A question of truth
With her art, Nina E. Schönefeld creates something that gets lost in a world of increasing dominance of capital, a resurgence of autocratic regimes, the threat of the digital and a flood of irrelevant information: She directs our attention to the essentials. Her films and installations act as a filter that sharpens the viewers own view. This is what makes her art so relevant, far beyond the art world.
Her female heroines are activists who fight for a just and sustainable world. They fight for a change of values that is becoming increasingly imperative. From her future mystical-dystopian scenarios a ray of light penetrates the viewer, a spark of hope. In her interview with Coeur et art, Berlin-based artist Nina Schönefeld reflects on the how and why herself and fellow artists should take over the role as enlightened activists to implement an important corrective in society.
You work as a multimedia artist. Could you go deeper into that?
I work as an interdisciplinary video artist.
The future scenarios in my work are closely linked to current political, ecological and social issues in the world.
In video projects like #freejulianassange #freedomofpress #femaleheroes, #hackerontherun, #trilogyoftomorrow, #contamination, #leftwingprepper, #pandemics, #conspiracy & #enemywithin, I tell stories of political hackers, investigative journalists & environmental activists.
My focus lies on radical changes and extreme phenomena such as democracies turning into autocracies, persecution of political activists, survival techniques, hacking & whistleblowing, environmental disasters, radical digital inventions, conspiracy theories and pandemics.
My strong interest in visionary new artistic developments has led to interdisciplinary video installations.
I work with a system of different light sources, sound systems, electronic machines, newly built sculptures, costumes, interiors and video screenings. In many of the video installations, the existing exhibition space was used in such a way that the space seemed like a film set from the projected video work.
Nina E. Schönefeld at her studio in Berlin, photo courtesy Oliver Jackel
There is a certain paradox in my objects, but it is intentional.
My sculptures and interiors partly combine unconventional materials such as animal fur, fetish chains, light bulbs, black miniature tiles, vases or vessels, Asian ceramic gold dragons, luxurious fabrics, furniture parts, small computer screens and technical vintage machines. Black image objects with integrated fluorescent tubes merge into a self-potentiating wall of shadow and light. Golden glittering sculptures are mounted in an old style and illuminated by darkened light. The pictorial objects and sculptures are cult objects that rest iconically high on the wall, on bases and in illuminated glass display cases.
Here there are clearly references to Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” which I very much adore as an icon of the end of painting.
There is a certain paradox in my objects, but it is intentional: on the one hand they radiate preciousness, sparkling infinity & uniqueness and on the other hand one has associations with abyss, demise and death. A new beginning arises from death, but at the same time you think of transitoriness and decay.
When there is shadow there is always light.
Your work deals with socio-political issues. What do you think are the three big questions of this new decade?
An important question for me, in this context, is the increasing pollution & monopolization by large corporations. Today it continues to be about maximizing profits and growth, also at the risk that the environment will be completely destroyed.
My video project Trilogy Of Tomorrow (D A R K W A T E R S (2018), S N O W F O X (2018) and L. E. O. P. A. R. T. (2019)) are closely linked to these current political and ecological world issues. The Trilogy of Tomorrow tells stories of environmental activists fighting for political change, freedom of speech and nature conservation. These activists oppose the surveillance by authoritarian regimes and startup companies all with monopoly positions. This is about the system in general.
If there is no drastic system change in the near future, such a scenario is no longer entirely unlikely.
A second big question for me revolves around the increasing worldwide restriction of press and the spread of autocracies through electoral manipulation on social networks by companies such as Cambridge Analytica.
My video work B. T. R. (B O R N T O R U N, 2020), which is currently on display in the Kunsthalle Bratislava and at DIGITALE Düsseldorf, takes place in 2043 and is about the world domination of right wing authoritarian autocracies and the complete prohibition of publication. It is also about the possible extradition of Julian Assange to the US and what this could mean worldwide for the situation of independent publishers, whistleblowers and journalists in the future.
It is a very contemporary topic of our time. My film is based on a long research and I have planned an exhibition where, among other things, the documentary videos (contributions to the right-wing scene & the persecution of independent journalists) can be seen in form of a multi-channel video installation. In addition, parts of the film set are shown. The work B. T. R. is a video installation that operates in very different fields. In this project the system of my artistic work becomes clear. The practical work in the studio on sculptures and interiors belongs to my routine as well as the film shooting & editing, sound research and public relations.
Another important problem of our time for me is the increasing digitization and manipulation of future generations by tech giants (Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google etc.). Today, social media platforms enable manipulative narratives to be spread with phenomenal ease. Elections are influenced by social networks, and new generations will not be able to distinguish between truth and fake news. Children of the digital age are raised on the regular basis of manipulation programmed on a deeper level (see Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”). My new video installation P. A. R. A. D. I. S. E. is about the rush of virtual realities and the play with truth.
In your video works, politics is often the focus. It is about the dangers that arise when democratic systems erode, when autocrats take control. What is your ideal vision of future governance? What roles do women play in the game?
In my ideal vision of governance of the future, environmental activists (from Fridays For Future or Greenpeace) would have to take part in global legislatures.
Most of my video works tell stories of the future. In the Trilogy of Tomorrow, for example, I design post-apocalyptic future scenarios, where it is actually too late to fight, since nature is already almost completely destroyed.
But still there are activists who go underground to fight for a better world.
The two works D A R K W A T E R S (2018, 15:55 min.) and S N O W F O X (2018, 10:03 min.) for example – screened at the Berlinische Galerie and the Aram Art Museum in Korea – can be read as episodes in a potentially never-ending series. Dark Waters is set in the year 2029. All the oceans are so contaminated with plastic waste that they have become death zones. The only creatures still able to live there are poisonous jellyfish. The government is trying to keep this eco-disaster secret. The film narrates the risky quest for the truth by helicopter pilot Silver Ocean. Snow Fox is likewise a science fiction film set in the near future: the eponymous heroine works for a company that manipulates the weather, resulting in the spread of brain disease. Snow Fox meets a group of women fighting for the last “natural” place on Earth.
Basically, I think that if we were to involve environmental activists in the big world decisions today, it might not have to happen as I assumed in my video works.
Moreover, in my ideal vision of governance of the future, the extradition of a journalist and publicist such as Julian Assange’s should be made impossible: worldwide protection for publicists and journalists should always be guaranteed. There must be legal protection beyond the state borders, otherwise autocratically led states put journalists and politically different thinkers in jail and there is no further separation of powers in the state. That would be the end of democracy. That is why I think it is extremely important that Julian Assange is not extradited to the US. Assange has published US war crimes on the independent platform Wikileaks. Platforms such as Wikileaks are of enormous importance to our “still-democratic” states, as they are independent control bodies for the state powers.
The law of the press as the fourth power in the state must be respected.
In my film B. T. R. (B O R N T O R U N, 2020), it is the year 2043: Julian Assange was extradited, autocratic right-wing states are in power worldwide and a free press no longer exists.
I paint these future scenarios consciously in my video works in such black colors to say:
Today is the time to protest and change something. Today is the time when we “still” live in democracies.
There must also be restrictions on the large world-dominant tech companies… Electoral manipulation á la Cambridge Analytica via social media companies such as Facebook must no longer be possible and there must be an exclusion of autocratically led countries from the EU and global associations.
In my vision of the future, equal opportunities must be promoted in our society: The Black Lives Matter movement and the Me-Too movement must not remain short-term trends. The only chance for a transformation of our society, I see, in a quota regime especially for management positions.
Women have to stick together and a lot more of us have to put themselves in the front row, with all the risks. In addition, the education system needs to be fundamentally changed: more contemporary subjects should be introduced, technically and mathematically talented girls should be encouraged. A girl or woman who vigorously points out equality should never have to listen again to her being “hysterical” or perhaps a “battle lesbian.” In Germany, I would like to see a more unconventional approach to the system as a whole and more fun to develop new ideas.
That is why I also play in my films with gender roles and I question rules that are set in stone.
I set out on male-dominated areas. My film heroines are helicopter pilots, investigative journalists and environmental activists who program and repair computers leading the pack.
In my world, women are the ones who do not give up, risk their lives and change the world.
There is an interesting construct by Jeremy Bentham, the Panopticon, which allows many people to be monitored at the same time by a single guard. You could also replace the guard with the social network – which constantly has everything and everyone in view. In your opinion, what is the greatest danger posed by digital networks. Is there a protection mechanism?
Today on social media you are monitored and spied on nonstop, but most people don’t even notice or don’t find it irritating, even though with their carelessness and naivety they risk our democracies. Donald Trump would not be in power today, and Brexit might not be there if companies like Cambridge Analytica had not permanently spied on voters on social media and had directly influenced elections.
The fact that nowadays it is possible to influence the political power structure via data sales on social networks is very dangerous for our democracies.
If, for example, parties on the right, which have no democratic roots, influence voters via the payment of third-party companies on social networks, I think that is extremely worrying.
What is reality? WITH OUR FEED WE CREATE OUR OWN REALITY. In my art, I blur boundaries between fiction and reality and try to expose grievances in this way. You have to hit back with the same methods in the industry to change something about the “dilemma of social media.”
I do a lot of research on the web, including work with social networks like Instagram and Facebook. I will look at their patterns, also by watching documentaries of investigative journalists.
The good thing about interdisciplinary video art is that you can combine scientific research results, visions of the future, historical knowledge, aesthetically high-quality image worlds and trivial image worlds. I’ve never had trouble assembling large installations with a lot of technical equipment. I constantly work myself into new technical areas, video editing, camera work, storytelling. The operation of the newest video apps I taught myself. Also installing motion detectors or integrating mixing consoles: No problem. There is a tutorial for each discipline on the Internet.
Everything is conceivable, everything is allowed in my system of Internet research and publication on social media. This system causes sand to be thrown into the transmission of the algorithms by its unpredictable anarchic behavior. Only I decide, not the algorithm.
However, I can only publicly point out the abuses, really change something and incorporate essential protection mechanisms, can only politics: companies like Cambridge Analytica, social networks like Facebook and tech giants like Google need clear restrictions and rules of the international community and governments.
And we need an indestructible, independent, free press.
What is the role of the artist, how do you define your role today and in the future?
I see myself in my artist role as an enlightened, activist and pioneer and I think art is an important corrective in society. During my studies, I already worked across the media and my focus, including my doctoral thesis, was on cross-border art and on art movements that are or were looking for new ideas.
After my studies, I was not intimidated by people who thought that I should settle on one field in art only.
I have published scholarly papers, e.g. on the radical renewal of teaching at art universities, as well as shown huge multimedia installations in off spaces – even though this did not raise money and was not necessarily considered to be career-promoting.
In terms of content, I have been dealing with people of our present time who break with conventions and go to their limits, e.g. politically motivated hackers, whistleblowers, survival specialists, investigative journalists and environmental activists.
All my video works play with stereotypical gender depictions placing superheroines at the center of the action. Many characters in my video productions are inspired by artists’ colleagues. In the field of visual arts, it is important, above all as a female artist, to be extremely disciplined, unconventional and assertive.
As an artist, I can combine many different areas without being strictly subject to scientific criteria, which is good and right. Nor do I have to abide by industry rules or conventions.
This can be explained by the genre film/video, for example. In my films I quote the aesthetics of various formats and genres – from blockbuster series like The Sinner to classics of film history like Clockwork Orange and Stalker to scientific documentaries, but also computer game tutorials or high-end streetwear ads by Gosha Rubchinskiy & Balenciaga. In this way, I create a visual language for these works with their topical references to global politics that is seductive yet familiar, making the scenarios all the more unsettling.
I project the need to fight for democratic rights and to withstand politically unstable times.
I project the need to fight for democratic rights and to withstand politically unstable times on a variety of my works. This development was significantly influenced by the death of my father, who was a professor of political sociology and economics, and who wrote books such as “The Anatomy of Political Scandal.” An important source of knowledge disappeared, a controversial discussion partner departed, and I became more visible as a political artist, also in order to continue our family tradition of enlightenment and political-critical thinking. The “E.” in my name stands for my father. And for my mother, who is a great example to me to this day. My mother started working as one of the first women in Berlin in the 1970s as a programmer and statistician in the data center of the Hahn Meitner-Institute. The programmer’s profession was originally clearly in the hands of women.
Which of these elements (fire, earth, water, lust, space) can you best identify with in relation to your person or your work?
Fire and water. The fire represents maximum energy for me. Black objects charred by fire have been in my work for years. From death arises a new beginning, where there is shadow, there is also light. “Never give up!”
You will find the element water in my star sign: “Pisces.” I love the sea, I’m in the water for hours. DA R K W A T E R S is one of my favorite video titles, that says a lot about my work.
Both elements belong together and have very different characteristics. They are like my multimedia video installations: there is friction, but one element does not work without the other.
Lots of sparkling bright energy with a cool dark touch of iconic death & infinity.
Which projects are you currently working on and what can we look forward to in 2020/21?
My latest project P. A. R. R. A. D. I. S. E. is a video installation with multichannel video screenings, sculptures and interiors. The content is about the difference between the experience of virtual reality in artificial spaces and the experience of physically tangible reality in nature. Although reality today often seems surreal and virtual reality is becoming more and more real, there is still a difference. It’s a question of truth.
P. A. R. A. D. I. S. E. is still in development. Some of the sculptures and parts of the interiors are finished. The filming and editing of the video works have begun but have not yet been completed. The video work contrasts artificially created high-tech shots (Greenscreen & new VR apps) with documentary like shots in nature. The exhibition visitor should feel as a part of the virtual world and can fully immerse in the reality of the film heroines. This is achieved by a sophisticated and exciting design of the virtual world in the new video work.
You can sense the cold water physically on your body and you can feel my warm hand on your cold skin.
Am Limit @Kunsthalle Bratislava on view till January 31, 2021
Here my video work B. T. R. (BORN TO RUN) and my video sculpture ART IS MY REVENGE are shown.
Artists: Silvia Beck (DE), Francisco Klinger Carvalho (BR), Chan Sook Choi (KOR), Nadine Fecht (DE), Pavel Forman (CZ), Martin Juef (DE), Martin Kocourek (CZ), Zorka Lednárová (SK), Luciana Magno (BR), Matthias Mayer (DE), Falk Nordmann (DE), Armando Queiroz (BR), Monika Rechsteiner (CH), Nina E. Schönefeld (DE), Bignia Wehrli (CH), Markus Wirthmann (DE)
Curator and author of the conception: Martin Juef / Curatorial cooperation: Zorka Lednárová / Curator’s assistant: Jana Babušiaková
The exhibition NA HRANE / AT THE LIMIT / AM LIMIT explores borders and experiences associated with borderline situations through the background of works by 16 authors from six countries. Through the selection of artworks, the curators of the exhibition refer either to personal boundary experiences or to transgressive conditions created on the basis of certain artistic strategies or approaches. Borders mark an inside and an outside, they are form building contours for existential facts. Borders are dynamic and therefore never final, only death constitutes an ultimate border.
›Facing New Challenges:Water‹ @Heidelberger Kunstverein on view till January 17, 2021
Here my video work D A R K W A T E R S is shown.
Filmic installations on the topic of water
In cooperation with the 63rd International Film festival Mannheim Heidelberg
Artists: John Akomfrah, Ursula Biemann, Julian Charrière, Cyprien Gaillard, Karrabing Film Collective, Tuomas A. Laitinen, Sky Hopinka, Sonia Levy, Tabita Rezaire, Nina E. Schönefeld, Susanne Winterling
With the exhibition ›Facing New Challenges‹, the 69th International Film Festival Mannheim Heidelberg (IFFMH) 2020 presents a new format in cooperation with the Heidelberger Kunstverein (HDKV). Cinematic works by international visual artists – on show as permanent installations beyond the duration of the festival – enter into a dialogue with narrative cinema and hence broaden the perspectives of moving image production.
As the inaugural exhibition in an on–going series, ›Facing New Challenges: Water‹ brings together international contemporary artistic works concerned with ›water‹. In view of climate change, current and expected distribution struggles, and in relation to (post–)colonial history, ›water‹ remains a crucial issue of our times. It is a symbol of the current ecological crisis, the scene of various geopolitical and ethnopolitical struggles and, as a commodity, an object of exploitation. As the largest of all ecosystems, water also functions as a fascinating habitat for a community of organisms that perform vital environmental functions. In the selected films, water appears as an object of (scientific) investigation, as a biosphere, as well as a spiritual point of reference. As diverse this range appears, as varied are the filmic practices brought together by the exhibition.
Author: Inga Nelli