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Documenting in Defense of Art: An Interview with Hila Peleg

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By Yun-hua Chen.

The Israel-born Hila Peleg is a curator and filmmaker based in Berlin. She is the founder and artistic director of the Berlin Documentary Forum, a biennial event (2010, 2012, 2014) which was devoted to the production and presentation of contemporary and historical documentary practices in an interdisciplinary context, as well as a critical engagement with an expanded field of practices. She co-edited Documentary Across Disciplines with Erika Balsom, a collected volume published by the MIT Press.

As a filmmaker, Peleg screened her debut feature film A Crime Against Art (2007) in many festivals and institutions worldwide, including Berlinale, Hot Docs, Centre Pompidou, New Museum and ZKM. As a curator Peleg’s curation includes solo shows, large-scale group exhibitions and interdisciplinary cultural events in public institutions across Europe. In addition to co-curating Manifesta 7 (Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, 2008) and the film program at the 10th Shanghai Biennale (2014), she also worked as a curator for documenta, an exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every year in Kassel; for the 2017 edition (documenta 14), the exhibition had a brand new location, Athens.

Yun-hua Chen of Film International had the chance to chat with Hila Peleg about her experience of working in documenta and her curatorial choices in the field of film.

How did you start getting involved in documenta? What is the most exciting thing in your work with the documenta team as a curator?

I was invited to join the curatorial team of documenta in 2014, by the newly appointed artistic director Adam Szymczyk. The invitation to participate in the conceptual development of documenta 14 meant to engage in conversation with many artists, curators and other cultural producers in many places of the world. We were reflecting upon the social and political conditions and challenges that Europe is facing today, as well as the possibilities to confront these challenges with cultural and artistic means. These encounters were inspiring and enriching in many ways. Our task was to outline a common ground across national and cultural boundaries through the language of art.

In later phases of the processes we were working closely with artists on the realization of hundreds of newly commissioned works, while at the same time identifying relevant older artistic works and historical projects together with historians and specialists for the program. The historical perspective became central for a profound reflection on how particular past events, movements or narratives have been significant in shaping political consciousness and artistic practices today. As documenta 14 was conceived and realized in two cities, Athens and Kassel, this binary framework encouraged us to address the particular perspectives within Germany and Greece.

Perhaps the most exciting phase of the project was to define the structure and form of the exhibition in the two cities, to put art works in relation to each other, and to make them accessible and yet challenging for the public from different backgrounds.

It was a joy to see the retrospective of Wang Bing taking place from June 7 till September 17 in Gloria-Kino in Kassel, as well as the exhibition of Wang Bing’s 15 Hours in EMST in Athens (which I myself enjoyed very much) and the broadcasting of Wang Bing’s films on KEIMENA. What was your thinking behind your curation of Wang Bing’s works? What would be the most pertinent element in Wang Bing’s films for documenta 14 from the curator’s perspective? How would you position Wang Bing’s works in relation to the ensemble of documenta 14?

Peleg 02documenta is a public event that was established in Germany after the devastation caused by National-socialism, some sixty years ago. Since then it has consistently shown the most advanced, and often most difficult avant-garde art, and it has also always been characterized by the critical discourse and artistic reflections upon the repressed in the society and the darker side of social developments ideologies. In this sense, Wang Bing is a typical documenta artist. I have been following Wang Bing’s work closely for several years. Our first collaboration was in the framework of the film program I organised for the 10th Shanghai Biennale. I find Wang Bing’s films highly relevant and inspiring. He developed a unique cinematic form and language to depict the very complex process of social and cultural transformation in China in recent decades. His films encourage its viewers to reflect on the human condition under political and economic forces. Films such as Ku Qian: Bitter Money (2016) and 15 Hours (2017), that follow the rural workers who moved to the city of Huzhou in Zhejiang Province to work in garment processing factories, are portraying the difficult socioeconomic conditions of life under liberal economic policies in China but also open up a space to think about the possible outcome of the economic reforms implemented in Europe and elsewhere today.

Wang Bing’s films on China’s political past, particularly the work that focused on the Anti-Rightist Movement of the late 1950s and its consequences in He Fengming (2007), Jiabiangou: The Ditch (2010), and Yizhi: Traces (2014), do echo strongly with other stories of state violence in Europe, including the contemporary history in Germany and Greece as well the imprisonment of intellectuals and artists throughout the 20 century.

The film program of documenta 14 as a whole is bold and inspiring. Would you like to talk about your choices of curation? It is extremely interesting for me to see how you are reaching out to latent cinephiles and the broader public in Greece with KEIMENA, the program of experimental documentary and fiction on the Greek public television channel ERT, especially given the fact that experimental and arthouse filmmaking is having a hard time attracting Greek audience to cinema nowadays. How did the idea of KEIMENA emerge? What are your thoughts on different channels of communications with the audience?

documenta 14 engages with cinema and film in many different ways. Beyond commissioning new works for the gallery space, we are also paying tribute to film as a mass medium. One of the main “venues” of documenta 14, therefore, is the Greek public television station ERT2. KEIMENA is weekly program of artists’ films, running for nine months. The program includes films dating back to the 1970s, recent productions and recent films by documenta 14 participants. The films curated from all continents are dedicated to current aspects of the larger civilizational/social crisis, but with a particularly strong resonance to Greece’s history and present. In selecting the films for Keimena, the most important thing to me was to raise awareness of filmmakers who work outside the commercial circuit and of their extraordinary films that are rarely seen outside festivals. Many of the films we present are cinematic essays rather than conventional films or documentaries. Some are seminal works of an independent cinema, but many are newer works, and they typically defy the conventions of genre. We broadcast films by filmmakers such as: Miklós Erdély, Claire Denis, Joaquim Pinto, Narimane Mari, Parviz Kimiavi, Romuald Karmakar, Ulrike Ottinger, Susana de Sousa Dias, Želimir Žilnik, Harun Farocki, Kidlat Tahimik, Carmelo Bene, Angela Melitopoulos, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Chantal Akerman and many others.

The recent crisis of the Greek national TV network prompted the collaboration with documenta. In June 2013, ERT’s three channels were abruptly closed down, putting some 2500 employees out of work and turning Greek public television screens black. It was only after 2 years, under the new left government that opposed the austerity policy imposed by Greece’s creditors, that ERT reopened in June 2015. This event stands emblematic for the neoliberal assault on public infrastructure in Greece, but also in other places across Europe in recent years. Therefore the collaboration with ERT also foregrounds the important role and current precariousness of non-commercial cultural institutions.

Keimena is about believing in the potential of television, as a public and therefore free service. Public platforms are more vital than ever precisely because they are not primarily market driven. Public TV can potentially counteract standardized film production and viewing habits, which dictate standardized formats, shot length, cuts per minute, narrative structure and even subject matter. Films that do not promise to be a box office success or that are considered too radical, politically or artistically, have very short lives, even if they get produced at all. They do not get theatrical releases and are rarely available beyond their successful short festival tours, and that’s a pity.

Keimena means texts, for the program we invited international film enthusiasts and experts to introduce these specific films in a short text. Thus, each film is preceded by a short introduction written by wonderful authors from around the world.

It is the first time in documenta’s history to take place in two cities since its inception in 1955. How was your experience in this “tale of two cities”? Did it affect some of your decision-making in terms of aesthetics and logistics? How does that affect the spirit of documenta in your opinion?

It was a great effort in logistical terms, but also very exciting. Keimena could only have been realized in Greece. But for me, it is too early to assess the “tale of two cities”.

What prompted you to found the Berlin Documentary Forum and what was the thinking behind it? How did your transition from Berlin Documentary Forum to the team documenta 14 go?

Peleg 03In 2009 I launched an interdisciplinary biannual event that focuses on the production, mediation and interpretation of documents, particularly cultural documents. Documents are rarely neutral, objective records of reality; they are inevitably products of interpretation, staging and framing. With that in mind, the project was set to explore how documentary narratives and images not only represent social reality but actively shape it.

Berlin Documentary Forum (BDF) was organised at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), a state public institution in Berlin, three times, in 2010, 2012 and 2014.  Lasting several days, the programs were each structured around individual artistic projects, the majority of which were specifically conceived for the event. Filmmakers, visual artists, historians, anthropologists, cultural theorists, writers, architects and curators collaborated on research-based projects and works, using heterogeneous techniques and hybrid forms. These were presented in screenings, performances, exhibitions and publications – and led to over forty projects developed by and with our participants. While working on this project, despite its multidisciplinary nature, it became clearer to me that cinematic narration engages most directly with the construction of reality and history – this is why I chose to work exclusively with moving images, film and cinema for documenta 14.

Your edited volume Documentary Across Disciplines explores the multifacetedness of contemporary engagements with documentary, especially in relation to the intersections of politics and aesthetics, representation and reality, and truth and illusion. What are your thoughts on the contemporary trend of documentary filmmaking – in these terms but also beyond these terms?

The book Documentary Across Disciplines highlights the key concern of the Berlin Documentary Forum namely the artistic engagement with conflicted realities, and cultural practices that break the alliance between hegemonic powers and representation, between systems of oppression and image production, which many times partake in sustaining them. My own sensitivity to this question has surely been formed by the legacies of fascism in Europe, and against the backdrop of the fatal historical dynamic of events in the Middle East. I have been drawn to complex cultural practices that not only engage with the problem of representation and the represented, observer and observed, with the ethical and political implications of image-making and narrative, but that would qualify as ‘living documents’ in the way that they treat reality as fundamentally fragile, unsettled, dynamic and full of contradictions and antagonisms. I’m not particularly interested in documentary practices that seem too certain about their notion of what constitutes the real, or that display an easy sense of certainty and judgement. Instead, I’m interested in how documentary and other art practices create a space where history is fragile, restless, haunting and where speculative futures are conceptualised.  The book addresses these concerns from theoretical as well as more personal, even poetic perspectives.

You have collaborated with Ben Russel on the project of “Hallucinations”, a film festival taking place in the Greek Film Archive within the framework of documenta 14. With the focus being “a declaration of cinema as an active site of resistance, regeneration, and expansion”, it is an extremely interesting crossover between different art forms, perspectives, art experiences, and concepts – ranging from 3D, arthouse cinema in its classical sense, video installation, performance, and audio installation. It is also a cross-event in the way that it combines live, cinema, and festival. Would you like to elaborate a bit on your interdisciplinary and cross-platform approach to artwork and cinema?

HALLUCINATIONS is a festival of live cinema, in other words, a performative stage for cinematic experience. Many artists today work in different media, across different formats, and also contexts. Film, in the early 20th century, was much closer to theatre and live performance, not only because the music for silent films was typically performed live. In some sense we are moving back to seeing film, especially experimental works, being staged like a live performance. It is also about animating the collective experience of watching moving images anew. The festival HALLUCINATIONS really departs from Ben Russel’s own, artistic vision of cinema, and his way of engaging and experiencing other people’s work, and how he relates to the history of cinema. The festival program therefore ranges from expanded cinema shows, and manifold screenings to durational music performances. It both celebrates and analyses cinema’s hallucinatory potential and the collective, embodied experience it generates.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film InternationalExberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.

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