Interview with Ulla Siepmann by Miriam Lowack, March, 2016
When did you begin your collaborative work as Planstudio Siepmann and how did it all develop initially? What are the characteristic features of the collaboration?
In the 1960s and early 1970s, our interests converged: our close affinity with nature and the multiplicity of our artistic activities. The ruthless overexploitation of resources taking place globally, the ever-advancing denaturalizing of the human species, the scores of silent deaths of other creatures all around us—all of this touched us deeply. The connectedness with and careful heeding of the wellbeing of all living creatures is very prominent in Buddhism; the perceived separation between the human being as the subject and a nature “out there” as an object doesn’t exist. We are one with all that is around us. Ruptures though were to be seen and felt everywhere: nature was to be an element of urban space and “used” in a way that is not separate from humans. At the beginning of the 1970s, we then joined forces and became Planstudio. We didn’t want to be a duo, and so chose a more neutral term, taking up our guiding theme. We complemented each other as a team, each one of us contributing their strengths. Video was a part of our artistic spectrum.
How did the name “Planstudio” come about, what’s behind it?
“Planstudio” was deliberately chosen as a kind of brand name, sober, businesslike, because of the multimedia teamwork. We intended to get guests to join in and realize projects together. Unfortunately that failed because of the tightened boundaries of the “Iron Curtain,” for example with Petr Stembera, a Czech performance artist who touched on our ideas.
What role did the medium of video play for your artistic work? How did working with video begin in the first place? In the 1970s, you lived in Aachen or close to Aachen, didn’t you? Do you remember the video and performance scene in the city and region at the time? Did the artists from the region working with video share experiences and ideas with one another? How did the art institutions and the public react to your work?
We moved to the southern part of Cologne in 1965, and here the art scene was really vibrant. At first though there wasn’t much video. Working with video began when we were able to afford a black-and-white camera. Bit by bit, we added the necessary equipment. It was a completely different experience from working with Super 8 or 16mm film. It was finally possible to put our ideas into practice. Gerd’s versatility strongly influenced how we realized our shared ideas. For us, video gave us the possibility to realize ideas directly in space and time, in visual scenes, for example for installations where nature was transported back into urban space through the medium. Then there were the performances where a person could contribute directly, spatially and physically, synergized with noises, sounds, language. Gerd had the physical presence and stamina to pull off the sometimes really demanding performances. Cologne was a vibrant melting pot for art. Video art was not the focus, except for at Ingrid Oppenheim’s gallery, which had a semi-professional studio and became a hotbed of innovative experiments. Museums and other galleries, for example that of Ursula Wewers, took an avid interest in video art and did what they could. Most museums didn’t even have a video recorder at the time, or camera equipment! The great exception in Germany was the Folkwang Museum under Zdenek Felix. Here we could finally realize our ideas, which wasn’t possible with our equipment. Beyond Cologne, overseas—Canada, the US, Iceland—there was a great deal interest in the theme we focused on. It was through our work overseas that we made valuable contacts in Germany. Our work affected the audience deeply, showing humans to be part of nature and not as its master and creator who ruthlessly destroyed it, going so far even to self-destruct. Back then visitors could only imagine the nature theme in connection with political action, so our more intensive, quieter interaction with the ruptures was more differentiated, pushed forward to a meta-level that not everyone could understand. But precisely because of that there was always a productive discourse! We moved from Cologne to the hills, and leased a farm to be able to realize our larger projects, sculptures, preserved natures—it was a precursor to the Eifel!
The Neue Galerie, the forerunner institution of the Ludwig Forum, was continually integrating video and performance into the museum program already in the early 1970s. How did the contact with the institution and its then director Wolfgang Becker come about? And how did the plans evolve to stage an exhibition of your video pieces in the Neue Galerie and put on a performance of Verpuppung (Pupation) in 1977?
Thanks to its director Wolfgang Becker, the Neue Galerie, along with the Ludwig collection, was very progressive; it was a kind of open space that provided many artists with an opportunity to experiment and present their work. We’d shown Verpuppung in Amsterdam at De Appel. A foundation, De Appel had the perfect spaces for the performance, which is something that a more traditional building like the Neue Galerie did not have. Wolfgang Becker was interested in this work and we’d already gotten to know him at previous exhibitions, so we modified the version and he gave us free rein. Here, too, there wasn’t enough of the right equipment, and we had to bring some of our own things along. There was always a need to improvise and be flexible given the working conditions.
The following five videos are in the video archive of today’s Ludwig Forum: Mole, Pupation (only a sketch, 9 minutes), I breathe, therefore I am, Space-Time Self-Experience, and The Force of Nature. Taking one—or if you like more—of these videos, could you give a brief sketch of your work, of how you proceeded, and what your main areas of artistic interest were? What role did the medium of video play in these works? In which works is the camera or the recording process explicitly part of the work, and for which ones did it mainly serve to record the performance?
The main focus in all the sketches and works is the relationship between humans and nature. It’s about understanding ourselves as creatures that are part of an infinite network, and not as rulers and creators. Man does not have the right to subdue nature and make it subservient, to just go ahead and destroy it! In I breathe, therefore I am we paraphrased Descartes’s saying “I think, therefore I am.” Sometimes a premade tape was integrated into the performance, for example that of a space from outside, like a field with the accompanying sounds, as in The Force of Nature. A contrast to this is Space-Time Self-Experience, which shows attentive movement in outside space, a performance where the timeframe was exactly set. For Mole and Pupation, sketches were first made for longer tapes. In the case of Mole, the fragile technology was why we used the camera as a documentary medium. The dirt would have damaged the camera, so we had to stay with the sketch. In the performance of Pupation, the monitor was all Gerd had, so that while he was in the physically extreme situation—while he wrapped himself up, pupated—he still had eye contact to the monitor, and that’s how he stayed in control. The videos for the exhibition in Münster were produced beforehand in a real space-time context: we sat for hours in a raised stand, filming everything that was happening around us in a single cut. We then transferred this natural-cultural preserve (the videotape) into urban space by constructing a replica stand in the showroom and spreading out packed hay bales and the videotapes of our hours in the stand “outside” in the natural-cultural space.
Over the course of the 1980s, you increasingly turned your attention to other projects beyond the medium of video and performance art. How did your artistic interests change back then, in terms of both the specific context and the media used? What was behind this turning point?
In the 1980s, video became a completely different medium with its digitization—semi-professional equipment wasn’t for us. We renovated the farmhouse, and Gerd wanted to spend more time doing his beloved sport, cycling, and also delve deeper into his diverse artistic capabilities in sculpture (with wood), painting, woodcuts, etc. Gerd wanted to return to the one unique work. This was compatible with the new rhythm of our life. The artistic, individual work, for example in woodcuts, came about in several steps, so that a completely different approach to managing our time was necessary! Later, we had a digital video camera for private sketches, but for artistic projects it wouldn’t have matched our standards.