7 days, 2 artists, 1 location: As part of the project CON_TEXT, two artists had one week to develop an event together at the Lettrétage
Poet and publisher Daniela Seel visits the CON_TEXR artists Kinga Tóth and Doro Billard at the Lettrétage. Translated from German by Elizabeth Toole.
Daniela Seel: The room seems immediately so different when you enter, we could start with that straight away. Various steps of different processes and utensils can be seen here – can you perhaps say something about what is going on here and what will happen.
Kinga Tóth: Ok. I should perhaps start with the texts. These texts on the floor all have a lot to do with water. That’s why we chose to work together. There was a CON_TEXT discussion round, not blind dates exactly but more like two minute dates – and for us it really was an immediate match.
Doro Billard: A topic which made us both think, “that’s exactly what I’m about”. And that’s where the obvious idea came about that we would work together. Kinga’s texts, so clearly about water, about women in water, in basins, about a woman who jumps into a tank, the whole theme of girls’ bodies, women’s bodies, it all really spoke to me.
KT: Well all authors write about water, all graphic designers or visual artists do something with water, water is a topic like, I don’t know, like stone. However, how we work with water, how we think about it, how we belong to water, which is to do with breathing, what water actually is, inside and outside, where the boundaries are. And things like tradition or waistlines, many things come to mind.
DB: Water surfaces, rippling images, what a reflection in water is, what peering into water really means…
DB: At the same time, I had the theme of girls and daughters and what the memories of the body are, the girl’s body, what body memories are. The illustrations also came about out a feeling of not being able to let go. Drawing surfaces of water has something to do with unease for me and with, well – something which I cannot easily put into words. And that is why I was so interested in reading about and receiving Kinga’s texts. What is this condition of a flood for example? … I had a picture of two little girls by the river Elbe, looking at the playground underwater. A slide just protrudes out, a swing floats above it – and that’s how we thought about a situation with washing, with clothes that are being washed or dyed, these colours which come from below and move up into the material, into the paper. This is our prototype.
KT: She has been having a bath since yesterday and she will be until Tuesday and then we will see what happens to her.
DB: This afternoon we are going to build some new clothes and put them in various bowls of colour. And the texts lying over there will go on the wall, and the illustrations as well. And we are going put on a little performance – with a bathtub. (Laughs)
KT: That comes on Monday. And so to the question, what does a girl do with water? From outside and from inside. And we wanted to observe – if it is possible – how people can perceive water and dampness from inside and from outside, with which sensory organs. And so we chose movements, like washing for example, breathing differently, drowning of course, submerging, swimming – which we both struggle with… We found it very important that it is an element of our body, the human body is composed so much of water and we have such a longing for it. Why do we want to go to water? It is a personal story but also a collective story. We have to go back somehow. However, in order to go back, we have to breathe differently, completely repurpose our body parts, but that means drowning. We thought about these things and that is how we came to the tub. That’s where washing comes in, because the movement helps, because it is motorised. It is also good for the storytelling, I mean these monotonous and recurring elements and cycles. And it also has a lot to do with femininity. There are these water marks – when is water good and when is it dangerous? And so we both agreed on these lines, which are very important, also in swimming pools, where there are always warning signs. Up to here it is ok, then comes the secret, the sinister, and the dangerous, whatever is down there, we know nothing about it. And our women’s bodies are built in the same way, we have a wasteline and – Doro, can we talk about that? You have children…
DB: Yes, the word came up because I was talking about giving birth. Birth is pulling a child out of water, and making a breathing being out of this water being. And that is strange – you see I found pregnancy itself a strange condition, but also how society treats you and the hospitals… I found it totally absurd when I was told that after childbirth, you should not take baths anymore. That means that dirt should never come into contact with the sacred breast, with milk, because it is all really terrible. This suggestion, that there really is good and evil, that they should be kept totally separate, that this line really exists, and we should not take baths anymore, because down there we are actually dirty and up here we should give milk to our child please. I thought, what millennium does this suggestion come from?
DS: I would have thought it would be the other way round, you should not take baths because the water is dirty and you might get an infection.
DB: Exactly. But I was still given this suggestion, because part of the body is dirty, not that the water is dirty, but rather I myself would make the water dirty with my lochia.
DS: Oh right, you mean in a swimming pool.
DB: No, in a bathtub. I should only take showers.
DS: I thought it was not a good idea to take baths because it affects the body’s ability to self-clean, because of the water and everything else that the body is doing to clean itself and the result can be a life-threatening infection.
KT: That would make sense. But tradition, tales passed from women to women, tell a different story, in Hungary as well.
DB: Also, what midwives say. I was completely shocked by this suggestion, I did not understand it, I had to ask what they actually meant. And what is means is that blood should not come into contact with milk. It is a completely moral, actually a religious suggestion, an utterly crazy suggestion, and there is nothing rational about it. And that is how we thought of the word ‘line’, and of the idea that there is a boundary in the body, that there is a strong pressure regarding hat motherhood should be, and what the relationship between mother and child should be.
KT: This idea that above the waistline is holy, because it is connected to feeding, but this creepy liquid, what would you call it? This sinister fluid underneath the water line or the waistline, we cannot talk about that, it must be concealed. Even though it is neither healthy nor logical, mothers pass that on to their children. And I also found pregnancy very interesting, although I do not have any children, because my mother is a biology teacher and since my childhood we have had ‘sick’ conversations about what a foreign body is, what a parasite is, whether or not a child is a parasite, whether a child is a fish with a different respiratory system, what happens in the womb, in this water basin, and then this child’s longing… Although we have completely different experiences, our way of thinking is similar. And this purity – perhaps I am too preoccupied with Hungary, but this representation of women really sickens me sometimes, this return to the idea of purity. How terrible is it, for example, that as a girl you lose your purity and you can get it back as a saintly mother. That is exactly what we did not want, the esoterism which is present in this representation of women, in this thought process. For this reason, it was also important for us to speak about our fears.
DB: So first of all, Kinga’s texts, which are already there, and my illustrations, which are already there come together so well that we also wanted to display them together. So we wanted to have a good typography on the wall, sometimes just short extracts from the texts, so that they could be easily read next to the pictures. Then it became a dialogue. Kinga wanted to have sound and water and a performance aspect, to have this bath and play around with it. That was foreign to me, performance and working with sound are really not my medium at all. But while we talked about having clothes hanging there, I suddenly thought about paper in coloured dye and everything became clear at once in my head. Kinga came up with an idea of what we could do with the objects in the room and how we could involve people. Yesterday while we were putting it all together, the idea came about that the people attending the workshop today could also make clothes. That is fascinating, the idea that you discover the volume of your own body by folding and sticking together something flat and two-dimensional to make a body volume. It is quite amusing. And it moves you, something quite strange happens when a stomach and a back suddenly grow out of horizontal paper.
DS: And these clothes should be made out of paper?
KT: Yes, also because of the water. We wanted to show what water could do with different materials, with skin. And paper was probably the easiest example.
DB: At first, we also thought about writing on the clothes, drawing on them, but we decided against it in the end as there were enough elements and we do not have to incorporate everything.
KT: I also wanted to show you this.
KT: I had a very clear vision: I saw us both telling stories with the bathtub, you know like old women. I thought, we are those old women who talk about everything, life, the community, and they tell everything by the water, on the river bank, while washing and while performing these mechanical movements. We have to show how we communicate, what a method or channel of communication is. Und then I really wanted to show Doro how water sounds. And as for the line. Our aim now is that everyone who enters on Tuesday enters the water, right?
DB: Yes, we had the idea of marking this room with tape, through the room on every wall, all arrows, like the line markings of high water. It is always very impressive when you are in a town and can see: 1910, up to here… There is something creepy about it, but also something impressive. And in that way we wanted to conceptually put the room under water.
KT: And the idea of sinking, how can we in some way move a static room downwards underwater? We are trying to use tape to make it clear that we are sinking. I am very interested to find out if and how this comes across.
DS: That is a fundamentally interesting aspect of working with art. It is a generally indirect form of communication. There is an audience of course, but you do not usually have any direct contact with them, except if you are performing, or for you Doro, if you meet visitors to one of your exhibitions. What do you think about this form of communication? Is it like in a relationship, first the artistic process and then when you get concrete feedback? Especially you two coming from such an explicit female position, where emotional work, relationship work have an entirely new relevance.
KT: That is a very good question. The way I perceive it is that we want to show something very natural with these artistic tools. How can you make something as natural as being in water – returning, cycles – clear with these artistic materials – tape, shellac, ink? Will people understand that it is something entirely natural, just under a magnifying glass? Or will they not understand at all? Will it move them? And we are very moved by it all.
DB: I have never something with such a performance aspect to I, and that is what really interested me about the CON_TEXT project. You meet an audience and do not only say, this is what I have done and I can talk about it but I do not have to, but you enter a room and say, ok there is a dialogue between us, we want other people to be able to take part. Things make sense to me, but they are more intuitive, the forms and aspects which complement each other. I am probably hoping that, though your medium Kinga, a greater understanding will arise, or a better comprehension, and that people from different sides will have access to the topic. That is how is has worked for me. For example a sentence such as ‘Not everybody returns to the body’. That is a really powerful sentence in my opinion, which has a lot to do with what I have done with my illustrations. That was a real addition to this image plane for me. Of course, I do not know how people will react to it, nor how people who know my work from other exhibitions will react in such a context. I am very excited.
KT: Me too. We do not want to make a big fuss. But rather just show the water and our movements with the water. Something living and an observational aspect of the theme.
DB: Although there were also surprises for me. For example, ever since this being has been in the room, this paper woman, I have been somewhat surprised myself. There is a joke somewhere, something funny, perhaps other aesthetic, associative aspects which come into play, which I had not anticipated. The whole craftsmanship, and what making a white dress actually means, is not symbolism which I wanted to include, but now it is here in the room.
DS: These surprising moments which arise through creative collaboration are great. How does it compare to usual, how have your own thoughts and approaches changed through this experience? What will you take away from it?
KT: Hm, for me definitely a sense of self-awareness. I got rid of my fears – or ‘cancelled’ them, if you can say it like that, with materials. My fear that I would break something, or cut it incorrectly. That I cannot make something perfect. How we encounter materials, the effect people have on materials. Whether we break them or how we perceive them at all, do I like to feel them, how do they react when I feel them or when I make something with these materials? I have always made more two-dimensional things. I draw but unfortunately, I do not really see things in 3D. Now I have gotten to know these materials through Doro or with Doro. Also that has completely increased my receptors, I have a totally different perception. I believe it is something psychological and, well, this endless conversation we are having. Also about scientific things, about society, society’s reaction, the perception of the body, inside and outside, that is quite brutal. I am always very tired myself in the evenings, because my body floats. And we will carry on with this. We already have plans to continue this experiment.
DB: At first I thought about this format, ok I will meet ten different people, we will do something together. But I was very surprised how within five minutes we had found many points where we already knew – oh there is plenty to say about that, we have to talk much more about that. And that has been completely confirmed. It is nice that you said you had certain fears at first, I also noticed that, fears about cutting something the wrong way or breaking something. I do not have these fears but I can understand them. I find it very exciting, because I have inhibitions with language, and definitely with the German language. I was not born a German, it is a language I have had to learn, I often find myself sweating over the different cases, and making sure I do everything correctly. I feel like I am on black ice and I think, oh God, when I am excited I’ll slip and everyone will notice that I cannot do it right. And your way of speaking completely offensively, just saying things how they are gave me courage. We will just throw something in the room and it is there. End of story.
KT: That is very kind, because I have not mastered the German language either, I just work with it. That is so cool. She is French and I am from Hungary and we are speaking German together and sometimes we have to use sign language (gesticulates, cutting) like this… and this, yes, exactly.
DS: How am I supposed to convey all your gestures and body language in this interview?
DB: I think that with pen and paper it is always a beautiful moment when you notice that you cannot do anything wrong. And with language it is the same of course. Just start working and you can always throw things away. And this feeling, so now we are making something, we cannot do anything wrong, we are just creating. I find that really nice and I find the work process very nice.
KT: Yes. And another thing, well for me at least, I do not know where it comes from, or perhaps I do know, but I always had to be able to prove everything scientifically. Or wanted to. If I claimed something, then I had to be able to prove it scientifically, otherwise it did not exist at all. And it was so good, how we were able to speak so normally, not only about intuition but also real experiences, and we did not have to prove them scientifically. In the background, there was always an element of storytelling, a collective, inherited aspect, perhaps with water, which could be connected to the topic – present subjunctive, whatever, modal verb. And that is why a foreign language was a good idea, doing everything in German. I cannot speak French, you cannot speak Hungarian and we did not want to use English.
DB: It was like a gathering in an extraterritorial area.
KT: Because we have different native languages, it was really the only way for us both to explain all the definitions to each other. What meaning do you glean from this German word, what comes from your culture and what from mine? Do we have traditions, problems with these traditions, what do the Germans do? As we are both here in Germany now. It helped us a lot, I think, when we opened the exhibition, knowing that we had observed everything from at least three perspectives, German, French and Hungarian.
DS: That would be a great approach for Tuesday, to portray lexically or etymologically different terms or concepts which are important for you both in your work. As you say, this mix of languages is a central theme in the work. If we have enough time.
DB: Yes, if we have enough time.
KT: It will become clear during the conversation I think.
DB: Regarding the conversation, you mean there are not only these things in the room but also a performance occurs based on conversation with the audience, you will talk to a few visitors about the themes?
KT: During the performance, we will communicate with each other and we want to involve people as well. Afterwards we are open for conversation, at it would be really good if we could chat to the people who come. But first we have to come down. It would not work it they are not down there with us. That is why it is very important to involve them.
DB: You mean people come inside and have to drown?
KT: Exactly. Exactly. (Laughs.)
DS: Then perhaps that will do for today. Everyone will have to experience the rest for themselves, when they come on Tuesday.
KT: Experience, that is a lovely word. Or survive! (All laugh.) And do not forget to have fun as well.