Written by Bettina Pelz. Published on 17 December 2022.
We are both sitting in the apartment in Downtown Tunis where Gudrun is staying during the MISE EN LUMIÈRE production, some days before the public presentation. After sunset, we checked on the sites, the projectors, and the positions of the projectors, and we found out that everything was different than planned. Gudrun stays calm, this is not her first time in Tunis. She knows that things can shift and change, and still can turn out good. She was at the INTERFERENCE residence in the summer and had collected visuals from Tunis and beyond. She had joined the INTERFERENCE YOUNG MASTERS’ exhibition and had shared some first experimentations with the local material. Aymen Gharbi, my partner in the artistic direction of the INTERFERENCE project, and I were very excited and hoped that we can build an artistic cooperation to develop video installations with her — based on visual materials from the twin cities of Cologne and Tunis.
INTERFERENCE VISITING ARTIST Tunis 2022. Photos: Gudrun Barenbrock.
For MISE EN LUMIÈRE, Aymen and I had built a team of local, emerging artists combined with the experienced artists Detlef Hartung and Gudrun Barenbrock, both based in Cologne. We had sent images, maps, and measurements, and Gudrun came well-prepared with several hard drives full of materials. Being onsite, we found out that the plans mismatch the actual buildings, that the positions of the projectors have been changed due to safety measures, and that the lenses are not the ones that were announced before. This means that Gudrun must redo all her materials. Her computer will be rendering for endless hours. We take the time to reflect on the visual materials for the different sites.
With MISE EN LUMIÈRE, for the first time, women that changed the political, scientific, technical, and socio-cultural tissue of the country are celebrated in a framework interweaving women role models and iconic sites, experimental artistic approaches, and innovative digital technologies. I am reading from the text by Najet Abderrahim which is the basic information for all artists. She has collected, sorted, and synchronized the information on the selected pioneering women that are at the core of the project — from Elyssa, the founder of Carthage in the 9th Century BC to present days politicians Najla Bouden and Souad Abderrahim, she referred to Arwa La Kairouanaise, Aziza Othmana, and Om Millel as women that influenced the Tunisian mentality. She cited the first Arab woman physician Tawhida Ben Cheikh as well as the first Tunisian woman pilot Alia Menchari. She included athletes such as Ons Jabeur and Raoua Tlili, artists such as fine artist and designer Safia Farhat as well as Fadhila Khetmi, Habiba Msika, or Saliha from the performing arts.
Introducing the National Theater, Najet wrote: “When it was inaugurated in 1902, this magnificent Italian-style theater, located on the main artery of the capital, had a huge and impressive glass roof where plants, flowers and palm trees were growing, irrigated by a stream, hence the name “Palmarium”. The spectators of the theater came to walk there, to eat during the intermissions or after the representations.” Gudrun has prepared a collection of visuals of plants, and roots, some are static, some animated. They match the Art Nouveau spirit of the building and bring back the experience to walk through some kind of vegetation when entering.
Theater. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor
For the cathedral, Gudrun prepared a video-based work that is based on filming the performance of a lens of projection while projecting a film. She recorded the performance of the beam of light instead of the imagery that is transported by it. Sequenced in a loop, and projected onto the facade of the cathedral, the abstract graphical pattern becomes a metaphor for the eternal cycle of life.
Cathedral St. Vincent der Paul. Photos: Gudrun Barenbrock
From the information about Bab Bhar, we discuss the following part: “A symbolic place, this building, which sits majestically on the Place de la Victoire, is located on the edge between the Medina and the modern city.” Gudrun wishes to feature the focus on the aspect of passing from the old to the new. In the summer, she filmed passers-by, whom she combines into a small series of people that are moving from one place to another.
Bab Bhar. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor, Gudrun Barenbrock
We are talking about all the Tunisian pioneering women, many of whom are new to Gudrun. We do additional research on the internet, watch some clips and some interviews — trying to find something all of them have in common talking about their drive, their dedication, and their persistence. The discussion influences the decision of the material that will be applied to the City Museum. They all have been on the move to something, new … what can stand for being in motion, moving forward, being transported? Gudrun decided to sequence a series of tracks into an endless loop.
City’s Museum. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor
At many times during the conversation, we check back with the text of Najet Abderrahim, in the part about the City Hall we find: “Designed by the architect Wassim Ben Mahmoud and the decorator Ismail Ben Fredj in a style that combines tradition and modernity, the City Hall of Tunis rises since 1998, majestic in its pink marble dress, on the highest point of the Kasbah, the seat of power … “, even higher is the position of the pilot Alia Menchari, who was the first female pilot with Tunis Air in the 1980s. In the summer, Gudrun filmed her departure from Tunis on the airplane. This makes the base for a visual sequence combing aerial views and photographs taken from Tunesian roof-tops to vivid animations moving in circles — as if Alia Menchari might have seen it from her cockpit while cruising over Tunis.
City Hall. Photos: Ouafa Ben Amor
While talking, Gudrun collects more visual materials from her hard drives and adds them to the image material pool she has for each site. For her, collecting, sorting, combining, and animating are intertwined processes when composing a work. Lines, surfaces, and forms are sometimes threaded together, sometimes layered. Repetitions and loops are assembled, and she develops sequences and choreographs dialogues that result in streams of images, which the artist transforms into large-scale projections. She explores arrangements and patterns, movements, and systems of interaction. “I am interested in the inside of things, the image behind the image, that which is not yet visible in the everyday appearance or image … “, the artist describes what she is looking for. She reduces the materiality of the image content and increases the light-dark contrast. She scales light and transparency values as much as contrasts. She is beholding the emerging forms and gradients, she selects, multiplies, and animates what match her guiding interest.
All images originate from the extensive archive of the artist. “Having my own archive means independence. I don’t have to ask anyone, and I can do whatever I want with the material, up to and including destroying it.” She began archiving in the 1990s. “In the beginning,” she says, “I didn’t work with videos, but only with photographs, mainly slides, for room installations with slide projectors. I started doing that during my last year at art school. That’s how the pool of photos that I still work with today came about. For the last exhibition project “Lost and Found” in 2021, I used a total of about 3000 photos from then until now.” Since the early 2000s, she has also been adding videos to her archive. With her camera, she observes natural or urban landscapes, organic as well as industrial structures, and macro- and micro contexts. In her studio in Cologne, she alters her film footage, almost everything is shifted into a black-and-white state.
When asked what she collects, she replied: “(Almost) everything. Everyday things, banal things, special things – it doesn’t matter. I can never have enough. That also has a manic component …”. She takes an intuitive approach, tracking down what catches her attention and experimenting with the interplay of an artistic eye and technical camera. “When I’m sitting on a train and I’m filming the bands of light in a tunnel caused by a moving car or the tracks, there’s an imprecision that I see as an advantage. It’s those variations that you can’t create in the computer.” She traces aesthetic phenomena created by light and shadow, by materials and traces of action, by technical function and dysfunction. “Sometimes I build my own experimental setups, recently I strapped a camera to a bicycle or built a construction that allows me to film fire and embers without destroying the camera while filming. This experimental work excites me a lot, in the best case a surprise is waiting for me.”
Since the early 2000s, she has concentrated on video art installations. She studied art, initially dedicated to painting, photography was a kind of concomitant. In the early 1990s, she began archiving and saving photographic images. Today this is her focus, she manipulates and animates photos and videos, collages, and composes visual systems. She is interested in experimentation – with cinematic materiality and technical apparatus, with time and exhibition spaces, with systems of perception and thought, and with aesthetic phenomena through which knowledge and meaning can be unveiled. The guiding principle that fills their archive is not to prevent oblivion and stop things from disappearing but to provide themselves with material for non-linear artistic research and production.
The long nights of discussion while re-rendering the materials for MISE EN LUMIÈRE deepened my understanding of how Gudrun Barenbrock is exploring new ways to create artwork that engages with her surroundings. When embarking on new artwork, she immerses herself fully in the environment, whether it’s a bustling city street, a serene natural landscape, or a project’s idea. She pays close attention to the emotions, experiences, and stories that unfold around her. By tapping into her empathy radar, she becomes attuned to the energy of the space, she states: “While working, I don’t think about possible audience at all, I don’t even care about it. My work is an offer. But you don’t have to accept it. It’s nice, of course, if there are matches – but that’s a nice bonus, not the goal of the artistic work. What’s important to me is that art must remain autonomous, that it must not be populist in its approach to an audience, otherwise it’s lost, then it’s no longer art.” Her approach to artistic research and practice emphasizes the importance of being present in the place and in the moment. Her work serves as a reminder that art can be a powerful tool for exploring the urban setting, understanding historic milestones, or reflecting on the socio-cultural fabric of the present.