Margarida Mendes: What led to the existence of Salon Populaire?
Ellen Blumenstein: The Salon is the outcome of many experiences, thoughts and other bits and pieces that came together at a certain time.
First of all, I had founded the curatorial collective THE OFFICE with a couple of friends/colleagues the year before Salon Populaire opened. We were in different locations where we realized projects beyond the format of the exhibition (born out of necessity, because we didn’t have any money; but also out of an interest to experiment with different formats). I was increasingly interested in exploring the possibilities of production and the productivity of art beyond the focus on the art object in a white cube. Plus at the moment I found that Berlin lacked a permanent discursive space. There are tons of project and exhibition spaces outside of the institutional context, but after United Nations Plaza closed, there was just no space where people could come together for discussions, presentations or seminars. I had liked that project a lot– but had several objections against its conception.
Then around that time, two other friends of mine, Alexander Hahn and Michael Müller, told me that they had found a space for Alex’s new gallery, but that the space was too big for one enterprise only. They would found a space they wanted to call “kunstsaele” together with two private collectors, Mrs Michalke and Mr Oehmen, who would join forces to show their collections publicly for the first time. They together invited me originally to develop exhibitions in their spaces and work with the collections– but they didn’t have a budget to pay for my work. So I had to decline their offer, although I found the space incredibly beautiful and their offer generous. I thought I’d love to do something that could follow up on and develop UNP further– or rather think in the same direction but do something else with it…That’s when the idea for a Salon took shape. I don’t come from a bourgeois background, so I had no problems with the history and connotations of the Salon. Still, I wanted to break the notion of the apartment and strengthen the appropriation and actualization of a long tradition. That’s why I worked with an architect, Markus Bader from raumlaborberlin, and we developed objects for the interior of the Salon which would both serve as furniture and as props for the different events.
MM: Indeed, Salon Populaire emerges in this precise gap, which is in want of a discursive space, and seems to be really well received by its regular audience. Do you think that there is a particular characteristic in Berlin which renders it particularly open to this type of arena? And are there particular motifs that lead the discourse in Salon Populaire?
EB: I don’t know if the existence of the Salon and its relative ‘success’ (in terms of having an impact on the artistic landscape in town) are specific to Berlin. This is the city I have lived in for the last 15 years, so although I travel a lot, it is the context I know best by far, and I can’t really compare it to others. But the few experiences I have had with similar formats elsewhere made me aware that unlike many other cities, Berlin has a long history of discursive experimentation. I suspect that this history builds on the lack of a strong institutional context and the resulting space for other forms of engagement in the art context. Berlin has a couple of the best bookstores for art and theory worldwide. Also, the institutions here are pretty much impermeable towards the artistic production, and not discursively oriented. The scene itself is quite fragmented, so that there are no regular platforms for people to meet, discuss and experiment new ideas. As small as it is, the Salon fills that gap, I believe.
With our programming, we try to balance between pursuing a continuous line of inquiry (which follow the subjects “love” and “space” for the first year), and staying open to flexible needs that come up. When the latest video by Renzo Martens, “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty” was presented at the Berlin Biennial last year, for example, and everybody talked about it, we spontaneously decided to invite him for a talk to discuss his highly controversial project. The space was packed, and no one else in town apparently had had the capacity to organize such an event. For similar reasons, another development we got involved in is recent cultural politics. There is a huge politically fraught exhibition project coming up this summer, which aims at celebrating Berlin’s glamorous art scene. Many people felt instrumentalized and neglected by the local politicians involved in the project, so we organized an open discussion which lead to an open letter that 2500 people signed, and this in caused a huge uproar against the show in town. The issue is still being discussed everywhere.
MM: I see. As a matter of fact I have always felt that there was an underlying militancy throughout most of Salon Populaire’s program, a position that could be verified by its particular choices and involved agents, and above all, by privileging the format of the encounter– which uses spoken word as the principal medium for artistic reflection. To give an example, in one of the recent events at the Salon Populaire, Can You Pass The Salt Please? the audience gathered around the table to discuss some of Foucault’s ideas on madness. Would you like to explore some of the concerns that took you to work such formats of communal construction?
EB: We were discussing madness in more general terms, Foucault didn’t play the most significant role here. We talked about Fourier, about thought and madness, about the contemporary clinic and medication and what that tells us about a fundamental alteration of the conception of the subject.The idea of our ongoing series “Can you pass the salt, please?” is to actualize the Greek format of the symposium– not only as a civilized discussion, but also a coming together of friends who eat and drink well and who share and compete for their thoughts on philosophical issues. As the Salon is far from the only venue interested in these formats, it’s pretty clear to me that it has to do with some of the broader shifts in the artistic landscape– with the conception and perception of the role of the artist, with the institutional space and the understanding of mediation. I suspect that facing the increasing spectacularization of the exhibition as a format (amongst other things), the personal encounter in a more sheltered– with the artist as well as basically all the individuals interested in the arts as a particular field of thought– becomes somewhat of a reservoir for slowing down, intensifying ideas and exchange, and insists on the necessity of art as a secured field of society.
An issue I am especially interested in within this complex set of influences is the question of transference. I have come to realize that I can only think (and converse) in reference to a third, autonomous entity, which can be a person, or it can be an object or a constellation of (art) objects, for example. The thinking takes place in the space between me and my vis-á-vis. Transference opens up this space: Only when I want something from the other, and respectively when I feel that my demand is reflected back on me, can my mind move forward, and beyond the circulation in my own head. I necessarily need the/an other to proceed. Therefore, for me, not only conversation or the spoken word is interesting, but also to go back and particularly look at my relation to the exhibited or otherwise presented object– and find out about its specificity.