Berit Zemke

Date 21 SEPTEMBER 2009

Freedom occurs elsewhere
While in the year of the 2Oth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, this historic event is being celebrated around the world, Berit Zemke is broaching this issue and the Monday demonstrations into her work Borderliner. The artist, born in the former GDR and now living in Berlin, is especially concerned with the influence of structures of social systems on the feeling of integrity and identity of human beings. As someone, who lived under a dictatorship and who lives now in a social market economy, she reflects the issue in a subtle way.

Primarily Berit Zemke’s work is an artistic practice declared to be political, which is often – while searching for the discourse with the audience – presented in a public space. But what does this mean in this case, when a Berlin artist – 20 years after her experiences with a surveillance society – gets confronted again with the same issue in an increased way – as a consequence of 9/11?

In times of high technology, where lies the borderline between history and science fiction? Berit Zemke seems to analyze this question in her work. By way of visual examples of a protest march the images might relocate us back into the middle of the Monday demonstrations in 1989. The image is flat. Information is reduced to the essential, to black and white. One associates the binary code – zero and one – as the work seems to be encoded in many aspects. A Morse appears. The information is encrypted and could mean anything.

The sound, that in the subway cannot be heard but felt, is beating the rhythm of the pace. Slowly the demonstrators disappear. This happens so gradually that we could have the impression that they come and they go. In the end one demonstrator remains, he doesn’t vanish completely, flickering like a heartbeat.
Contrary to her habit not to use the word as a language in her work, Berit Zemke decodes the Morse at the end of the video work – for the recipients of the public projection. A quotation by Benjamin Franklin „Those, who would sacrifice basic liberties to receive temporary security, don’t deserve neither freedom nor security“ is pointing out the consequences of a modern surveillance society. The demonstrators slowly become stronger again and the protest starts from the beginning.

Using the method of repetition the work achieves a strong suggestive impact, as we know it from Pop Art. The inverted shadows of the Borderliners integrate the pedestrians who are walking on the platform and as such, let them participate in a demonstration for a free, self-determined life.

Andrea Sunder-Plassmann

Interview with Berit Zemke regarding her video work „Borderliners“

I.A.: Berit, this year in Berlin is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Many institutions realize several events regarding this subject. What is your interest in this issue?
B.Z.: I grew up in the GDR. My experiences with the confrontation of borders and restrictions at a young age – when one is full of possibilities and potential – certainly influenced my view on this issue until today. Right now, there is the big election coming up in Germany and freedom is one of the main subjects. Or just think of the contract of Lisbon. Border is such an actual issue that you can almost touch it. So on the one hand there is the historical background of Germany as part of my biography and on the other hand there is this broadening of boundlessness in our world today. I am not sure if human beings want to live this certain freedom. As far as I can see, we are constructing borders more then ever. I mean freedom is not anarchy, but it is often used in this way. For me, freedom is a certain spirit and a way to stay in touch with life itself.

I.A.: Although you just talked about what freedom is, don’t you think that freedom has many connotations? If you catch the spirit of the people shouting “The wall has to fall” at the demonstrations in 1989, did something in the meaning of freedom changed for you?
B.Z.: Hmm, this is difficult to answer. Yes, it definitely changed. But in the past 20 years not only the system and the world in itself changed; I went through a few developments which influenced my view on freedom and which I probably would have made anyway…

I.A.: Could you then maybe describe your view of freedom then and now?
B.Z.: Living in the GDR, freedom was something behind the wall. So breaking through this wall was a natural escape of the prisoners. In summer of 1989 I was on holiday in Hungary when I heard the news about many of my fellow countrymen escaped over the Hungarian border. Honestly, at that point I haven’t really thought about leaving the GDR but I had to make this decision because of this confrontation with the possibility of it. I went home. I was a teenager at that time. I am sure, if the wall would still be there, this would be something I would have regretted. Today, there are – at least in our western industrial world – no real physical borders. We think we are free. But look at all the restrictions and bans that came up the last years. Do you know what I noticed? This does not only give the right to put people under surveillance in a wide range, no, it legalizes people to judge about others, to discriminate. You don’t have to commit a crime; you just need to e.g. smoke a cigarette. This is a really important political issue! Foucault reflects this in his book about discipline and punishment: the surveillance of people is not only a method to reduce crime; it is connected to a row of positive effects, which are forwarding them. So controlling us is a complex combination of economical benefit and the production of a system of power and leadership.

I.A.: How did you integrate this into your work Borderliner?
B.Z.: I am using the Monday demonstrations of 1989 as an initial point. They run, demonstrate and shout. The GDR was known as a surveillance society, but people still managed to build an underground movement, to exchange thoughts about the system in a secret way and to go on the street and fight for it in the last consequence. When we were in Czechoslovakia for skiing, we met a man who was allocating his snow shelter for people from the GDR, who wanted to change the system. Imagine, if we are really controlled to that extent, e.g. through a chip, how can we build underground organizations if the systems changes into a new dictatorship? History shows, that it can change immediately.

I.A.: Your work is using silhouettes and black and white color. Why did you choose this stylistic device?B.Z.: Borderliners in a diagnostic context are people who can’t differentiate between the extreme, they see everything in black or white, bad or good. In the former GDR, the government dictated the rules of what is good and what is bad. Today it seems people get a feeling of security if they can clearly distinguish between good and bad. Governments are using this to construct their power. Remember how Bush was talking about the Evil and how society was reflecting on this.

I.A.: There are movies and other documents, which are describing this method as a way to awe people. Did you broach the issue of fear in your work as well?
B.Z.: Yes, indirectly. Fear is the foundation to legitimate surveillance. This topic is quite hot right now, especially so shortly before the elections. It seems to give immunity in the population regarding the surveillance. I may be more sensitive because of my past, but I am stunned that people really think, that – only because they have nothing to hide -surveillance is not a problem.

I.A.: If we talk about freedom, I would like at this point to switch over to WL Project Berlin | Hong Kong, one of the two initiators of the whole project. Is the issue of borders and freedom part of the discourse of WL Project?
B.Z.: Yes, you are right. It is not a coincidence. WL Project Berlin | Hong Kong (WL) is using themes which are immanent. WL is a global project in its nature. Among others it refers to new media as a platform for creating and presenting art projects. VFC_Berlin is starting while the Art Fair is taking place. WL is a kind of virtual Off Gallery if you wish to name it somehow. In the exchange with Hong Kong these two metropolises represent the discourse between Asia and Europe. In the past, both cities went through the same transforming processes, with the slight difference that Berlin is now under a capitalistic and Hong Kong under a communistic government. But in Hong Kong the border between artists and curators are not that strong as here in Germany. So there are different approaches towards the exposure and production of art through art. Our projects are discussed back, too. It depends where they take place. The structure of WL is absolutely open. Artists and curators come together to discuss questions about the art operating system. This allows an approach to art, which is much more free and thus it can refer to other positions in contemporary art.

I.A.: You told me before, how you did shoot your work. I think this is very interesting. Could you describe it for the readers, again?
B.Z.: Sure, there was really a very special own dynamic beside. The location was a gym at the army sport club area of the former GDR. Before the wall came down, you couldn’t even go there without permission. When the protagonists where walking on the treadmill they started to shout „Die Mauer muss weg“ (The wall has to come down) or „Wir sind das Volk“ (We are the people) and some of them really got into it. Suddenly there was a vibrating energy in the hall and one was taken back to the demonstrations of 1989. And there it was again, the feeling of being connected with the people and their deep and honest wish for freedom. And this atmosphere of that time, this integrated feeling stays in enormous contrast to how we experience freedom today. In western society we are not so aware of our borders and therefore we don’t take them seriously. But I think this is dangerous.

I.A.: One last question, what are you working on right now?
B.Z.: At the moment I have to prepare my work EQ for an exhibition about borders and consciousness in October. Besides, I am working on a video about fear.

I.A.: So a project about borders again. What is EQ about?
B.Z.: Well, but I didn’t make EQ especially for that. Bonaventure was asking me, if I want to join a group exhibition with this work. EQ is about the border of autonomy of people and their emotions.

I.A.: Thank you for the interesting interview!
B.Z.: My pleasure!

Dr. Isabel Maria Arends

Berit Zemke (Germany)
Berit Zemke works and lives in Berlin. With a study in psychology in the background she researches among others about matters of course in society and science. Her works goes from half documentary examinations regarding politics and societies through abstract works about concepts to which our conceptions are bounded.