Stephen Nachmanovitch

“There are no dots. What is there is the connection” – Interview with Improvisation Violinist, Educator and Author Stephen Nachmanovitch

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On a sunny friday afternoon I find myself in a lively street in the center part of Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. The Dutch musician Rik Spann and today’s interview partner Stephen Nachmanovitch are at my side. Stephen came here to give one of his popular improvisation workshops. Rik and I are two of the participants. None of us know that area of Berlin so we decide to go to an Italian restaurant just a few steps away; artists need to eat as well.

Between pots and pans, and his workshop, Stephen navigates the path into the arts, explaining, “Noticing that you can say things, that you can do things, that you can play, has an effect on the world. The more you discover and surrender to the fact that the world is interconnected and the senses are all interconnected and that creativity is not just a matter of having an idea where some material object went into your brain and then squeezing it through a pen or a computer but realizing that we are in a state of continuous interaction with the world, that is the pathway into the arts. The arts are the trace. Visible art or the recording of music is the trace of some of the sensory evidence of this awareness that we all have.”

Lucky Lemon – Impression from Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Berlin Workshop

Stephen Nachmanovitch is the living proof of the importance of connections. He is a musician, author, computer artist, and educator who began his career as a psychologist. Therefore, one could suggest that he is a master in connecting all these different dots. For Stephen this thought would be the wrong conclusion, “connecting the dots” is a misguided metaphor because that implies that there are separate dots, that the dots exist. But, there are no dots, what there is, is connection”, he says. And for this reason, there is no final product for him. “There is no output, there is no outcome. I mean yes, there is a book that you can hold which is a material object, but it’s all a process.”

So what is the purpose of the process, if it’s not about the result? Is it maybe to create a balance? He points to the busy waiter who just brought us a Pizza and responds, “Equilibrium is constantly moving. If you think equilibrium is a point then you can say: “Here is the zero point where inflows match outflows.” But he is moving, he is a human body who is in constant motion and if he stopped at any of those points the plates would fall.”

Loose Ends – Impression from the Berlin Workshop

During our talk he pursues this idea: “Every technical field has experiential learning about titrating opposites. You operate a camera and you have light and shadow, a range of apertures and speeds and so on. And all those tradeoffs are built into the physical world and they are built into the mathematics so we need to learn those tradeoffs. Now even a field like accounting is a manifestation of those trade-offs in the physical world. (…) You cannot eliminate these tensions and contradictions, rather we have to participate in them as gracefully as we can. That is where the artistic approach meets the world of business.”

The secret of improvisation is, for Stephen Nachmanovitch, to deal with any information that hits us in a certain moment, at a certain place, and by inclusion in of all our senses. “Improvisation is playing music that is less than five minutes old”, he told us. “I’m improvising a piece of music and I have no template, or pattern, or plan. My body, my mind, the environment, and the people that I’m with are the template, the pattern and the plan. The parts of the pattern have been integrated from all time.”

Musician Frédérique Trunk at the Berlin Workshop

But how do you deal with inevitable contradictions then? “Let’s stipulate that you cannot eliminate tensions and contradictions, rather we have to participate in them as gracefully as we can.”, Stephen says. “People have to know something about the experience of another person. If there is a purpose to art it’s to enable people to understand that you are not going to have 99.9% of the human experience but you can be included in other people’s experience through stories, through films, and through art.”

Coming to the world of business we would like to know what he recommends in order to enable improvisation on a corporate level. He leaves us with three pieces of advice, which probably sound simpler to implement than they actually are, “The first thing is: take a very deep breath and allow yourself some time. And the second thing is to allow people into a physical space that is free where they can talk to each other. And third thing is to allow them space in general so that when they go home. They go home and have their independent lives.“

Read the complete interview here.

Interview: Dirk Dobiéy, Transcription: Benjamin Stromberg, Blog: Dirk Dobiéy, Benjamin Stromberg, Stephanie Barnes
Picture Source: Dirk Dobiéy
Stephen Nachmanovitch’s workshop was organized by Yoga Rebellion Berlin. Thank you!


Michael Spener in Action

Party, Art, and Communication – Violinist Michael Spencer about a slightly different Meaning of Music

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Michael Spencer played for 14 years with the London Symphony Orchestra, before he decided to give up his career as a professional musician and become an education director at the Royal Opera House. In this job, he started to look at how he could give children a better understanding of arts, or the artistic processes. Nowadays, as a coach and consultant, he is basically doing the same thing. The difference being that he shares his experience primarily with adults in organizations and he has created a close connection to Japan and the people living there.

From Party to Crisis

The first seven years as a musician at the London Symphony Orchestra “were great, like a big party. A fantastic experience”, says Michael Spencer while adding simultaneously: “Life in the orchestra was all embracing and it took you away from real life in many ways. But after a while, as one year started to replicate the next, I started to question if this really was the life I wanted. It was always going to be the same with little chance of things changing,” he decided. He realized, that his job made him increasingly dissatisfied.

What goes on offstage is not very nice – the knife in the back thing etc. There was a piece of research produced by the Federation of Entertainment Unions a few years ago, ‘Creating without Conflict’, which involved about 4000 people in the creative industries, and it showed that almost 75% of musicians surveyed reported being bullied at work. Quite a sad comment on what is considered to be a creative organization.” But what could the escape look like, for a musician in one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world?

From Crisis to Art

Just in that moment Spencer was offered the opportunity to work as a music educator. He started first with some independent projects and became an education director at the Royal Opera House. “We started looking at how we could better engage with children and this really meant how to stimulate their curiosity. In brief, we did this by creating a methodology whereby we enabled them to make their own music. But we gave this additional focus by basing it on the musical building blocks which make up a particular piece of music.  In this way, the children had to deal with the same challenges faced by the composer.” Another project shows the challenges that the artists were faced with by working with children: “We set up a project for children with Asperger’s syndrome. Every summer we selected twelve children and worked really intensively with them in a multimedia-based social context. But before we started the project we invited specialists to run a training program for the performers taking part, exploring the realities of autism and how they might adapt their personal practice to this new environment. It was about how to merge together artistic skill with sound educational methodology and good facilitation practice. It’s an incredibly dynamic situation and you have to know how to deal with its parameters.”

From Art to Communication

“For me, the idea of taking the arts into business has suffered from being overly naive.  For example, ‘Oh, let’s bring musicians in. They know about listening and working together!’ There is a ‘Yes’ to this, but there is also a huge ‘No’. It’s an over simplistic approach which somehow trivializes the experience, and wraps it in a cloak of mystery, which is bewildering for people who often have different tastes and levels of knowledge. There is a whole world of difference in what we mean by listening, and how it plays into the bigger picture of communication.

For me, music is really a form of social technology, which helps to promote and sustain interrelationships. When I first started to grapple with this it was on a creativity program for potential leaders. I was working with a range of different business people and I invited them to talk about a piece of music of their choice. It was fascinating to hear how they all talked about their selected piece in the same way: They talked about it emotionally. It’s wonderful to do so, but if you only talk about music from an emotional standpoint it’s difficult for others to empathize in the same way because it stems from your own intimate and personal experiences. Other people will have different feelings.

When you look at music from the perspective of process it adds a new dimension: How do the parts work together? What are the fundamental elements? What is the structure? How do the players maintain an unspoken negotiation? It’s a totally different way of assessing the experience.

Whenever I work with groups we bring out the essence of this by ‘building something’. But in order to do this you have to have a sense of what the materials are with which you are working, and how you can use them to make something compelling.”

On his many stays in Japan, Michael Spencer recognized that arts have the unique property of acting like a lens showing cultural differences. “Why does music exist in the first place? What purpose does it serve in different social groupings? What are the differences and what are the similarities? The history of music is fundamentally that of generating and supporting the identity of independent social and cultural groups.” Therefore, Spencer wants to use music as a catalyst in order to engender curiosity, choices, commitments and social relationships. “And generally speaking, I think there is now, huge potential for the arts where, in the middle of massive technological advance, we can reintroduce the value of creating authentic human to human exchange and genuine connections. Everyone talks about communication technology and how it’s linking us together better. I would dispute that – it’s not. It’s confusing the hell out of people. It has actually been manipulated into a divisive tool which stimulates discord.” That’s why the cultivation and maintenance of good judgement processes lies in the core of Spencer’s work.

Similar to the work as a musician in an orchestra, Spencer’s workshops always end in a performance. But to perform, the people first have to understand the processes which underpin it. “We provide the components and they take the decisions.  Performance is part of the outcome, but of equal importance is the process of creation and rehearsal. This involves many things including risk taking, which brings into play trust and permission. These sit alongside curiosity, making choices, and relationships.

People rarely see the orchestral rehearsal process and that’s where a lot of things happen at many different levels. In performance, once the orchestra starts rolling, the conductor more often than not has to go with them.” (laughing)

Read the full interview here.


Interview: Marija Skobe-Pilley and Dirk Dobiéy,
Transcription:Benjamin Stromberg
Blog: Lucas Heinke
Editing: Stephanie Barnes

Lubnan Baalbaki

Trust is the main point of good leadership – Conductor Lubnan Baalbaki about Learning, Life and Leadership

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“I never thought of doing something else than music”. Truly passionate about music and raised in an artistic environment, Lubnan Baalbaki started by studying violin at the national conservatory of Lebanon, before pursuing musicology studies in Lebanon at the Saint-Esprit Université with the aim to become a conductor.

The opportunity to reach his goal appeared when he travelled to Romania and met Petre Sbârcea, a maestro who would be his first teacher and mentor. “Everyone asked me, ‘Why did you choose Romania?’ and I always answered, ‘I did not choose her, she chose me actually’ […] I don’t know if we can believe in destiny… But I think it was my way to do it. I mean, that was the best way to do it, because he is a fantastic teacher and he had a huge experience in this domain.”

Conscious about his strengths and past achievements, the conductor sees life with humility and considers experiences as learning opportunities. “Different experiences are always richness for any artist.” Although it “sometimes doesn’t have such a direct influence in your life”, it helps to shift and shape perspectives. “It is like you go to the school and you study mathematics and sometimes you ask yourself ‘why am I studying this much mathematics, I will not use it in my whole life!’ but no, you use it: your way of thinking changes.”

Thus, Baalbakis encounters with famous conductors, such as Kurt Masur, have often been an eye-opener as he experienced another way of conducting. “I took a huge lesson in my life seeing Kurt Masur doing absolutely nothing and it sounded like a heaven of music. He just trusted his musicians and he led them in some key points from time to time. But at the same time the music was full of his presence and his knowledge.” Last but not least this experience inspired Baalbaki to make mutual trust a core component of his work with the orchestra. ”I think it is the main point of good leadership: how to make yourself trustworthy and trust the people who are working for you. That is the main thing.” (…) “I trust musicians. I believe that each one of them has his own intuition and his own vision of music. He is a musician and he could have an honest intuition about a sound. That is why I leave them to contribute as well. Many times, I ask the orchestra ‘Please, play your own interpretation, your own feeling’, because I want to see what they have. It is not only me who has ideas. Sometimes I have a kind of an imagination of an idea and they make it a reality for me. This is part of leadership: trusting your group. After all, they are doing the job. If you go there with the confidence that they can do it great, let them do it! Let them try to do it great. Sometimes you just lead the way, but they do it actually. They do the thing.”

Trust is important. And so is accountability. For instance when Baalbaki prepares a piece meticulously and long before he meets the orchestra for the first time.  Baalbaki uses his time to prepare to develop a perspective of the piece or a commitment of the piece. Yet, when the work with orchestra succeeds, his imagination is outperformed by the result.

I believe that there is one true version of what an orchestra with a conductor can play for one piece for example. Working the same symphony, the whole week, there is one true version that will be, and I prefer to keep this for the concert. That is why during the rehearsals I work in a really practical or pragmatic way. Then in the concert, I let them and I let myself serve the music from our different point of view.” Maybe there is no better way to explain a modern leadership style. An attitude that transcends the self to serve a work of art. ” expresses itself. We, musicians, just serve the music. (…) we serve the music and we try to do it as loyal as we can, to be loyal to the composer and to the music, which is written. I believe sometimes a composer writes down things that he couldn’t imagine before. It is also the same thing with a conductor. Sometimes on stage I do things that I could never imagine. It is always a different experience but it is about serving the music as loyal as we can.

Read the full interview with Lubnan Baalbaki here.


Interview: Dirk Dobiéy, Transkription and Blog: Thomas Castéran, Dirk Dobiéy
Picture Source: Lubnan Baalbaki

Verena Wald The Artistic Process (detail)

Age of Artists – Our Year in Retrospective

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For the first time, over ten members of our network have been involved in projects and events in very different contexts this year. Examples are the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), the German Statutory Accident Insurance (DGUV), IT companies Comparex and Incadea, the Association of German Business Engineers (VWI) and the German railway network (Deutsche Bahn).

Our ideas on cultural education were featured in a publication by the Association of Arts and Culture of the German Economy at the Federation of German Industries e.V., while the Werte-Index, an institution mapping how and in which context societal values are discussed on the internet, published an interview with us. Artist Verena Wald has translated our findings from over 100 interviews into a series of etchings. An example is depicted along with this post,  will share more about them next year.

There is now a German version of our website. Additionally, as has been done in previous years, many interviews with artists, researchers and other interesting people have been uploaded to the site during the year.

We were inside the time capsule with musician SAFI and learned about empathy and movement from dancer Lucia Mikas. Wolf Jenschonnek, founder of Berlin’s Fab Lab, also talked to us about movement. He is convinced that one has to leave one’s niche position in order to find great solutions. Artist Sharon Molloy has practical experience in this field. Her colleague Sebastian Heiner taught us how to act out oneself, and graffiti artist Bomber One aka Helge Steinmann how to contribute to the world we live in.

Author Michael Atavar is of the opinion that sub-consciousness is at the root of creativity, and composer Ludger Brümmer thinks that a moment of surprise is always attached to creativity. The latter statement is close the findings of scientific historian Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, whom we interviewed about the nature of the experiment.

For the first time, we talked to artists from China this year. Zhang Wei reported that artists need to express themselves and Dai Chenlian explained to us that art for him provided a reason to live. Researcher and professor for innovation and information technology at the Ivey Business School in Canada Robert D. Austin reported that art can be a reason, but is not unconditional, as artists share the same world with everyone else. A world where an increase in information is not paralleled with an increase in vocabulary according to artist, author and Beuys-Pupil Johannes Stüttgen.

Moreover, we started another research project, in which we met companies that are artistic masterpieces according to our definition, meaning they are characterized by diversity, purpose, autonomy and elasticity. To name but a few, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sonnentor, Otto, Beurer, Vaude and Zotter. In the new year, we will report on how these and many other companies are already paving the way for better business.

Jan Brueghel the Younger Satire on Tulip Mania 2nd quarter of the 17th century

From Ecstasy to Relevance: What Blossoming and Blockchain Have in Common

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Jan Brueghel the Elder, scion to an eminent Flemish dynasty of painters, was doing well in his day. On an equal footing with Peter Paul Rubens – both men used to work conjointly on paintings at times – Flower Brueghel, as he was aptly called, was one of the leading painters at the turn of the 17th century. But why should this be of interest to us? Still lifes, especially from these days, are not precisely at the core of the contemporary interest in art. More so, one encounters them rather by chance, perhaps in a museum having taken a wrong turn on one’s way to the collection of classical modernism. Should this have happened to you, it is conspicuous that tulips were a recurring theme at the time. Here is the reason why:

Jan Philips van Thielen Roses and a Tulip in a Glass Vase

The beginning of the 17th century saw the formation of the first well-documented speculative bubble in the history of mankind. In those days, speculation was not focused on spices, real estate or similar desirables, but indeed tulip bulbs. In the Netherlands, just ten tulip bulbs had a value equivalent to what a family of four needed for half a lifetime. Until the speculative bubble burst in a surprising fashion, as is the common course. Jan Brueghel the Elder did not live to see this happen, but his son did, who, compliant with tradition, carried on his father’s name and profession. Jan Brueghel the Younger became known for his painting Satire on Tulip Mania. By displaying monkeys, a common Renaissance metaphor for human greed and stupidity, the 1640’s artwork was a pointed comment on the tulip crisis.

Vincent van Gogh Flower Beds in Holland

In those days, the art of horticulture was perceived as a decorous and prestigious pastime of the top ten thousand. The tulip, then an exotic and desirable flower from the Far East, was esteemed to be the greatest decorative flower in any garden. The first European growers often knew each other personally. They supported one another, shared their knowledge and traded bulbs, both within countries and across borders. Only as the network grew, the idea of trading tulip bulbs for money was put into practice, but consequently the system became more fragile. The increasing demand for tulips was also fueled by the overcapitalization of vast parts of the population. With the Netherlands being the richest country in Europe at the time, many Dutch people simply had too much money to spend. Paradoxically, bulbs afflicted by a virus (unbeknownst to people) were traded at a particularly high price. Their leaves showed unique patterns, which were considered so chic that at the height of events, the value of one single bulb could increase tenfold in a day. Eventually, tulip bulbs were used as a substitute for money. At the beginning of the 1630’s a townhouse in Amsterdam was dealt for five tulip bulbs, if only it was sufficiently impressive, of course. When the euphoria reached broad sections of society, the hype briefly accelerated once more, until it crashed in the winter of 1636/37 without warning. People lost astounding amounts of money. The discussion about the created debt kept the country on tenterhooks for many years to come.

It is possible to relate this story (which is further discussed in Mike Dash’s Tulipomania) to more recent events associated with cryptocurrency, and to read it as a warning reminder or didactic play. However, this has already been done extensively, and there is more to discover.

Claude Monet Tulip fields in Holland

Astonishingly, the Dutch have not lost their interest in flowers over time, not in the arts or the economy. Tulips remain one of the leading export commodities; fields are filled with flowers as far as the eye can see – a sight world-renowned on account of paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.

Franzconde Tulip fields in Zuidschermer

Another lesson to be learned from this story (but also, for instance, from the early days of the internet) then is, that the initial euphoria requires a turning point, so that something truly substantial can emerge.

Not to be taken literally: Should the pessimists be proved right; our calculation locates the crash of the bitcoin or crypto-hype in February of 2018.

Chances are, the cryptocurrency hype will end abruptly yet temporarily, and the still life, a symbol of transience, will undergo a renaissance in the near future. (Full disclosure in final note form: The author of this text owns both tulip bulbs and still lifes depicting tulips.)



Blog: Dirk Dobiéy
Translation: Vivian Kolster, Stephanie Barnes

Picture Sources: Jan Philips van Thielen – Roses and a Tulip in a Glass Vase, Quelle:
Jan von Brueghel the Younger. – Satire on Tulip Mania. Quelle Wikimedia Commons
Vincent van Gogh – Flower Beds in Holland. Quelle:
Claude Monet – Tulip Fields in Holland. Quelle: Wikimedia Commons
Franzconde – Tulip fields in Zuidschermer, North Holland, The Netherlands. Quelle: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Stüttgen

The increase in information is not paralleled with an increase in vocabulary – interview with artist and author Johannes Stüttgen

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Artist and author Johannes Stüttgen studied at Düsseldorf’s art academy as one of Joseph Beuys star pupils. “It was him who instilled my interest in the concept of art”, admits Stüttgen before elaborating with ease on the decades that have passed since his graduation. “Essentially, you (Age of Artists) are  striving for something similar. You are not searching for single artistic particularities, but a paramount concept of art.” By establishing the extended concept of art – the idea that artistic practice is not exclusive to art itself, but applicable to a range of disciplines – Joseph Beuys and Johannes Stüttgen became pioneers of a movement which refused to understand art solely as a physical artwork. “Nowadays art is usually understood as one artist’s particularity or style, which is always a constricted point of view”, explains Stüttgen. “The artwork of which I am speaking is much more extensive than those single model cases.“ The expanded concept of art comprises not only of artists in the traditional sense, “but all people and all fields of work. It transcends limitations. If we concern ourselves with this concept for a prolonged period, we will find within it the key to question and correct all conventional conditions.”

Anyone who argues in this way cannot shy away from political and economic engagements. In order to actively contribute towards a future-compliant society, Stüttgen converses publicly about the idea of an unconditional basic income with Götz Werner, founder of drugstore DM. Furthermore, Stüttgen is a co-founder of ‘OMNIBUS für direkte Demokratie’ with whom he lobbies for alternatives to current developments concerning the understanding of democracy. “The increase in information in our world is not paralleled with an increase in vocabulary”, diagnoses Stüttgen in want of new concepts and clear terminology e.g. about what makes a company. “Ultimately, a company is an artwork, too, which is why, both its roles in business and the global economy are of interest. I am deliberately choosing to forego the concept of a national economy, as it has expanded to a global economy, in my opinion. At this point, every business needs to ask about its role in the the bigger picture. One’s corporate objective cannot be limited to single products in the market. Today, every corporate objective is accompanied by a parallel process which attempts to locate the company in the broader context of the world. Thus, companies are well advised to create a department responsible only for this process. The underlying idea is that every employee should be able to work in this department, independent of their usual one. Processes also need to happen in certain, rhythmic intervals and embrace opinions and questions that go beyond the horizon of the company.”

Anyone unwilling to hastily group Johannes Stüttgen’s arguments along with past utopias will be prompted to inevitably explore and discover the self. “The question about the archetypal is always a question about the beginning; and the question about the beginning is a condition to be fulfilled if one aims to find out who one is. However, most people will make the mistake and not allow this question. Their career and external, existential worries are bigger than their curiosity and search. Thus, they increasingly devote themselves to the system.“ Stüttgen perceives the 70’s subculture of punk as an example of questioning existing beliefs and socially established goals. “However, if one asks oneself what became of punk, the conclusion is sobering. Punk wasn’t an ongoing movement. Nobody took it seriously, everyone simply went with the flow, and as soon as one entered professional life, the image was shed. Even though a lot of adolescents were transfixed by punk, today they do not question what it meant for them back in the day. If a movement hinders the career, it remains nothing but a fond memory or nostalgia. The adolescent impulses wither away. Instead, they should be understood as instructions of where things are heading. Success is possible, if one stays true to oneself and oneself only. ‘Why should one put a wretched career before the fulfilling search for a deeper meaning or the raison d’être?’ Most people’s reason is pure fear – the fear of looking down their internal abyss – so they take the easy way and choose not to look. Admittedly, searching for a deeper meaning is strenuous, but so is climbing a mountain, and the view in both cases is worth the effort. That is why I perceive my path as the obvious choice and see, in said outlook on life, a contribution to mankind. ”A contribution which Johannes Stüttgen pursues with a certain perspective and method. Metaphorically phrased his perspective boils down to this: “My ideal is the upright gait. Standing up straight, head above water, feet on the ground, heart at the core. It is a cooperation between hand, heart and mind. (…) My stance is clear. I want to stand up straight.” His method is especially characterized by curiosity, “because I long to find out, what another person actually wants and how this compares to my experiences. Essentially, it is a fabrication of relationships; an approach that shows my own work results and patterns, while the other person is influencing my imagination. Every person has an existing, artistic impulse, and I believe this impulse to even be the key to the future of human evolution. Progress lies in human connection, because connection transcends external contexts and frameworks and enables people to recognize their similarities. Although this broadens the concept of interpersonal relationships, it will end in catastrophe, if this recognition remains unnoticed. Communication and mutual cooperation create an artistic and social task.“ Stüttgen claims quick wins are not to be expected from this concept. “Generally, these successes take time and there are detours and step backs along the way. Any artistic process is a kind of experiment in the name of progress.“ But a higher level is in reach with the correct form of appreciation. “A person’s life – from their birth, via childhood, adolescence and adulthood, till death – is a permanent process. If one questions what all of it is leading up to, it is easy to become dissatisfied or distracted. One is at risk of being ruled by external influences, although some factors, such as ageing, can only be disturbed by a limited amount. I perceive all stages of life as artistic processes, because they embody freedom. They are processes of freedom and a biography therefore, becomes a piece of art.“

Read the full interview with Johannes Stüttgen here. (German only).

Dai Chenlian

“Art gave me a Reason to Live”- Interview with Artist Dai Chenlian

Benjamin Stromberg Insights, Interview Leave a Comment

After a one and a half hour drive by car from Beijing’s city centre to the south the many skyscrapers and blocks begin to clear. The end of the city isn’t reached, but instead another micro cosmos which is not part of the everyday life in the Chinese capital: Abandoned, decayed buildings and curious looks mark the way to the artist Dai Chenlian. His studio lays in this remote part of the city where proper administration by the government doesn’t exist anymore. The bald-headed man with the smart smile invites me into his premises and prepares a black tea. “Art gave me a reason to live”, he tells me. “It exists for me to express something. Through art I found my way to live happily.” So, how did he discover his hidden talent? “I think first of all you have to be sensitive and second you have to work hard”, is his answer. His path as an artist already guided him to Germany, where he lived in Dresden for a couple of years. Now he is back in China. Soon he is going to look for a new studio at the other end of the city, around two hours away.

“The artist should not always stay in the rules of safety. The questions should be questioned.” Nevertheless routine is very important for Dai during his work. Creativity and routine are no contradiction to him, but part of the same system: “I always use the powers of nature to change the routines like the elements. Usually I use water or fire. I want the routine to change or to break.” In a way, Dai provokes moments in which he could lose control, in order to gain control again and to create something new out of it: “I think a good artist is an artist who can also control his work. And I think my position is actually like being an editor. I have lots of materials and I have to choose them or to pick them or to combine them, just like an editor.” And how does he know when to publish? “I know it is finished when it can help someone else. If someone else gains something from the project there is a stopping point. And I will set a time for it. Like a pot of water will boil, it will come to its end”, he tells me.

But the end of a work is for Dai just a small mark on a long, maybe infinite journey. “Art always breaks itself and goes to the future, to the supposed next stage. […] And we can imagine what the future looks like and this is always imagined from now. It is the artist’s job do these imaginations and the artist will always stand with the future.” Right here lays for him the biggest difference between art and business: “Business is sometimes satisfied with its situation. The economy should create more ways or systems to overcome the separation of the rich and the poor people. They have to create stable systems if they want to make progress instead of standing at the same point.” Our translator and Dai’s friend, Zhang Heming, completes this perspective at the end of our talk and closes with a well known German artist: “As Beuys said famously, ‘everyone is an artist’. I don’t think that everyone should be an artist but I do think that everyone should be creative in his work. This is my personal dream.“

Interview and Blog-Post: Benjamin Stromberg

Translation: Benjamin Stromberg and Stephanie Barnes

Picture Source: The Artist

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

The Aspect of Activity – Interview with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger

Adina Asbeck Insights, Interview Leave a Comment

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger is a scientific historian. He not only has a humanistic background in sociology, philosophy, and linguistics, but also a life science background in biology and chemistry. Since adolescence, he has been writing poems and essays. From 1997 to 2014, he was director at Berlin’s Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science.

In his research, Rheinberger mostly occupies himself with the nature of the experiment and experimental systems, a term he coined for configurations which contain uncertainty, unpredictability and the state of not knowing, “One has to look at them as places of emergence, as structures that have arisen from the development of the sciences in order to discover the unimaginable. They act like a spider web, in that they need to be able to catch everything, without the knowledge of what it is or where it comes from. Experimental systems are precautions taken for the generation of spontaneous events.” It follows that (true) experiments are firstly, open-ended and secondly, that their findings cannot be anticipated. For Rheinberger, the experiment mostly constitutes of a “moment of activity and a moment of uncertainty (…) When doing experiments, one evidently has to combine different aspects within the process. If, say, a biologist is conducting research, the bio materials need to be treated so that they and the applicable technology productively coalesce. Imagine working in a room, in which the equipment is incomplete, or there are disturbing vibrations to be switched off. The whole process is an ensemble of elements – including the researcher, who one day might be more cheerful than the next. It is an ensemble that is constantly under configuration and re-configuration, but is not systematically assembled as e.g. a car, in which every part is built to fit the next for it to work. Indeed, the process exists because there is no working car!” 

What Rheinberger suggests has little to do with the stringent, linear process that generally comes to mind if one thinks of research. Rather, it is reminiscent of a playground of coincidences or more so, a system to achieve serendipity, with neither provides the end result, nor suggests a defined route. The activity aspect plays an essential role in this, as it integrates experimentation where one seeks to generate new knowledge: It is discernible in the rehearsal of a play, a draft, the trial run of an idea in the form of a sketch or model, the composition of different components or in the orchestration of teamwork. Usually experimenting is teamwork. Even supposing it was not, the work of a single researcher is still collective in that it attempts to disclose the previous findings of the scientific community. The new work is integrated into the debate and at the disposal of everyone from the community who challenges it. At least, that is the ideal, which describes the process at its core – although there may be deviations. Research is conceived as a collective discourse, which in the visual arts possibly features differently – despite the fact that they have brought about the phenomenon of the ‘Workshops’. One simply has to think back to the 17th century and Rubens’s studio. […] Evidently then, it can no longer be a closed-off room, in which the artistic process takes place in isolation.”

If one asks Rheinberger, who pens poems when he is not writing for academic purposes, whether he sees any parallels to art, he acknowledges a lot of similarities: “I think artistic work is a practical way of relating to the world and just as activity driven as the sciences. In both cases, it is about pioneering the unknown: a step closer in exploring a topic, of which one does not yet know much. Therefore, the execution of research and the execution of artistic work are generally comparable activities. One engages oneself in an adventure with an uncertain outcome. […] Both are not to be understood as a teleological process, but rather the rejection of a current state, which leaves much to be desired. Essentially, it is unclear where the journey leads. But there is an understanding, that the journey needs to be made – there is no arbitrariness in that. This is a situation in which both artists and researchers find themselves, although they potentially work with disparate materials and techniques. […] It would be wrong to assume, however, that this type of uncertainty equals flabbiness or generality. On the contrary: I believe that someone, who is willing to engage experimentally with a field of study already has a clear research objective in mind.” 

Creativity, for Rheinberger, means going on an open-ended journey while maintaining a clear intention and negotiating the research outcome in dialogue with the material. He believes that there is no method applicable to this and “that one has to have entered a process of confrontation and been truly involved in it, with all the faculties and capabilities available to the specific person.“ Rheinberger’s ideas discern themselves in his reference to the handling of the material and its resistance, “Within the life sciences ‘not everything goes’. The objective is to find out about material processes, which usually are not evident, and the researcher is more or less bound to the material used. No personal mark is to be left on it. In that way it is similar to art. There may be artists who believe that all art is created from within and that it serves as self-realisation. For me, that was never the interesting part, because I think the key issue is how to access one’s own world. The material used in the creative process, be it paint or canvas, is equally as resistant. The creation originates not within oneself, but the material.” Rheinberger does not perceive a restriction in the resistance of the material, but a challenge. To elaborate, he tells us about his poetic output: “Since the age of eighteen, I have been writing and never stopped, although I have also never made it my profession. The point for me, is not to express my innermost feelings, but to engage with a different material, namely language and words, and these can be very resistant. How they are arranged and what can be created with them are materially contingent processes to me. At their very end, things emerge, which one would not have thought of in the beginning, as they configure and originate only in the concrete handling of the word material.“

Download the full interview as a PDF. (German only)

Interview: Dirk Dobiey, Claudia Helmert
Blogpost: Adina Asbeck
Translation: Vivian Kolster and Stephanie Barnes

Zhang Wei

“Artists need to Express Themselves” – Interview with Photographer Zhang Wei

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In one of the most popular art districts in the East of Beijing, photographer Zhang Wei invites me into his stylish studio in a dark backyard. The neighborhood seems central and lively, even though we are at least two hours from the city centre. Zhang Wei has the view of someone who has seen quite a lot of things in life. He speaks quietly and thoughtfully.

On his walls hang world famous people depicted in perfect photographs. Zhang Wei is a master of illusion, because he has never met any one of these personalities. The celebrities are collages of hundreds of faces of Chinese people that were photographed by Zhang Wei. He says other people’s faces are his way to express himself. He pours us a boiling hot tea. The first sip burns the tongue. “It took a long time. About 15 years ago I truly wanted to find a way to express myself. At the beginning I was just very confused. I tried every method that I could think about. And actually all the methods were just about the method: So I came to the camera to record what I saw, to record what was around me. At first I just focused on myself and on my friends. Then I found out it would be a bigger thing to connect with the society – that is the process. Before that I made all my work just for myself or my friends. After that I just thought time has come to observe the world.”

That connection to society through expressing himself is, for Zhang, the key to his being an artist. To reach this point means hard work: “Before a lot of people actually told me that my work was not good. I felt really sad when they said that. As time passed on I thought it doesn’t matter if someone says something bad about my work. I didn’t care and just wanted to try my best.” This tenaciousness is important for Zhang, but one should not confuse it with trying more of the same: “Not only trying. Being an artist is not just to try things. It is mostly about experience and also to let it happen naturally.” After that he brews a new tea, another type this time.

It is important for Zhang to state his social connection to his fellow man as the core of his art: “I always try to record not just the moments but also the changes because our society keeps on changing all the time. I want to give back my thoughts about this to the people who see the pictures. And hopefully through this they also can connect better to themselves. So I definitely think that I want to help people.” Art is the instrument he chose in order to create such a connection to society. He names communication as the most important requirement: “Communication with each other is the key. What I like are some resident projects where artists from all over the world live together and communicate with each other. And they all say: ‘We are actually the same. All that we try is freedom.’ To give such a spirit also to the rest of the world is a fantastic idea.” He smiles and nods slowly. The time has come to say Goodbye.

Please read the full interview here.

Interview and Blog-Post: Benjamin Stromberg

Translation: Benjamin Stromberg and Stephanie Barnes

Picture Source: The Artist