Laura Schawelka: Hi Daniel. So lovely to sit down and talk to you in this format! Your recent exhibition „Beyond Limits 2“ at Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, curated by Muriel Meyer, deals with the history of the English New Town Milton Keynes, and it is filled with repetitions, copies, and quotations concerning our built environments and your own work. The exhibition consists of distinct sets of works (avoiding the term 'series' for now) yet seems incredibly cohesive. What was your starting point and how did the show come to be? Was there a specific first work in the beginning, or did several 'strands' come together?
Daniel Stubenvoll: Hi Laura! No, no, not at all. The happy moment when everything came together took quite some time.
As you said, Milton Keynes is a so-called New Town, which means it was planned and constructed from the ground up in the 1960s. A completely new city where the first people who moved in had to breathe it to life. This newfound city's marketing team tried to persuade new inhabitants to move to Milton Keynes with a set of architectural drawings by Helmut Jacoby. When I started working on the show, I was fascinated by Helmut Jacoby's book: Architekturzeichnungen 1968 – 1976, which contained these drawings. I copied and re-published it as Bootleg (2022). Gerd Hatje Verlag Stuttgart published the original in 1979 and I mostly kept it the same. The most considerable bulk of images within the publication are drawings of Milton Keynes. Those interested me the most. The rest of the images I completely blurred out. I also wrote a new foreword to contextualise my interest in the Jacoby images of Milton Keynes and their relevance today.
All of this represents a very niche interest, so it took me some time to decide how to deal with it.
LS: But isn’t art a niche interest in itself anyhow?
DS: Yes, I guess. But I think art has to deal with the present, so I tried to find parallels between the 1970s utopias and the 2020 realities.
LS: What struck me most about the images of Milton Keyes is that they follow a 1970s approach to city planning that shows the city overflown with people, like that image of the pool that is literally filled to the brim with bodies. They almost seem comical to us now, after/during Covid, but also because of their lack of diversity. What was your initial interest in it, and how did you evolve the works?
DS: I found them to be a nice contrast to 3D renderings of architectural projects today. Jacoby gave the people in his drawings personality and some form of life and importance. There is a more significant focus on the people than on the architecture. The drawn city only creates an outline for daily life. I liked that, and it kept me looking at the book for months. However, representations are an issue - I refer to this in my foreword. Everyone is white, seemingly heterosexual and abled.
LS: Another work referencing Milton Keynes is MK: 1995 vision for 2020 (2022) which consists of seven puzzle pieces printed on mirrors. It is a photographic series of sorts, extracting still images from a promotional film about the city.
In your artist talk at the Kunstverein, you mentioned a moment when a series falls apart. Can you elaborate on that notion?
DS: My series' are often continuous, giving a reading direction to the viewer. There is a physical starting point with the first image and an ending with the last image - from left to right. MK: 1995 vision for 2020 works similarly, you see single pieces of a puzzle in each image, but I am not even sure the puzzle would be complete if you put the pieces together.
Series are about exploring the strength and bond between single parts, trying to find the moment viewers almost stop to perceive the exhibited as a series anymore. This moment of uncertainty and instability in the work excites me.
The movie, from which the film stills are extracted, is a kind of educational film found on youtube. It reflects on the state of Milton Keynes in 1995 and creates a vision for the year 2020, which by now is already in the past. I found it odd, that one would say: 'here are seven talking points like 'education', 'transportation', 'city centre', 'quality of life', etc.. (see: title of each piece) If we work them out, our city will blossom.' An enjoyable city is the outcome of much more than a combination of very few problems one has to solve. And so this work is a reflection on a 25-year-old vision and invites the audience to reflect on the planning of their own city and the bond between its single factors.
LS: The first work one encounters when entering the Kunstverein is "Wall“, a site-specific intervention in the doorway that both blocks the view into the space and acts almost like an open door. It is also a piece of physical architecture opening a show that deals with architecture as a model, concept, and image. How did this work come about, and how did it influence the installation of the exhibition?
DS: I decided not to declare this wall as an artwork on the show's floorplan. I see it more as a piece of exhibition architecture. When you enter the space, there is one dominant line of sight. By setting up this wall, one doesn’t have access to this axis. It helped me re-think the space - it automatically redirected visitors to one side of the room instead of the other. The wall leaves a gap wide enough for big wheelchairs – since there is no representation of people with disabilities in the images of the perfect city, it was especially important for me not to exclude anyone from visiting. The wall spatially implements questions that were important to me when I was writing a new foreword for Bootleg (2022): Inclusion/exclusion, visibility, quality of life, and desirability of space. Hence, it also changes the social dynamics of the exhibition space.
LS: What is this fascination with architecture? All works in the exhibition deal with it in one way or another. What role does architecture play in your thought and practice? With your multifaceted approach, I guess there will be more than one answer to this question.
DS: I think the show deals with life in the city rather than architecture per se. Even that one image of a building o.T (2022) is a photograph taken in that rare moment where an empty building plot is still not in the construction process. So the golden building you see is secondary. The empty space between the camera and the building that allows me to take the photo is my motif.
We live and work in architecture. It has a tremendous influence on our lives. For example, when I was done in art school and no longer worked in a Bauhaus-style building, with lots of glass everywhere and community formation through visibility, I gradually collaborated less and less. Working in a studio building where everyone has an assigned space, and long dark corridors connect closed doors takes away the natural potential to collaborate.
LS: Speaking of collaborations and references, the oxymoronic title „Beyond Limits 2“ hints at the existence of a first „Beyond Limits“ - which is an artist book of yours. In my opinion, it is a perfectly fitting title for a show dealing with repetitions, copies, and quotations in relation to our built surroundings. It also references the issue of accessibility in architecture, a theme you have worked on before, and the discrepancies between planning and lived experience in the city.
DS: Thank you! The tiny artist book Beyond Limits (2020) is a collection of images of people cleaning skyscrapers. The images are rhythmically alternating with a series of scanned and desaturated scribbles I made during the first lockdown in 2020. Accompanied at the end of the book by a speculative science-fiction text by Naz Cuguoğlu in which people all over the world are blinded by reflections. While I was locked down at home, I observed the real people cleaning Frankfurt's financial skyline through my dirty window.
LS: What role do limits and limitations play in your work? For example, the pieces in the second room are all comprised of a limited set of materials you chose for yourself. Also, there seems to be a limit regarding to scale in them. I feel the size also has to do with this idea of scaling something down to understand it better. To get an analytical overview, like in an architectural model.
DS: These Entity Models (2022) are limited in size because they are soldered. Heat conduction of brass limits them to a certain maximum extent. My soldering iron couldn’t create more heat. Hence, each model is tiny, about 7-8 cm tall. They are also not perfectly soldered, as I only recently learned this technique. I accepted the size and embraced it for the rest of my works in the show. I only worked with brass, cork, clay and sometimes coconut mat taken from doormats, and tried to combine the few gestures of tucking, soldering and wrapping into an array of works that comes as close as possible to the moment I described earlier: the instability of the series. With these models, I reference a mix of details from past works and pieces of architecture from Milton Keynes.
DS: Scale is also something that I feel you relate to in your work. There was a moment you decided to present framed photographs or video screens on a background of even bigger photographs. For example, your show "Double Issues" (2018) at Wilhelm-Hack Museum in Wilhelmshafen. What was the moment you decided to scale up images, and why?
LS: For me, scale came with thinking about the commercial applications of photography. You can print images in any size and on any material now, and they become so omnipresent that they practically vanish from our consciousness when we pass them by. But I like these extreme enlargements that are physically almost too much to bear. They bring out the abstract and absurd side of photography. In my work, magnification and miniaturisation are often juxtaposed, underscoring this dissociation between the represented and the representation.
DS: I agree with your observation and I can see some similarities in our thinking there. Sina Brückner-Amin reflected on architecture models in a text she wrote for my upcoming catalogue „Genius loci“, in which she also remarks that architects don’t build buildings but rather approach and model the three-dimensional form with the help of different drawing, scaling and modelling techniques. The work Entity Models (2022) is still art, though, even if they are only models of art. In that sense, it is not only a limitation for me. It also shows the limitations of the act of architecture-ing.
I guess there is something with nearing the limits or pushing them to the extreme. What is the most extreme enlargement you ever did?
LS: I think that was probably the extreme close-up of a persimmon I made for „UNLUST PRINZIP“ (2018) at Kasseler Kunstverein. They had a sponsor for the wallpaper so I could really go big. There, this dissociation I mentioned really worked - it stopped being an image of a fruit and became something else entirely.
As you just mentioned your upcoming catalogue, perhaps we can finish with a word about your publications. You have made several artist books over the years, and publishing has always been part of your practice.
DS: Yes, between 2011 and 2022, I made quite a few artist books or zines. However, for the show in Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, I decided that a catalogue would make more sense since the works in the show open up a sea of references. Those reference points - a selection of works from the past seven years - can be found in "Genius loci" with an intro and a text about my first institutional show "Pyramids" (2016) at Kunsthalle Darmstadt by the curator Muriel Meyer, short texts to all the works by Isabelle Tondre, an essay about copying techniques in architecture and the original foreword in Bootleg (2022) by Sina Brückner-Amin, a historical overview for "Pyramids" (2016) by Cem Özsoy and an artistic text by Nouria Behloul.
The book is published by DISTANZ and I will celebrate its release with an event in Frankfurt am Main on the 6th of August at Café Corretto, Stiftstraße 9-17 between 4 pm and 9 pm. You should come!
LS: Of course I will. See you there and thank you so much for this talk!