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NEWSPAPER [02/06] - INTERVIEW WITH JUSTIN HOFFMANN

The Shedhalle Newspaper not only wants to inform about current projects and provide perspectives on the forthcoming programme but also look back on its own history as an institution. Since its founding in the mid-1980s, the Shedhalle has undergone a host of developments and changes in its programme focus and organisational structure (see editions 1 - 4). At the same time though, specific continuities have crystallised. In this interview column we ask the respective protagonists about their concepts, the problems they faced and their retrospective personal appraisal of the Shedhalle. After beginning with the very first general manager Barbara Mosca, in the subsequent editions we then interviewed the curators Renate Lorenz, Sylvia Kafehsy, Ursula Biemann and Marion von Osten. Continuing in chronological order, we have interviewed Justin Hoffman for this edition.

INTERVIEW with Justin Hoffmann
You were active as a curator in the Shedhalle team from 1997 to 2000. When one looks back at the projects you realised in these years, then two clearly delineated focal points are immediately noticeable. Firstly, contemporary forms of popular music and their social implications (If I ruled the world. Political Messages of Pop Music and its Images, 1997; There is no business like business. Pop Music and the Economy, 1998) were examined. These were followed by focusing on the media/technology nexus (Programm Fernsehen. Information, Supply, Entertainment, 1999; low tech. Cheap, Beautiful, Slower, 2000). These ‘thematic threads’ were later further pursued further at the Shedhalle and you continued to focus on them at other institutions as well. How did this specific interest come about?

Pop music, super 8, television or computer games are branches of a popular culture that, as the reverse side of the visual media, I like to relate to art. From the art perspective, I’m interested in the status and importance given to art in popular culture and our media society. And I’m most certainly not as pessimistic as Adorno and his followers. On the contrary: I refuse to condone any kind of sealing-off of art and prefer to look for the positive effects popular culture has on it, for instance in how it undermines art’s status as high and elite culture.

In 1998 you worked together with Marion von Osten on the thematic focal point ‘Economy’. The outcome a year later was the publication Das Phantom sucht seinen Mörder. Ein Reader zur Kulturalisierung der Ökonomie (The phantom seeks its murderer. A reader on the culturalising of economy) (bbooks, Berlin). The starting point of your analysis was the shift in the relationship between culture and the economy against the backdrop of post-Fordian labour and production conditions. Things haven’t necessarily changed for the better since then. Generally speaking, the Shedhalle faces the dilemma that it criticises neo-liberalist self-exploitation while at the same time reproducing similarly precarious working conditions because our restricted budget means that we cannot pay appropriate fees to project contributors. How did you deal with the situation back then and do you see any prospect for improving the situation now or in the future?

As I began in 1997 I was faced with a financial crisis characterised by cutbacks in public funding and the need to reduce debts. I tried to convey the gravity of the situation to the project contributors and gain their trust and understanding. They had become used to receiving higher fees in the years before. Most of them understood and accepted the necessity of a low budget strategy. If there is simply no other alternative, then you need not feel guilty about paying less. The crucial factors in getting low budget measures to work are a just distribution of resources and the aforementioned transparency. The financial situation of non-commercial art institutions is not going to improve given current political trends. Seen in this light, one can only be glad that there are still foundations like the Federal Cultural Foundation in Germany, which supports this form of critical cultural and social praxis.

The Shedhalle shares its origins and initial development with the Rote Fabrik and they are still situated on the same premises. In 1986 the joint organisation split and each went their own way, founding independent associations. This led to some friction, the repercussions of which were felt for some time. During your time at the Shedhalle some collaboration took place which tried to strengthen existing ties and/or establish new networks with other groups active in the Rote Fabrik. How would you judge their success and how important would you regard closer cooperation?

While I was curator we attempted to build a friendly relationship with the Rote Fabrik, we succeeded in doing so by varying degrees. We cooperated for the graffiti exhibitions, for the free radio congress and repeatedly for the factory newspaper. It was not a matter of watering down different intentions but benefiting from meaningful cooperation in cases of congruous interests.

When one clicks through the archive of realised projects on the Shedhalle website, then it is striking that several artistic positions/persons were involved consistently over a number of years, irrespective of who was curator at the time. What’s the explanation for this? In your opinion, was and is there only a smaller circle of artists/researchers/activists who were or are compatible to the thematic orientation of the Shedhalle? And how do you see this specifically in relation to the situation in Switzerland?

The number of cultural producers who work conceptually and are oriented on social issues and projects is indeed very limited, not only in Switzerland - this is due, on the one hand, to the financial temptations of the art market, and on the other, to the prevailing situation in the art academies, where such a praxis is only rarely taught. When I look at the annual exhibitions of the art academies, time and again I’m surprised at just how few students go beyond purely formal questions and have a concrete topic they really grapple with. The communicative possibilities of visual art are frequently avoided or underestimated.

And to conclude: at the moment you’re director of the Kunstverein in Wolfsburg. What are your plans for the future?

I’d like to continue to use my position to realise projects and exhibitions on socially relevant issues, and utilise the opportunities available in the rather unique city of Wolfsburg. To name one example: in cooperation with new phaeno Science Centre I’ve initiated The phaenomenale an art and technology festival with an extensive concert, music, workshop, lecture and performance programme - a kind of transmediale for northern Germany.