From a hippy festival in rural East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall to its current edition in the former headquarters of the Stasi, Werkleitz has come a long way. Its founder Peter Zorn spoke with Makery about this pioneering festival.
Dedicated to video and digital arts, and one of the first festivals to showcase Net art and blur the boundaries between art, science and research, Werkleitz has been challenging the world since 1993. This year, from June 18 to July 4, the festival probes the influence of technology on our society and our planet. It’s a timely topic, as Werkleitz 2021 is being held both online and on site in Halle, Germany.
Makery: What’s behind this year’s festival theme of “new world dis/order”?
Peter Zorn: The main issue is the influence of technology on our society and our planet. We want artists to develop alternatives and question their potential role in shaping people’s perception and conception of our current situation and lifestyles.
We have identified 3 spheres: the sociosphere (social, political and economic issues); the ecosphere (environmental and technological aspects); and the bodydatasphere (data measured from our bodies and senses).
In addition to guest speakers, we invited artists in residence to talk about topics related to their projects. For example, DISNOVATION.ORG will give a presentation titled Post-growth prototypes, to think about alternatives to economic growth on a planet with limited resources. Now is really the time to think about and make decisions, because tomorrow it will be too late.
Werkleitz Festival Stream – Post Growth Prototypes:
What is the history of the Werkleitz festival?
We started out in the countryside in 1993, in the small village of Werkleitz, which the festival is named after, nestled in a valley with a river. We rebuilt an old house from 1991 to 1993, then we began as a small community. Later we created the Werkleitz association and held our first festival. It was within a limited circle, and pretty hippy at the time.
Since then, we’ve had festivals on the themes of fragmented society (Sub Fiction) in 1998, the evolving notion of work (real[work]) in 2000, and Community of Surplus in 2002, which was celebrated in the media as the “documenta [German contemporary art exhibition] of the east”.
Very early on, as early as 1998, we started investing in the Internet, because since 1994 we had a connection in the village through the computer center. We asked Joachim Blank, himself a pioneering Net artist, to create an online show with other pioneer artists for Sub Fiction, which became one of the first exhibitions of Net art.
In 2004, we settled in Halle and continued with two more biennials—Common Property in 2004, and Happy Believers en 2006—before changing to an annual format. In our online archives you can still find many films from our old biennial programs and festivals.
Then we established a special format called Move to show projects from the EMARE network of residences. Since 2018, we have expanded this program with the new European Media Art Platform (EMAP). Each member of the network hosts one residency per year with 11 projects per year, so we’ve had 44 projects since the beginning of EMAP.
The festival takes place in the former headquarters of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security in Halle. Does this space have special meaning for you?
The concept is always to find an abandoned site and to prepare it to receive the festival. This is generally equivalent to three months of construction.
This building is very special, it was used by the German Stasi from 1971 until the reunification in 1989. Afterward it was used briefly by the University of Halle, and then the tax department. It’s a very good feeling to take back this space, which was used to control and oppress the population, and occupy it with culture. It’s a very large space, with a theater that can accommodate up to 300 people, as well as a big kitchen and a restaurant, offices, a roof terrace… We have commissioned a documentary on the history of this space, but unfortunately it will only be available in German.
This year’s edition will be held both in real space and streamed online. How did that change the organization of the festival? How did you ensure that it would be a pleasant experience for the viewers?
We’ve had to change the festival organization several times, and we’re trying to be as flexible and as hybrid as possible. The artists have been very creative. For example, Adam Donovan and Katrin Hochschuh completely redesigned their project Empathy Swarm.
Originally there were 50 small robots planned for the exhibition. Visitors would wander among them, and the robots would react with empathy, approaching or shying away. As we no longer knew if we could receive visitors, the artists created the concept of Telehabitats. The performance is now entirely online, and people can remotely control up to five robots, while the rest of the swarm reacts according to them.
“Empathy Swarm Documentation” by Katrin Hochschuh and Adam Donovan, 2020:
For the project Seeing I, Mark Farid planned to do a virtual reality performance of a few days in the lives of people who had made a previous recording of their daily lives in 360 degrees. The artist, who is based in London, was unable to come to Germany, so he created a new concept. Now he is focusing on his protagonists and making them accessible online for viewers, rather than himself. First he asked people around the world to record themselves in 360 degrees with a camera embedded inside a pair of glasses. Then we show these sessions on our website, so online viewers can now enter the lives of these people through a VR headset. We felt it was relevant to question our own situation, our isolation. It’s an opportunity to share the experience of someone on the other side of the world, to experience a variety of nationalities and everyday situations that we might not be exposed to otherwise.
We also made podcasts with the different speakers, artists and scientists. There are many artists’ films available on the website throughout the duration of the festival.
Sunday there will be a hack of the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 by the Austrian self-proclaimed “Digital Disarmament Movement” Total Refusal. For Red Redemption – A Brute Marxist Class Analysis, they will play a live game with a critical reading of working classes through this medium. The artists appear in the game as avatars. This should be quite fun.
More on the Werkleitz festival website