Rahel Puffert: On the Murmuring of Publics

Rahel Puffert: On the Murmuring of Publics 

Office centers, mirroring facades and gigantic shopping environments rising high up in the sky at Potsdamer Platz, built on the former grounds of Führerbunker and Todestreifen, testify to the agenda of New Berlin. The investors’ construction frenzy here shows an evident hurry to supplant the past and to create a “symbol of representational and formal reunification” (Berlin’s Senate for Urban Development). There is little room left for memory. This new centre of the city, built on bygone borders, also changes the symbolic function of the old centre, the “Alex”. Its urban planning is to be carried out under the banner of “the unification of Berliners, on the identificatory and emotional levels”. 

With its peculiar mixture of remnants from the GDR period – the Fountain of International Friendship, the World Clock, the nearby Plattenbauten [buildings made of prefabricated slabs] at Karl-Marx-Allee – and the arrival of billboards, fastfood stalls and “call centres”, the charm of Alexanderplatz is unpolished, if somewhat cheap. Not only the disproportionately open space, with its spiral pattern pavement, but also the convoluted disarray of the surrounding architecture renders the square friendlier in its imperfection. Perhaps this lack of smoothness – the voids and nooks that cannot produce a feel of entirety – explains why most people, when questioned by Mette Kit Jensen about their connection to the square, mentioned a certain attraction to it. Even those who call it “plain ugly” or “faceless”, or describe it as “non-place”, can ́t avoid pointing out its idiosyncrasy. It´s easy to infer from the interviews that this idiosyncracy is related to the fact that the square doesn’t have a specific function: it serves many parallel purposes. “Alex” is equal parts workplace, passageway, monument, meeting point for lovers, tourist attraction, volleyball court, weekend destination, commuting hub, a space for political gatherings, free time and deals.

It is also a place of living history. Whether their accounts focus on the emblematic military parades during the GDR or the rallies on November 4, 1989, the products of the old department store or the Goulash at the TV tower, elements of the past still seem to be present here. Perhaps because the past is not seen as over and done with, but as something to be continued: “To those of us living in East Berlin, Alexanderplatz is the centre. Even to this day.”

Not only is Alexanderplatz a square with history, but one that generates histories every day. One doesn’t have to dig out Alfred Döblin or Rainer Werner Fassbinder in order to grasp that. The short, personal anecdotes that Kit Jensen gathered from passers-by, storeowners and migrants testify to the fact that this space is predestined for encounters. “I talk to lots of people here and I enjoy that.” “it’s very odd, complete strangers will just talk to you.”“Sometimes when I smoke a cigarette or have a coffee, if someone stands nearby I can just talk to him or he talks to me and, soon enough, you ́re having a conversation.” “I like being here, because you can always see something going on in this square.” “Complete strangers would talk about their plans for the future.” Kit Jensen herself adds: “Most people I talked to came on their own, asking what was going on here.”

In her retrospective account, Mette Kit Jensen relates her two-week action at Alexanderplatz to the neighbouring stand owners and street vendors. Just like them, and like a “Mother Courage in art affairs,” she carries her work paraphernalia in a cart through Marx-Engels-Forum to her place, unpacks, installs everything and starts to work, day after day. Her “business” requires a base as well. With her “Poll Island”, Kit Jensen creates an artificial zone. On the one hand, its bizarre design stands out against its surroundings, interrupting the daily routine. On the other hand, it doesn’t disrupt the space, nor does it try to steal the show: it places itself alongside all of the other activities and the architectural context.

The white garden furniture island offers relaxation and contemplation, but the aesthetics of its materials – frilled carpet of artificial grass, palm in a flower pot and small flags on crossbased posts – doesn’t convey luxury vacations or exoticism. Instead, we think of self-made hominess in the wrong place. Displaced and appealing in equal measure, the island functions as environment that facilitates contact and dialogue with people. Mette Kit Jensen doesn’t show up with a preconceived statement or a thesis of her own; she just tries to set up a frame to catalyze her addressees’ speech. All that guides the conversations is the sentence “I miss” and this formulation is so general and open that it allows for many interpretations. Accordingly, people responded biographically, at times sociopolitically, or relating to the actual design of the square or simply to the momentary situation. Streams of tourists build up queues, want to go high up to take in the city as a whole. Mette Kit Jensen stays below, at the foot of the TV tower. Right there, where the average city dwellers live. According to Michel de Certeau, there is “a foreignness to the mundane, which escapes the imaginary totalizing view of the eye and which doesn’t have any surface.” Apparently, Kit Jensen wants to push her way into just these areas “where visibility ends.” She persistently approaches situations that go unnoticed in stress or daily hectic; she directs her attention to the “anonymous protagonists,” the mundane beyond spectacle and commercial culture.

Even though the location and starting point – Alexanderplatz – are fixed, the stories of passers-by and local people generate a spatialization of the site beyond the spatio-temporal borders of purely visual perception. Through the concatenation of stories, the site acquires other dimensions. It becomes a space of social linkage, in which the life stories and life paths of people from East and West Germany, from faraway lands and immediate neighbourhoods, interlace. Their voices, opinions and languages are the murmuring of a public that would not be normally listened to. You can hear it from “below;” you won ́t overlook anything. You can see through things, diachronically or topologically.
It becomes possible to think the everyday world more broadly from “below.”

Mette Kit Jensen’s interventions, primarily in public space, articulate a desire to debunk the barriers erected between the worlds of art and the everyday. One could say that she looks for ways to smuggle art experience into the perception of the everyday. For this project, which deals with “repositioning the gaze,” she was able to make good use of her experience as an assistant set designer. In an exhibition at Westwerk (a Hamburg artist-run centre), Kit Jensen installed rows of red upholstered movie chairs in the middle of the space. She made use of the slightly inclined concrete floor, which originally functioned as a ramp, in order to evoke rows in a movie theater. In addition to the two already existing columns, eight additional ones were fitted into the space. The incoming public was asked to turn their gaze back from the obscurity of the inside space towards the street. Simultaneously, a slide projection of blue light was targeted at their eyes. If one managed to get a good seat, one could get a clear view of the “panorama” framed by the entrance to the exhibition, which turned into a movie experience without a film. Those sitting with the columns in the way could decide either to put up with the restricted field of vision, or to change seats. Characteristically, this project shows that Mette Kit Jensen is not interested in presenting her own thought-out image to her public. Rather, she manipulates the conditions of perception, provoking an adjustment of perspective by which a given situation may become more attractive, humorous or even poetic.

Kit Jensen’s room- and space-installations mostly draw on friction with given spatial situations and their aesthetics. She gave her strategy an unexpected twist at the Charlottenborg art center, Copenhagen, DK. Visitors strolled through the exhibition in this castle – where works by young artists benefit from the spacious, grand architecture – and suddenly found themselves in a waiting room: grey floor, dimmed light, rows of chairs along the walls, magazines, children’s toys, a water cooler. On a wall, signs in six different languages asked the incoming public to take a number and check the display. Inevitably, those who took the time to stay saw themselves confronted with the
entanglement of their assumptions and those which determined the setting (the installation and the institution). Why did people not expect this and what are they actually awaiting? Are you just waiting because the room demands it of you? Whose expectations are fulfi lled here, and by whom?

In the city of Copenhagen, Mette Kit Jensen took two waiting spaces on subway platforms as a point of departure. Normally, the planning of these public structures follows strictly functional guidelines. The choice of materials is determined by criteria like fire resistance and resilience. When one considers the aesthetics of this architectural design with regard to its implicit social message, one gets the impres- sion that it is more guided by the expectation (or fear) of vandalism than by the eventual needs of the public. Mette Kit Jensen dared to try the opposite. With sparing interventions – like laminating the windowpanes with pastelcoloured, transparent film, adding soft cushions to the benches and dimming the lights – she changed the glass pavilions into pleasant, “oriental” looking ambiances for the waiting commuters. Hence, not only did she contribute decorative embellishment, she conveyed a different social understanding of togetherness. A togetherness which, however aware of the fragility of human and material affairs, will not undervalue them. Mette Kit Jensen trusts her anonymous public to handle fragile material carefully. She hasn ́t been let down yet.

Rahel Puffert 2006

Rahel Puffert, a cultural theorist, lives and works as freelance-author and art educator in Hamburg. She set up the communication department at the Städtische Galerie Nordhorn and was a fellow at the “Aesthetic Culture” graduate program in Hamburg. Alongside various projects, she is writing her doctoral thesis on “Ways of mediation in the context of art.”

Translation: Karen Michelsen Castanón
from the german text: “Das Gemurmel der Gesellschaften” printet in the publication “Ich Vermisse” 2006.