Eric Ellingsen is co-directing the Institut für Raumexperimente at UDK Berlin since 2009. Eric established Species of Space in 2009 as a platform through which art, architecture, writing and performance can converge through spatial practices.
Eric has master’s degrees in Architecture, and Landscape Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania, and in Classical Philosophy from St. John’s College. Before moving to Berlin, Eric taught architecture and landscape architecture full time (studios, history, and theory) at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he also helped start a Masters of Landscape Architecture program, and served as its assistant director. He has taught part time at the University of Toronto and assisted a team of architects surveying and drafting finds and features on an active archaeological dig in Aphrodisias, Turkey. He has also worked as a research assistant for Cecil Balmond, and freelanced shortly at Field Operations.
He publishes creative and critical writing regularly, and gives performance/lectures (Serpentine Pavilion, Palais de Tokyo, WE LIVE HERE…). He was an editor of MODELS 306090, and has a book coming out soon called Phantom Bilder. Currently, some of his long-term projects involve collaborations with a retired police sketch artist (Phantom Bilder), a Turkish shoe cobbler, translators, a sound engineer, a dance choreographer, an artist and a sign language instructor, and a food systems planner.
Interview led by Caique Tizzi, Photography by Pedro Jardim
What are you learning now?
You mean what I am consciously learning, I mean, I am learning all the time…Or what is my orientation now? A skill?.. It´s an interesting question. It could be an interesting question. One of the ways that we frame the Institut (für Raumexperimente at UDK), part of it is about learning how to learn. Essentially I am investing in the kind of learning that you set up situations, trying to condition certain structures of relationships, whether they are things or people, institutions or systems – through these conditions, constraining these conditions in different conditions and inserting one self into this condition, I am learning how to actually set up these conditions to create forms. But not forms in this sort of aesthetics, it´s something that slows down but doesn´t freeze. And that´s what I think that learning is something that you start to constrain and control, that creates energy or tension, or consciousness or whatever it is, but I am trying to be informed and learning what these conditions are… This is kind of coming from the definition of ecology, it´s a cycling of material and flowing of energy and as the energy flows the material cycles, as as the material cycles things slow down and speed up and you´ve got these convection cycles, the vortex thing in the oceans… So in any situation how can we take the energy? Take the example of you guys at Agora, you are taking the energy of a lot of attention and time, you are directing a lot resources, it´s resources composed of people and interests, of expertise, of experimentation or believing in something in art or an institution that can always change and how to help to cultivate that change, you are understanding the conditions of that, for what I understand you are setting up these conditions in a way that allow you to every 12 weeks to produce something, but so many things will be produced along the way… It´s not only the final exhibition. It´s something from this very particular group of people and some forms come out of it, something crystalizes… That is what i call learning, it´s to understand all the parts of a system and start listening to them and you start to making decisions and something materializes.. Can I give you an example?
…He walks in his living room and picks up one thing and shows it to us.
So this a fulgurite, it´s a rock made from the crystallization of lightning striking sand in the desert. So I use this in my performances and talk, it works as metaphor to what I am saying. Nietzsche says that “In order to kindle the lighting, one must cloud” so you got this huge cloud up in the system and out the cloud, it is squeezed and comes this lighting out this cloud and this comes out from these different energies and it hits the ground in one spot in the desert, and the desert happens to have these conditions. Basically there´s a potential in that sand to crystalize the lighting…and they are huge. They are big tubes…basically when you are touching this you are touching a lighting. So it´s a form. A place made from lighting.
Where did you collect this one?
This is from a desert in the Southern United States. This allows you to talk about things like clouds. Cumulus clouds they weigh million of pounds and they float, so out of something that floats, you’ve got something that comes and squeezes it out as a direct line of energy, and it hits the ground, it´s almost like a line of thought and out that context something crystallizes for a moment…and one can say it´s an artwork, and a lot of life come from this momentary forms.
And you are now, I don’t know how long you’ve been thinking about AFFECT. This is a system, not a system that has been pre-determined, something like a residency, with an artist´s program, partnering with exhibition´s spaces. You all have a kind of range of interests, you come together and things converge. And based on this convergence, you spent time together and you developed this idea. And then you set up dates, apply for money, talk to people about it…start building up relationships and out of that you are basically tuning a system of conditions and it crystalizes in what you are calling AFFECT. Now you are going to launch this, the first one comes pretty soon and you don’t really think about the second one, you just know that you are doing it. So the first one will influence the second one and so on – that´s a kind of learning system. That´s what I would call learning – a system that is feeding back into itself constantly – including the relationship with others and allowing it to change. I have been focusing on learning, teaching and education systems in a way of formulating and approach that. And through that approach I can focus inside of these particular conditions. I came here with an understanding that we would run an Institut for 5 years and it would be about learning how to learn, and methodologies of learning, what´s education, what does it mean to be an artist in the 21st century? What does it mean to be precise and allow a co-production of knowledge or a co-constitution of something? And these conditions will be affected by ecologies or micro-ecologies of people, and people and places and memories and hopes and stories.
The Institut came from this very clear proposition to be a space for experiment itself. And now it´s about to end, right?
Yes, we are just starting our 10th semester next week. And it should be the end.
And within these 5 years. What are the new questions of the Institut? Are there still questions?
Definitely, there are new questions. There is also a better understand on how to negotiate a field of questions and feel a little more sensitive on how to respond to them. And there´s a little more awareness on how to cultivate situations where you can focus questions inside of questions….and to produce responses. I wouldn’t call them answers, but responses. A response to an exhibition. You set up a set of emotions and these things are reconstituted any time it´s performed and in a way what we are getting better is in setting up attempts… Another thing that we are learning a lot, because I have been always interested in the notions of self-organisation and ecology and systems that you can help to recondition the condition.
And one thing we did with the Institut is that we moved with the class to Ethiopia last year for 10 weeks and we were building relationships with other education systems, other practitioners of art and teachers. Olafur has been investing a lot on these relationships there with his wife for the last ten years – touching the place through orphanage and systems of care-giving. Not necessarily being the caregiver but to train people how to train people. They have been redesigning the way of finding resources in Ethiopia to sustain an economy of adoption of children. I don’t think they would put this way necessarily, but anyway, what we did was to take these relationships that he built and moved there last fall.
One of the things that I discovered there with people who were exploring also the `marcato`(the market) – and he shows us an object. These are bindings. Well, I have been researching rope. I’ve got a grant to research this subject…Rope is one of the oldest tools in our civilization. So they are fibers that were put together and reconstituted…and put together to create bridges, instruments, cloth, textile, architectural surroundings, etc.
When did this obsession with rope start?
I was very lucky to be in graduate school studying Architecture and Landscape at a time when people were very interested in the Gestaltung, the passage that passes by when forming happens, not the form itself. This is visible in for instance sand-dunes or oceans, these are called “reach-spaces”, these zones where you have really intense ecological systems confronting one another. It’s basically saying that the designer doesn’t start out with a picture, they try to build into a situation. They understand the conditions that are there and then they try to work within that system. From the perspective of my background this is the foundation of ecology essentially, using positions in urbanism or landscape urbanism. Practices of human systems is also incorporated into natural systems. These are all arguments that a tour of people like Donna Harraway have been talking about for years.
Henri Poincaré, In the beginning of the 20th century people stopped using the word ‘nature’ and replaced it with the word ‘relation’. He replaced it because we have all this baggage of historical perceptions of the term ‘nature’ means. And that baggage would only preserve all the oppositional historic crusts, and he says: “Let’s reheat this.”
He was a mathematician but also in charge of mining operations, he was a philosopher, he did very pragmatic things like wiring the first tech-cables that connected the continents. He tried to find relays of time and tried to understand sending signals across vast distances. A really amazing guy, right? He’s also studying the cosmology of it, to answer how all these systems work. He had theories called ‘falling in and falling out’ in which you have to imagine a cloth stretched across the universe filled with planets and satellites in orbit going around each other. Then as they go around they would poke holes in this cloth. For example, the moon is poking holes in the cloth every 28 – 32 days around the Earth. The question then would be: “do they ever go through the same hole?” Which they do occasionally and that cool, but then would they still go through the same hole if there was another cloth behind the first one, one behind that etc.? No, because they then will veer off in other directions, one goes in one direction and the other goes in another. So Pointcaré set out to understand these not as ‘the holes’ but as trajectories, the veering of the systems. And we do this with language, with accent, with how we try to articulate an idea, with how we articulate what we’re interested in. So this project started with being interested in self-organizing systems and social systems and how all these things twist together. Our lives twist together with other lives. Even objects, there is this camera and it has metal in it from central Africa.
I think this project also uses that. I mean, you have all of these amazing system. These right here are just the wrappings of boxes filled with goods that get taken to the ‘marcato’. Then they cut the boxes open early in the morning and throw away these wrapping strips and there are girls that collect these for a long time. Some of them are 14 or 15 and have been doing it since they were 8 to support their families or education. And then they take these straps and then sell these to a couple of old men that separate these plastic bindings to bind ropes out of them. Everything is kind of up-cycle there because when these plastic straps arrive in Africa, they come from China and have basically lost all their value. Through this process these ropes that come out at the other end are used for all kinds of daily things. So you first have this oil molecule, which is made into plastic. This makes its way from China to Africa, where it’s discarded. Then it’s dismantled and rebuilt into rope. It’s used again, and after that I take it and make these bindings.
After all these experiences you’ve had in terms of education, what do you think is the main challenge of education today – and what are the formats that would work very well?
What I really like is the way that you phrase this question in a positive way. Because a lot of the times it’s really easy to be critical about all the things that aren’t working. I have asked the same questions. I did this interview for this site called Teaching in Margins and I was asked some other types of questions which were the opposite. One of them was asking what was wrong with the American education system today. You’re asking what is positive about the way that education is working. One of the things that I responded to in that interview was that I thought we should address questions from what’s working. It’s almost like giving a critique, whether it’s art or architectural or something, it’s to stimulate. I feel like I am part of one of these educational systems that work by being at the Institüt. I think that’s how it’s been structured by Olafur Eliasson and Christina Werner and by the artists in it. Everyone involved, grants, artists, participants, they’re all teachers. And then the question arrises on how to respond to the environment correctly. When you’re doing a lecture or a performance or a workshop, how do you start to recognize the things that are secreting, something that you can keep drinking from. And to feed it back so it sustains the system. But also how to recognize when you’re not producing that and to figure out how you cultivate that production. When an educational system is working, you really observe well and you basically build these ‘feelers’. All of these feelers should move through space together, feeling ideas, feeling energy and resources. That is what we do at the Institut. By doing experiments on what art could be, basically being critical, we don’t even need to call it ‘art’. Because it could be anything you’re interested in learning and then you use your own resources, ideas and energy and then to cultivate skills. That’s a positive. It means working with all these different systems and people around the world. Teachers are coming in from around the world and they participate with up. They don’t just observe us, but they help to produce us. We respond to that and then they do to and they come back two years later and then maybe they visit us in Ethiopia to give a talk for instance. Or we go to them in Paris and collaborate with their classes. And you get to work with people who really believe in art and the power of education and people that are able to say that something really matters to them. They invest immensely.
So what is a positive in education? I don’t know how to answer that. I ask myself that all the time. I know you feel it when it’s working. You are in it, you see it when it’s working. And then if you talk to people in these education systems you hear that they’re really excited to be a part of it.
To focus this on AFFECT, the first time we spoke about it to you, you presented a system to us. The situation that we are proposing has layers, you said. There’s us, there are the five facilitators and then you as having an overview. There are eight artists collaborating, five facilitators collaborating and other factors. What do you think can happen in this environment – how do you see it play out?
I guess it is partly how my mind works. I mean, I had to understand the variables that you all are structuring just to get my head around it. I was trying to establish for myself how all these variables come together and what the distribution of that in the space. Also to determine how I could be useful to this intention.
When I started to draw on it, I found it very interesting to see the amount of complexity that you’re trying to cross together and overlap through people, space, resources and time. And it’s great to see people like Rodrigo and John, these are people that kind of endorsed it for me, I really believe in the way that they work and the importance of things like translation. They have a commitment to creative structures that contain energy and then they redistribute it out into the world through books, artworks, exhibitions or teaching. I mean, Rodrigo came into the school through a grant and helped us structure a trip to Sao Paulo for two weeks. But he also had this amazing attraction with the students. Some of the artists in the school ended up really being inspired by doing the course with him at the UDK.
I was looking at this guy who studies Heidegger and literature, he studies words. And so he writes a book that’s two books at one time, split up. He basically comes up with systems of theories of what it means to be a hotel, “hotel-theory”, to be in something. But he’s also inside of Heidegger’s being in time. So I’ve been really been studying this ‘vorhanden und zuhanden’, because his way of breaking down a very complex book by looking at a couple of questions in it. Like; “What does Heidegger mean by ‘around’?” or “What does he mean by ‘being in a place’?”. And he opens up these words like ‘being’, words that everybody takes for granted. And asking if we really all mean the same when we use these words. Everyone has their own notions on what these words mean, different ideas. He then takes it and puts it in this container, this book. It’s an amazing book.
So there’s this other guy, an architect who writes about architectural structures and this relates to AFFECT. I mean, you have ten people, five phases, three modules, third floor, ten weeks. And he puts all these lists together, what is architecture responsible for? It’s responsible for religions, casts, social forces, marriages, extended families to single houses, a place that the village needs, agriculture, scarcity of land, cooperative farming, animal husbandry, employment, efficient provisions for the use of power, easy access to water, health, education, transportation, implementation, flood control to protect houses and all these different variables. He’s a systems thinker. He puts these together in systems. One interacts with eight, nine, twelve, twenty-one, twenty-nine, forty-eight etc., Two, two interacts with four, etc.
He just creates this logic out of an incredible array of variables and systems and how they relate. Basically, to explain what it means to build a house now. So when you approached me as Agora and as AFFECT I got really interested. It’s kind of an alternative space to art, you’re not calling yourself a gallery but you have exhibitions, it’s in off-space. I find these really interesting in the art world. There’s too much oriented around traditional white cube spaces. They’re important in one respect, and they’re interesting in one respect but I find what you are doing really more exciting. The way you pull in all of these variables and make something like AFFECT.