This guest blog piece is from Bruce Davies from, Leeds based BasementArtsProject, who travelled to Dortmund this Autumn to take part in an exhibition called, Meine Welt Auf Corona’ (My World on Corona).
My connection to the recent ‘Meine Welt Auf Corona’ exhibition in Dortmund goes back to mid-2014, when I was asked by East Street Arts to sit on a selection panel for the Artist House 45 project. This is a residency project located in South Leeds less than five minutes from BasementArtsProject. Whilst I was in part responsible for the initial selection of artist duo LloydWilson for the inaugural residency, it continues to this day placing artists at the heart of the South Leeds community. As the closest art relative nearby in South Leeds, we have always enjoyed a good working relationship with both ESA and the residents of Artist House 45.
It was in November 2019 that I met Silvia Liebig whilst she was a resident in the house. As her tenure came to a close, Silvia attended some South Leeds ESOL groups that I had been working with over the previous two years as an Artist-in-Residence. Over a couple of of sessions she did some work with both the parents and children within the group, all of whom were refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle-East. It was during these sessions that Silvia and I discussed the idea of working together on a project of some description.
Towards the end of November that year, Silvia returned to Dortmund and I did an interview with her for the South Leeds Life newspaper. The interview ran in both the online and physical editions of the paper and featured some of her illustration work made during her time in South Leeds. We also discussed the idea of Silvia returning in the near future to stage an exhibition at BasementArtsProject in relation to a publication that she was preparing. Then . . .
During this time whilst BasementArtsProject was unable to carry out any of its ‘Real-World’ programme, we developed the ‘Lockdown Journal’. For this we took our online ‘Studio Journal’, usually reserved for artists working at BasementArtsProject, and opened it out to any artists that wanted to use it as platform by which to communicate with the outside world about whatever subject they wished. Over the course of eighteen months sixty-seven posts were submitted by thirty-four different artists. The posts ranged from the personal -artists own experiences of the lockdown, to the expansive -socio-political commentaries on the world as a whole at that point; some talked about Covid-19, others did not mention it. The posts featured films, poetry, photography, diary entries and other forms of creative writing, digitised drawings, paintings and sculptures, sound art and music.
As part of this project, Silvia submitted an entry full of her illustrations, made since we had last met. It was at this point that the conversation about returning to Leeds picked up where it had left off the previous November.
I have to admit that when the offer to take part in an exhibition based in Germany came up I was somewhat reticent, and did not commit until quite far down the line. Admittedly this was partly to do with the fact that it involved me travelling and I have been quite critical of those who have continued to travel internationally during the lockdown. Eventually, after a year and a half of being Covid-free, I caught it, a matter of weeks before the exhibition was due to start. Strangely this was the point at which I decided that I could go with a clear conscience. Having had it I would now have a period in which I would be highly unlikely to catch it and become infectious again, for up to three months if the science is anywhere near correct.
Meine Welt Auf Corona’ (My World on Corona) was an exhibition looking at how artists have dealt with the lockdown. It featured two artists from Austria, three from Dortmund and BasementArtsProject from the UK. Silvia’s interest in BasementArtsProject centred around the concept of the ‘Lockdown Journal’, as a way of continuing artists engagement with the outside world whilst exhibitions and events were not possible. I had already begun to make the film that I would present earlier in the year, so it was merely a case of picking up the pace to ensure that I finished it in time to leave for Germany. Which I did, and at 4am on Wednesday 20th October I set off for Dortmund.
It is at this point that the story acquires a different focus, for the purpose of this blog. Something that became apparent as I tried to book my travel was that it would not be possible to fly from Leeds to Dortmund directly. Why is this unusual? I hear you ask. There are many places in the world that you cannot fly directly between, why is this an unusual thing to note? Well, considering that Leeds is twinned with Dortmund one would think that an easy connection between the two cities would be standard for the purpose of business, commerce, leisure etc. In fact, I would have had to travel to Manchester airport to get a flight; not exactly direct. With pressurised cabins, Covid-19 and Cop 26 in the back of my mind I then started thinking about alternatives.
I have always wanted to travel in Europe by train so I decided that with a dislike of flying and ideas of low-carbon transport that I would try this method. I would like to thank Leeds City Council and Silvia Liebig for booking tickets and collectively helping get this untravelled individual out of Leeds and travelling alone for the first time in his life. In doing this, it became very apparent that there is a reason why short haul flights are so popular within the UK. The cost of travelling from Leeds – London was not far off the cost of London – Dortmund. That is the only reason that I could see for the popularity of plane flights over train travel, even over long distances such as this 9hr trek. The journey itself was comfortable, I was able to get on with work and I got to see three different countries up close through the window as I passed through them, with brief stops in Bruxelles and Köln.
The experience of Germany itself was very different to the experience of being in the UK. From the moment I stepped off the train on the other side of the channel I was no longer allowed my material face covering, instead having a disposable surgical mask thrust at me at Köln. From this point on it was not permitted to walk through any enclosed space, even if it was out of doors, without donning a surgical grade mask. Every café, restaurant, bar insisted on seeing my vaccine passport or else they would not admit me.
The Torhaus, in which ‘Meine Welt Auf Corona’ took place was an incredible venue to exhibit in. A five hundred year old gatehouse for a castle that no longer exists. The land surrounding the Torhaus is now a world famous botanical gardens. On the weekend Romburg Park is full of people walking through the flora and fauna of various zones of the world. One afternoon I spent a bit of time sitting in a rotunda somewhere in the Appalachians.
During my time spent there I was hosted by Silvia and Ralf and lived in their studio for four days. Travelling back and forth to Romberg Park each day I got a sense of the city that is the twin of Leeds. For those reading this who may not know this is where Dortmund Square (with the Barrel Man) in Leeds gets its name from, and the Barrel Man presumably a symbol of their Union Beer.
What was at one time the Union Beer Brewery is now the Dortmunder U & Kunstverein; a massive Art Gallery complex. Saturday was essentially a free day, with the exhibition set up an dready to open on Sunday morning I paid a visit to the Dortmunder U & Kunstverein along with two other exhibiting artists who had travelled here from Austria; Maria Hand and Christiana Spatt. Spread across seven floors the Dortmunder U was exhibiting historical works from the collection of the city by the likes of Picasso, Joseph Beuys, Henry Moore, Giacometti, Lehmbruck, Nan Goldin, Fernand Leger et al, a floor of work by students of Dortmund’s University, another floor dedicated to the audio, film graphic work and ephemera of sub-cultures, plus so much more that I did not even get to spend enough time with. This seemed to be one of those rare places that displayed not only arts history but also a future still being written, art a a living breathing organism rather than a dried out husk preserved in the rarified atmosphere of the museum.
On the Saturday evening there was a listening party in the Torhaus for the work produced by Silvia, presented in the dark and on headphones, everyone cocooned in their own little headspace, listening without distraction. is concerned that it is all in German and that maybe I do not want to do it as I will not understand. I suggest that this is not the case, after all I listen to many songs in other languages and it is never uninteresting. I point out that there are many bands out there who sing wordless songs anyway, whether it the scat singers of the Jazz idiom or bands such as Cocteau Twins or Sigür Ros. In these instances the words are made up and therefore meaningless in any language. The words become pure sound or texture. Meaning can be implied by the shape of the sounds or conferred by the workings of the mind. Sound is rarely boring to me.
As I sit with the rest of the audience and listen in the darkness of the Torhaus by night, with all of the lights out to avoid distraction I am reminded of a moment in the romantic comedy ‘While You Were Sleeping’ where the main family of the story are at midnight mass on Christmas Eve and the Grandma turns to her husband, whilst the choir are singing in Latin, and says ‘It’s so much nicer when you don’t know what they’re saying’. Indeed, this radio play could be about anything; I hear words that I recognise and it is obviously about world events of the last twelve months, but divorced of context it is pure sound. My feeling is one of tranquility, which I am sure is a world away from those listening in German.
It is a beautiful crisp October morning on the day of the opening, the first day in which there has been a chill in the air despite the sun shining. Romberg Park is full of people exercising, families out on walks and such like and the Torhaus similarly fills up as soon as we open, in fact before we open. People start arriving from about 10:30am but they are not turned away, they are invited in and shown around. There are speeches from all of the artists and organisers, myself included. I keep my speech short as I am aware that I am the. Only typically mono glottal Englishman in the room. People seem to be listening and understanding.
I spend a couple of hours with the exhibition and eventually take a final walk around Romberg Park with some artists that I met earlier on in the week on a visit to a place called the Künstlerhaus.
The Künstlerhaus is a massive complex of studios, residential housing for artists and an exhibition space on the edge of the city. On the Friday evening I had visited the opening of an exhibition of graduating students work from the University of Dortmund.
Finally, time runs out and I have to make my way back to the station at Dortmund to do the return journey. On the way back the internet is somewhat patchy and I get less work done but it is still a great experience to just sit and watch the countryside speed by as I reflect on the activity of the last week.
I have taken BasementArtsProject, and my own work, to exhibitions in other countries before, although always as a participant with the lead taken by someone else, due as I say to my own past antipathy towards travel. Whether a solo adventure like this one, or group ventures such as Stockholm in 2012 or the USA in 2014, they have always been wonderfully enlightening experiences that can only be taken from involving oneself in another culture beyond the confines of regular day-to-day experiences. It was interesting to take a project into Europe for the first time as BasementArtsProject at this juncture five years after the Brexit vote. I could not help but notice the difference, that many in the UK would deny, between the plentiful shelves of the Dortmund supermarkets and shops and the rather pitiful examples in Leeds, and other areas of the UK. The vaccine passport needed to access indoor bars and cafés was also a telling experience. Travelling around with people from various different countries I was struck by the fact that whilst everyone else digital passports worked mine never did. I could not help but wonder about this . . . ? There seemed to be many continuity errors in the German way of thinking about social distancing and mask wearing, but it certainly seemed a lot clearer and straight forward than the UK standards. I am not sure we will ever know the full details around the successes and failures of governance through this pandemic, but I think it is extremely likely that most of the western world was caught resting on their laurels, and the outcome was much different than it could have been.
I feel extremely grateful to have had the experience and would like to thank Silvia Liebig, the organiser, curator and contributing artist in the exhibition, and also Ralf Wasserman who acted as hosts, giving me a wonderful place to stay and a warm reception.
Thanx also to the other contributors to the exhibition Martin Brandt, Stephanie Brych, Maria Hanl, Maren Kames, Silvia Liebig and Christiana Spatt. Christiana and Maria, it was great to be able to hang out with you whilst we were there.
Also thanks go to Martin Brandt, Ralf Wasserman, Rudolf Preuss, Volker Kreiger, Christian Ihrig and Hendrick Müller for their technical expertise, to Claudia Eberbach and Sophie Schmidt of Dortmund City Council, and to Klaus Lenser for the radio interview.
On Behalf of BasementArtsProject I would like to thank all of those who have contributed to the Lockdown Journal that was the focus of our contribution to this exhibition:
Keith Ackerman, Adekola, Art Couple, Lina Bentley, Beyond Photography, Michael Borkowsky, Obie Butcher, Kimbal Quist Bumstead, C Nick, Clare Charnley, Donna Coleman, CuratorSpace, Deborah Davies (Roseytints), Dwell Time, Alan Dunn, Paul Digby, Howard Eaglestone, Pippa Eason, Timothy Forster, Chuck Hamilton, Chloe Harris, Lou Hazelwood, Phill Hopkins, Khansa Khadim, Sohail Khan, Silvia Liebig, Raksha Patel, Ian Pepper, Scott Christian Senogles, Richard Taylor, Mark Staniforth, Rebecca Wade, Nicholas Vaughan, Yol