What appeared at first to be a robust tent oddly situated in a meadow in Freimann on the outskirts of Munich, was anything but. The object with the tent-like silhouette has a name—Der Fahrende Raum (the traveling/vagrant space). The project is run by the non-profit organization Kultur & Spielraum e.V., and provides an action space for art education and artistic activity1 for children, young people, and adults. The mobile sculpture-cum-architecture sat between an old people’s home and a shelter for displaced individuals and families in 2017 and 2018. The side panels of the structure open, offering a symbolic yet practical welcome. It is designed by the artists Jochen Weber and Maximiliane Baumgartner, and curated by Baumgartner. It is not just another site-specific installation, but rather place-making as a curatorial approach in and of itself.
Performances themed around the work of
I attended a series of four performances by Brigitte Fingerle-Trischler, chairwoman of the Freimann culture center; the local artists Laura Ziegler and Stephan Janitzky with Edith Sahrhage; Maximiliane Baumgartner; and Jonas Beutlhauser in collaboration with Elena Carr and the children of Der Fahrende Raum.
The VagabundInnen Landtag (vagabonds’ assembly—a play on the words land and tag = day/assembly) was the closing event of Jonas Beutlhauser’s action space VagabundInnen Treff (vagabonds’ meeting place), where he collaborated with the children of Der Fahrende Raum in various ways over several weeks as part of his practice. Play sculptures by Beutlhauser, as well as other art objects that were produced in collaboration with the children, were placed in and around the mobile architecture, and chickens were running around—all part of Beutlhauser’s setting.
The performances were loosely themed around the work of Gusto Gräser, whose life and work as a vagabond has been an important reference point for Der Fahrende Raum. Gusto Gräser was an artist, poet, alternative lifestyle pioneer, and a founding member of the Monte Verità settlement in Ascona. He also sought shelter in Munich in the late 1930s. Until his death in 1958, Gräser lived in Freimann a number of times.
There, on a Friday afternoon, I observed pre-school and elementary school-aged children thoroughly engaged in painting and using various materials. The children were accompanied by parents, grandparents, and teachers—all the non-art professionals. There were also artists, curators, and art historians—the art professionals—who probably came with the primary intention of seeing the artists’ work.
Baumgartner invited Brigitte Fingerle-Trischler, a Freimann local, to give an introduction to Gusto Gräser. She had encountered Gräser when she was a child. She recounted her impressions of his appearance and the zeitgeist of the 1950s from a child’s perspective, and read a selection of some of Gräser’s autobiographical poems, which were nuggets of wisdom wrapped up in metaphors. I thought that while the lyrics showed Gräser’s high affinity for rhymes, they did not age well.
The performance piece by Beutlhauser, performed with his collaborator Elena Carr and the children, had a choreographed routine based around some objects that Beutlhauser created in collaboration with them.2 Poetic anecdotes with an educational message were performed by the duo, showing some excellent writing skills—clearly alluding to Gräser, who never published his poems, but instead performed and/or distributed them as pamphlets.
The children participated by painting the white cloth that Carr was wearing and using her as a paint roller to stamp the pattern onto a canvas on the floor. Two of the participating children, who were supposed to do the hula hoop with Beutlhauser, did not manage to stick to their agenda and burst into laughter when one of them failed to do the hula hoop. The performance continued after they had calmed down.
Later, Baumgartner performed together with some children and other participating art pedagogues. They reenacted a documented performance by Gusto Gräser, where he asked the audience to sing the words “Hummel! Hummel!” (“Bumblebee! Bumblebee!”) This was to create an atmosphere so that Gräser could perform joie de vivre as a dance for and with them. They were wildly jumping around wearing partly painted white cloth and masks, creating a uniform look. Baumgartner read verses of a poem that Gräser wrote and distributed in Freimann around 70 years ago, while the children did the chorus.
Afterward, Laura Ziegler and Stephan Janitzky read passages from their newspaper-like artists’ publication Lob des Lobes (praise of praise). In addition to text and other images, the publication includes some woodcut graphics depicting medieval motifs of creatures resembling those of Hieronymus Bosch, and words that were performed here as cantastoria (from the Italian for story-singer; in German: Bänkelsang). These lines were performed by the duo, who invited the barrel organist Edith Sahrhage—an older lady who performed in the streets of Munich when she was younger—to accompany their reading by playing different tunes from her repertoire. Apart from the rhymes written by Ziegler, they also performed text passages from a piece that is attributed to Mozart and has some vulgar language, though it has also been performed by children’s choirs (see K233/382d). The children, who weren’t taking part in this performance, seemed to be so wholly absorbed in the rhythm of speech and the tunes of the barrel organ that they did not pay attention to the content, as the vulgar passages passed completely unnoticed.
At one point, two children started arguing—as children are wont to do—and the other children entirely refocused their attention, as well as everybody else’s, to that situation. Ziegler, Janitzky, and Sahrhage continued after the children had calmed down. Some of the barrel organ tunes were met with amusement but other tunes were entirely rejected. Most telling, the children asked Sahrhage to give an encore.
Reading sessions from the children’s book archive
by Luca Beeler (curator), Cédric Eisenring (artist),
and Carmen Tobler (book designer)
As an intergenerational action space, another event series at Der Fahrende Raum exhibited the children’s book archive/collection by the aforementioned Swiss trio, which contains books from the 1960s and 1970s. Judging the collection from a present-day perspective, the texts of these children’s books appear somewhat too challenging. Interestingly, they were deemed perfectly appropriate content for children back then; one might conclude that children were considered more mature back then. One might also conclude that the makers considered children’s books as objects that you can repeatedly turn to, to gradually understand the contents as you grow older and discover new aspects—clearly a pre-digital era attitude.
As a gesture to present the archive, apart from displaying the books, adults were invited to read excerpts of the books aloud to a mixed audience in a series of reading sessions. The books were primarily in German or English—the books in the English language could not be understood by the young ones. Interestingly, the adult audience quite enjoyed reading these fun children’s books. The children were eager to see the pictures that accompanied the texts. At the closing event of the presentation of the children’s book archive, there was another performance by Andreas Rønholt Schmidt (Copenhagen). Not being fluent in German, Schmidt was not able to understand the children’s books that were read aloud in German at the previous event—as opposed to the children who did not understand the books in English. He brought a children`s book of his choice that he had translated into German himself using his own basic knowledge as well as Google Translate, fully aware that he wouldn’t be able to check the quality of his translation. He presented the book and read his translated text aloud, which was predictably grammatically flawed. The pleasantly humorous performance was met with amusement by both children and adults. The children did not hesitate to gather around Schmidt and have a closer look at the pictures in the book. They also did not get tired of correcting Schmidt’s grammatical mistakes, and they took over his reading more and more by forming a reading-choir, somewhat hijacking his performance. Inspired by Schmidt’s reading performance, one boy, who happened to have lived in the neighboring shelter for a year, and was still studying the language and the Latin alphabet, picked up his favorite book from the collection—a book that he had been dwelling on for some time—and asked the attendees to listen to his reading.
The city center holds a tight grasp on the local art audience through a closed grid of art institutions and galleries. The diversity of the audience was to some extent because Der Fahrende Raum is situated on the outskirts of Munich, and other neighboring residential areas are inhabited with people not considered to be avid attendees of exhibition openings. The curatorial decision to create an open, welcoming, and architecturally flexible venue, in combination with family-friendly event times, changed the very premise of exhibiting performance art.
The audience’s reaction at Der Fahrende Raum was interesting to someone who usually attends exhibitions that are almost entirely frequented by art professionals. From the perspective of viewing through a Sartrean peephole (observing the children who in turn are observing art), it was apparent that there was a wide divergence between what appealed to the children, the non-art professionals and what attracted the art professionals. The children seemed to accept the performances at face value. That is, they appeared not to engage with the content but seemed to solely focus on the form of the performances. The children’s intentional or unintentional (re)actions to the performances as either co-recipients within the audience or as co-performers added a new quality to the ritual of performance reception.
Some of the non-art-professional adults seemed to think that if they hadn’t discovered a hidden meaning, then they were not understanding or appreciating the performance correctly, so they were completely passive and withdrawn.The audience is doubtlessly a cornerstone of performance art. Having co-recipients of (high-)performance art who approached it as radically differently as these children, clearly influenced the reception and is a reminder of the natural autonomy of the audience, as the co-inhabitants of the performance space, which rarely manifest itself as (re)action. One might see it as a perfect example of postdramatic/postmodern theater, but it might go beyond that. I suggest that how the children acted there does not fit the definition of response or reaction—it was not causal.
Assuming that, according to these definitions, any action by the audience that has an effect on the performative/theatrical setting is triggered or provoked by the artists or performers, then the children at Der Fahrende Raum clearly demonstrated that their actions could neither be triggered, controlled, nor predicted—they were contingent. Maybe this is what Rousseau had in mind in his letters to D’Alembert regarding the form, when he wrote that the best alternatives to the theater are public festivals where people just meet.3 Having said all that, I can’t help thinking about the specialized art education programs for children that are run by (performance) art institutions, which, in this light, seem like audience segregation to the disadvantage of the various audiences themselves. Artists might also increase awareness by exercising their influence on the institutions that are exhibiting them about how their work might be mediated. In retrospect, there are so many performances I would have loved to have seen with children.