Was nachher kommt, weiss keiner. What comes next nobody knows.
How does the archive come alive? Who are these people in the archive? Can we know them, can we hear their stories, can we imagine what they saw and knew and felt, can we practice empathy as we discover and organize and piece together and begin to make sense of their lives in the past? And how can the scholarly and historical archival work of finding, organizing, digitizing, and describing a massive trove from nearly two hundred years of Jewish German families taking pictures, writing letters, filing documents, arranging and sharing photographs make the leap into the sensations and the intellect and the emotions of those of us looking at the archive today, now, from the outside?
We believe that the arts, creative interventions into the archive—but deeply grounded in an intimate knowledge of the archive—open up history to the emotions, reinvigorate the aura of the materials in the boxes, challenge the orthodoxies of contemporary memorial culture as we are asked to watch words from the dusty documents of the past as they are melded into layers of ambiguous meaning, as we are asked to see photographs and letters effaced, becoming palimpsests and gaining life, demanding engagement, asking us to look twice, read more closely, hear the sounds of the past, as we are put into the minds of archivists who seek to know but learn to feel, as we learn to regard the pain of those humans in the archive.
The artworks in What comes next, nobody knows, here in the ARTCO Galerie Berlin on 31 July 2022, are made both by family members who have inherited a massive family archive, distributed like an archipelago in the spaces of the families’ dispersal and exile from Germany from the First World War through 1945. Germany. France, the Generalgouvernement in Poland. South Africa. The US. Chile. The Netherlands. The UK. And also by the outsiders, student archivists, a literary and cultural historian, a theatermaker and director, and actors. Photographer Gideon Mendel brings his practice of trauma photography to his own family’s archive as he seeks to make sense of the loss and death and displacement and exile and survival of his ancestors. Visual artist Eli Mendel uses those most basic tools of making a mark, charcoal and clay, to attack the boundaries of the pages, to fill the spaces in the archive with an intensity of emotional connection, with a kind of seeking, urging gestural hand, to draw us into the letter, the photo, the document, so we can see the bones, feel the breath, taste the tears of his subjects, who are his people. Writer Flora Milford confronts the hundreds of letters from her grandfather to her great-grandmother, letters from their common exile and survival, and the hundreds of photographs of her grandfather at play as a child in Germany, at summer camp in the US as a teenager, in the army as a new American, as well as her own memories of her Opa when she was a child, to write for us her “Letters to Opa.” And director and theatermaker Samer Al-Saber and actors Esther Geyer, Grace Lauer, and Leah Wewoda embody for us, in a one-act play, the archivists wrestling with their own ethical roles as mediators and activators of the archive.
These creative interventions bring to archive to life. This art makes connections for us that we did not know we needed. They give us memories we did not know we had.
- Gideon Mendel. The Archive We Carry: A presentation of the ‘archipelago of archives’ from around the world that form the basis of this interdisciplinary family project.
- Eli Mendel. Charcoal Tears: A series of stop motion animations.
- Humans in the Archive (a play). Created and edited by Samer Al-Saber and Scott Denham. Directed by Samer Al-Saber. Performed by Esther Geyer, Grace Lauer & Leah Wewoda. Written by the humans in the archive and Claire Chapman, Breila Fuller, Konrad Hector, Anders Holmes, Grace Isernia, Shen Luo, Eva Schooler & Nina Seijn.
- Flora Milford. Letters to Opa: Dialogue with an ancestor.
— Scott Denham