I was invited to this show in Amsterdam, in the sex district, to work out a piece within that community. But my mind was elsewhere. One trigger point for Warte Mal! actually came from a friend of mine, a musician on tour, who travelled along E55. He described to me how girls stood in the middle of nowhere in the forest, appearing suddenly in the traffic like birds or animals. An image I never got out of my head. I went to the Czech-German border to see for myself. When I returned to Berlin in 2001, I felt that Warte Mal! draws a direct connection with Germany’s history after the Second World War, a defeated system where everything was completely demolished and ganz kaputt; a place where opportunism flourished.
RF: Several of your pieces change a great deal according to the context. Like, for instance, you showed Warte Mal! in Vienna, in Paris, in London and now in Cologne. What is it like showing such a piece again but in a different space?
AS: I think the main installation is similar to the way it looked in Vienna, with some small adjustments. What I tried to do with this piece was to give the viewer a connection to the people that I met and their place in the world, a connection as close and as intimate as I had. I think I treated the installation very much like I’m editing video or film.
First I introduce two older people: Miluse, a mother of five children who is in her fifties. She was once a union representative at a coalmine – a Mutter Courage. And then next to her is an interview with her boyfriend, an East German worker whom she met while working as a prostitute. This is where the plot hits metaphor and everything starts to move. As a counterpart to them is the image of a man and a woman, clearing a piece of land, moving heavy logs around in the forest. Playing in the foreground is their pit-bull type dog. The next room the visitor encounters is a party taking place in a bar. Me and my translator are partying with the girls and a client into the early morning. And then the crescendo: the main room shows the mountain village of Dubí where every bakery, butcher’s or other storefront has been turned into a bordello or glass-souvenir store. There are two large video projections on opposing walls here. One depicts the anonymous girls lining the roads day and night, the other shows my private diary notes and snapshots. The space in between these two projections forms a ‘street,’ where along each side are three Plexiglas booths that together house six interviews. You will recognize some of the faces from the party room. All the people portrayed here are interrelated, telling the story of how they got into the business in Dubi, more or less involuntarily. The Motel owner, a former hotel waiter, describes one girl as stupid because she doesn’t leave her pimp, and another woman describes the same girl as too scared of her pimp to leave him, telling us about how the girl’s head was banged into a faucet. The longer you listen the more multi-faceted layers there are to discover. For instance, the legendary pimp Petko, who is described by the police as a man with very long fingers… “and say no more.” He arrived in Dubí supported by his own mom, began with two empty hands and ended up with more prostitutes than any other pimp and became very rich. Later Vanja, who also worked for him, describes how a helicopter hovered over a backyard bordello with infrared detectors tracking the grave of one of the girls, who the pimp had simply forgotten in the basement.
Here in Cologne, I have added a video piece which is projected in the window, seen only from outside at night. Prozim! Tschechischen Blumen! shows an afternoon with Eva, by a lake in the Czech mountains. A tall blond girl in a swimsuit is casually picking flowers walking up and down a hill, ignoring boys calling for her attention, and in the end reaching over to me unexpectedly with a huge bouquet of flowers.
RF: You told me that in Paris, for instance, as people seem to have a special relationship to cinema the audience saw your work as a cinematic piece. When we had a discussion in London, it was very clear that many people on the panel reflected on Warte Mal! as social workers would see things. And if I remember rightly, in Vienna, some people understood the piece as fiction, because they thought the phenomenon did not exist. Now it’s being shown for the first time in Germany and it’s interesting to see that many of the men, passing through Dubí, are in fact Germans. So, for the first time, the piece is kind of coming back. Another aspect, which is very interesting for me, is that you invested an enormous amount of time to make it. You went there several times and you virtually lived with the people.
AS: Yes, I returned over and over again over a period of one year. You can see that in the road projection video where you see the girls in the summer, in the spring, in the winter, in the autumn, dressed in the same short skirts the whole year round. Like a long road movie, the girls are connecting the roads between the East and the West in all seasons. In fact, each time I returned and my interaction with these people increased, the more complicated the whole issue got for me. You witness the kind of symbiotic relationships that are exploited in this business, and it gets harder and harder to judge anything or to have a clear opinion of what’s right and wrong.
RF: Being there for such a long time, in fact, stresses different aspects. The first is that you really entered into the life of the people, which is a very interesting point of view. Your work is completely different from a journalist’s, or even from somebody passing by and writing something, or taking some shots or photographs. Another part is that you managed to create very different time layers in the piece. You have a kind of biographical time when you are together with people. Then there is event time, people having a party, and that’s like the same rhythm as life. And finally it contains the time when people reflect about their lives in the interviews.
AS: For instance I asked the people the same questions, but I got very different answers. I tried to highlight the cross-references between all of them as I was editing and later working out the architecture when installing the piece. Dramaturgically the piece is still a maze. If you hear a friend of yours telling a story about what happened somewhere at some point with some people that you both know, it’s not until you meet another person who tells his or her angle on the very same thing, that you fully grasp the whole.
RF: In fact, you’re using a very simple format, which is a series of projected films. Nevertheless, a piece like this can do much more than cinema, because in the same film, you have very different moods of experience of time and of different characters. Your way of telling a story, perhaps it’s not even telling a story, is more complex, it works from very different points of view.
AS: There are four types of videos in Warte Mal!. The straightforward static-head-shot interview, the second is the road movie anonymously filmed from the car window. The third is the counterpart; my private diary notes scrolling down interrupted by still photographs. The fourth type is the late night party, filmed in cinéma vérité style by everybody who was there. The exhibition architecture reflect the claustrophobic motels and bars where the girls work and the open spaces, the rural landscape I encountered in between. Classic one-channel cinema is a very particular thing. If it is a documentary it has a given length and a slot on TV, and, of course, certain peaks of interest. You move the story forward from different perspectives, but nevertheless, you can’t really choose what to listen to in a particular moment; it’s all edited for you. In a film installation such as Warte Mal! there are jump cuts to each interview, but you, as the viewer, can say, “I want to listen more to this girl”, or “I want to hear more of what the police have to say”. How can you describe a motel owner? Is he a grey zone pimp, or is he just a motel owner? And what role does his wife play as bartender? It’s like moving around in an open and accessible archive.
I discovered Fassbinder’s films in the early eighties and I have watched a couple of his works over and over again. I think that Fassbinder reflects Germany’s post-war situation in an excellent way, especially in his film The Marriage of Maria Braun. It could be described as a point of departure where Germany was taking the same bitter medicine as the East is doing now fifty years later. The way they have to rebuild their identity, if you think about the decay and the opportunism that’s been going on in the East for the last ten years. Fassbinder also had a certain quality of showing a lot of different angles, especially in Lola, portraying the life in a small German town that is brought back out of the rubble.
RF: I think that simply the whole situation here at the Kölnischer Kunstverein is very typical of today’s relationship between visual art and cinema. The art exhibition deals with film as a medium, and at the same time, opposite the gallery spaces here at the Kunstverein in Cologne there is a real cinema which is empty. And, in fact, the exhibition room has been transformed into a kind of new cinema. I think that’s very symbolic of what’s going on now between visual art and cinema. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière has written several very interesting things about this relationship. Since artists are working with film and video projections, they are kind of realizing the utopia or the potentiality of cinema, which cinema has never managed to bring about in fact, because it has stayed in the theatre. Artists are putting cinema in the art space, and as there are different screens in a space, you have to walk around it. It also completely changes the time structure of cinema, as you are not obliged to see everything. Also in your piece, it’s not necessary to see everything. The viewer gets a very different relationship to narration or to the language, which order the story is told in. Would your relationship to cinema be like this, too?
AS: Warte Mal! contains a lot of material, but it’s good if you get the feeling that you are missing something… just like in life. When you have turned your head to the right, something is happening to the left. It makes you want more. When I was in my late teens I had no TV and I refused even to go and see cinema. It confused me. I thought it was a waste of time, and it was better to experience life for yourself, which I did through long and exhausting hitchhikes through Europe. The very first films I remember watching with some analytic distance were Marie-Louise Ekman’s and Wim Wenders’ films in the early 1980s. Ultimately everything can be pinned down to plain storytelling, which is good when it has found its right medium, whether through fiction, a dinner conversation, a news story or through a slideshow. My first real encounter with the power of photography was when I saw the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt’s slide show American Pictures in the early 1980s. His voice along with his snapshots; a mesmerizing three-hour slide show passing through the extremes of black and white America in the 1970s.
RF: Warte Mal! is one of your pieces where you work with different screens, and the story moves from one screen to another. I see a relationship, for instance, to the piece you made for Manifesta 2 in Luxembourg in 1998, which was called Who Told the Chambermaid? and then shown at the Venice Biennale in 1999. The monitors were on a shelf with all the laundry from the hotel, and the image was moving from one monitor to the other. It’s kind of similar to Warte Mal!, because you’re also staying in a hotel while making the films. Also here you work with different views and perspectives, like a police surveillance camera.
AS: Who Told the Chambermaid? is silent and as a viewer you have an overview immediately while standing in front of the piece, which is not the case with Warte Mal! which you have to physically enter. However, the more time you spend with either of the two pieces the more connections and small stories you are able to make out… But people in the hotel in Who Told The Chambermaid? would actually move through the monitors synched as if it were a live feed – you see them in one room and on one monitor, then they walk into a corridor that is shown on another monitor, then they disappear and show up 20 minutes later in an elevator or in the restaurant. within the limited architecture of the hotel. But in Warte Mal! they move within the constructed architecture of a whole town.
RF: When you showed Who Told the Chambermaid? at Manifesta, we had an interesting experience when giving a guided tour to a collector. When we entered your room, she said, “Oh, I find this wonderful. It’s kind of a new development of video art.” And she was reminded of the artist Vito Acconci. Do you have a strong relationship to video art especially, or does your interest come more from the film tradition?
AS: Quite early on I saw Chantal Akerman’s films and they had a very strong effect on me. When you just sit down and you zone out, contemplating, almost like watching a Rothko painting. It’s sort of ‘to be there’. But apart from Vito Acconci I would like to mention Bruce Nauman’s existential, interactive corridors and the more theatrical work, where he himself appears in various strenuous situations, often repeating an action over and over again. Almost as if he were in a duel with the camera he is using to make the work.
RF: This piece, Warte Mal!, is maybe the most documentary of your pieces. Are there other pieces where you focus as much interest on social phenomena?
AS: I recently realized that one of my early performances was about human trafficking. In 1988, a friend of mine sent me a letter including a small clip from a Swedish newspaper, with an article about a Swedish farmer who had tied up his Thai woman naked, in the stables next to his cows with a chain around her neck. I guess he married her in Thailand and they came to Sweden and lived in the backwoods somewhere and he had this farm that became her prison. When he got tired of her, when she didn’t act Swedish in the best way, or whatever happened, I don’t know, he tied her up. I did a performance based on that, my first solo show in Gothenburg. I had a naked woman (Lotta Antonsson) who was lying on a sheet of plywood in a window. At first she was covered, and then I uncovered her and drew a contour around her. As she was still lying there I cut the drawn contour with a jigsaw. Then I had a person selling this cut-out silhouette of a woman to the audience who were standing on the street outside the gallery. The title was: Art in 3 steps and Greetings to the Swedish Farmers and their Asian Women.
RF: It’s important not to think of you as of a social artist, or an ethnographic artist. I always had the feeling that you’re more a kind of sculptor. For instance, the installation called It’s by Confining One’s Neighbor that One is Convinced of One’s own Sanity (1995) that you showed in 1997 at the Saaremaa Biennale can be described as a fictional room belonging to somebody who has gone crazy. It is also evident that you’re very interested in psychology. Most of the pieces are linked to a certain mood or a situation near to foolishness. It’s just on the border of somebody losing his mind. I had the feeling that these people you meet in Czech Republic, that they are also in a very extreme situation where one could go crazy, and some of them are alcoholics or drug addicts and they all get beyond the limits of psychic health. So for me this is the real subject of the piece – one part of society where people are pushed to the last stage of resistance – just before the point of no return.
AS: Surviving through denial. Vanja, one of the girls in the motel says, “You have to have a very strong psyche to do this job. Many, many girls,” she says, “go under.” Vanja herself started when she was 15. It’s like an emergency situation, turning ‘normal’ in some way. The worst part of it is that it is a systematic mechanism, and the society is actually using the situation at the border to stabilize the economy in the region.
RF: Almost none of the people you meet are from the region around Dubí. They’re all from elsewhere. Some of them came by their own decision and networks of prostitution brought others in. They were actually captured and sold. Did you think about migration while you were working on Warte Mal!?
AS: Yes, trafficking in women is such an enormous business that it’s hard to really comprehend. It spreads through the police, through the politicians, through all parts of society, and everybody is trying to keep it going. Of course, they are also trying to make it legal now in the Czech Republic. Maybe they have already introduced new laws on trafficking. But most people don’t really want to talk about it for what it is. A tragedy.
RF: When you showed Warte Mal! in Vienna, a city that is situated in the geographical area where this trafficking and prostitution is taking place, you showed what migration is today. Because, in the area between Austria and the Czech Republic, you find all this flux of people, everywhere. But people were not at all aware of this in Vienna, no?
AS: I guess they are to some extent, and historically there has always been a transaction between the two countries and some of these girls have also worked in Vienna. But it’s true if you don’t cross the border and go into the East European countries you won’t see it as blatant and naked as it is there, I think.
RF: Living in Berlin is also a kind of foreigner situation for you. It’s a very different culture from the culture where you come from, and a very different history also. Are there other pieces where you work, for instance, with German society, history or your experience from there?
AS: I did a piece in Nordhorn (Neugnadenfeld), a surveillance piece, in a small village, that used to be a working camp for political prisoners during the Second World War. The piece I made was triggered by the remains of the concrete foundation that once supported the camp’s watchtower. I had a 25-metre-high construction built next to the ruined foundation and a circle of 16 surveillance cameras surveying the whole area was installed at the top of the construction. Nordhorn is in West Germany near the border with Holland, a very flat region, where they used to take turf out of the ground. In the centre of the village ca. 300 meters from my surveillance tower I built a concrete bunker in the shape of a cupola and covered it with turf. Half of it is above ground and the other half beneath. Inside is a circle of 16 monitors where you could see a 360 degree panorama of the flat landscape and the rooftops of the village. There are also 16 cameras mounted inside the cupola surrounding and watching the visitor inside the bunker. When the image switches the visitor sees only himself trying to watch the view. The night before the opening, someone in the village had cut the cables between the tower and cupola.
RF: It is interesting that artists nowadays can confront such subjects and processes as you describe. It’s not social art, but some of this very important ‘archaeology’ is only being done by artists today. Going to the Czech Republic and also working in Nordhorn, it’s always a kind of archaeology. In Nordhorn, you bring up historical facts which are actually hidden, covered by normality, today. I have also noted that you talk about metaphors. The horse, for instance. This piece Poshlust! now being shown in Berlin is for you a kind of metaphor. One of the strengths of Warte Mal! is also that there is a metaphor, but it’s a kind of a real metaphor – as Baudelaire says an ‘allégorie réelle’. It’s about a specific layer between metaphor and reality, where reality is changing into metaphor and vice versa.
AS: When sexuality becomes commercial, the poles separating man and woman are extremely clear. So, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in Warte Mal! that not only has to do with migration or with its political aspect.
RF: In your piece, there are many aspects of power. Especially if you look through the whole range of films, you start to understand how people live in power structures. How violence, but also power, in a different way is inflicted on the people who all exist on different levels – those from Rumania are on a different level from the Czech people and the Russians, and so on.
AS: The impact of power is similar in Who Told the Chambermaid? – the hotel guests, the porter, the kitchen, and the cleaning maid – you can see the power structure very clearly in that piece, too. A hotel is also a very theatrical phenomenon, I think, because it’s supposed to offer a certain look to the people who pay to stay there. The decoration of the lobby, the rooms etc. A kind of theatricality comes with prostitution as well.
RF: You have the impression that a chambermaid has built an enormous video installation in order to observe everybody. In this hotel piece, did you work with real people, such as that people who stayed in the hotel were filmed, but they knew it?
AS: To some extent, but most of it was staged with external help. I asked a group of businessmen, for example, to have a party in one of the rooms. I asked a couple to go in and have sex in one of the rooms. Or I asked an actor to sleep in his room, and a mother and a son to have coffee, some drug dealers to count their money, etc.
RF: In fact, what is so different in this piece, Who Told the Chambermaid?, is that there’s one element which is really artificial – it’s really art – and this is when the camera passes over the scene everybody knows from Marcel Duchamp, a man playing chess with a naked woman. So, one element of fiction, of art, is passing by.
AS: Which maybe makes the other things look more real, by the way.
RF: The impression one had with the Who Told the Chambermaid? piece was that it was complete fiction, like total abstraction. In Warte Mal! you have the impression that it’s reality. Why did you use such an artistic element in the chambermaid piece and not in Warte Mal!?
AS: I always wondered about that piece by Duchamp, what motivated it, so I wanted to stage it to see what happened. The hotel owner, who I put in that position playing chess with this young woman, told me it was very hard for him to concentrate and play the game.
RF: Talking about staging, I think the open, partly transparent video boxes in Warte Mal! work like small theatres. They create a strong relationship between the reality and the exhibition structure and you have a completely different view of the boxes if you recognise this relationship.
AS: The idea of the Plexiglas video booths comes from a line in an interview with Honza, the motel owner. He told me about a pimp, Petko who in the middle of nowhere built small wooden houses along the road, like shacks, in order to show women inside these Plexiglas vitrines. In my piece I wanted to create the feeling of moving along these roads and passing by the transparent shacks. The exhibition structure works as an architectural supplement creating a space inspired by a road or a village, and the video box is of course aestheticized within a museum context.
RF: Are you still in contact with people there? How is your relationship?
AS: I have returned several times and I also spent New Year’s Eve in Dubí in 2000. I have also exchanged letters with Eva. In the summer of 2001 we spent a few days together, which turned into the film where she is picking flowers. Then I met the motel owner who is retired now. Nowadays, he has a ‘clean’ hotel in the mountains with no prostitutes in sight, hosting German families on vacation. But he is subletting the hotel down by the E55 to new owners. There are more girls there now than ever before, it’s still evolving, and it’s endless. I don’t know how many bars Eva has been working in since I was there.
Edited transcript of a conversation that took place when Warte Mal! was being exhibited at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Cologne.