Interview with Larissa Fassler
Over the last fifteen years, Larissa Fassler's practice has taken her to contested sites across the Western world. In 2014, the Berlin-based, Canadian-born artist spent three months surveying Paris' Gare du Nord. Her scrutiny there culminated in large-scale paintings documenting her observations – ranging from infrastructure, to the actions of passing travelers and vagrants, to counting her own footsteps. In 2015, she turned her gaze to Taksim Square, where she recorded the daily goings-on of one of Istanbul's largest public spaces. The square's history of protest paired with Fassler's observations of the mundane creates a deep underlying tension within the work. In 2017, she applied her observational methodology to New York's Columbus Circle. Yet, for an artist like Fassler, the call of Berlin – with its layered history of control and freedom, division and reunification, wealth and poverty, native and foreign – is inescapable. Here, she has observed and documented Kottbusser Tor, Alexanderplatz, Schlossplatz, and Palast der Republik.
For the Berlin Art Prize nominee exhibition at SMAC, Fassler presents three large-scale works examining a contested hotspot of gentrification in Berlin: Moritzplatz. The area carries within its streets, landmarks, and buildings an exceptional history marked by trauma. This includes the historic devastation caused by bombings during the Second World War and division by the Berlin Wall. Today, the forces impacting the area are of a different sort: Although it is has traditionally been a worker's quarter, due to the area's proximity to some of Berlin's hippest locales, the pressure of skyrocketing rents, Airbnb rentals, and the purchase of large tracts of land by investors burden the area like almost no other neighborhood in Berlin.
Interview: Alicia Reuter
SMAC: The show takes its title from the most recent work in the exhibition, Forms of Brutality, can you say a bit more the title and the work?
Larissa Fassler: Forms of Brutality links to issues of poverty, gentrification, and the disparity of wealth. I was thinking about the brutality of poverty, especially when it sits beside wealth and luxury. In the context of Berlin, it can get even more complicated and entangled, for example, when new building sites sit on top of former Wall sites. I find it important to recognize Berlin as a site of trauma and pain – there are generations and generations of Berliners that have experienced trauma. In particular, I was thinking of the idea of transgenerational trauma. In Canada, the term is often used to speak about the genocide of its Indigenous Peoples and the resulting trauma that has been transferred to subsequent generations. The concept is often used in a Jewish context as well. In Berlin, I think one can also think of transgenerational trauma within a perpetrator context. Not even just Second World War victims and perpetrators, but then into the period of the Wall, Stasi, and East Germany and through the Cold War. Each of these eras adds layers of new trauma.
The Wall caused immense physical holes in the landscape, creating barren swaths of land – new economy luxury homes, that weren't even designed to be homes but instead were designed to add to market value, are being built on top of that trauma. So, for me, "forms of brutality" is an idea that deals with the current state of the city today – the exacerbated poverty, but also the active building, these new homes on top of trauma that is in the landscape physically.
What do you mean by perpetrator trauma?
For example, I have a good friend who comes from a family that was extremely pro-Nazi during National Socialism. There have been huge silences within that family, and that kind of silence caused my friend insane amounts of turmoil. I think they suffer a hell of a lot of trauma. Although their trauma is not the trauma of being a victim or coming from a Jewish family. Perpetrator trauma comes from being from a family that was perpetrating crimes.
What contemporary Berlin politics are visible in the works?
The three pieces in the exhibition represent very different modes of being. Moritzplatz ("Light, air and sun") (2017) is quite graphic, whereas Moritzplatz – Forms of Brutality (2019) is more emotional in its mark-making and expressiveness. Then there's the information campaign to the neighborhood, Moritzplatz – Emotional Blackmail (2018), on advertising billboards which acts more as a promotional or information campaign. They have very different moods, feelings, and intentions.
The contemporary political is mainly present on the advertising billboard, Moritzplatz – Emotional Blackmail, which lays out the immediate neighborhood around Moritzplatz and names each of the conflicts that are currently happening in that area. It was, for me, about naming the key players, so of course, Pandion is highlighted as well as the major conflict between Deutsche Wohnen and the Otto-Suhr-Siedlung. However, there are also other investors and developers, active in developing the area, such as Dietrich von Boetticher, PGGM (a Netherlands' pension fund), Rockspring Property Investment Managers, and Patrizia Immobilien AG. The GSG, which keeps the name, but is owned by CPI Property Group with headquarters in Luxembourg, has three massive properties in the area. The billboard also shows the Milieuschutzgebiete (neighborhood/community preservation area). The objective of these areas is to shield residents from real estate owners' attempts to modernize to the extent that the residents could be forced out. Finally, the billboard makes visible all of the rental prices, and how those rents are going to increase to around 25€ per square meter in the very near future.
Moritzplatz – Forms of Brutality was not "name and shame," rather name and identify the key players and what potential impact they'll have on the neighborhood. The surrounding neighborhood is one of the poorest in Berlin's city center, 80 percent child poverty, 12 percent unemployment. A harsh reality... and it's clear that the development that's happening at Moritzplatz is going to push that community out eventually. It's only a matter of time.
When the billboards were hanging in Moritzplatz in November 2018, did you walk past anonymously and see people looking at them?
Yes, there were huge groups of people standing in front of them. It was important to hang one in German and one in Turkish to engage as many of the residents as possible. We debated putting up one in English, and there was a very strong decision not to.
Something that was missing for me in the billboards was an emotional response – and this is why I decided to address the site again in the diptych. I wanted to create brushstrokes and lines that carry emotional weight. A piece like Moritzplatz – Forms of Brutality feels quite aggressive and brutal. There's a mood and an atmosphere. I feel that there is understanding and knowledge that comes from felt emotion and not just from signs and textual language. I sought to take the experience, understanding, and knowledge that's present in the billboard and to bring it back into my artistic practice, to allow other nuances and bodily responses to take place.
These works are so multi-layered in terms of research, where do you even start?
A pristine plaza that functions well, although lovely, isn't interesting to me. I look for contested urban public spaces in cities, sites that are tense or that are steeped in conflict. For example, in Paris: Gare du Nord, in Berlin: Kotti. These are spaces that are misunderstood or classified as dangerous. The reality on the ground is that they're not.
With past works, I always started by physically walking the site, measuring and doing first-hand observation. When I moved into this new scale, that of Moritzplatz and its surrounding area, I had to tackle the scale of the city. Doing small drawings, mapping, and counting footsteps didn't make sense. With Moritzplatz, I developed a new approach: I went to the Landesarchiv and began pulling out maps of what the city looked like in 1910 and asking the researchers there to pull historic images of the site. This was my starting point. The works at SMAC are far more historic in terms of layers. Both the big paintings have a layer of 1910-era Berlin underneath them, so the viewer sees, ghosted, the whole footprint of how the Berliner courtyard system worked. I wanted to show how historic events, such as the massive Second World War bombings, impacted and still impact city planning today.
Do you also talk to residents or local community groups?
In the past, the works always came from the point of view of the loiterer, the outsider, the watcher. For example, for two and a half months I was in Gare du Nord every day for one to six hours a day, watching, mapping and recording what I saw. A friend of mine challenged me on this while I was working on the Moritzplatz project. I had gotten so caught up in trying to research the owners of the building sites online, that I hadn't approached the site using the methods I have developed over years in the course of my own practice. These are methods I very much stand by; those of walking, first-hand observation and being on site for extended periods of time. My friend pointed out, "You haven't even walked to the end of the street. There's a whole other building site at that other corner!" Walking changes everything. I gained an entirely new understanding of the site and I was shocked that I had abandoned my own methods so quickly due to the seductive ease of internet research and Google Maps.
The billboards were a very different project because I had partners. It was a project initiated by the Commons Abendschule im Prinzessinnengarten and commissioned by REALTY, which is a working group within KW. The Commons Abendschule im Prinzessinnengarten wanted to have a neighborhood information campaign, so I spent time in their evening school, met with the artists from Kunstblock. We met people from Allmende e.V., a Turkish community group recently evicted from their space due to rising rents. It was the first time that I sat down and met with community organizers.
What role does feminism play in your work?
I don't think I consciously make work as a feminist act. But the fact is I'm a female body and saying, "I'm going to loiter here. I'm going to hang out. I'm going to walk down this alley. I am going to be present." I find there's something stubborn and powerful in saying, "I choose to," as a woman, "I choose to stand here, in this train station," or, "I will walk down this street. I will take up space and I will not be afraid."
And finally, what does it mean to bring these works from Moritzplatz to Mitte?
There's gentrification happening all over the city, but what's happening in Mitte is super gentrification. It goes beyond the disappearance of the relatively affordable and into extreme luxury. Bringing these works to Mitte is a way of showing that these conversations need to continue.
Interview: Alicia Reuter / Berlin Art Prize
Images: Courtesy of Larissa Fassler; Photo: Dirk Herzog
Larissa Fassler wishes to acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Canadian Embassy.
The Berlin Art Prize is supported by the Hauptstadtkulturfonds.