“Consciously falling silent can both mean to have lost control and to keep control." - Bärbel Praun.
Bärbel Praun (b. 1978 GE) has studied Photography and Media at University of Applied Sciences, Bielefeld. She self-published her book 'this must be the place' in 2015, a personal exploration of land, place and the concept of home; it was exhibited internationally. Currently she develops new work under the theme of the Anthropocene and, more specifically, trash. She invites us to reconsider our relationship to plastic and to accompany her on a journey of understanding and confrontation. For We can stay here while we wait she has made a body of work containing sculpture, photography, writing and video performance under the title 'I have decided to fall silent'.
Bärbel Praun in conversation
E: I’d like to ask: What interested you in joining this residency?
B: Many things! To begin with, the invite from The Independent AIR arrived at the perfect moment: I had just self-published my book 'this must be the place' and had the opportunity to show the work at some galleries and festivals. Having finished a project always initiates a strange intermediate state; all I knew was that I wished for a new challenge.
Our job can be quite lonely sometimes, so I was very much looking forward to develope a new body of work in company of some colleagues, to have common ground for exchange and discussion and of course to have workshops at regular intervals with Adam Jeppesen and Esther Teichmann. Also, it’s not every day that you get the chance to work within a residency for a period of six months and to have the time, space and freedom to focus on reading, writing, walking, photographing.
E: When at the residency in Portugal did you work closely together with your colleagues or did you mainly work alongside each other?
B: Each of us evolved a body of work individually. Although the topics and the approaches we chose were pretty different, we naturally followed each other’s processes. How you deal with the decisions in your process can differ a lot of course. Decisive for me is a balanced mixture I guess; to have ‘my own’ space. To go for walks and to work in solitary is as important as communication and exchange. Additionally, preparing myself for the workshops and presenting my results to everybody helped me a lot.
E: How did you approach the theme?
B: The overall theme of the residency Human Ecology // Images in the Anthropocene was for me probably the most challenging and most fitting part at the same time. Pollution and waste have always been an obsession of mine. When reading about our ecological impact on Earth and thinking of any possible solutions, I feel extremely overwhelmed, angry and speechless by the size, scope and weight of that massive and complex problem.
The philosopher Timothy Morton, whose work explores the intersection of ecological studies, gives this issue a name: hyperobjects. The term has been put forward to explain objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such gigantic entities like climate change, that the risk of abstraction, distance and denial is extremely high.
Given the residency’s theme I quickly decided to focus on the issue about garbage and waste, consumerism and value. It’s a strongly process-based body of work, developed within various media like sculpture, photography, writing and video performance, dealing with my immense urge to act and my anxiety towards stagnation and denial at the same time.
E: Can you elaborate on how your feelings shaped the process?
B: In the beginning I read researches and articles on my chosen topic only, endlessly. I found tons of reports on marine litter, on radioactive pollution, nuclear waste and the problem of its permanent repositories, on space debris and trash left on the moon - to only mention a few aspects. We all know headlines like: “Shoppers worldwide are using approximately 500 billion single-use plastic bags per year”, “The total amount of litter that is dumped into the ocean every year is 9 billion tons, 7 billion tons are plastic items”, “It is now estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. Of that mass, 269 000 tons float on the surface, while some 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer are in the deep sea” or: “Ocean plastic is set to outweigh fish by 2050”.
How do we respond to these overwhelming facts? How would one be able to understand these numbers? How to react? “I can think or compute climate change, but I can’t directly see or touch it”, writes Morton and agrees with Kant about the gap between a phenomenon and a thing. Similarly, my process was strongly shaped by an inner conflict, the willingness to understand and act, and the frustration and numbness I encountered.
E: How was your process making the sculptures?
B: The idea for my Impermanent Sculptures (of Indestructible Objects) came into life quite easily, since the act of walking has always been a working method of mine and you stumble over trash constantly. To react to the garbage I found during my walks I created a frame of rules for me to follow:
- Collect garbage and found objects.
- React as immediately and spontaneously as possible on site.
- Create a sculpture within a limited timeframe.
- Take a photograph, showing a short moment of balance and fragility.
The title refers both to the ephemeral aspect of the sculptures and to the time the garbage takes to decompose.
E: Walking as an artistic process is very interesting. What has inspired you to use this method of working?
B: In general I like to be on the move, and I love walking, hiking and running as a physical exercise. After having lived in Swiss mountains for many years, it became a great tool and method for my work too. It allows me to slow down, to empty and then let wander my mind, to put things into perspective and focus. Walking has formed how I see and perceive landscape a lot.
In one of my video performances I did during the residency I walked for almost an hour at a steep hill, during the hottest time of the day, around a big bush, in endless circles. I wanted the viewer to comprehend the effort I put into my walk, and equally feel my frustration. I enter the setting, walk in circles, and finally leave; nothing happens, there’s no visible outcome.
E: Your video performances aren’t exhibited but you did a live performance on one of the first days?
B: Yes, I did a noisy stroll through the city center of Aarhus with the most ‘beautiful’ piece of the exhibition! The ‘bottle sculpture in a wheelbarrow’ is made of lots of found plastic foil with more than one hundred collected glass and plastic bottles attached. I placed that lovely trash monster in a wheelbarrow, with the bottles partly hanging out of the barrow, scratching the floor and, when walking, producing a constant unpleasant noise.
The reason why I decided to include this sculpture, which is basically only trash, in the exhibition and to combine it with a performance is, that I didn’t want to risk to exclusively present visually attractive, aestheticizing work. The complex matter of environmental pollution, the way we consume and what we choose to value (or not) is a dirty and disturbing one, and so was my working process. So what I tried with the performance was to literally translate the ‘noise’ I am confronting myself with and surrounded by.
E: Do you think sound and noise, can contribute with something special in regards to the Anthropocene as subject?
B: That’s my intention at least. ‘Noise’ has been a crucial keyword for this project from the start – and I strongly believe that an overall noise is needed to not only create awareness but reaction, engagement and change. I want to borrow a line of one of Etel Adnan’s Night poems to explain myself a bit better: “The stillness outside, and a storm within.”
In all these different blocks - the walking, the sculptures, the writings - I am repeatedly trying to show my process of going back and forth from shock and stagnation to action; from feeling helpless and speechless to speaking out loud and deal with it. What I want to achieve is a constant noise, woven in and between each block of work, as uncompromising and persistent as possible. Some, like the ‘bottle sculpture in a wheelbarrow’-performance, obviously produce actual noise, and others may be deadly silent and translate my very personal ‘storm within’.
E: What is the connection between your sculptures and written work?
B: It’s again an attempt of mine to give the unspeakable, invisible and vast matter a space, form and voice. I started noting down words and sentences I associate with the Anthropocene and my feelings when facing it. Repeatedly writing one word like ‘denial’ in tiny letters over and over again on a large, very thin silk paper, kept me busy for weeks.
Handwriting is a physical experience I very much enjoy. There are more than 3 writings than you can see in the exhibition: Apart from ‘noise’, ‘denial’ and ‘I have decided to fall silent’ I used words like ‘waste’, ‘stagnation’ or ‘numbness’ - and hopefully there are more to come in the future. The whole body of work is a lot about the process of making; like the sculptures, the written pieces are a task I’ve given myself, emphasizing and insisting on my need to act, writing the same words in an endless mantra.
E: The sentence on the last written piece presented at the exhibition is the same as the title of the entire body of work: I have decided to fall silent. How did you come up with this and what does it mean to you?
B: 'I have decided to fall silent’ is a personal statement that describes my inner struggles, shows my protest. It’s about the choices we make and the situation we are in, voluntarily or not. When writing the sentence, I stopped long before completing the sheet of paper - it felt wrong to continue. Language is an important tool for communication, orally and in writing. Within language one can apply pressure, control and power. To refuse or deny speaking out loud can imply protest, a shock or trauma. It can become a way of healing and meditation. Consciously falling silent can both mean to have lost control and to keep control.
The exhibition can be seen on Campus Bindslevs Plads, Silkeborg, from the 12th of November to the 2nd of December, 2017.
Emmali Sellner (f. 1992) er kandidatstuderende ved Æstetik og kultur på Aarhus Universitet. Emmali har bidraget til idoart.dk siden 2017.