In Ulm und um Ulm und um Ulm herum

This German tongue twister meaning roughly “In Ulm, around Ulm, and all around Ulm” not only inspired Wolf Vostell to one of his happenings; it also features the city of my birth. But why on earth was someone from Ulm employed for the job as curator, rather than someone from Latin America who already spoke both languages?

On prejudice and an exemplary post-war democracy

Anyone from Latin America would have been hampered by prejudice. No blame intended; this is simply a fact: no one can claim to be free of prejudice, and neither can I. Anyone would have brought his or her own burden of (unconsciously) prefabricated ideas, concepts, and prejudices to the job. What I lacked, however, were specifically Latin American prejudices, such as members of my generation from the educated middle classes in Latin America have inherently grown up with.

I am a typical creature of the post-Nazi democracy in West Germany, the potentially most democratically governed country ever—as a logical, inevitable counterbalance to the Nazi regime. My youth in the 1960s and 1970s was marked by utmost freedom, openness, and democracy—the most favorable conditions for young people—without me really being aware of it. Ulm, the home of my first 18 years, situated on the Danube river, former free imperial city of about 100,000 inhabitants at the time of my youth, was one of many epicenters of cultural development in federal post-war Germany, and it was brimming with avant-garde activity. As early as 1946, peace activist Inge Aicher-Scholl—her siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed by the Nazis in 1943 for their involvement in the “White Rose” anti-Nazi resistance movement—founded the progressive community college in Ulm and led it until 1978. Together with Max Bill, she was also co-founder of the Ulm School of Design in 1953, which gained international recognition as the “Post-Bauhaus” design college and which operated until 1968. The art lover Kurt Fried opened his „studio f“ in 1959, thereby providing Ulm with a space for international vanguard art. I remember visiting the exhibition „Kinetische Objekte“ by Julio Le Parc at the Museum of Ulm in 1970, which had a lasting influence on me. And in 1964 the artist Wolf Vostell had already staged Germany’s biggest happening at the time in my native city, entitled „In Ulm, um Ulm und um Ulm herum“, which included 200 participants and a bus ride to 24 stations, among others a military airport and a stable with a cow about to calve… Ulm is also the location of Germany’s oldest municipal theater, founded in 1641 (!), and career launching pad for such noteworthy stage directors as Paul Pörtner, Peter Palitzsch, and Peter Zadek.

Ulm School of Design, (Hochschule für Gestaltung), 1955, Photography: Hans G. Conrad

Avant-garde culture and a living democracy thus formed basics of my worldview, and I was virtually incapable of imaging it otherwise in those years. Class snobbishness and racism were frowned upon, and I only grasped the true meaning of these terms and the all-embracing extent of the phenomena in Latin America. I encountered them in all countries, mostly to a rather pronounced degree. It came as a particular shock to me to learn after just a few visits to “socialist” Cuba that the Caribbean island is home to the most conservative, retro-inclined people of the entire region. One day they will seamlessly return to their pre-revolutionary bourgeois class society as if the past decades hadn’t existed. Racism and petty-bourgeoisness have simply continued to prevail even after the “revolution”.

 

Vive la distance to the object of analysis!

Far from it being a personal merit of mine, I simply possessed a beneficial distance. Not being Latin American myself, I had no inner conflicts of interest, no commitments to one side or the other; I could take up the job as unbiased as possible.

There also were no other colleagues heading this way; I was advancing into a vacuum, so to say. Neither was anyone prepared to spend the sort of money or time that were indispensable for such an undertaking of global reach, nor had anyone else come up with the idea behind it. This was not about one of those frequently invoked “visions” or even “missions”—mine was a very clear and concrete idea!

As I see it today, the amalgam of initial outsider (neither born nor brought up in Latin America, nor overly familiar with the local art production) and soon-to-become expert insider yielded suspenseful results. This setting enabled me to take both an internal and an external view, and to interlink both sides to a mutual benefit.

Of course, I was fully aware of the political dimension of our venture from the very beginning. I was making a specific, deliberate decision to engage in the art production of the Latin American continent. Colleagues from a Latin American country would have treated the art of their continent much more as a “matter of course”, as a given that is not questioned, similar to a mother tongue that has been part of the own culture from early childhood on: as something natural. My approach was necessarily completely different.

 

  1. Dear Hans-Michael Herzog , I just started to discover and r
    ead your blog and like your approach. Best, Barbara Basting

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