Conversation with Matthias Reichelt and Josefine Geier on November 15, 2021, at their apartment.
Anna-Lena Wenzel: Matthias, how did you come to be part of the nGbK?
Matthias Reichelt: I think I applied for membership in 1981 for the exhibition Das andere Amerika. I was doing American studies at university and one of my teachers was the sociologist Reinhard Schultz. We wanted to publish a German edition of the history of the workers movement in the United States by Marxist historian Philip S. Foner. Then Tom Fecht, co-founder of Elefanten Press, and myself co-developed the idea of turning it into an illustrated history as both a book and an exhibition. We both became members, but to be honest we were quite naïve. I remember a general assembly at the Technical University, there were around 200 people. There were genuine ideological blocs: Alternative Liste, remnants of the Maoist and Sponti factions, members of the SEW (Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin) who were referred to as “revisionists” and of which we were part, as well as people with no specific affiliation. There were heated debates, but it was interesting.
It was only just before the opening of the show in 1983 at the Staatliche Kunsthalle that Reinhard and I actually understood how the society worked. Tom Fecht was always the one who kept the minutes. He was on the nGbK Coordination Committee as our liaison person. Later we found minutes of project group meetings with decisions we had completely missed because we had been focusing mainly on research, documents, and loans. In the end, the exhibition lost money. Reinhard and I received around 1500 deutschmarks each for three years, but we did most of the work, not least because we continued to supervise the show when it went on tour (including to Stockholm, where the nGbK received a lump sum of 25,000 deutschmarks that was used to pay off most of the debt). I’d say it’s rare for work to be evenly distributed within project groups. That’s something I experienced again and again. Nonetheless, for me, the nGbK and the principle of learning-by-doing were very important. Without this organization, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was always great fun, too, so I don’t regret it at all.
ALW: You also worked as part of the office team. When was that?
MR: That was from September 1986, but it came about by chance. I was asked if I’d like to work there as a temporary replacement for someone else. I said I would, but on the condition that I could continue to work on nGbK projects in my free time. That was the basic deal, and it was clear that I was not allowed to perform roles like treasurer or Coordination Committee liaison in any project group I belonged to. Later, under Leonie Baumann, I was stripped of this option. She was elected in 1991, when Christiane Zieseke moved to the Senate Office for Culture. Until the start of 1996, Leonie Baumann and I had a good, trusting work relationship, but then there were problems during the NO!art exhibition. Generally, the office was run as a collective with little hierarchy. And it was always important to me that it should operate in this spirit, that everyone should feel (more or less) responsible for the whole and look after the public image of the nGbK. The idea was that we all deal with each other as equals. But then the team became more and more vertically divided, with the some considered lower, like the technical staff and gallery assistants. I found that very problematic. A toxic atmosphere arose, full of intrigue, and many people left the office team. The first to go was Maria Wegner, who had arrived from the Kunst-am-Bau-Büro (Art in Architecture Office) together with Leonie Baumann. By the end of 2004, my working relationship with Leonie Baumann had become such a problem for me that I saw no other option but to hand in my notice. In total, the process of cutting my ties with the nGbK took almost eight years.
The exhibition Achtung Sprengarbeiten! (Caution! Blasting Operations!, 2007) had something to do with criticism of the authoritarian tone and lack of transparency, criticism expressed by large sections of the membership through the Coordination Committee and at general meetings. The exhibition theme came about because we said that the nGbK needed to be blown open by a kind of productive explosion. From 2008, I no longer considered myself to be a member and I stopped paying my membership fees. Looking back, I would say that I was and remain sympathetic toward the nGbK as a society and as an institution. I think it’s important, especially as a field of experimentation and learning. Today, I could no longer be part of the lengthy discussion process, I wouldn’t have the patience.
ALW: How did you see the nGbK at the time?
MR: It had a different character because there were not so many other institutions. There were two art societies and the classical, traditional museums, whereas now there are many institutions that address similar issues from a critical, leftwing position. The neuer berliner kunstverein (n.b.k.) also changed fundamentally under Marius Babias. In terms of content, the two art societies are now very similar.
ALW: From today’s point of view, I find it hard to imagine that the two societies were the result of a schism.
MR: Because there was no art society, Berlin’s Senate Office for Culture suggested founding one, leading to the creation of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (German Association for Fine Arts, DGBK) in 1965. This was a kind of Cold War move to artificially reinforce the cultural scene in West Berlin in contrast to East Germany. In 1968/69, part of the DGBK’s membership wanted self-determination, and this group then founded the left-leaning Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (nGbK), while the remaining members reformed as the more traditional Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.). Their programming and production procedures were completely different: on the one hand, the classical system of directors and curators, on the other, a grassroots democratic model with groups producing projects and exhibitions as a collective.
ALW: And how do you see the nGbK today?
MR: I must admit that I no longer feel close to the style and language of certain exhibitions. That has to do with the way discourse has evolved, but I also think the program as a whole lacks diversity. Today, solo shows like those featuring Unica Zürn, Boris Lurie, or Blalla W. Hallmann wouldn’t have a chance, which is a pity.
ALW: Although RealismusStudio organized a solo show of work by Toni Schmale a few years back, which might be comparable.
MR: Maybe. But I sometimes find the themed shows lack focus. The research often seems superficial, while certain questions and phenomena that predate the digital era are barely taken into account. The nGbK has always been a place for themed exhibitions and for studies and overviews on cultural history and politics, with publications that have retained their validity. I haven’t noticed anything like that in recent years. Also, the impression is sometimes given that issues like colonialism or racism are now being addressed at the nGbK for the firs time, which reflects an ignorance with regard to the analog era.
ALW: You dealt with these themes early on …
MR: Yes, I was active in the anti-apartheid movement and I campaigned for the colonial street names in Wedding to be changed. Today my position on this has changed, and I would say it’s better to keep them, with a commentary. History and the memory of history must remain understandable and should not be simply erased or replaced. Which reminds me that I thought it was a pity, and very wrong, that the nGbK got rid of its striking logo with the star at the behest of Diedrich Diederichsen. As I see it, discarding an identifying mark that had been around for over forty years and replacing it with a mark of colorless indecision was an act of cultural and historical amnesia.
ALW: Can you tell me anything about the exhibition 100 Jahre Einmischung that dealt critically with the Berlin Conference of 1884?
MR: The nGbK exhibition took place in 1984 in a space run by the Berliner Festspiele at the Bikinihaus. It was organized by a project group around Hans Mayer, who, together with Ruth Weiss, co-edited the book Afrika den Europäern. Von der Berliner Kongokonferenz 1884 ins Afrika der neuen Kolonisation that was published by Peter Hammer Verlag. The publication and the exhibition have been forgotten, but they are worth rediscovering.
ALW: Our Wissensspeicher project was launched with the aim of highlighting thematic continuities, opening up the archive, and making parts of it available digitally.
MR: Yes, that’s very good, but it needs to be developed further. Maybe it’s time to consider shifting the focus slightly—in a different direction thematically, or in terms of production. This could mean a return to fundamental questions, linking back to issues that played an important role in the early days of the nGbK. For example the question of the functions of fine art raised in 1970 by nGbK co-founder Dieter Ruckhaberle and the Marxist Wolfgang Fritz Haug. What does the hugely increased importance of art and museums in neoliberal, hyper-capitalist society tell us?
ALW: One special thing is the introduction of two-year research projects as a new format.
MR: Previously, many more projects emerged from the universities. Today, the universities are so aligned with the system, so pacified, that political struggle no longer takes place there.
ALW: I’d say the main problem lies in cuts to non-professorial teaching staff. Today, people no longer have time for projects outside their university work, because most of them have to create their own posts and secure funding for them. Although Left Performance Histories in 2018 was a joint project with a network from Berlin’s Free University.
MR: OK, sure, but the Bologna Process has made universities more school-like and put students under great pressure. Also, in the 1980s there was still a strong Marxist presence at the Free University, with lectures on critical psychology, and the entire philosophy and social sciences faculty, which no longer exists. The 1987 exhibition Inszenierung der Macht, for example, came almost entirely from the university. It was a huge project group.
ALW: You mentioned the tough ideological debate of the early days. How do you see that today?
MR: In all these clashes, I think the various protagonists were also self-promoting and jockeying for power. The two can never be fully separated. So it’s important to hold on to collective structures with little hierarchy and to keep everything under scrutiny.
ALW: How was the nGbK perceived when you were active there?
MR: At the time, West Berlin’s cultural scene was limited. Few individuals or institutions wanted to try out new, critical ways of communing art, to rediscover forgotten artists, or to address the political content of art. There was Kunstamt Kreuzberg with its space at Bethanien [now Kunstraum Kreuzberg] and the Haus am Waldsee, the Haus am Kleistpark, and Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Most of the municipal art offices were staid and conservative in their approach. In this context, the nGbK’s chances of being respected as a radical art institution were good. That changed after 1990 as other societies and project spaces emerged. Today, there are so many spaces that consider themselves critical and left-wing, plus a huge self-organized network doing essentially the same as what nGbK project groups do. From the older generation, with whom I’m still in contact, I know that the nGbK no longer has their attention to the same degree. This has to do on the one hand with the overwrought zeitgeist and its focus on diversity, gender, post-colonialism, and critical whiteness, and on the other with the language used to communicate these issues. Maybe it’s time to examine the dangers of hyper-PC on the left in the cultural sector and highlight the places where it culminates in cancel culture and new forms of censorship.
Personally, I feel that old, white men are now argued against in a racist manner. Of course there is structural racism that must be combatted, but when the fight against it goes so far that other people are silenced, it becomes reactionary. Everyone must call him- or herself into question, again and again. Just because you were an anti-apartheid or anti-racist activist doesn’t mean you’re immune to unconscious racisms. When I was younger, I thought: I’m an anti-fascist and a Marxist so I’m on the right side. For the exhibition Das andere Amerika, I once approached a Jewish sculptor in New York, whose works we wanted to show. When I met him, the first thing he asked me was what I knew about Jewish culture. And I said, well, not much, but I’m an anti-fascist, etc. He didn’t loan us a single work. My answer was far too smug and naïve. That was a decisive experience for me, one I’ve never forgotten.
[Josefine Geier comes home and is asked by Matthias to join the conversation.]
This is Josefine. I met her at the nGbK where she was part of the office team from 1978 through 1990. From around 1986, we had an excellent and very close working relationship for four years—except for the problem that we would bring the work home with us, often ending up discussing some problem or other into the small hours (laughs).
ALW: Josefine, how did you end up at the nGbK?
Josefine Geier: I was working at the n.b.k., until I noticed its links to the Springer publishing house and the fact that its executive board included the deputy leader of the CDU in Berlin’s city parliament, Klaus-Rüdiger Landowsky. Then I saw a small ad in the newspaper saying that an art society was looking for a new member of staff. That was the nGbK. I applied, was invited for an interview, and got the job. For many years, when returning from vacations I would look forward to the work there and the people I worked with.
ALW: Did you realize projects alongside your work in the office, like Matthias?
JG: Yes, but only once I’d left. It was good to see it from the other side. As a member of staff, I often took minutes during Coordination Committee meetings. When I attended these meetings as a member of the Dorothy Iannone project group, it was an interesting change of perspective.
ALW: What did you think about more and more new members joining the nGbK who had no idea about the society’s structures?
JG: I don’t think any society can avoid this dilemma. Most people join because they want to realize their project. They may have skim-read the statutes, but only the delegate the group sends to Coordination Committee meetings really understands how the place works.
ALW: How do you see the nGbK now compared to in the past?
JG: I notice that I no longer feel like going to exhibitions. To me it looks like photocopies hung on the wall with provocative statements. It used to be real art on the wall. It was sensual. There was a desire to connect people with art in visual terms, as well as explaining its social and political function.
MR: The nGbK has lost touch with its USP of appraising history from a leftist perspective.
JG: Yes, even the Kunst-Werke have hosted exhibitions that should really have been at the nGbK, such as War Crimes of the Wehrmacht in 2001. The original idea of the nGbK was not just to hang a beautiful or a horrific picture on the wall, but to give access to art. Today, everyone’s doing that!
MR: I remember we deliberately aimed to address people from non-academic backgrounds. We gave guided tours of exhibitions to union groups.
JG: I remember many times over the years that there was talk of merging the two art societies—especially after elections. The two entities were saved by the fact that the nGbK was special because of its structure, a quality recognized even by the CDU.
ALW: I’d like to come back to the relationship between office team and project groups. It seems to me that this demands a fine balance—on the one hand, interest and understanding are key to this working relationship, while on the other it’s crucial to prevent conflicts of interest via the ban on members of staff being active in project groups.
MR: I think it’s great if people who work in the office also have a genuine interest and identify with the society. We saw ourselves as a collective. But over time, significant differences crept in. There were people who said: It’s five o’clock, time to go home.
JG: At the same time, the office team’s work was regularly called into question by project groups: Must the office team be so large? We’re paid a fee or work voluntarily—and they are employed with a fixed salary? As a member of the office team, that didn’t feel good.
ALW: I can imagine being torn between the wish to appear as professional as possible to the outside and the wish to do justice to the solidarity-based structures within the office team and the collective working methods of the project groups.
MR: Yes. The basic idea was that project groups received support and advice from the office team, while the responsibility for content lay with project groups alone. For a while I was in charge of press relations and this strict division of tasks was a problem for me because the way some of the texts were written was very dry. It was always a balance between helping people help themselves and attempting to create structures that would keep the organization running, while maintaining the autonomy of project groups in terms of content.