Collaboration: The Feminist Artists’ Group ff
An Interview with Mathilde ter Heijne, Antje Majewski
and Katrin Plavčak
ter Heijne’s installation “Woman to Go” is currently on exhibit in the
Deutsche Bank Lounge at the Frieze Art Fair in London. And works by the
Berlin-based painters Antje Majewski and Katrin Plavčak are on
view in the exhibition “To Paint Is To Love Again” in the Deutsche Bank
KunstHalle. What unites the three women is their involvement in the
feminist artists’ group ff, which is active in all kinds of
constellations Europe wide. In a conversation with Oliver von Gustorf,
they talk about why it is important for women and men to question
||Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: What does “ff” stand for?
Originally, it stood for the fact that we’re women. “f” means “female”
or “feminine” - that’s how things began. But it can mean all
kinds of other things too. We said: We’re definitely more than one “f.”
We were actually seven f’s at first. We wrote our name fffffff.
Mathilde ter Heijne:
Yes, but it’s important not to commit ourselves to one meaning. “ff”
clearly derives from the feminist movement. But it’s okay if everyone
comes up with her own interpretation. And maybe that’s what feminism
should be: never committing yourself! One of the biggest problems with
feminism is that since this term was coined, everyone has laid claim to
it. Time and time again I talk with people who say: Mathilde, have you
read this or that book? And I say: No, I’m not familiar with it. Then
they look at me as though I wasn’t a real feminist! It’s very hard to
bear. “ff” simply says be what you want to be, whether it’s fucking,
funky or feminist.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: But it’s also about community, isn’t it?
Yes. We’re not just a loose network of artists, we make decisions
jointly. And when a new artist joins us, they have to think communally
too. Where should we get our soup for lunch? Where can we get the money
for this event? Or coming up with great ideas for things we can do
together. It’s not a platform for artists who help each other to have a
better career in the art world. We realized this at the very beginning.
“ff” is a platform on which we try to make art together, discuss things
and find out how we can act as artists. And for me personally it’s very
important that we also make art together, depart from our own work in
the studio and create something with others from the group. With
Katrin, for example, we made crazy processions together. We jointly
discussed and decided on every detail, and ultimately you can’t say who
the author is.
Mathilde ter Heijne: Maybe we shouldn’t
use the word “community,” but collaboration. Because that is what we’re
concerned with in the end. That you don’t act alone in society or in
the art world, but the emphasis is on “acting and deriving together,”
acting with one another. We invented the word “collaborative” as a noun
because we all agreed that collaboration is the key, whether it’s on a
work, a theater piece, a lecture series, or an exhibition.
And creating synergies. Though Antje just said that “ff” isn’t
conceived to relate to individual careers, for some of us that is the
case. Suddenly you have the opportunity to meet other artists who you
only knew by name previously. And maybe this gives you a boost, enables
to you to participate in more exhibitions. I don’t see this as being
negative. It’s another aspect of it.
Mathilde ter Heijne:
It’s actually also an experimental form. The experiment is: Can we
really create something together in a different, alternative art world?
We create our own rules, our own language – that’s fine with me, if
it’s possible. We create something we call free zones, a Temporary
Autonomous Zone. That is the title of our last two larger projects.
This is then truly an open space. Someone comes up with an idea and
then we try to realize it together.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: In other words, it’s also an alternative to the art system?
Exactly. And I think it’s important to not be afraid of embarrassment.
We come from an art world in which everything is always scrutinized,
and as a result a lot of freedom is lost. Our fundamental concept is
really anarchism. When I used the word “community,” Mathilde may have
not liked the fact that in connection with this word you might think:
In a community, there have to be rules and moral laws. We do have a few
rules, for example feminism and egalitarianism. And have the rule of
non-hierarchy in our work as a group.
Mathilde ter Heijne: But it’s also important to realize that feminism is not about men or women, but about society as a whole.
We could also call ourselves egalitarianists. At bottom, we are
interested not only in equality between men and women, but of course
also in equality between rich and poor, between people from different
origins, or what have you. In the future, I’d like to see us
collaborate more with artists outside of Europe. Initially, we’re going
to Poland to collaborate with many artists there. There are all kinds
of forms, but this anarchical attitude is always part of the structure.
In principle, each of us can say: Okay, I want to make something now.
And then there has to be trust: Go ahead, do it! But the basis is that
there always have to be two of us.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: The structure is actually the message.
Mathilde ter Heijne: Yes, the real message is that it’s important to try out structures that are potentially effective.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf:
If everyone does what she wants in your group, don’t problems arise?
Different people can have a different understanding of art. Also, you
invite guests to all of your events who are not from the art trade. For
your most recent exhibition Oracle
in Berlin, for example, you asked a lot of people what they think the
future will be like. There were all kinds of contributions, e-mails,
drawings, videos, installations, and some things that looked as if they
were thrown together. Can the cool people from the art world find that
Antje Majewski: But what’s good about the
whole thing is that we live inside it. We don’t see it from the
outside. So I don’t really give a hoot about what the art world thinks.
That’s not important to me. What’s important is that I have fun and
that I work with people I feel like working with.
I think those are two different things. On the one hand, what you like
yourself. And on the other, what you have to endure, what others in the
group might like but you don’t think is so hot.
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf:
That’s not what I meant. Everyone has her own taste. There are allergy
points, so to speak, where you sometimes think: We didn’t fight for
Mathilde ter Heijne: Sometimes that happens
relatively quickly. When we make something together, there is always
something in the exhibitions or projects where I think: Oh my god. But
I think it’s very important to go against the grain sometimes. Art in
the established art trade is often like a design. Another important
concern of “ff” is to make a statement in the art world. It’s not only
about feminism, but also about placing art differently in
Antje Majewski: This can’t be
emphasized enough. Our standpoint is inside, within; we do all of these
things primarily for ourselves. And we don’t make things to sell them.
That’s one big difference. When I make art for a gallery, I also make
it for myself of course, because I’m convinced that I have to make it
that way. But there is a certain economic form for this art that leads
to my being alone in my studio and producing something; I’m like an
unprotected worker in early capitalism, when there were no unions.
Health insurance is my problem, how to keep my head above water
financially is my problem. I’m at the very bottom of the hierarchy. I
went to Morocco recently – it’s like the people there who stand at a
loom and get two and half euros for their work. And behind them are all
the others, the dealers and so forth, who want to make profits.
Sometimes that’s the way you feel like as an artist. The art system is
an early capitalist system as far as the artists are concerned, because
we are in no way protected or organized together.
Mathilde ter Heijne: At loggerheads with one another.
Exactly. And due to the system, it suits everyone that things are that
way. We all have to work in our own niche and hold our own against the
others. And we have to formulate ourselves such that we are different
from the others. Every artist always has to be different, to deliver a
product that is different. This gives rise to this terrible situation
where everyone is competing, because we’re all fighting for the same
Mathilde ter Heijne: Women even more so than men.
Exactly. And our concept was simply that we all love art; we’re all
artists because we love art. And that we want to regain it for
ourselves, that we make art for each other and with each other, as a
kind of communication, as a kind of center of life, or as a kind of
exchange between us, so we can divorce our artistic practice from this
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: So you want to develop a different economy. Could “ff” be a Marxist group?
Everyone: No way!
Mathilde ter Heijne:
Marxism is a fashionable word. Combining Marxism and feminism is very
problematic, in my opinion. In every kind of communist society, the
ruling elite always consisted of white men. Marx came after Engels.
Engels was the man who studied matriarchies, and Marx based some of his
theories on his work. Our ideas have to do with the search for
alternative forms of society on various levels – economic as well as
sociological, political, sexual, and spiritual. We’re not only
anti-capitalist. Marxism leads to an ideology and we are trying to
achieve the exact opposite, to be non-ideological.
Antje Majewski: At an “ff” event I talked about Rosa Bonheur, whose father raised her in keeping with Fourier’s
ideas. She became a very successful, open lesbian artist in the mid
19th century. She took the liberty to wear trousers, left everything to
her girlfriend in her will, and had a female lion. Fourier was one of
the first feminists, in favor of a sexual revolution, of an
unconditional basic income. So I’d prefer to orient myself to Fourier
with his idea of community than to Marx.