a project by kaj osteroth & lydia hamann

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RADICAL ADMIRATION – dialogue piece

KAJ: The two images presented in this show[1] are a continuation of a project started in Berlin this summer. It features a book for youngsters, introducing feminist, female or female (dis-) identified artists who have crossed our way (in shows, through research, by friends or in persona) and whose work we admire.

It is worthwhile specifying some matters right away: We are already quite firm in the practice of admiration. We consider this practice a strong tool of affirmation, it is work working against the odds, so to speak.

We began our discussion by talking about so called ugly feelings, identifying them as part of our mutual experiences within collectives but also as part of the daily routines we go through (being addressed as females, being taught certain ways of being and feeling in family, school and other institutions). One of these ugly feelings we have identified as more or less tabooed insofar as it is not right or appropriate to feel it, and which at the same time is strongly identified as a female phenomenon, is envy. It is not necessary to mention all the movies, myths, fairy tales, or sayings that repeat the idea of the envy driven female who takes this feeling to various extents, some even turn out to be fatal for the person at stake.

At the same time one learns that envy is a sin (because the bible tells us so), that it is not a feeling which one ought to have or it is at least a feeling that one should feel ashamed of (shame though is a feeling that is not considered ugly even though it tricks the person who suffers from it into uncomfortable situations as well).

We worked our way through the idea of envy as an empowering tool. The moment you do not see envy solely as a negative force, but rather as something that implies admiration, the perspective shifts entirely. Turning envy into admiration, for example by envying someone (for her/his attitudes, sneakers, looks or stories) might allow for identifying with something other than oneself and through checking it out, playing with it and copying it, one learns to go beyond one´s own expectation, one adds on and distinguishes differences and likenesses and gains new ideas until perhaps through a playful incorporation of the admired “it” things can actually change, a person develops and finds solutions for the lack or void once addressed through envy.

OK, we have worked on this notion and we’ve not only developed several works on it[2] but also looked at it closely within our practise of collaboration. Who is we? Lydia Hamann and Kaj Osteroth, a feminist painter collective based in Berlin, collaborating since 2007.

We chose painting as the medium for joining our experiences, ideas, and strategies into images. The images reflect situations we know or aim for. And this again has many layers, which we might distinguish throughout the text, and which are a strong foundation for the book we are working on.

Lydia, Perhaps you want to continue here with the political aspect of our research/collaboration/book?


So for us the research/collaboration/book is meant as an empowerment tool. Just recently we encountered more and more picture books on artists biographies (lots of them for children) and as much as we like all these dudes we find that none of these biographies are actually about female identified artists. We spoke about this a lot, contextualising it with our upbringings and the fact that, if there was art at all, it always was about men.

SO maybe we came to feel as men, as we have been identifying ourselves with them, their individuality and creativity, their way of making sense, of making another story. In fact to hear of a female position in art was never happening, also in art history and art school a female artist was the complete exception. The much wider and richer perspective of the female artist was really only disclosed to us pretty recently.

I think it is this excitement that pushes our project, and that drives its awe and thankfulness for all these female artists, and for the ones who wrote about them, admired them and who were hanging out with them, creating something together. Put simply, the idea that underlies this work is the following:

When I was a teenager, what would have been the book that best supported and empowered my search and my growing process? In particular, we focus on artists who are still very much neglected or marginalized in both mainstream academia and in educational contexts at the middle and high school levels, but also artists who happen to mean a lot to us personally[3].

We found that the art of women actually tackles issues that we found difficult to deal with or that were completely underrepresented and neglected when we were growing up. These were things like gender inequality, feelings, poverty, mysticality, birth, childcare, institutional critique from a racial and gender perspective. Moreover art history also very often denies readings of artwork from a feminine perspective. Just the other day this story of Duchamp and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhofen came up again, which tells of how he stole her artwork, the fountain, and “became” world-famous. So I think we were interested in questions about how we want to represent these artists and their amazing impact. We felt that the writing of history is so flawed by idealising a male, independent, genial position right now. (Guess that has to do a lot with capitalism.)

SO its also important to think about what to admire, and to choose very well what you want to copy and to leave all other envy behind. It is important to think about how to admire and how to write these stories. Very often when positions make it in the art market they are stripped of their context, showing them in genial/crazy light, as if everything came to them alone. Is it because it sells better that way? It’s so much more interesting to learn about who shared those thoughts, destinies, and desires, and who entered together in friendships, also friendships that cross-fertilized. This is so inspiring to us, as we go along together and at the same time we are individuals, we make two folds and we speak to each other in opposition.

Could you go on? Maybe about how working on this together is a personal journey, a radical pedagogical concept, because it denies the usual western author position?

KAJ: Another take would be saying that since there were hardly any female artists on offer for us to strongly identify with in our youth in Germany (east and west), it was difficult to actually envision a living as an artist even though there was a strong eagerness to actually express oneself and be creative. At the same time there had been almost a panic to look at or identify with too feminine images, or images that would deal intensely with female feelings and frustrations. This was obviously adopted and copied as the tone of the day.

So again, as Lydia already framed it, it boils down to the very fact that the feelings, subjects, subjectivities and gazes that one was allowed to copy and aim toward where mainly male. And somehow it feels like it is a great job and hard work to allow the self to escape these assumptions and habits of looking AND producing. The unlearning of the so well trained understanding of good (that is male) art (and we are happy to include bad painting into our vocabulary explaining our own work) did not just happen by being creative oneself, but comes with the search for useful tools.

We studied: feminist theory, cultural studies, queer and crip theory, gender studies, anthropology, art history, etc. We took many critical positions from studies within the university and around and then applied them to our personal practices. We engaged in collective approaches, unfortunately reproducing several of the aspects we hated to start with. So we learned by questioning, we tried tools and we came across more and more artists positions that seemed to allow for identifying, also as we more and more understood what we wanted to actually be different. We came to understand that we wanted to shift things and not simply fit into the given context better. We wanted to allow for another gaze instead of just managing sharing the one given with its implied vocabulary.

That’s when we met. And started to join forces and discovered that we could actually work together tackling those aspects that we previously often had to neglect or were ashamed of. And we have been taking this road to strengthen our mutual, feminist perspective, the joined gaze, the two heads creating one image against all presumptions of the single genius creative brain, diving through feminist theory and practice, collecting from experiences and encounters on many levels: personal, throughout money jobs, in the familiar surroundings and strange places that we found close to home as well as abroad.

And by creating figures and situations together, we happened to silence some of the old voices that would ask for other more safe and male-relevant images (internal ugliness).

This book now allows us to jump from one person/artist to another, looking at their surrounding, the politics of time and space in their work, the aspects of involvement, the influences and also the struggles that have become part of their artwork. And we always question ourselves: what is important about this person, her work and ideas, what is relevant for us today? We do this not only in order to learn, but also because we can identify and take on some of these artists’ agendas.

So, working on this together denies the typical Western author position. Which of course is not our aim per se. In fact we have been particularly stressing the aspect of two female painters working on one canvas (especially when we started working together), since we felt we had to first create a big enough space for our idea.


As our project is about admiration, empowerment, representation and self-care, we always have a lot to talk about, since these things happen between people and all of our experiences are involved.

Being in the Bag Factory for the residency is pure luxury, just working on making art and exchanging moments with the artists here is just so amazing. Here in the studio house on a normal day the doors are open and everybody is just working and talking to each other in between. Building a viable community of artists to talk, love, work and struggle with is so impressive and takes so much work and endurance. Also, this year there is an incredible Lithography Print shop LL Editions included in the Bag Factory, hosted by Joe Leshoka LeGate. Printing there was so much like therapy and learning. Our process here started right away, things became real, we plunged into researching, negotiating and reflecting upon mutual and individual desires, understandings, and relations and then we more or less merged the process into a painted collage.

After Helen Sebidi and Zanele Muholi, we want to admire Tracey Rose. All three were amazing role models to show how to extend the sometimes so narrowly defined borders of art and art production. The other day we went to Zanele Muholi’s book launch at the Market Photo Workshop. It was an amazing crowd, celebrating the empowerment, representation and self-care of the Faces and Phases Project and Zanele´s impact on society as celebrating an affirmative, transforming practise. Seeking and serving to make a space for self-definition, for ecstatic relations, for political and ethical spaces.

In the studio we enjoyed time to play around and we used the creative process to alter us. We inscribed ourselves in the act of admiration. The second level of a text is not yet clearly defined – the project is still in the early stages and only takes on its shape as we go along. We love to include that people we meet during the admiration have written on these artists, lived, worked and struggled with them.

We also seek to address our own role and background as two white academically informed female speakers and artists with a mutual interest in questioning and understanding diversity within society, culture, and accessibilities to the world. Knowing that this act of speaking could remain a privileged one, it will ideally be accompanied by being reflective and attackable, by knowing its complicated and contingent production.

Friends suggested that addressing the artist we currently admire would perhaps alter the process from pure admiration into a dialogue, resulting in an exchange or perhaps a process of mutual interest. So far Martha Wilson replied and supports the idea, last week we met Helen Sebidi, who thinks each generation has to find a way and everyone is struggling according to their time and we will hopefully Skype-meet Zanele Muholi the next weeks. As we are still in the very first thrills and steps of this project, we do not know exactly were the flow will take us.

Dear Kaj,

I am curious about this new form of writing to one another, so you write something and open a question to me, and vice versa, and then we get entangled by exchanging the threads. I wonder how it will feel when we meet here? Will it be like a cadavre exquis in text form?

For me working at the bag factory on our admiration series added a completely new layer, that of working together in a context where we actually also meet the artists we are admiring and currently working on. Already in Berlin when we were working on admiring the artist Jutta Koether we felt this difficulty, or lets call it challenge, of admiring someone so close to us[4].

You put that the other day as the question of who are we to admire so shamelessly?

Speaking about this we talked about how this admiration work is a work of our feelings and desires. Desires to trace, to transform. We spoke about how this is actually hard work, because we have to be so open to ourselves, with the softest hearts touching upon all the questions that we have concerning competition, transgression, appropriation, pedagogy, situatedness, (re)claiming.

How can we frame these questions [admiration?] in an affirmative way? What does the work of the artist that we admire do to us? How do we come to see and admire their struggles, and can we understand them? We pose these questions always while circling around the questions of where are we, what do we do, and from where do we speak? These are questions that we mirror in the painting, because we paint ourselves in the - lets call it - act of admiring. Admiration, as we work with it, is performative, and it involves working with ourselves as well. We are not fixed but rather we are thinking about the idea of us in the world, with our perception, our struggles, our privileges, and our demands.

From here I can go in many directions, one direction would be to describe the process we use to come to a composition.

In our process we often ask ourselves questions about what constitutes the room we are in when admiring. What do we do, and which works will we cite?

With Admiring Zanele Muholi we came across a Text by artist and curator Gabi Ngcobo, which was very influential and which we admire as well[5]. Also we came across a very self-organized web presence, with the web sites inkanyiso.org and loads of other admirers from all over the world retweeting and reposting the photos of Zanele Muholi.

Researching in that way had a very grassroots feel, an overwhelming agency, where art and activism overlapped, and where art became activism. For us it was important to show how art institutions become a vessel to support activism. That is why we entangled in our painting an art space and an activist bubble. We were interested in showing what we call a visual literacy factory…We try to think critically and to take risks with our projects. We ask, what spaces and what movement do we envision? One of our first works, actually the starting point of our collaboration, was fleeing the arch. In that work we were interested in asking questions about how we want people to use space and to move? Which spaces do we find or make empowering?

Dear Lydia,

How are you my friend, this morning, finally a sunny one again!?

I find it very interesting addressing each other with the thoughts and threads we´ve been previously developing together – only with the little twist of one´s own focus. It might be more work for each of us, or just another kind of work, since in this way we do not speak out of a joint perspective, which we have often done in the past. We instead summarize for each other what we have understood and which aspects seem to inspire ourselves to go further. In this process we might find another way of layering our thoughts, as we will pick up and negotiate each other’s ways of writing or finding words.

And just to add another thought:

I find it crucial to mention that in this series research and admiration is serving the purpose of producing a book, a book for teenagers and for everyone who is interested in art and feminism and in challenges and empowering tools. Taking our subjectivity and admiration skills as the starting point is quite a logical takeoff point, as we´ve been working on this aspect of our collaboration for 7 years now.

You mentioned Jutta Koether who we’ve included in our admiration series – I would like to add the other names, the ones we´ve been already working on, as well as the ones we´ve been thinking of for the first volume: Elaine Sturtevant, Martha Willson, Yayoi Kusama, Jutta Koether (started in Berlin) Helene Sebidi, Zanele Muholi (Johannesburg addition)

Tracey Rose, Jane Alexander (we thought of, already did some research yet did not start composing).

Next artists from the first list are: Lee Lozano, Vaginal Davis, Maria Lassnig, Antonia Baehr, Ana Mendieta, Trinh Tin Minh-Ha, Esther Ferrer, Andrea Fraser, Hannah Höch, Katharina Wulff, Rosemarie Trockel, Sharon Hayes.

We chose carefully, democratically, with many thoughts and second thoughts, and the selection will remain open for suggestions. Our process obviously also takes turns while we go along and cross new perspectives.

Each composition is informed by the artist herself, of course, but also, as you mentioned, by posing questions about space and about our own perspective.

Our own perspective often finds its expression in a situation, that we compose or just copy from our practice, or where we get involved in the art practice of the artist. For instant the Yayoi Kusama image presents us in a very joyful moment of copying and playing as we are being inspired by one of her early New York happenings.[6]

I love your take on embodiment; maybe this is a nice addition to our situatedness, that you mentioned above, what do you think?

Hi Kaj,

Thank you for your text, and how are you? Just as a short notice before I delve into embodiment, is that I think that what also lead us to this project is wondering how much of our creative process has to do with responding to other people’s work. About being affirmative. Through our admiring and applauding of the work of an artist that we love we also learn about being artists from and also practise a way of being in the world that is much more connected. It is so amazing to allow ourselves to get inspired by all these female identified artists in their perseverance, their anger, their urgency, and their development. So we are celebrating these artists, and sometimes the greatest thing is to feel a confrontational streak, to be pushed by a certain aspect of an artwork or a positioning and then to go through that together, where you oppose me and I find something in your take worth looking at more deeply.

I think we are still figuring out what kind of artist we want to be and through that project I think we find a great way to collectively develop. For me this is a very satisfying labor, a proposition to articulate a certain way of being in the world. It’s a great empowerment tool for us right now, I hope this will transport itself, like as a powerful gesture.

Getting into this adds layers to our collective labor as well. We had a crisis where we felt that we were only producing for shows, but that raised questions about what are we doing, what do we want to do?

So we took a year off of exhibiting to just go more internal and work through the differences, the limitations, to understand more deeply our contact and our refusals. We politicised these aspects of our practice and then came up with starting this work! Our work began to embody more of what we do in our collective labor, which is mostly talking to each other, discussing and being in contact and struggling for language for our often shared experiences.

The process became a work of translating these moments to our painting processes and embodying the space of the canvas or paper together (from personal experience something that freaks most people out btw). I feel that looking at the many ways to practise art by artists that we admire opened up manifold perspectives. We researched how these artists maintain an art practise, how do they live, what do they struggle with, how do they struggle. This led us to our own contemporary moment and since we started working together this was a responsibility we felt: responding to it! I feel that we are working within a historical tradition of radical pedagogy and this was something that we very actively try to entangle with.

We are interested in very personal concerns, such as how can we learn collectively and how do we produce art without losing ourselves, how does collective learning entangle with friendship, what enriches this practise? How to deal with dramas, eroding contexts, exploitative experiences in collective work, and financial impossibilities...

Last week we met Helen Sebidi who spoke to us about how much was against her being an artist[7]. We were shocked and then also so impressed by how she worked through this, by making art and by developing a certain gaze to view these resistances, these hindrances. I loved her take on institutions, degrees[8], her observations on dynamics in self-organized and state-organized art centers and all that! And she also advised: Enjoy drama!

Hi Lydia,

Enjoy drama has become both advice to us as well as a space for us – especially since we have been looking at diversity/difference (you are not me, you are you and me is me) within our practise very closely and we aim to address this simple fact while creating together. This can be drama, and we understand that we need this space to find the point, or the take which works for both of us.

The collaboration therefore is on the one hand a refusal (as mentioned before) and on the other hand a strong desire to offer a different approach. It might be as simple as that. And beautifully this approach is open for many others.

I feel like we could look closer at some of the questions above. I am asking again: how can we learn collectively? how does collective learning entangle with friendship? what enriches this practise? Or rather, ask further: Why do we so strongly wish to learn collectively?

I assume, we both see in this collective approach a political aspect, that is, finding a language together that is not so much informed by institutional knowledge, but by a rather practical one, that we experience through our very own being in the world and through those stories we hear and read and can somehow identify with.

We find it crucial to learn how to reread history, including different sources of knowledge, allowing a subjective approach, and questioning the rules applied. Learning collectively is a very intimate thing, as it also needs some trust, openness and a great deal of patience. Listening, allowing the other to stumble and take off in weird ways finding her way back to capture something on her very own, sharing it, allowing this very fragile moment to inform the conversation and give it a new twist.

As this is hard work, we find ourselves entangled in this loop of friendship, work, closeness and again professional distance, as in the very end we also do not feel the same or come across the very same experiences. We each lead lives on our own and will also take the shared moments in very different ways and to very different settings. We allow ourselves, though, to depersonalize our observation/ or use our observation discretely. We give it a bigger frame, relating it to politics and transfer it into manifestations and strong requests. This is where we find that this learning collectively applies and finds a very successful or rather beautifully strong moment of touching ground! Speaking with Yayoi Kusama: You are a dot!

[1] this situation (a guest show); an exhibition by Visiting Artists Marie Fricout, Lydia Hamann & Kaj Osteroth, 26.11. – 03.12. 2014 at Bag Factory Artists´ Studios, Johannesburg, South Africa

[2] www.fleeingthearch.org

[3] This also includes regions and struggles that have been invisible to Western art history practices and writing history.

[4] We have been discussing, if admiration has a different quality, or comes with an agenda or criticism, once we believe an artist less abstract (as for instant Elaine Sturtevant passed on this very same year) or accessible (for instance we have been in touch with Martha Wilson through a job and this was quite some help for addressing her).

[5] Gabi Ngcobo: It’s Work as Usual: Framing Race, Class and Gender Through a South African Lens, 2006, (found on http://www.africavenir.org/publications/e-dossiers/revisions/gabi-ngcobo.html)

[6] With Martha Wilson we re-enact her performace Art sucks from 1976. With Elaine Sturtevant we situate in her interview-film abecedaire, where she repeats Deleuze…

[7] That is, circumstances and people, trying to stop her as a strong person, woman and artist.

[8] Quote: „who needs a degree?“