eteam’s Digital Art Project Became a Performance, Then a Novel

The practice of the artistic collaboration, eteam, involves buying cheap land online, sight unseen to use for art projects. After purchasing land in Utah and Nevada, they decided to turn to Europe and found the cheapest plot available in Germany. The land contained a set of 15 allotment gardens near a small town where people rented subdivisions to grow vegetables. After five years of ownership, eteam and the tenants used the gardens as a vehicle to cross the Atlantic ocean and travel to New York in a six-day land cruise, visiting iconic American landmarks and sites where history was reenacted. That these imaginary journeys happened within a ten-mile parameter of the gardens speaks to the realities of cultural displacement, nostalgia, the death of villages, and economic hardships. eteam documented their performances with video and photographs, but eventually realized that these media hadn’t captured the complexities of their imagination. So, they turned to literary fiction. Their novel Grabeland will be published by Nightboat Books, February 11.

We spoke to Hajoe Moderegger and Franziska Lamprecht, the two artists who make up eteam, to learn more about Grabeland.

Alex Teplitzky—Your practice is typically in the digital realm. So how did you get started writing this book?

Franziska Lamprecht—We had been buying land on ebay before, purchasing it sight unseen in Utah and Nevada. One project, which we called International Airport Montello, was a very collaborative project, where we worked with the community that was living closest to this piece of land. After we had done this work in America, we thought it would be interesting to see what would be different if we did the same thing in Europe. We looked for the cheapest available piece of land in Europe. Coincidentally, it turned out to be in Germany, where we are from. It was an allotment garden—it’s a piece of land that is divided into smaller parcels that people use to grow vegetables.

Alex—It’s sort of like a community garden, but people own their individual parcels?

Hajoe—Something like the Schreber Gardens in Germany. In the 1920s there was an idea that people needed outside space to grow fresh, healthy food for themselves. These Schreber gardens were all self-governed as nonprofits with very strict rules. They are more controlled than the community gardens in New York.

Franziska—Traditionally, the gardens were often made up of undesired land near train tracks, or waste land close to factories. Theoretically, factory workers could go and grow vegetables and have a healthy lifestyle. It evolved later more into a leisure space. People built little huts and used them as weekend getaways. A small green paradise close to home.

The particular piece of land we bought is called “Grabeland” which translates as “land for digging.” Legally, you can only grow annual fruits and vegetables on this kind of land—no perennials.

Hajoe Moderegger—In this particular case, the town sold their land to a person who we assume wanted to use the lot as a potential building site because it’s right on the outskirts of the village. But the zoning never changed, so I guess he gave up and sold it. He was very curious why we wanted to buy it. He asked “What do you want to do with it?” as if he was missing out on something or we knew something he didn’t.

Alex—So you bought the land sight unseen. I feel like that’s where your art practice starts because it’s this contemporary action of buying land digitally, and the book opens up as you move from the digital to the real and start to understand all the repercussions of this action.

Franziska—We had bought the land in 2005 sitting in New York City. We had some ideas about what to do with it from a distance, obviously very detached from the actual space.

One idea was to consider a piece of land as a hard drive. Because it was undesired, it meant that it was not very valuable. We thought maybe we have to update it and install new software. After we first talked to some people there, they said, “The land is fine, but we don’t have access to water any more.” So we thought, maybe this software update is to supply the lot with access to water.

The tenants we encountered were mostly elderly—in their 60s, 70s, or 80s—so we thought, if we did this properly it could be like a fountain of youth. We had all these poetic ideas, and we tried to share them. The response was, “Don’t bother. Next time you come we’ll probably be dead.”

Hajoe—We also had the metaphor of open source, an open source to get access to water. We thought that what happened on the plot was volunteer labor. No one did it for economic benefits. It was similar to an Open Source project: you dedicate your time and intellectual property to a common project.

Alex—And to the community.

Hajoe—Exactly, to those who can benefit from the project.

Alex—So, after you buy the land and start working with the tenants, what happens then?

Franziska—The first few times we went there, we tried to get to know the people who worked there. We observed what they were doing, which was growing vegetables—two or three people had flowers.

Hajoe—The first moment we discovered that people didn’t care if we improved their land or not made us feel a sense of fatalism.

Alex—Everyone was nihilistic about it. Tenants start to die as well.

Franziska—Right. We really felt that a piece of land is something unmovable, something that was stuck in its position, and we felt stuck as well, because we didn’t know what to do and how to move forward.

The garden parcel was on the outskirts of the village and surrounded by vast monocultured fields, which alternated every year between wheat and corn. The landscape was very flat. When we stood on the edge of the gardens, and the wind blew the fields, it was like looking at an ocean. We thought, we could use the garden as a vehicle to go on a journey. All we had to do was declare this piece of land as a cruise ship.

So, we wrote invitations for everyone, which said, “You have worked very hard for 50 years. It’s time to relax a little and put your feet up. Let’s go on a cruise together to America. Come next Thursday at 3pm. It will take six days to cross the Atlantic Ocean.”

We prepared for taking off by getting life vests and flotation devices. The actual cruise started with a lifesaving drill.

Hajoe—Knowing that the land was stuck, and that we were stuck, there was a certain immobility in everything else that happened there. Everything was in this routine: growing vegetables, harvesting them. Whenever we showed up, everyone was too busy, and they wanted us to leave them alone. In trying to figure out how we could move forward we also had to come up with something that provided a vehicle that moved forward without having to ask anyone else to physically move forward. That mental change was already enough to help us move forward.

Franziska—What we asked of our travel companions was to look out into the fields and see the ocean.

How does a town die, how does a country die? These are pretty existential questions that sometimes manifest themselves in the most mundane and unexpected details.

Hajoe—But we also asked for a commitment. So we said, if you are on this cruise, then it’s real, and you are on this cruise for six days and you cannot jump into the ocean. It wasn’t much, but that was the commitment we asked for. It led to some people coming on board, and others not joining us. But it also led to an identification.

Franziska—We wondered how to maintain this idea of being on a boat over the course of six days. You can say it once and people agree, but how do you keep this illusion tangibly alive, how do you invert an established reality? My answer is this: You fill a bucket with water. When you lift it up and keep it rotating fast enough around your body, the water won’t fall out of the bucket, even when the opening is directly above your head. It has to do with speed and inertia. Working with action and stillness.

Hajoe—I am glad Franzy said this. I could not have come up with this as I don’t understand it.

Alex—So it was a performance. What was the audience’s response?

Hajoe—[laughs] I like the question, who was the audience? There is no audience, or everyone is the audience. Everyone who is the audience is also the participant—be it an airport, or a cruise ship. Everyone who is there is observing, but also participating, and without their participation it wouldn’t happen.

Alex—You didn’t start off thinking you were going to write a book about all this, let alone a fictional book, right?

Franziska—We documented everything with video and photo cameras. We thought we would produce either a one-channel narrative or a multi-channel installation, and started to write a voice over. After 150 pages of writing, we knew it was way too long for a video, and we hadn’t even started editing any of the video.

Hajoe—It felt more appropriate to describe the whole process over the many years in the form of a written text as opposed to moving image.

Alex—This comes up a couple of times in the text. You’re taking photos as you get to know the space, and you say that the photographs never do justice to describe the aura of these things. It seems like you are struggling with this idea of how to document this very bizarre activity. When you see a visual representation it doesn’t do justice to what you felt in the moment, so a distancing is needed: describing yourself taking the photograph. Through a narrative, it adds a level to it.

Franziska—We learned by doing, we didn’t plan much. We made quite a few mistakes. From those we learned by revising. Writing offered a gradual understanding of what we had been doing.

Alex—How do you respond to a project that doesn’t seem to be going the way you conceptualized from the beginning?. Do you need to approach it using a different discipline?

Franziska—This was the beauty of having this project supported by Creative Capital: There was no deadline or pressure to get us to finish it. That enabled us to realize what wasn’t working, and allowed us to take more time to figure out why it wasn’t working, and spend more time to see what we had and what we could work with. If you have a deadline or pressure to finish something, you don’t have this privilege… I don’t want to call it a luxury because it should be normal before you engage with a place. But often it’s not the case. In this case we were lucky to say, “Ok, not this year, maybe next year.”

Hajoe—We had iterations of the project, we had an exhibition where we used selected elements to make a multi-channel video installation. But to present the whole project was so much slower. The environment in which this project grew needed this elongated period of time that in the end, the writing and turning it into a book felt like an appropriate analogue representation.

Alex—When you’re in New York City you want to move to the countryside. And people who grow up in the country want to move to New York. What is it that keeps people wanting to relocate, and see the grass as always greener?

Franziska—That was the interesting experience we had there, that the people we encountered, for them, the grass wasn’t greener anywhere. There was no grass anymore. So, that was unexpected.

Alex—What you are describing has to do with the death of these small towns in Europe, as we have seen in France, as well. You’re documenting this existential crisis in Europe.

Franziska—How does a town die, how does a country die? These are pretty existential questions that sometimes manifest themselves in the most mundane and unexpected details.

Almost every time we came back someone else had died, something else had disappeared. But did the town die? If the village had died, it was not an ultimate death. There were always ways to prolong life or turn it around, start new again. We felt a lot of strong resistance.

Hajoe—Looking out and seeing these massive fields, and then to turn around and to see tiny plots with a row of lettuce or strawberries you find yourself in the middle between two farming techniques, one corporate and the other personal. Is that only a European crisis? I think it is here too, this dominance of scale combined with a weird mix of nostalgia for and underappreciation of the laborer.

Grabeland by eteam is published by Nightboats Books. Read more about and purchase the book on their website.