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Blue Mountains
Piece for Piece
 
  Piece for Piece - Karen Kipphoff’s Stages of Memory    

The most various pieces of luggage are spread across the room. Each of them contains – more or less concealed – a monitor on which videos are running. A waiting hall, where the luggage has been left behind by the owners? A stage prior to a performance? The "props” make the gallery visitors “players”, they are absorbed into the scene and the duration of their act determines the duration and drama of the play. Karen Kipphoff’s installation Blaue Berge (Blue Mountains, video installation for Balt-Orient-Express, ifa Galerie Berlin, National Art Museum Bucharest, WUK Exnergasse Vienna1996) tells the story of her journey with the Balt-Orient Express from Berlin to Bucharest at different levels and on different stages. The first level, the outer form of the installation, which is reminiscent of a stage presentation, appeals to the visitors’ scenic phantasy. This way it constitutes as it were the second level, that of the scenic situations which are imagined.

   
       

On coming closer, a third level emerges, that of the travel narrative, of a classical literary genre, which however presents itself here neither in the 19th century tradition as a “great narrative" of a traveler on an educational journey nor the example of a scientifically exact description of distant countries. Rather the visitors see themselves confronted with subjective and associative pictures, with fragments of stories, which – as the pictures on the monitors – have no centre, rush by and thereby leave behind traces of memory of banal and significant events alike....then all gone long ago that time you went back to look was the ruin was still there where you hid as a child that last time not a tram left in the place only the old rails when was that... (Beckett, S., That Time, London 1976, p.9.)

   

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In Damals (That Time) a S8 film, based on the play of the name by Samuel Becket (HDK Berlin 1993), film is used to track down a figure, the listener as Becket calls him, who reminisces with three voices of his past. The film is the product of project work with students of the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin. Beckett’s text is an artful puzzle. The narrative of a journey into the interior world of a listener, who connects the memories of a journey to exterior places of the past. This form is very accommodating to the off-centre narrative form, which Kipphoff favours in her work. The text is therefore, in line with the author’s stage instruction, they modulate back and forth without any break in general flow except where silence is indicated. The film pictures, which are found corresponding to the bits of memory of the listener do not illustrate the text, but show the attempt to lay bare the different layers of these memories. They show simultaneously the failure of this attempt, the impossible approach to a protagonist who midstage off centre – in Beckett’s stage directions – listens to the fragments of his memory. ...always one sees the actor cut in part, i.e. without head or in profile, from behind. When nonetheless an approach of the camera has been attempted, the picture blurs or infringes the minimum respectful distance, penetrates the private space of the actor, thereby causing the spectator to draw back inwardly so as to win distance, to turn away. (K. Kipphoff, Stille 7 Sekunden. In: Hochschule der Künste Berlin (ed.), Zeit-Räume. Berlin o. J., p.20-25). The film cut, the montage of long unmoved takes with extremely short, partly repeated commercial-like pictures supports the impression of the lack of a centre. The memories are fragmented, the (biographical) narrator is no longer the sovereign author of these memories, he is no longer able to produce something "whole”. But precisely thereby the rhythm of the film becomes a play with the pictures of memory, a movement, of which Derrida says ...daß diese Bewegung des Spiels, die durch den Mangel, die Abwesenheit eines Zentrums oder eines Ursprungs möglich wird, die Bewegung der Supplementarität (supplémentarité) ist. (Derrida, Die Struktur, das Zeichen und das Spiel im Diskurs der Wissenschaften vom Menschen. In: ders. Die Schrift und die Differenz. Frankfurt/Main 1976)

   
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The creation of a theatrical, stagelike situation, the narrative character, the off-centre and fragmentary mode of narrative, the thematic occupation with "Memories" and the time-bound character of presentation and/or reception: these features run through the work of Karen Kipphoff as a leitmotif. This is true, as shown, both for her installation and – as is more readily understandable – for her performances. She hence makes a radical break with what purists of modernity – such as Clement Greenberg and his pupil Michael Fried – propagate as a norm of "modernism" but also as an artistic norm generally. ... Today theatre is the negation of art, writes Fried in Art and Objecthood (Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood. In: Gregory Battcock (ed.), Minimal Art. A Critical Antology. New York 1968, pp116-147), which first appeared in 1967. Literalistic or theatrical works of art – Fried uses these two concepts largely synonymously – are incompatible with modern art to the extent that they remain committed to narration and the subject and hence question the exclusively self-reflective character of art – its reflection on its own material nature. In addition, theatrical works are perceived in time, i.e. over a span of time. Hence they destroy the experience of mere presence of imagery, they enter into a dependence on a public. Finally, theatrical works of art – as Fried understands them in agreement with Clement Greenberg – mix the particular characteristics of the individual arts and so contribute to a loss of quality and their degeneration. The theatre presents an excellent example of such an "impure" activity on account of the mixing of genres which lies between the arts. Fried’s programmatic article culminates in the statement: The success, indeed the survival of the arts depends more or less on whether they succeed in overcoming the theatre (Fried 1995, 359).

   
       

With her "theatrical" work Karen Kipphoff is among those artists who are contributing to overcoming precisely this understanding of art. As someone who goes back and forth between the arts, she is not interested in the "essence" of each art but works at points where the theatre reveals its performative qualities, and where the fine arts put the event in the place of the work, where presentation and reception involve duration. Kipphoff goes a step further. In her work using different media, she mixes not only the different genres, but experiments with their different methods. Here she questions her own mode of presentation and tests in play the limits of the material nature of each artistic form. In Performance without title (Døgnfluen,Bergen 2000) for example she pans the monitoring camera over her body, which has writing on it, and so brings her body into the picture and brings it as a picture into play. Here on the one hand the theatrical convention of double presence of play/performer and figure is confirmed: the performer opens her mouth, and a pre-written text Yes becomes visible, similar to a cartoon balloon. On the other hand there is an express distancing from this convention: The script It's only me appears as the camera runs along her arm. The subject in this work is not authenticity or self-presentation, the methods chosen – surveillance camera, writing – clearly reject any such perspective, but is the playful handling of presentation on an axis between Acting and Non-Acting (Kirby).

   
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Karen Kipphoff’s artistic work is not separable from her activity as a teacher in the most diverse educational contexts. This is true both for the product of an artistic work in the teaching/learning process – as was illustrated with the example of the film Damals (That Time) – as for the process of teaching and learning itself. There is always an intensive encounter with the chosen materials and media. She describes this process – in a very compressed form – using the example of a workshop on the subject Medea, which ended with the presentation of a performance using different media. The theatrical means employed belonged mostly to the pictorial / visual area (figure of Jason as pre-produced video production mixed with live video). A reciting choir that chanted between the scenes formed a leitmotif in the collage. (...) The main moments of the Medea material arose from a strong condensation of entire passages, emotional states and dramatic actions to form visual signs. This was based on a far-going reduction of the texts to the explanations necessary for an understanding of the material and to symbol-filled expressions of the dramatic climaxes.

   
       

The methods of fragmentation and of off-centre narrative – in this case through the fragmentation of the Medea figure to a choir of women – determine this work too. But Karen Kipphoff is concerned in her work with workshop groups not with the adoption of a concept, which has been deemed "correct" but with joint work on a sustainable artistic expression. She does not approach this process with the banking concept (Paulo Freire) of the person who knows, who lends out small and digestible portions from her capital of know-how on a subject. Rather, she enters into a work process with the workshop or project group, goes on a joint search for impetus for the artistic work. This way of proceeding is risky. It encompasses misunderstanding, conflict, the possible painful failure of such a process. Here she comes close to the understanding of a performative pedagogy as is sketched by Peggy Phelan in the after word to her book Unmarked. The aim of such an educational philosophy is described by Phelan as active acceptance of the inevitability of misunderstanding and, elsewhere: Pedagogy must involve training in the patient acceptance of the perpetual failure of in/sight (Peggy Phelan, Unmarked. The Politics of Performance. London 1993, p. 174). In these objectives the artistic and educational intentions of the work of Karen Kipphoff come together.

   
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