Interview with Art Historian Tanja Schult

Art historian Dr.Tanja Schult (University of Stockholm) visited our research group to talk about Christoph Mayer’s The Invisible Camp – Audio Walk Gusen (2007) in her lecture entitled “What’s in a place? Locating Traces of the Past as a Strategy for Remembering Christoph Mayer’s The Invisible Camp – Audio Walk Gusen”. She discussed the relationship between past and present, Mayer’s artistic practice as a potential role model for other memory works, and the handling of the past in different places. Our fellow Shruti Malik and Nathalie Aghoro, member of our faculty, used the opportunity to interview Tanja Schult, focusing on the meanings of place, Mayer’s works, and walking as artistic practice.

 

In what way does place play a role for you as a researcher?

As an art historian I think being in place, seeing the work is almost always crucial. It makes a big difference if you see the Mona Lisa on the Internet or in the Louvre – small and out of reach, somehow lost on a big wall behind thick glass. If possible, one should try to see, experience the work in situ, in its surrounding.

As I dealt a lot with Holocaust memory and art in public spaces, place is important to me for various reasons. What is in a place? Are places contaminated by former misuses of foregone historical events? Are the places really transporting, carrying what happened there? Or is it our knowledge that lets us look at them in a different way – or do we really feel the past? I am particularly interested in the various temporalities one single place contains – as thematised in Christoph Mayer’s intriguing artistic audio collage The Audioweg Gusen. The layers of history and memory which overlap and can be experienced at once…I think that is something a number of artists I have written about take up. It is compelling that they succeed to render historic events relevant in the here and now, and make the past tangible. When it comes to monuments, the place acts again, but differently – as monuments have much to do with power, of implementing values and norms. Still, it is all about place in a political sense – who gets access, what is remembered? For what purpose? How do we live together? … – I think my interest is deeply political. Also, as I have lived in several countries for longer and shorter periods, I think about place from that perspective – what places do we carry with us, how much do newcomers shape the places they live in, when can a place be called home?

As you can see from my answers – the interesting thing with the concept is that it allows to ask questions!

How does artistic walking as a practice engage with the production or the practicing of place?

Maybe it all started when my beloved art teacher in school taught us the art of seeing – even if we had no money, he said, we could always discover so much without spending a single “Pfennig” by looking closely at the facades of the houses, the traces of history. Later on, I had some severe back problems that made me walk a lot, albeit very slowly. I guess that also made me conscious about the value of walking, of taking in.

In 2018, I attended a workshop by Peter Dickinson (Fraser University) held at my department, the Department of Culture and Aesthetics at Stockholm University. It was absolutely amazing as it was really a training in awareness – not only were we encouraged to see, closely, but to feel, with our whole bodies. Outside Academia, a similar experience happened to me when I participated in a Street Wisdom Walk in London around the same time. I realized that we in the Western world, pay too little attention to other senses than sight – smell, bodily experiences, sound, touch, and how they all mutually influence each other, particularly in academic training. I can recommend downloading a Street Wisdom Walk and experience it in your neighbourhood – I only did that once during the pandemic and wonder why I do not do this meditative practice more often as it is so simple and has such a strong impact.

I guess, all these experiences and practices were useful when writing on Mayer’s sound walk – as they enabled me to take in the work’s complexity. In Mayer’s case I felt both overwhelmed by the bodily experience I was exposed to. But I also could not help but understand the people taking the walk as becoming walking memorials, making a political statement – expressing the will to remember what had happened in and around Gusen some 70 years earlier. It is remarkable since the walk, most likely unintended, changed my notion of what a monument is. No longer a truth carved in stone as a permanent marker in one place – but an invitation to act as a temporary memorial that is activated by walking through space – thereby fulfilling the Denk-mal-function so well, encouraging others to also remember this past, to think about what it means to them today – providing critical reflection and self-reckoning. It is essential that the work is bound to that particular place where the historic events happened, and that it is choreographed so well. I strongly encourage everyone to travel to Upper Austria and experience the walk themselves.

Do you have any further advice for us practitioners of place?

I think it is an asset and a gift when you come to a new town and walk around and feel and see the city. The inhabitants communicate with you through small signs, tags, graffiti, posters, advertisements. It is fun, and yes, it is free of charge, but above all: it enriches your life.

 

See Tanja Schult’s contributions to Liminalities for more information on her research:

Christoph Mayer’s The Invisible Camp–Audio Walk Gusen | Tanja Schult (liminalities.net)

Reshaping American Identity: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its Take-Away Twin | Tanja Schult (liminalities.net)