A Creative Capital Gathering in Berlin: Discussing Gender, Disability And Human Rights In Germany
At the 2013 Creative Capital Artist Retreat, awardees Kenny Fries (2009 Literature) and Quintan Ana Wikswo (2013 Emerging Fields) discovered deeply compelling intersections in their work around the Jewish/queer/disabled body in Germany. To their great delight, they realized they’d both be working on those intersections in Berlin that autumn—Kenny to begin a new book, and Quintan to exhibit her interdisciplinary work at The Jewish Museum in Berlin.
The pair immediately devised a plan to organize a salon-style gathering of Berlin-based artists, activists and scholars whose work focuses upon gender, disability, ethnicity and genocide in Germany. When Creative Capital stepped in with financial support through the Grantee Gatherings program, Kenny opened the doors to his apartment and a stimulating, provocative and profoundly generative event took shape. We asked Kenny and Quintan to share their experience with us:
Kenny Fries: Hosting a gathering for Quintan when she came to Berlin for the opening of her exhibit at The Jewish Museum was one of the highlights of my four-month stay there. The intention behind the gathering was to introduce Quintan’s work, especially the work that was not in the exhibit, to those I was meeting in Berlin who are interested in disability issues in Germany. This gave Quintan the opportunity to share her work with a specific, targeted audience that did not yet know about her projects.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: Creative Capital has a gift for amplifying intriguing ideas that might not otherwise get a chance to develop. The kismet between Kenny and me at the Retreat was palpable, and it was enormously powerful to be able to drive that energy towards something tangible. Creative Capital made it possible to assemble a very specific group of artists, activists and scholars to fulfill a very specific purpose. And it was instantly effective. I don’t think there’s ever been an evening like that in Berlin before. I know most of us were able to exchange volatile, challenging ideas and thoughts that we’d never before shared, sparking immediate, powerful exchanges. This is how change happens.
During five years on a major body of work in Germany, I’d been in many fervent discussions around gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, disability and the ideal body, but as a queer disabled American female Jew, I always found myself to be a bit like the one panda in the zoo. (Yes, even in Berlin!) It’s a situation familiar to many members of surviving minorities in post-genocidal communities. But there’s still a palpable sense of fragmentation and isolation amidst the post-genocidal communities in Germany today. The Berlin evening was something like a family reunion – complete with major differences, disagreements, unexpected surprises, humor and tears.
Kenny: Being that those at the gathering had a specific interest and knowledge about the material that Quintan and I have been using in our work, this gave both of us the opportunity to gauge what we are doing with our work with those who would seem to have the most at stake. Not only did those present have a stake in the material we are working with, but those we invited were, unlike us, German. What both Quintan and I talk about in our work happened, and is happening, in their native country.
For me, the evening pivoted on a question I was afraid to ask my German colleagues: how did they feel about us from the U.S. coming to their country and using what happened in their country for our own work? This is a question that I had previously left unasked when meeting people individually. But that night, because it was a larger group, I gave myself permission to ask. And I’m glad I did because what was discussed in response to my question freed me to dig deeper into the work I was doing in Berlin. My question led to an outpouring of personal stories, which at first I wasn’t sure answered my question. But when these stories were told, I realized that the answer was that what both Quintan and I were working with might be material specific to Germany, but the issues raised were human issues, not German issues.
Quintan: There’s something quite marvelous about being a surviving minority returning to the scene of the genocide, and then sitting down with locals over toast and tea to talk about what happened. It’s so awkward and painful and discomfiting, which to me is really at the root of the most fulfilling artmaking. Kenny’s arrival in Germany was so exciting to me – I remember one German colleague noting with a surprised eyebrow that “now there is another one like you.”
What I found most intriguing about the evening was this sensation of not being alone in the room. Over the years, I repeatedly found myself in situations familiar to many members of surviving minorities in post-genocidal communities. In these situations, one’s simple physical presence can be complex, nuanced, provocative.
The gathering at Kenny’s completely dismantled this binary, polarized dynamic, and interrupted a familiar conversation in wholly invigorating, generative ways. It really worked. As artists, activists and intellectuals, we each professionally and personally identified somewhere along the spectrum of our pursuits in gender-, disability- and human rights studies. The experience of comparing our own deeply experienced observations felt familial, and kind and giving. The animals escaped the zoo.
Kenny: Lurking beneath the discussion all evening, was another question that I’ve dealt with in my previous work in Japan. In Hiroshima, I was dealing with the immensity of the effects on the hibakusha (A-bomb survivors), most specifically with the Hiroshima Maidens, the group of twenty-five women who came to the U.S. for treatment after the war. Now, here in Germany, I was dealing with the context with which the disabled must live with: the Nazi T-4 euthanasia program.
Working with this material, I always feel up against the challenge of not trivializing what happened. The gathering was important to me at this beginning stage of my new book as it enabled me not only to learn more intimately about how Quintan thinks about this, but also it became clear that what I was attempting to do was not trivializing the atrocities that had happened.
Quintan: In one of our first conversations, I talked to Kenny about how it felt to have an epileptic seizure outside one of the killing facilities in Germany where thousands of epileptics had been murdered during T-4. And about a date I had with the daughter of a prominent Nazi physician found guilty of mass murders of disabled people. In both instances, only a handful of decades separated me from instant death, and simultaneously connected me to a complex world of aftermath relationship. To me, this is necessary, personal work. Looking closely and carefully at the thread of time over one place. What of our selves remains connected, and what is broken off.
For the Creative Capital gathering, Kenny asked me to share the autobiographical, creatively volatile works I’ve been creating surrounding these kinds of personal, intimate encounters with the disabled queer Jewish female body in 21st century Germany. This was in decided contrast to my work SONDERBAUTEN, on exhibition in the Berlin Jewish Museum, that surrounds the Nazi rape brothels, the concept of gender-based war crimes, and how rape and sexual violence have been used by states as a sophisticated weapon targeting women and gender minorities.
The conversations provoked by my autobiographical pieces have since inspired me to shift my work towards an inclusion of my own experience. As an activist, I was trained to leave my personal experience in the shadows. But as an artist, it’s been regenerative to bring it into the conversation. The Berlin gathering immediately sparked an evolution in my projects.
Kenny: Working in foreign countries, dealing with cultures different from my own, seems to free me. Although I am seemingly at a disadvantage due to not being a native speaker (my knowledge of both Japanese and German is rudimentary), I’ve learned how best to use translators and translations, and often feel that not knowing the language gives me the opportunity to look beneath what is being said. Yes, I do miss the cultural nuance that only language proficiency can provide. But having this gathering, at a crucial stage of imagining what this new book might be, went a long way to assuring me that I was on the right path, moving in the right direction.
Quintan: Once we were in Berlin and began inviting people to the evening, I think the presence of a major American arts catalyst lent a degree of trans-global gravitas to this gathering! It sent the message that our work around genocide and civil rights was indeed culturally significant, and that this evening of knowledge-sharing around disability and queerness and othering was emblematic and worthwhile.
Kenny reached out vigorously and comprehensively to the most intriguing activists and thinkers in contemporary Germany, across disparate fields and forms, in hopes of gathering like-minded visionaries. We figured out how to share my work in a way that would open discussion and build bridges towards under-discussed experiences.
That kinetic sense of collaboration, partnership and knowledge-sharing supplied a powerful energy and generosity that became the crux of the CC-sponsored evening.
All of us in the room were there because we are doing major work around individuals and communities that have been shoved into corners, overlooked, ignored, othered, silenced. The Creative Capital sponsorship was far more radical than it may have appeared!