[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering]

The Wild East: An Interview with Peter Zorn, Chair of the Werkleitz Gesellschaft

Pip Chodorov

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

When I was invited three years ago to take part in "Cine-Kino," a five-city tour of the former East Germany with fifteen French filmmakers by a group called the Werkleitz Gesellschaft, I had no idea what was in store for me. I didn't know portable wooden 35mm projectors existed or that they would be used to show in a gravel-floor barn in Magdeburg. I never thought I'd be showing my super-8 film at the original Bauhaus in Dessau. And I'd never heard of Werkleitz, a tiny town lost in the countryside. But here was a farmhouse equipped with Betacam, AVID and 16mm facilities. During preparations for a large pig-roast party one night, Peter Zorn described the group's plan to renovate the barn to accomodate 16mm editing suites and projection rooms, and also to get involved with computer networks and the Internet for the exchange and creation of audio visual art. As I watched the pig being turned over a slow fire, elderly townswomen peeling potatoes beside, I pondered this discrepancy between state-of-the-art media production and the rustic life which fostered it.

Werkleitz Gesellschaft was founded in 1993, initially by a few film students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Braunschweig who had moved to the East shortly after reunification. The original founders invested their own money, but the provincial cultural ministry quickly took an interest and funded the first Werkleitz festival. The second such festival "Cluster Images" has just occurred. The center also offers film and video equipment to producers, organizes workshops, does media research and receives scholarships for an international artists-in-residence exchange program. I recently interviewed Peter Zorn via E-mail about the group's history and goals.

Peter Zorn: Around the time we'd finished restoring our farmhouse, the great enthusiasm of visiting artists started us thinking we should realize our own interests doing films and art, so we created the Werkleitz Gesellschaft as an association to produce film, art, and media projects. We developed a model for a media art center situated in the countryside but connected globally via the technologies of quickly growing networks. We soon discovered that we needed a continuous flow of new ideas and contacts if we didn't want to become an isolated island and waste our last creative resources. So we conceived the European Media Artists in Residence Exchange Program (EMARE) to foster international exchanges with partner institutions (for 1997 these are the English organization Hull Time Based Arts and the Hungarian Center for Culture and Communication in Budapest).

Our special interests are experimental film, video, and computer work. From the beginning we wanted to look at media like film or video through artist's eyes and to bring artists in contact with technologies old and new, making it possible for them to work with professional equipment without the commercial pressures of big studios. Media work is especially important because media influences the perception, sometimes even the structure of society. But as commercial film provides very limited opportunities to create new forms or to reflect upon itself, it's imperative to grant artists access.

Pip Chodorov: It seems your projects were well received in the province of Saxony-Anhalt, particularly due to government trends following reunification. Did you choose the region because of the absence of media projects there, or was the farmhouse the big draw? And how large a part did the reunification play?

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering] PZ: I wouldn't say our work was always well received, there's been a lot of misunderstanding about what we're doing. Media is still considered TV and the definition of art generally refers to painting and sculpture. Media art is usually not considered art at all, which makes it important for us to sow in these fields. Our acceptability stems from our work in infrastructure: doing workshops, providing information for artists and institutions (like developing the internet in the province), doing regional concepts for developing the village and so on. The possibility of creating these structures, of creating something better than the West, was the reason we came. It's different here. Either it makes you happy or drives you mad. It's the Twilight Zone. We were fed up with the clean, impersonal atmosphere of the West. Living and working here gives you the feeling of interacting with people, while at the same time what you do is quite new and strange to them. But the villagers are quite proud to help and see the name of their town in the news. The reunification was a unique historical moment to begin something new--subsequently opportunities to realize new initiatives have diminished rapidly. Werkleitz Gesellschaft could never have been established in the West, because people are too ignorant to trust in their own visions, and I think that time is over here as well. The period from 1989 to 1994 was a brief moment when a kind of "wild east" and "anything goes" feel existed. The KIEZ in Dessau also began, a large sociocultural center founded on two ruins.

PC: The reunification metaphor also appears within the group's work. You were one of the first organizations I'd encountered that treated film, video, and virtual media as equals--"reunifying" these different art forms. Were there questions about grouping these media together? Did you have difficulties defining yourself when seeking grants, or positioning yourself with other groups? Was there friction between film/media makers who didn't want to be lumped together or problems of being dispersed among too many projects at once?

PZ: Our basic understanding of art refers to the concept or context of a piece of work and the visual or sensual structure in the form; we don't see any point in the divisions between different forms. The reality is that nowadays artists work in different media; filmmakers for instance, often work with video because it's cheaper. Artists work much faster than theory evolves, because the latter needs to categorize the arts and separate them. The old academic model is increasingly strained and dull because it denies new influences and interdisciplinary work in favor of promoting artists as a specialists in their field. We work together with computer artists, fine artists and filmmakers and have had good experiences with this interaction. Of course problems can arise when different systems come together. For example, with Cluster Images the art and film worlds have their own understanding of distribution, exhibition, and marketing. But therein lies the attraction to cross fertilize, to intervene between systems.

Werkleitz is generally self-regulated by demand and by the people who are engaged in it. It doesn't make sense to expand the film section because you believe in its aesthetics, only to discover later that no one can use it because they can't afford the labs.

Working with new media and the internet was a kind of investment in the future but it happens that things fit after all. We're doing projects such as the OVID media arts database, together with HBK, Braunschweig/Birgit Hein and Wand 5 (Stuttgart), a database which provides information about experimental films and videos (http://www.misa.unimagdeburg.de/ovid). In 1994 we co-founded the Media Initiative Saxony-Anhalt (MISA), to increase co-operation and exchange between institutions using media in our country. If there isn't enough money for media work we can provide technical, logistic, sometimes even conceptional assistance. That's how we became involved with the International Video Forum Ostranenie at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation (the Bauhaus website is on our server). We also promote the MISA abroad, and when one of us is travelling he/she makes contacts in relation to other people's projects.

PC: Germany has typically fostered activity in many isolated places at the same time, without a central structure or organized network. Yet out of one of the most rural, isolated areas you're working actively as a dominant media center for an entire region and leaning towards widespread international communication. How do you see your projects today fitting into the context of other film/video production centers, curating organizatons, festivals in Germany and abroad?

PZ: Events respond to necessity. If I work in an infrastructure which fulfills my needs there's little need to expand into other structures. In Werkleitz you're dependent on your engagement. There used to be no infrastructure for artists apart from the beautiful scenery. Developing technologies have changed this. There is a common interest in sharing knowledge, travelling and using the Internet. I can hardly find people to discuss Brakhage's Mothlight in our country but I can drive to Paris and discuss it with you, or I can follow discussions on an internet mailing list such as FrameWorks. In science as in art, specialists need to work internationally. As the funding in Germany runs down, we need to co-operate more closely and benefit from each other's abilities. There's still a mentality in Germany which keeps people ignorant. I think networks (and not just computer networks) will play a leading role in the cultural landscape of the future, and it won't matter where you are; rather, whether you are part of the network.

Pip Chodorov is a filmmaker living in Paris. He works at Light Cone, an experimental film distribution co-operative, and runs the Internet mailing list FrameWorks on experimental film (for information write to frameworks -- request@listserv.aol.com).

[MFJ ordering]

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

[MFJ Special Ordering]

Last revised on 12-11-97 by Isabel Pipolo

[MFJ Info] [MFJ Info]