Conjunctions in Time. Relearning the language of Berliners.

Krystian Woznicki: Conjunctions in Time. Relearning the language of Berliners. In: The Japan Times, 9/6 1998

Berlin is the only place where the division between the (former) East and West German culture legacy is still physically present. There is a general feel, however, that the city serves its country — troubled by its many wars — as a platform for reinventing its past. 

East Berlin, in particular, is currently undergoing an immense "critical reconstruction" process, in which urban planners attempt to redesign the entire city (block structure, facades and building types) according to l9th-century ideals. In contrast to urban American aesthetics, it aims to be a thoroughly European city.

Rather than conjuring up a distant golden age of German culture, the Goethe Institute in Tokyo pursues a program that is contemporary on its own terms. One ambitious goal is, to rejuvenate the image of German culture in Japan. Consequently an increasing number of young artists are being given an opportunity to make and exhibit work in Japan. Avantgarde filmmaker and theater director Christoph Schlingersief, for example, was given his first retrospective here.

It also entails lectures and symposiums being streamlined toward themes that account for the most recent cultural phenomena. The highly prolific DJ West Bam and writer Rainald Goetz came earlier this year to speak about the cultural meaning of techno music and mass raves such as Berlin's Love Parade (of which West Bam was an initiator).

In an attempt to further map the territory and language of emerging electronic cultures, other guests from a variety of backgrounds (including Web publishing, design theory and journalism) will make presentations in October.

In advance of that two prominent representatives of media theory are scheduled to speak this month at the InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Nishi-Shinjuku. Boris Groys and Friedrich Kittler will provide a look into the theoretical underpinnings of new media art.

Kittler was born in 1943 in Saxony. At age 15 he escaped from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and later embarked on his study of a variety of subjects in the realm of human sciences. His expertise in philosophy and literature are interesting but not unusual background for a career in the field of media theory, for which he was recognized in 1993 at the acclaimed ZKM in Karlsruhe.

Rarer still is Kittler's command of the newest technology (he knows the inner workings of various machines) and his broad theoretical approach (which isn't limited to state-of-the-art hardware). He will give a partially technical introduction of computer graphics at the ICC Sept. 12.

Groys, who will speak about the problems of presenting media art within the confines of the museum, was born in 1947 in East Berlin. He studied philosophy and mathematics at the University of Leningrad. Before he emigrated to the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) from the USSR at the age of 34, he was able to form his unique perspective, which made him popular in the late 80's.

Groys' art criticism is said to be informed by the '70s school of conceptual art in Moscow. It is a vantage point seemingly external to its subject (the Western art tradition) cultivated within an art scene that was disconnected from the general public. It's isolation fostered curious adaptation of Western art theory and practice that was oriented toward the reality of the socialist state.

This aspect of intercultural exchange - so typical for the relationship between former communist countries and the rest of the industrialized world — is a theme in Katrin von Maltzahn's Time Tunnel, which is now being shown at Aoyama's "360 degree" as part of her series dealing with GDR English-language course material.

Maltzahn was born in 1964 in Rostock only six years after English was introduced as an official school language in the GDR. She grew up in the 70s using English study material such as the English for You textbooks and educational TV programs, which gave information about a country that the average GDR citizen wasn't supposed to visit.

Von Maltzahn mines ideologically rich territory in her work. For example, in a textbook chapter titled Preparing for a Demonstration the almost comic nature of projecting socialist rhetoric upon daily life in England becomes apparent. A situation of young people gathering at a youth club to make banners for a demonstration is described. "Anne is talking to Jim," reads the textbook. "He has lost his job at the machine factory. Jim is going to paint 'Give Us Work' on his banner, but where can he get some paint?"

About four years ago, and not for the mere sake of irony, von Maltzahn began to research the production context of English for You. Having immigrated to the FRG in 1977, she went to London, interviewed the series' original actors and researched their careers. In 1994, for an exhibition in London she unloaded her archived material and contrasted it with works based on her first West German English-language textbook, How Do You Do?

For a subsequent part in this series titled Learning by Doing (1996), she restaged street scenes featured in "English for You" in similar settings in Berlin. She juxtaposed the film stills with five photo portraits, making the point that you actually need to re-enact something — to repeat it and thus share experience — in order to reach a level of understanding and a common standard of communication.

The Time Tunnel series from 1996 is based on a chapter called, in the original, "In the Capital of the GDR." Maltzahn has taken five stills of architectural landmarks (such as the Brandenburg Gate), reproduced them as photo etchings and again juxtaposed them with recently rephotographed scenes of the same sites. At first glance the pieces of each pair appear identical.

The photographs (which are also reproduced as photo etchings) seem less nostalgic, but on closer examination, they also reveal slight changes — new streets, construction sites and other signs of the city's recent reconstruction.

Why does the artist require two pieces to express one set of ideas? The two pieces are not only the slices of one double exposure but are also suspended in mutual comparisons, and thereby in a perpetual negotiation of difference. Time, technique and source are the poles within which von Maltzahn juggles with a country's self-image of internationalization. As a result the ideological aspects of (learning) English are, even as a metaphor, as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.