Artist, Witness, Worker
Ina Wudtke’s Testimonial Demonstrations

Elke Krasny

As the artist ushers me into her apartment and sits me down at her kitchen table to enjoy a cup of coffee together with her, even offering me some comfort food, a bowl of her home-cooked soup, in case I should feel hungry, I find myself enveloped in theis most welcoming atmosphere only a home can provide. The artist lives and works in a typical Berlin residential building dating from the turn of the last century. Yet this warm and sheltered feeling of home, is shattered as Ina Wudtke, after having taken care of her hosting duties, sits down and gives an unemotional, matter- of- fact account of her dramatically changing neighbourhood. Home no more to all those who were forced to leave. Located between Mitte and Prenzlauerberg, the rent in this neighbourhood has continually risen. Nobody lives here any longer, she states, with most of her former neighbours long gone, many artist friends among them. They were all forced to leave because they could no longer afford to pay the rent.

Wudtke, a long-term resident and close observer of the neighbourhood, has produced artistic responses to the excesses of the Berlin real estate market. One such example is her 2011 record The Fine Art of Living, a reference to the branded name of a real estate agency promoting upscale apartments that offering up the neighbourhood for consumption, and advertising the unique lifestyle experience created by those who will soon have to leave since they can no longer afford the neighbourhood, the lifestyle of which they brought into being. The artist is a first-hand witness of rising rents followed by eviction. Wudtke literally went on record with what she had witnessed. The record is one out of many different artistic practices and forms that Wudtke employs to produce what I propose calling testimonial demonstrations. The adjective testimonial refers to statements or other forms of articulation that constitute testimony. Demonstration, understood here in the following two ways: as “the act of providing evidence“ and the “display of group opinion as by a rally or march”. [1] She creates testimony that provides evidence for group opinion on issues such as uneven development and social injustice, such as the endemic housing crisis or the exploits of art effects in neoliberal urban transformation. And, at the same time, she creates aesthetic forms that allow for the display of group opinion, as it is voiced in, to give one suchfor example, rent protests which forms part of larger collective struggles for justice, and political opposition of counteractions against oppressive economic regimes. As much as her interest is to provide evidence for the present day conditions, the forms she chooses for this display of group opinion show her search for historical alignments to the radical avant-garde traditions of social protest poetry, theatre, and visual art.

Her 2011 record reveals her indebtedness to the aesthetic language of the left as developed during the 1920s and 1930s, in particular her keen interest in communism and forms, at once innovative and popular, that were specific to working class art, simultaneously innovative and popular. Her Ballad of the Landlord honours and references the jazz poetry of African-American poet and social activist Langston Hughes, who is recognized as the leader of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. In looking to historical art forms, in particular song-writing, literature, theatre, or the aesthetic language of agitprop, her interest is in activating this formal legacy to create a trans-historical alliance with the little-remembered, or ill remembered, emancipatory communist cultural legacy. Her testimonial demonstrations reveal today’s social injustice, in particular the excesses of real estate speculation under neoliberal urban governance and the function of art in public space. And, across a range of different forms, including songs, walks or gatherings, Wudtke is in searching for today’s art on the political left.

Listening to her speak about her work during my research visit to her Berlin home, I kept asking myself, if Wudtke’s artistic practice arrives at creating what Julia V. Emberley has called “a testimonial public”? [2] And, to raise the question in more general terms, has a specific strand in politically conscious practice in contemporary art on the left today adopted a testimonial function that seeks to create a testimonial public as it provides evidence on the multiple crises of neoliberal capitalism: cultural, ecological, economic, and psychic?

To understand better the importance of such a testimonial function of art it is important to consider the changing notions of the public today. In cities globally, there is an encroachment of public space in the form of privately owned public space, restrictions to the right to demonstrate, monitoring through extensive surveillance infrastructure, and boosting of commodified and spectacularized uses of such space. At the same time, the very idea of the public is fundamentally changing through social media. On one hand, social media makes it possible for everyone with access to them to tweet, post, and share their own versions of themselves and their truths and, they can create their own public following. So, the public becomes many publics with all of them publics made up of followers of individuals tweeting, posting, and sharing online. On the other hand, all these socially networked individuals taken together produce massive amounts of data useful to companies interested in buying them and mining them. Data, big data, has become a new source of resource extraction. This resource is extracted for a very specific reasons: for targeting and manipulating. Therefore, there is a dual crisis of the public today, the loss of public space due to austerity measures and privatization, and the massive manipulation of the public transformed into a collecting data. While Ina Wudtke’s work is very much concerned with the former, the crisis of public space crisis and the civic rights it stands for, it is important to render her practice legible her practice against the backdrop of the latter. Providing evidence in public space for the crisis of public space that allows for members of this public to be present together, to witness each other as they relate to Wudtke’s testimonial demonstrations, makes it very clear that this also resists the fractured publics of online followers excessively profiled excessively to mine their data.

In 2015, Ina Wudtke, together with artist Doris Frohnapfel, won a competition run by the StadtLabor für Kunst im öffentlichen Raum – Urban Laboratory for Aart in Public Space – initiated by the city of Cologne’s art advisory board and the Cultural Department. The competition had singled out the following areas Eigelstein, /Kuniberstsviertel, /Ebertplatz in the city as the sites for artists to work in. Entitled Commons & Cologne, the two artists decided to develop an entire program of different public actions which can be understood as testimonial demonstrations. Speaking about Commons & Cologne, Ina Wudtke and I have moved from the kitchen to the living room. She explains that much of her preparatory work was research. She refers to herself as investigative artist. Much of the artistic labour of investigation remains invisible to the public. Creating testimony is evidence based. The evidence has to be gathered through research, through investigation. The two artists identified Cologne’s oldest nightclub. Gentrification targets red light districts as areas in need of improvement and cleaning up. Located behind the train stations, the Kokett-Bar in Cologne’s Kunibert Quarter is currently at risk due to developer speculation that might lead to tearing down the four-story building, home to this oldest night club in Cologne, to make room for a much higher, potentially eight-story building. Posing as real estate agents for the neighbourhood, the two artists performed cabaret-style at Kokett-Bar, followingfrom a script written by Dieter Lesage, with Evamaria Schaller as a third performer. The cabaret format again demonstrates Wudtke’s interest in the aesthetic language of the period of the 1920s and 1930s with its legacy of political cabaret. Sculptor Rita McBride’s much- debated Obelisk of Tutankhamun to be installed at Breslauer Platz was at the heart of their performance Cabaret Cologne. A Play for Three Voices. The obelisk has a long legacy in the service of imperial regimes. Originally installed in Ancient Egypt to mark the entrance to temples, its monumental narrow shape typically with a pyramid-like top was then adopted by the Roman Empire. Obelisks embody power. Centuries later, their representational function was taken up by democracies, as is clearly evident from the Washington Monument in the United States of America. The Cologne obelisk is evidence of the passage of power from the political to the economic, being financed by Sparda-Bank West and gifted to the City of Cologne. The Museum Ludwig agreed to include the obelisk in its collection. Such monumental gifts occupy public space. They are one incarnation of private encroachment of public space usingthrough the strategy of gifting art which then appears to be public art. The monumental, carbon-clad obelisk represents the values of those who gift it. The obelisk was installed in 2017. The Cabaret Cologne performance took place in 2016 and drew on debates the obelisk had triggered in the cultural sections of German newspapers and magazines. Therefore, not all art that occupies public space is, in fact, public art. The obelisk is one such example for privately financed public art. This monumental gifting betrays imperial and colonial legacies through the obelisk form that was chosen and it materially, it expresses a current day the current carbon-centered economy. The obelisk was further explored by Wudtke and transformed into a sculpture under the title Mine is Yours. The artist took up the obelisk form and deconstructed it into four pieces, which were then installed on the ground horizontally. A fallen obelisk. A reformed obelisk. A horizontal obelisk in pieces. These pieces, oscillating between sculpture and public furniture, were placed on the square in front of St. Kunibert Church. A politics of horizontality is very different from a politics of verticality. The phallocentric form, and meaning, of the traditional obelisk was converted into bench-like pieces made out of wood. One can still recognise the obelisk form. The first piece has a wider base, the second piece narrows as does the third and the final and last piece ends in a pyramidoid top. They are installed in such a way as to form a circle, a form traditionally associated with equality of participation and direct democracy.

A performative walk made it possible for local residents to share their points on the urban transformation, the sell-out of housing with apartments turned into commodified objects to speculate on rather than spaces of shelter that afford reproduction necessary for not only for survival, but rather even having a life in cities. Research included testimony from citizens, observations from citizen and neighbourhood assemblies, texts written by Cologne authors Heinrich Böll and Werner Rügemer. Central to the walk was a deeper understanding of the Private Public Partnershhsip shorthand that writes the neoliberal grammar of urban space. PPPs bring to the fore the infrastructure/art division. While the public sector is expected to provide the infrastructural environmental long-term maintenance necessary, the private sector delivers the actual art piece or monument. In the case of the Cologne obelisk, the infrastructure is the invisible foundation, the anchoring in the ground. This support structure will of course be invisible, and very costly. One can easily understand from the example here that such a partnership is based on the uneven distribution of infrastructural care and surplus value. The public, the very ground an artwork rests on and the taxpayers’ money that pays for infrastructural investments and upkeep, becomes a resource to feed on for showcasing private patronage as it commissions new, often times monumental, spectacle-prone art. In the multi-part project Commons & Cologne, the title references the much debated idea of the commons. This idea was made famous through ecologist Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons, in which he argues that people deplete, and consequently destroy, shared resources through self-interest. This was challenged by economist Elinor Ostrom’s 1990 book on Governing the Commons, which expounded the idea of collectively pooled and managed resources. Wudtke and Frohnapfel, preparing for Commons & Cologne, devoted much time to reading the following two books, David Harvey’s 2012 Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, and Werner Rügemer’s 2008 ‘Heuschrecken’ im öffentlichen Raum. Public Private Partnership – Anatomie eines globalen Finanzinstruments.
Today, the crisis goes beyond this crisis caused by neoliberal production of space and resource exhaustieon, as diagnosed above. We are faced with a severe “crisis of reproduction”, as Doina Petrescu and Kim Trogal write in 2018. [3] Commons & Cologne bears witness to this dual crisis. The resources of urban land, public space, and housing are scarce, exhausted through austerity measures, shrinking because of sell-out and speculation. The reproduction for maintaining and caring for such vital resources is equally under pressure. The obelisk, broken into pieces, reused as infrastructure for public gathering or assembly, or for simply for resting in public space, are testimony to this. The testimonial demonstration pieces go beyond the display of evidence, they point to ways of speaking out, speaking back, taking back, resisting, reclaiming, using collectively.

While the whole body of Ina Wudtke’s work can be understood as a central contribution to today’s art on the left, only some of her work formally activates the aesthetic legacy of Russian Constructivism and workers’ literature. In 2017, following a period of research on Weimar Republic poetry, songs, and epigrams written by working class writers, with a particular focus on women writers, she came up with the format of Agitkas, choral speaking in public. Such Agitpoetry is intendedintented for performance in public space, as if it were possible to imagine the working class raising their voice and chanting against the unaffordability of housing, and, by extension, living. Again, as in her other projects, this is as much about witnessing today’s conditions and rendering them legible through art as it is about counteracting the loss of solidarity. Today, Wudtke says, there is a lot of exchange, but no solidarity. Today, she says, there is nobody who speaks “in our interest”. Therefore, she comes up with ways to speak out, alone and together with others, in our interest. She is a living testimony to the conditions she unpacks. Art and life, not a question of life- style, but a question of political subjectivization.

As I am about to get ready to leave after our long conversation, which could easily have gone on for many more hours, she confides that her ideal job would be as an artist- worker, for which she would be paid like other workers. She would make art, like agitkas, agitpoetry, or other forms of collectively useful forms of expression. After the door of her apartment closes behind me, I think to myself this is what a Utopian proposition today sounds like today. The artist employed as witness to the conditions of labour so she can render these conditions legible. The artist producing testimonial demonstrations so that these conditions are not only common knowledge, understood collectively, but so that they appear in such a way as people see the evidence that it is possible to think about change in solidarity.

[1] demonstration: American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved June 26 2018 from

[2] Julia V. Emberley (2014): The Testimonial Uncanny. Indigenous Storytelling, Knowledge, and Reparative Practices. Albany, State University of New York Press, p. 134.

[3] Doina Petrescu and Kim Trogal (2018): ‘The social (re)production of architecture in ‘crisis-riddled’ times’, in: The Social (Re)Production of Architecture. Politics, Values and Actions in Contemporary Practice, edited by Doina Petrescu and Kim Trogal, London and New York, Routledge, p. 1.

This text has been published previously in: Andrej Holm, Elke Krasny, Dieter Lesage, Ursula Maria Probst, Ina Wudtke, Florian Wüst, The Fine Art of Living. Ina Wudtke, Berlin, Archive Books, 2018, 192 pp. at pp. 171-177.