Zum Hauptmenu  Zur Unternavigation  Zum Inhalt

Sie befinden sich:

 home > Publications > Texts > A conversation between Mia Unverzagt and Sebastian Neußer - We’ll have to talk about that (later)





We’ll have to talk about that (later)

A conversation between Mia Unverzagt and Sebastian Neußer



S.N.: Your multi-part artistic photo performance entitled We’ll have to talk about that (later) took place over a period of three years and in various locations. In each case a room was set up using objects and garments of one color only (beige, red, white and gray).  A person wishing to participate had to select and put on clothes of that color from among the garments you had supplied and then answer a question you posed. You photographed participants while they responded and have now put together a selection of those photos for this book.


M.U.: The original plan was not for a multi-part piece. Each individual installment is also complete in and of itself. The locations, as varied as they were, had to be accessible to the public and were not supposed to lend the piece any feeling of having been dramatically staged. The individual parts are all similar to one another in terms of their basic structure, but they differ from one another in so many ways that direct comparison would be meaningless, even impossible. Each space is a question that leads to individual expression on the part of the participants. In Dresden the issue was the feeling of powerlessness, in New York it was abandonment, in Bassum it was rage and in Munich it was guilt.


S.N.: For the participants, removal of their own clothing, as well as the questions that ensued, implied a very significant invasion of personal space. It reminds me of the ritual of confession, except that you as an artist can hardly promise either institutional absolution or divine assistance. Did you at any point have the feeling that you had gotten too close to a participant?


M.U.: Absolution is not something I consider desirable, as it pushes people into passivity. I can, however, definitely offer people artistic solace and companionship. But really my rooms, beyond representing a threshold-like space between public and private, have little in common with a confessional. I am interested in getting closer to concealed structures, which is why I want to approach people in a way that draws attention to societal connections and contexts. The people that spoke with me during this period of time were never dependent on me, which is why I see no parallel with religious confession. In the latter, guilt is assigned and divinely authorized forgiveness promised. My encounters were human ones; they took place at eye level. I consider the resulting erasure of distance between strangers, certainly not an everyday occurrence, to be of benefit to both parties. However, that does not mean that my work has any therapeutic aim. I value the form of the photographs and not the revelation itself; the images remain for all to see, whereas the stories are a secret between the participants and me.


S.N.: If these pieces were not conceived as a form of societal therapy through art, then I wonder on the one hand what compelled people to participate in your project and on the other hand what your pictures seek to convey to people with no knowledge of the questions underlying the images. I have wondered whether particular pictures provide a bridge to the individual story of the person being portrayed, but I find no clear connection between individual gestures and a story that might correspond to them.


M.U.: I am glad you don’t, as the pictures do not tell one-dimensional stories. Ideally a narrative space that has nothing to do with reconstruction of a pre-existing story will open up between the viewer and the photographs. Important here are not the secrets of the people being represented but rather the viewer’s own secrets, secrets that can be accessed with the help of the images. They serve as a communicative surface that invites us to ponder – and to think beyond. The viewers thus have a very significant role; they can accept the communicative offering, which means also accepting misunderstanding, divergent understanding, interpretation and even dismissal as possible reactions. Art must open up space for rejection as well – a prospect that causes many artists a great deal of uneasiness.


S.N.: Are you referring to glossy large-format photographs that use their overwhelming presence to force us to view them?


M.U.: Yes, I reject strategies that seek to overwhelm. Such strategies are coercive and ultimately express a fear of criticism. Rejection, non-participation and divergent understanding are significant aspects of communication, and I wish to make room for them through my art.


S.N: Would the revelation of an invented secret then be a form of participation in this project that you could accept as equally valid? It seems there has, in recent years, been a steadily spreading societal need for participation and media presence, a need that is generally satisfied via some form of exposé from the private realm. The construction of fictive identities is at the core of various media forms – we need think only of the reality shows that are broadcast every afternoon on TV to find a far-reaching tendency toward emotional exhibitionism that is, in many cases, of highly dubious authenticity. The staged exposition of personal confession distracts from our own uneventful lives, which are to such a large extent defined by media consumption. Is there perhaps something particularly attractive in the exposition of intimate circumstances that bear no relationship to actually experienced reality?


M.U.: I cannot, and did not wish to, verify whether the narratives that were related to me corresponded to actual experiences, were entirely invented or had been modified. And the authenticity of the stories doesn’t matter – the image must convince. There is a kernel of actual occurrence in any story, but what most fascinates me is the interpretation of what has been experienced. What patterns of narration are there? How do memories change shape and link themselves with other memories? Plus, I don’t believe there is a clear separation between true and false stories. Every form of participation is an expression of an inner disposition that exists apart from the true/false category. Without a doubt, there is a societal trend toward public exposition of hitherto private realms, a tendency that is the result, among other things, of the increasing isolation of the individual within society. Since the participants in my pieces have to have feelings themselves, and cannot wallow in an emotional swamp concocted by the media, my work does bear some relationship to the formats you mention, but in fact it is the reception of the pictures that matters to me; the work is purposefully not focused on the content of the stories.


S.N.: The photos, because of the uniform background colors of the sparsely furnished spaces, draw our attention to the participants’ gestures and expressions. Do you believe there is a societally determined repertoire of recurring expressions and gestures that are directly related to particular emotional situations? I am thinking here of a 1974 video by the artist Hannah Wilke entitled Gestures. The viewer sees only her face and hands before a dark background. The artist is shown performing a series of expressions and gestures that have unambiguously feminine connotations; she thereby addresses the topic of the socialization and commercialization of the female body in a very undogmatic way.


M.U.: The Wilke piece was very decisive for the history of feminist art and is still timely. The human body, and of course not just the female one, is a medium for communication. It expresses, conveys and can be instrumentalized. This topic was central for Wilke, and a look at today’s advertising landscape shows how the human body still, and in a more intense fashion than ever, serves as an instrument for marketing products ranging from candy bars to laundry soap. In my work I am interested in the structures of our society, which I believe are in many cases perceptual blind spots for us. We’ll have to talk about that (later) was not intended to convey any dramatic events clearly correlated with rage or powerlessness I do not want to coerce; I want to show images along with all the contradictions they contain. Our time is marked by a tendency toward uniformity at all levels, but personal expression is an important refuge that is beyond all normative standards, a refuge the value of which is unfortunately all too often underestimated. I recently read in the newspaper that researchers from the University of Frankfurt have found that having to smile constantly on the job can lead to depression. Saleswomen and flight attendants, for example, are advised not to smile during their breaks – in order to protect their own health. That sounds absurd, but it shows to what an extent the meaning of facial expression has been underestimated, and that it is not just a mask we put on but has relevance for our bodies.


S.N. I would like to with back to the notion of the secret, which is directly important to the picture, albeit not in regard to its content. On the one hand, the body itself is a visual medium of communication, yet the photo-performance is based on verbal exchange. You determine the thematic context, encourage the person to talk and yourself concentrate not only on the story but above all on the expressions and gestures that are often seen as secondary aspects of rhetoric. Verbal communication has great significance here; it is used to entice the person to produce gestures. The bodily movements that occur are determined in part by the person’s feeling that he or she is revealing a secret – any kind of secret. In that sense this one-sided relationship of trust gives you an entirely new role as an artist, a role that a person who is photographing in a detached context does not have. I am thinking here of a performance called Untitled Project for Pier 17 by Vito Acconci, who in 1971 sat down for one hour every night for a month and narrated a very private story to individuals who came in response to his advance announcement that he would be there; the story he told involved a revelation that would have been excruciatingly embarrassing to him.

M.U.: Most of my artistic work has to do with communication. Response and echo are two concepts that interest me in that respect. Response implies an interlocutor with whom one must engage. My work comes into being among the people with whom I engage and who engage with me. Of course there is also a concept, but the concept itself arises from earlier communicative efforts. My works themselves are the results of many-layered interactive processes. In We’ll have to talk about that (later) I asked the questions, chose the spaces and objects and made photographic decisions. I did not, however, stage the pictures; instead, they arose from what the participants shared with me. Echo, on the other hand, refers solely to the illusion of another being; one reflects only oneself, as in acoustic echo or visual mirroring.


S.N.: The title We’ll have to talk about that (later) is itself ambiguous. On the one hand we use that phrase in conversations in public settings. It is an agreement between two people who have reached a point in their communication that demands more privacy in order to continue: We have an understanding, and this has nothing to do with the others, so we will talk about that later when we are alone. On the other hand the phrase implies a threat, especially when used with children. We’ll have to talk about that (later) contains the unmistakable message that rules have been broken, but that the situation cannot be dealt with in public. Punishment will be meted out at home. Your questions during the performances had to do with the feelings of powerlessness, abandonment, rage and guilt. What about happy feelings?


M.U.: The question of happiness is a very difficult one. Being happy is recognized as a general goal in our society, but it seems to me that it is often understood to mean contentment and the keeping up of appearances. If happiness really means a pleasant feeling and absence of thought, then it is of no interest to me as a human being, let alone as an artist. I am interested in the broadest possible spectrum of feelings, in deep experience rather than short-lived moments. Perhaps I ask specifically about powerlessness, abandonment, rage and guilt because they are existential feelings of human-ness that are almost completely passed over in societal discourse. We don’t talk about powerlessness but rather about how to gain power. With abandonment we speak mainly about ways to overcome it, and a feeling like rage has no right to exist in our ostensibly well-harmonized society. Rage is seen solely as an expression of the inability to deal productively with a particular situation. For me, this attitude has nothing to do with pessimism but instead has to do with acknowledging a multi-faceted way of being human.


S.N.: Is there a content- or time-based structure that links the individual conversations, one that goes beyond the fact of the question remaining the same?


M.U. No, I asked my question and the rest of the process was open. There were no fixed follow-up questions, and there was no time limit. Of course I remember conversations that were more interesting than the others, and the type of additional questions I asked helped determine the overall duration of the talk. A conversation is either interrupted from the outside or ended by one of the partners in the conversation. This situation is difficult because it leaves the other person behind. There are many rhetorical bridges that help us end a conversation. In We’ll have to talk about that (later) the pictures remain – and become starting points for further communication.