Protecting Amateurism

An Interview with Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, Berlin-based photographers, performers, bartenders, theater-makers about various relations: between institutions and collaboration, between physical presence and the myth of a picture, between theater and the visual arts.

Behind the giant red door number five of the “Atelierhof” in Berlin-Kreuzberg, a huge tarpaulin with imprinted bricks on it covers parts of the floor and makes us speculate about work in progress. Distributed among the room we discover some reminiscences of former work: The glossy cube with its reflecting white tiles that became prominent accompanying several exhibitions of Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff. The paper-fish hanging on the wall, that were once placed behind the counter of “Times Bar”, a legendary space they ran between 2011 and 2013. We enter a little room on whose walls of plywood hang photographs with blurred persons on them, who are present but seem incidental at the same time. We sit down with our two interview-partners.

Calla Henkel (*1988, Minneapolis, Minnesota) and Max Pitegoff (*1987 in Boston, Massachusetts) work collaboratively since attending Cooper Union School of Art in New York. After graduating in 2011 (focus on photography), they ran the „Times Bar“ in Berlin until 2013, where they opened New Theater. In this space, they reflected ideas of performance, temporality and the involvement as founders, writers and directors with a group of other young artists. 

„Creating an institution means creating a myth“: Henkel and Pitegoff’s program is one that obscures the traditional parameters of theatre, dispersing the demarcation line between fiction and reality, art and theatre, production and product by generating an intense atmosphere in a highly temporal situation. This year, they won the “ars-viva” prize for contemporary art. Contrary to their previous way of working, they will start a cooperation with a well-known institution in berlin.

We want to talk with them about branding, myth in performance and the paradox of creating intimacy while working with larger institutions.

Question: Being often introduced as photographers, but working in so many different mediums, could we say photography is something like a starting-point for your work?

Max Pitegoff: Yes, it really is a kind of basis for all of the questions we ask about performance or any other formats of art.

Calla Henkel: There is an interesting area of tension between the physical time-based performance and a picture. You can run all of these performance-projects, but you still end up with a photograph as a kind of biased archive that doesn’t exactly show anything and at the same time creates a new version of itself.

We were always excited about how it changes with time, we never show photographs from the space we’re currently running. I think performance lives in the space of myth and memory that has a kind of nostalgic.

Q: In your current exhibition “Foreword” at the Witte de With in Rotterdam, you explore the creative class’s relationship to risk, profit and fantasy based on some visits to start-ups in Berlin you did in 2013. Living in Berlin, how would you evaluate the artistic free space in a city in which the word creativity is part of the City-marketing? How does your work react to that?

CH: We actually realized that project in 2013 which is obviously not long ago but in this „tech-scene“, everything moves so fast that 2013 seems to be a decade ago. Nowadays a lot of these companies are closed or sold.

MP: The hope among these people and tech-companies in berlin has now kind of flushed away.

CH: Or it is a different version of it. There is not a lot of capital for these companies. That is always going to be the period at the end of the sentence. So they all still exist, but only in language fantasies. All these euphoric people can describe their visions and their relationship to the city but there is no product. You know there is actually nothing. These kind of scripts are something we are working with.

MP: And these scripts use this city-marketing-language that is actually very similar to some ideas of art and creativity and to a certain art-language.

CH: The structure of these businesses where you always talk, and also their problems of existence, are similar to art. And so is their language.

Q: How could this be transferred to your New Theater project?

MP: Actually, we were running on the same kind of fake language when we did the Times Bar project or the New Theater. But the really interesting point is to realize something and to dispose of that status of just magical thinking.

CH: This structure of all the self-employed people in their project-based way of working provokes that everyone becomes a narrator of his own fantasy business.

Q: Both, Times Bar and New Theater were closed after two years. Is that a trial to prevent your work from becoming a sort of institution or brand?

CH: Max and I really believe in temporality. Everything we start we also finish and at the moment of opening something we already know were going to close up before everything has become too established.

Q: But isn’t that something like a brand too?

MP: I think New Theater especially was highly branded with all the kind of logics and rules that we set up. But it actually impressed us to see that after those two years, people do rely on something like an institution. Unintentionally, New Theater obviously became one and people identified with it. The moment of closing it was actually really shocking

CH: We did this show at the Whitney Museum in New York which for us was the last project we did as New Theater, and the first time we released a book of the scripts. It was not an easy experience, because it took place outside of this idea that we had built. That actually made us solidify the relationship to how you build the rules for an institution with a community. I think an organically grown institution is a very intense funny never right process.

Q: We could hardly find any digital documentation of the inside New Theater. Why this affirmation towards the analogue presence?

CH: We were really strict about not releasing anything from ourselves. In terms of creating a new institution we also needed to create a suggestion of a myth and that was part of it: not letting one image or one video represent it. So that it lived through the fogging of fantasies about what it was or was not.

MP: To not record or not release these videos created a sort of trust between the audience and the people on stage. It was bound up with the idea that we were working with amateur artists who were super nervous to be on stage.

CH: The ideas of locality and protecting amateurism were important for what I called our organically grown institution. We are very interested in these struggles of how to represent a community in a way where they feel like they are on stage. There exists this special quality of tension, when you know the people that are performing on stage: you feel so terribly scared for them that you want to get through it very fast. This is actually what made our theater really work: that the audience was so highly turned on.

Q: Working in both formats, your pragmatic, self-made stage as well as in far more formal spaces like art-galleries: What fascinates you about theater?

CH: In exhibitions the audience is the one who is precarious, because they don’t know what they are getting, an exhibition can be anything. That is actually why we like theater, because as the audience you already know what your role is. You have already given up some of your agency. In an exhibition you can decide a lot, you can walk through it in one minute, in twenty minutes, you can watch every video or not… It is actually you what activates the space.

MP: And as an audience-member you don’t have to engage with the institution as heavily when you’re looking at an exhibition versus when you’re going to see a play.

CH: Theater makes you mentally stressed out, because it is such a commitment being stuck in that situation. That’s why I love performances. And what I appreciate here, especially in Germany, is that people really do liberate about what they have seen. The resonance after an exhibition never appears as emotional as after a play! There is this kind of disconnect, while theater has a sort of corniness that allows you to be like: I’m talking about Capitalism! In art you have to affirm Message-stuff that always is something else in the same time. There is a directness in theater that every one of us got very into.

MP: And a form of pleasure, a high on stage that is hard to get when you are making an object.

Q: It seems to be this very specific, protective atmosphere of small Off-Spaces that was part of the New-Theater-magic. Do you think it could be possible for a larger institution like the Volksbühne to create such an intense social situation?

CH: I think this happens with political parties who are used to represent small communities where everyone feels represented. You have this person performing more or less your ideas of what you think is right or wrong. The moment these parties get bigger, people feel less attached to it. It is partially about scale and permeability. At New Theater, we started a conversation about writing about art and working with art in a way that released it from its untouchableness. I think in the case of such a huge institution like VB it is important to figure out how to make it porous.

MP: What is interesting about making something larger, what is interesting in expanding a conversation that started out so intimate? That’s actually the question: How to create intimacy on a bigger scale? Volksbühne is interesting, because people do feel this strong connection to it, and representation, not in an intimate but in this institutional and ideological sense. Which is a similar thing actually, on a bigger scale.

Q: Facing cooperation with very established cultural institutions: Any ideas for prospective projects?

CH: We’re definitely interested in producing and generating scripts with people who are not actors. And we are honestly thinking about ideas of Sitcoms. That idea that you get to know something you are not actually a part of, and these people enter your lives and your brains and at a certain point you think you know them.
I guess as an outsider coming to New Theater this was actually what became the joy, to watch people get better at what they’re doing, watch the change on stage. Maybe that’s the interesting thread to pull, thinking about how to open it up. What does it mean to commit to ten people, something like a steady cast? What if it’s every month? And what if they are filmed and then become these kind of things you can enter in even if you’re not there?

MP: There again we have the question of analogue presence. We talked a lot about what it would mean to totally forget this whole idea of „no documentation“ of New Theater and starting a sort of „over-documentation“.

CH: This would also deal with the institution, using its problem to its advantage: for it is almost too accessible, no one needs to come. But as long as there’s a bar, someone will come. Between 2011 and 2013 we ran this bar „Times Bar“ where we also didn’t photograph. Instead we wrote notes in really gross books that were behind the bar, like „this person came in and ordered this or did that“. We realized that we were writing loose treatments that felt something like a sitcom with the same people showing up, having different and same problems.

MP: This book became a sort of the bank statement of a community.

CH: So these notes became the blueprints for how we were thinking about this „Kammerspiel“-idea, a story organized around one fix place you’re focused on.

Q: like a „Bar-Ensemble“…

MP: Yeah, and that is a depressing idea…but in the same time that actually is what all the plays at New Theater were about, it was always set in one small, falling apart business or community. It took some time until we noticed that we were just writing the same play over and over again.

Q: Becoming a part of already existing institutional structures: do you have certain strategies to prevent a sort of deterritorialization?

CH: This is something we’ve been talking a lot about: What does autonomy within an institution look like? We’re working on a show in the Schinkel Pavilion which for us begins to ask those questions, trying to figure out if it is possible to build own structures within a given context and then watch how they collapse or calcify.

MP: Yeah and that is also partially what doing this project in Schinkel Pavilion will be for us, a testing ground for what might be possible.

CH: To test our comfort in working with a group of people as an in-between-structure. That is actually my biggest hesitation: that Max and I end up being this kind of middle-man between whatever the institution is and all the people that we bring in. At New Theater, everything just was whatever it was, it was only as big as we could physically handle it. But it is not just one, black or white, I think these fears are material, like, what does it mean to be absorbed and reject the absorption from inside? Something we really think about is how to build a community within an institution.

Q: Does Theater need the fine arts to transform in order to prevent it from becoming obsolete?

CH and MP: No, absolutely not. Especially not in Germany. No one will save theater. You know, if anything, theater is saving us.

MP: We were sick of the structures of visual art. It is interesting, because a few years ago, people really thought dance is over, and dance is now happening in art museums. This fear seems to be branding.

CH: Theater is truly ancient, and always transportable, because all you need is bodies. But I mean, there is this conversation of „what German theater is and how to protect or save it“, and that is something we are sensitive to not have answers to, especially as Americans. That’s why we want opinions of people who also can see outside a sadness of losing something. Change happens, and it’s very easy to get caught in those emotions, for us too it hasn’t been an easy mental dialog, but…we’re getting there.


Mirjam Wittig and Sophia Gröning study Philosophy and Cultural Reflection at the University of Witten/Herdecke.