A conversation with Carla Åhlander
A conversation between Carla Åhlander and Janine Sack
/ The Private Underground
The conversation is about Carla’s work “Perspectives”, which is currently shown at the subway station Schwartzkopffstraße (U6) as part of the project “After Work – Art Underground” by NGbK, Berlin and took place before the instalment of the work.
Janine Sack / Could you describe the work?
Carla Åhlander / I am showing enlarged photos of double spreads from diaries I have collected in the area. It wasn’t easy to get hold of people’s diaries. I didn’t really think of that before I started! Obviously many people don’t want other people to read their diary. I put up notes, I asked in Volkshochschulen and schools, but didn’t find any diary that way.
Then by chance I met a Danish woman, who lives in the area. We shared a taxi to the airport and she asked me what I do, I told her about the project and asked her if she by any chance writes a diary. And she said, “Actually I do”.
I later went to see her and she lent me her diary. The idea was to try to describe a place through the stories of individuals who live there. I wanted to give a portrait of a place through people’s different points of view, their private thoughts about things. Rather than through an official history.
Anyway, through this taxi acquaintance I got in touch with a man who had a large amount of diaries, and so it went on. Later on, I met another woman here in Berlin who herself runs an archive of diaries. From there I chose two diaries, very different from each other, and it turned out that the woman running the archive had a very interesting history, and of course has been keeping a diary herself for many years…
Sack / How did you select the diaries, respectively the spreads?
Åhlander / I didn’t want to use more than one image per diary or author in the exhibition. I wanted different people and circumstances combined together.
I didn’t have clear criteria in the beginning. Or at least my idea was rather fictive and when I got the material, I just started out with some entries, which were interesting to me. And then I began to choose them, so they started to contextualize each other.
The very first diary I collected belonged to a very sweet and humble man whom I met through another project I was working on in the Ruhr area, and it was from his time in Berlin as a soldier and then as a prisoner just after the war. The entries are extremely short and concise, never more than one line per day, which in combination with the emotionless, matter-of-fact tone and the harsh reality he writes about, make them seem almost conceptual.
Another of the diaries that I included was from November ’89, and I liked the fact that it was telling about a time to which everyone in Berlin can relate, in one way or another. And that made it very exciting for me, suddenly having all that significant common history represented by personal experience. It also looked a lot different than I could have expected.
Sack / Did you start off with a concrete idea?
Åhlander / I couldn’t have an exact idea of what I would find. Instead I was curious to find out what people actually keep of the public chains of events of a certain time, in their private writings. Is the official history visible when people write to themselves? Or is it only personal life that is reflected in these books?
Sack / Was it important for you that these stories reflect something about the space?
Åhlander / It was important to the project that the diaries were written here, in Berlin, that one would feel close to the authors that way – same place, just another moment in time.
But I didn’t specifically try to find entries about Berlin. That was never a priority. Then of course it was an important step to use the public space for something as private as diaries. I obviously had an enormous amount of pages to choose from. My only criteria were to choose something that seemed interesting, authentic and engaging. It had to be intriguing in some way. Otherwise why put it up on a billboard?
Sack / Since it is all fragments, it is only a glimpse of people…
Åhlander / So I tried to select pages that would be intriguing enough to make you think further yourself. And that would still work taken out of their original context and put out in the public like this, extremely enlarged.
Sack / So there is this really interesting tension between the intimate and the public, which you create by showing the diaries in the public…
Åhlander / There is a very fragile element in the diaries, very precious; it is not like any other book. Somebody wrote this for him or herself, it wasn’t meant for you. And to be able to enter this still very private sphere… I think that most diaries are actually meant to be read, fundamentally they are a form of communication. I went to this archive of diaries, and there was a box of books by a woman, who seemed to have had a really lonely life, but wrote all these diaries and this is what is left of her, and it really was a fantastic read.
Sack / Do you write a diary yourself?
Åhlander / I used to, when I was younger, and I started again a bit, during the process of this project. I can see how it can have an important function in life. How we reflect ourselves, how even self images and identities are created and reflected back onto us… even if we write sometimes just to clear the head.
Sack / Would you say that it is an inner dialogue?
Åhlander / I think it is generally more unfiltered than any other writing.
Sack / I think a lot of people read other people’s diaries when they start writing their own and maybe there are formulas in writing diaries … So it is very individual, but also very over individual. It reflects a certain time and culture as well. And this tension between the private and the public makes it so interesting as material.
Åhlander / I think you are right. Even if there is a formula, people use it very differently. There is something essential in common, but as it comes to what they write and whom they have in mind when they write is very different.
The woman who wrote about ’89 writes about these events but still connects it to her personal story. And I guess that’s inevitable in a way, that you reflect the world that you live in, both the personal and the society around you. The time and place they were written often shine through the texts, and other things like social class, age, sex… The expectations on life that teenagers have, the self criticism… how identities are being constructed and confirmed through these mirrored expectations. Lots of things that could be themes in themselves.
Sack / Is there a slight voyeurism or guilty pleasure when reading the diaries in a public space?
Åhlander / For sure there is at least some voyeurism and pleasure! When I was reading all these diaries I felt like they were screaming to be read. I didn’t feel I was doing anything forbidden publishing these diaries, on the contrary, I strongly felt that I was doing it together with the authors. It felt like I had come close to them. I got to know them a bit while I was reading their diaries – and I read a lot more than I had to for the project.
Sack / Since this is exactly what the viewer doesn’t get, the continuation of the story, how important is this cliffhanger moment to you? What happens to the viewer’s curiosity?
Åhlander / I don’t think you ever get the end anyway, so it doesn’t make such a difference. And also my aim wasn’t to tell a person’s story. I wanted to give other pieces of information, different images to make a whole, as something new.
Sack / What happens with all these aspects in the exhibition, when people read it?
Sack / What happens when you get the fragments together?
Åhlander / I hope that this tension that is created between private and public will still be there and that people will be intrigued with the different diaries when they are there, in the subway station. If they are, I am satisfied. I would love it if the commuters would read from a diary every time they pass through, after some time they will maybe notice different details than the first time.
Sack / I can imagine what might happen that people reflect back to their own stories, especially since it is fragmented. Especially since it is not personalized, it might reflect back to your own thoughts.
And also because it is in transient space these fragments might create some kind of community within the viewers.
Åhlander / Absolutely. I think you will reflect yourself automatically.
Sack / To come to a more formal aspect: You have taken photographs of diaries. You are usually working with photography.
Åhlander / Initially I thought I would just scan the diaries, but early on I realized that photographs created the room around the books as well. It gave them some context and detail through the surface, the material they lay on, then the handwriting. A photo tells much more – about the room, the situation, the person who is writing, her or his age. That as well is about recognizing, just like the thoughts that are expressed, you might recognize a material and this way you allow yourself to identify much more.
Sack / Was it a very different way of working for you?
Åhlander / Yes, totally. Because it involves close contact with people who were unknown to me just a moment ago. But now talking about it, I realise that it is slightly similar to when I made interviews – I made this work where I interviewed women and I asked them all the same questions: Is there something you miss in the public discourse? Is there something you might have wanted to be said? And then they gave their answers, often private experiences, which we then brought out in the open – something that was not there, but maybe should be.
Sack / It is a different method, but a similar idea?
Åhlander / Similar idea I guess, but very different outcome.
Sack / In your photographic series there is this intimate moment as well, when you watch a certain scenery, which is very unstaged, but you form it in a certain way so that it becomes a nearly filmic situation. In a way I can see a similar interest in looking at something very small and then taking it out of the context and putting it into a certain format, so you see it differently.
Åhlander / You are maybe right. But I never get very close to people when I take photos. Maybe also doing this project – even though it is very intimate – it is still anonymous, I take it away from the people.
Sack / You say that you don’t get very close to people. Nevertheless I – as someone who has seen many of your images – have very strong memories of certain gestures of people in your photos. I feel there is something very specific captured about them.
Åhlander / Most of the time when there are people in the pictures, I don’t know them. I always tell my students that whenever and whatever you photograph, you photograph yourself. So maybe it is me that you see.
„Perspectives“, 2013 (© Carla Åhlander)
„Perspectives“, 2013 (© Carla Åhlander)