Christer Lundahl © privat

“You are here because you believe in the existence of the future. Already before you came here it started to form in your mind. But do you also believe in the existence of the past?”

“Symphony of a Missing Room” is a so-called instruction-based piece that investigates the phenomenology of memory. Since its premiere you have shown it in many different countries and museums, always adapting it to the respective space. For the next three weeks it can be seen at Martin-Gropius-Bau. How did the project first begin? What’s the idea behind it? And why did you decide to do it in a museum?

In 2009 we created this work for the National Museum in Stockholm. First we walked around in museums for some time, trying to understand how people move inside them. Both of us have a background in the arts, and we have reflected on the form our work should take. But Martina [Seitl] has her background also in choreography; she is used to making artworks for the stage. This artwork was not the first of our collaborations that emerged out of these two worlds – the performing arts and the visual arts –, but it was the first that really considered the context and expectations of the place where the artwork was shown, to be a part of the artwork itself. In the museum you have this way of experiencing things by walking around by yourself, interpreting visual language, measuring a new visual object with the ones that you have previously seen; you understand that object in relation to your very own art history, but often many people doubt their direct experience of a work and want an explanation. Traditionally, the element of time is somewhat accumulated in the artwork, and the museum is this frozen, timeless universe. The visitor brings the organic and living into this world by bringing themselves, but there is no guiding principle that deals with their experience of time. In traditional theater there is a different way of relating to experience. In contrast to the museum, you are fixed in your view; you are sitting still, looking quite often in one direction: the stage. Here, the element of space is restricted and you are provided with a sensorium that resembles Platon’s cave metaphor: illustrating that our sense or perception of reality is fundamentally based on illusion.
In a way, our art brings a sense of time – and the experience of duration in the form of a narrative – to the place of the museum. Narrative – meaning: narrative memory, which is the neurological function that makes it possible for every one of us to connect to reality in the form of past events, that make up the illusion that we are ONE individual person that lives fixed through time and space. But the artwork also brings a sense of embodiment to the experience of art: of being immersed. This artwork is not fixed, but exists more as a potential, in the interaction with an observer: the visitor. It is an open narrative, which is not a specific story, but rather a place for each visitor to situate themselves in: a backdrop, rendered by their own projections. For example, in the case of the Martin-Gropius-Bau we do not explicitly describe the history or point of view we want the visitor to have, but rather put them in the middle of the world we have created. But we do not leave them to manage everything with their own devices, they are guided through this world, all components are there. But like in a riddle we do not spell it out, instead we carve out the negative space around the subject of the artwork.
In our society and contemporary culture in general you have a lot of mediated experiences. In a world where you can have mediated experiences everywhere, reality becomes a fictionalized space. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis recently named this condition of Western civilization as “HyperNormalization“: a sense of not being able to access something that feels real.

What is it that you call the real?

To be in touch with your body and your mind, in order to not react blindly to the surrounding world. Basically, to have a window open inwards as well. This attention directed inwards can be quite useful, especially when cities and online space are designed around the patterns of consumer behavior, by the means of technology. If so much of our culture is designed and controlled by companies and economical systems – when we close our eyes, do we see our own images, how can we learn to feel something real, to choose our own way and together build up a world that is made for people, not abstract entities like corporations? I think one can easily argue that there is no such thing as the real, no such thing as the self. But I still think that at least the experience of something that feels real helps us to collaborate as a species.

How did you adapt your piece to the Martin-Gropius-Bau?

This time, adapting it to the Martin-Gropius-Bau, the piece is much more about the building and the history of the building and its surroundings. When Martina came to Berlin for research, she said that people here said that there was almost a memory gap in this building from the time after the war until the 1970s when people didn’t do anything about it, they just left it there in ruins; there were trees growing inside the building which was not accessible.

How does the specific history of the building correspond with the concept of your work?

One purpose of this kind of work is to allow people to access parts of themselves, which they cannot access in their normal psychological state.

To be able to observe themselves?

Yes, and the memories that have been stored deep inside of them which they are not conscious of.

I am curious about your relationship with the audience. This piece is pretty manipulative. There is a lot of control, a fixed program that you, as a visitor, give yourself over to, you basically lose your free will. But inside your head the imagination is running free and wild. What’s the relationship between control and independence in “Symphony of a Missing Room”?

That is an interesting question. Dependence makes you feel like a child, because you are giving up, trusting your future trajectory and position entirely to someone else. But then again you give so much space to another part of yourself that you become immersed in your experience. You are dependent on your guide, but if you accept that you can’t control where you are going, just following, it can be very liberating. I don’t think the artwork implies that you should just follow blindly, led through life, that would be silly. Rather it suggests to allow one self to be grounded in the experience of how reality manifests itself in any given moment, in order to be present and in order to better see both the past and the future.

Externally you are being manipulated while internally you are liberated… 

Yes. You are being manipulated from the outside all the time, anyway, by all kinds of forces.

But if you are so immersed in yourself, you’re shutting everything else off and you lose any critical outside perspective.

Until quite recently technology was something that changed the way we do things, it allowed us to do them in a more efficient way. It has also created devices which let us see the world in a different way, like the camera. And it changes the way we communicate and how we experience the present moment and relate to concepts like the local (which now can be anywhere and anytime). But it has in some respect remained a backdrop to our usual social behavior and set of emotions. Quite soon though this will change and fundamentally transform how we perceive the world and our emotions. And it goes quickly. The last decade is a proof of that. With the increasing use of communication technologies, our language changes and so does the way we spend time together, through tele-presence for example, and that changes the way we are able to sense and experience basic human emotions like empathy and trust.
The question is: What emotions and human qualities (from now and from the past) do we want to keep with us in the future? To comprehend things like trust and empathy you have to enter the relationship between you and someone else, I believe you have to immerse yourself into that experience.
These emotions or sensitivities are essential human qualities, and something that we, according to evolutionary historian Yuval Harari, have used since the beginning of time to regulate our communities. In the past it was gossip and word-by-mouth, today it’s user feedback and rating systems online. Since we begin to trust the statistics of big data more than our feelings and intuition there is a risk that we start to forget to use those sensitivities.
Quite often there is an assumption that art and science need to have a distanced, intellectual perspective towards things. Today there is a scientific and artistic need to understand empathy and trust, but it is an extremely floating subject that is difficult to pin down. Perhaps it can be compared to the way we used to study butterflies, by pinning them down on a wall: It does not teach us so much about the butterfly in its living state, but it is far easier to study that way. We have come to a point now where we don’t necessarily want to have nature anymore. We want to be able to construct our own realities, and at this breaking point where we can create our own realities with virtual realities or certain technologies, we are making big changes to the way we live our lives. Again, one has to think about human qualities like trust and empathy. If we don’t remember with our bodies what those feelings are, they’ll be lost. You can’t document those feelings like „this is how trust feels“, it’s something that we have to know. If we go and pass this point where empathy and trust become something that you sign and that is connected to law agreements it kind of changes a person’s intention that lay behind an action. If certain emotions, certain intangibles, are endangered – maybe this kind of work has the purpose to collect and store them for future generations.

In “Symphony of a Missing Room” you are looking at the mechanisms of memory and the archive inside of everyone, the archive of their experiences with art or in life in general – trying to alter this archive?

Not necessarily alter it. I just want to bring up what’s already there, but that you perhaps don’t have access to. Anything that anyone brings with them, their emotional baggage, might come up on the surface. But if you have read the story we produced for the Berlin version of “Symphony of a Missing Room”, maybe you enter through that specific memory, making it more specifically about the collective memory of German history and Käthe Niederkirchner. In his text, Ronald Jones makes a link between the history of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, right next to what was used as Gestapo headquarters during the war, and the personal history of Käthe Niederkirchner, a member of the Communist resistance before she was murdered in Ravensbrück concentration camp. In 1951, the street on which the Martin-Gropius-Bau stands was renamed Niederkirchnerstraβe in honour of Käthe Niederkirchner, and the lives of the museum and the woman were tied together in this symbolic act. Possibly, if you are from that generation who lived the time just after the war – maybe there are parts inside of you which are still not resolved.
It might happen that people from that generation think differently or that they access parts of themselves that they thought they’d had forgotten, but that were still there, affecting them, impeding what they could comprehend about themselves and how they allow themselves to change through life.

So it was also the location and surroundings of the museum that you found interesting to work with in this case?

It’s definitely the history of the building and its surroundings, with the Berlin Wall running right next to it. We’ve never had any version that has had this much important history written onto the building. It really changes the work a lot. I think with this version of the work we found that an artwork can help people to deal with an important, but very difficult part of their history – like a ritual passage.
Today it’s very important, because you have similar winds blowing in the US – and all over Europe. That could have been another way: to work with the space more explicitly.

You are talking about the right-wing movement?

Yes. Maybe we should have connected it more to what is happening right now as well. What do you think?

For me it’s implicit. When you think about German history, of course it relates to the present, and vice versa. Plus, we are close to the Topography of Terror, it’s all here…

Another important part of the work is to make something universal as well, something that you can relate to, no matter where you come from. Everyone has psychological attachments to all kinds of different narratives in their lives. But we don’t want to put any specific narrative to that, because in the end it’s about human qualities and why we can’t deal with ourselves. That’s why our systems are failing as well. If you want to be political, one has to look at the evolutionary background and the neurological patterns of our behavior to better understand why we create the social-economical structures that we do.

When we talk about emotions and what’s going on inside – in “Symphony of a Missing Room” there is a lot of engaging your instincts. At the same time you hear all these sounds in three-dimensional-sound via your headphones. It is technology evoking instincts. 

There definitely is a relation between technology, nature and the senses. The voice is a recorded voice, it’s not really there, but it appears to be there. In one part of the work children are running around the visitors (in their imagined museum) and shouting “no more reality”. That is actually a re-enactment of an artwork by Philippe Parreno that was part of the exhibition “An Imagined Museum” in France at Centre Pompidou-Metz, where we show another version of this work. We thought it was very suitable here at the Martin-Gropius-Bau and to the narrative of Käthe Niederkirchner, where the past and the future are not real for us who are living now, but rather a construction that we constantly measure and comprehend against the present moment and that we continuously edit every time we relive it in our mind, like a memory. This is very dangerous, because today there exist very powerful reality machines that distort the past and shape our future visions. In the beginning of our work at the Martin-Gropius-Bau we welcome the visitor with the phrase: You are here because you believe in the existence of the future. Already before you came here it started to form in your mind. But do you also believe in the existence of the past? At end of the work you leave with the question: Why is it that a star, although dead light years ago, keeps shining?

Is that the missing room?

It is the past that lives next to and inside us like a phantom.


Symphony of a Missing Room” by Lundahl & Seitl, from 27 October to 20 November 2016 at Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Info & Tickets for “Immersion. Analogue Arts in the Digital Age”