Diving into the Ocean of a Collection


An interview with David Weber-Krebs.


David Weber-Krebs (*1974) is a German-Belgian artist, who works in the mediums of theater, film and performance. In preparation for the exhibition “FOREIGN EXCHANGE (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)“ at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt he was invited to an artist in residency program in the end of 2012. In our conversation in June 2016, he explained his way of working to me.


Béatrice Barrois (BB): David, in 2012 you were invited by the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt for a residency, to create, based on the collection, a new work for the exhibition “FOREIGN EXCHANGE (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)“, which took place from January 16, 2014 until January 4, 2015. For some time now there has been a trend to invite artists to contribute within the discourse about the future of ethnological museums. I am thinking for instance of the “Humboldt Lab“ in Berlin or the project “Grassi invites“ in Leipzig. What do you think about this development in principle?


David Weber-Krebs (DWK): I think it's generally very good. In my opinion it´s very interesting to explore new paths through artistic perspectives on the way how to deal with ethnographic collections. But I also think, that there should be something like a particular question or a guideline in this discourse. The curator Florian Malzacher, I know him well, has realized a project at the "Humboldt Lab" in Dahlem in 2013. He invited several artists who work with performance. During the performative conference he focused on an approach to museum objects. Sometimes I almost felt like the philosophical idiot, Gilles Deleuze wrote about. He walks through the world and asks: “Why? Why is there the sky and why are there mountains?“ At the beginning I was looking for forms primarily. I was at the depot and asked the curators of all departments very directly for spheres. Anthropologists would probably never do so. I think, if artists are invited to ethnological museums, a special framing should be specified. “FOREIGN EXCHANGE (or the stories you wouldn’t tell a stranger)“ was in my eyes a good and important exhibition.


(BB): On December 18, 2012 you gave a lecture with the programmatic title “The World in a Nutshell“ at the Weltkulturen Museum. There you spoke among others about your work at the Treylers Museum in Haarlem. Could you give me a short resume, of what you did there?


(DWK): Haarlem is a town near Amsterdam. About 10 artists were invited to participate in a project at the museum. Everyone had a residency for a year. The Treylers Museum is interesting in many ways. Pieter Teyler van der Hulst was a wealthy textile manufacturer and collector who decided that his assets should be used for the promotion of art and science after his death. When he died in 1778, five trustees were appointed to do something with his inheritance. In the garden near Teylers house they built a house, the Treylers Museum. Within 100 years, various collections had been created, including fossils, rocks, scientific instruments, art, books and more. Today it's a kind of time capsule. I was working with the catalog of the library. This catalog was compiled by a librarian and includes the entire collection of books in the form of brief descriptions. Among the books there were mainly travelogues and natural history books. The material with which I worked, was the titles of the books. For me, these titles had an enormous poetic power. They were for example: The natural history of the herbs, trees, four footed beasts, insects, fish and reptile of the islands of Madera, St. Christopher and Jamaicaor The twenty four species of short tailed crabs of the Red Sea. I am interested in the program of that time. A scientist travels to a foreign country to look for crabs and explore them. He finds 24 different species and writes a book about them. These 24 crabs will be the ones, to be found in this country forever. The Enlightenment aimed to map the world and to discover all the white spots. It was the beginning of the colonization of the globe as the overall project of a specific time. At the Treylers Museum I did a performance designed for one person who ended up in the library. There, the person was left alone with a sound installation. One could not detect where the sound came from. In the play, the library, or even the contents of the books were activated. The recipient saw only rows of books and could guess their contents from listening. This work, entitled “Into the big world“, was the beginning of a longer cycle, with which I am still dealing. I reflect the idea of modernity and the urge of grasping the world entirely. I presented this project to Dr. Clémentine Deliss and she invited me to the Weltkulturen Museum.


(BB): How would you describe what you were actually doing during your time at the Weltkulturen Museum? Was it a kind of research? Or was it an artistic process? Could you give me a description of your activities?


(DWK): I think the first thing I did could be described as a kind of research. The following was an artistic process. The experience with the curators to visit the collection depots and to hold talks was essential in order to understand what is the logic of the museum and how it works. I learned a lot about historical facts and about what was collected when. What surprised me was that at the Weltkulturen Museum first of all the investigations rotate about the ethnographic objects and that ethnology in a museum basically operates with these objects. After my selection of some objects, which were brought to an experimental arrangement atthe laboratory, I had access to them. Up to this point I would describe what I did it as research. When I decided to work with the database, it was an artistic practice. Together with my assistant Marie Urban we developed a method to generate an image of the entire collection. The genesis of this database is quite complex. This naturally affects the process and the result. The work had to claim an exhaustiveness and a very linear artistic practice. Initially, the decision was to explore the collection chronological by the inventory numbers. However, it turned out that we encountered very many gaps. For example: Some objects were destroyed during the Second World War, the collection was composed of several stocks and there have been parades or donations. The utopia of linearity arises only in the museum. Nevertheless, we tried to make a kind of a full scan of this collection. Our ambition was to create an image of the collection. The inventory books are stored in a safe at the depot. Once the objects are entered in these books, they are inventoried and musealized. I found it interesting that an analogous process is regarded as the ultimate proof of the existence of a collection in times of digitalization. The technology “book“ remains as a reference. The inventory books chronologically capture the objects page after page. That´s not the case in the digital data base. We had to use a computer science trick to make this possible, because the logic of the database is made for a search for “headrest“ or “heddle pulley“, but not for a list of inventory numbers like000510, or 000511, … The idea was to explore the collection through the practice of dictating what proved to be a very subjective matter. We had to constantly make decisions: How do we identify individual objects? Do we count them inseries or combine them? So we have designed a new order to generate an illustration of the collection as an artwork.


(BB): You've described that, during your stay, you worked with the curators of the house. How did that affect your artistic work?


(DWK): I'm often invited to various contexts and as an artist I react very differently. From September, I´m going to work in Rome for five months for example and I will act in a certain context. Of course this will affect my work and I will also affect the context vice versa. For me as an artist it´s an exciting way to animate and renew my practice. At the Weltkulturen Museum it is quite apparent that it was about a collaboration with the curators. A dialogue between their ethnological and my artistic practice took place. I learned a lot about the history of the museum.


(BB): Museums and their collections are witnesses and stand for scientific, historical, social, sociological or cultural standards, developments and changes. At ethnological museums taxonomies and categories still seem to be firm constants. You managed to deconstruct these orders very well by not asking for origin, material or function, but for the form of an object in the depot. Out of the form you arranged a blend of spheres, which was on display in a showcase at the exhibition. Is this assemblage of spheres an experimental arrangement for the thesis, that a serie could reflect the world?


(DWK): In addition to the balls I was interested inother series, such as headrests. I found it interesting that some spheres were recognized as works of art or in this form occurring in nature, others as ritual objects or functional objects. I have put together this assemblage, because since the Enlightenment the sphere as such has beena symbol of the world or an image of the whole. As a thesis it is certainly not acceptable, that a serie is able to represent the whole world. The idea is rather that a series can be a representation of the world. The original idea of the artwork was to create a picture of the museum with language or text.


(BB): Collecting is an activity that has to do with obsession and possession. How important is the collection of the Weltkulturen Museum for you ?


(DWK): For me personally it was a fascinating experience to try to approach the collection as a whole. We have dealt with the database on the computer and the names of objects for three weeks. The enumeration of all these objects that we never saw, but only named, was very monotone: "A ball, a headrest, a stool, a spoon from Luzon, ...."


(BB): Are you of the opinion that one can represent cultures through the objects of an ethnographic collection?


(DWK): I believe objects can only be a small aspect of culture, namely what a culture creates out of material. When I had madethe first explorations in the collections in summer before my residency, I found the picture archive very interesting. Above all, the film series "Encyclopaedia Cinematographica" inspired me a lot and I would love to delve in it further. I like the idea to create an encyclopedia of actions, such as craft activities, festivals or rituals by filming them. In the movies objects appear, which can be found in the collections again. In my eyes it is an objective presentation of an action of one or more people within a culture that is archived. This is at least as important as the material culture. Also in terms of performance: For instance many actions or performances were shown by Joseph Beuys but only the objects are left.


(BB): Coming back to the exhibition: The first inventory book of the museum was on display in a showcase. Why did you show it?


(DWK): That the issue inventory book was shown was the decision of the curators Dr. Clémentine Deliss, Dr. Yvette Mutumba and me. It made sense to show this book in the exhibition. Peggy Buth also has dealt extensively with the inventaristisch-classificatory detection of collection.


(BB): The title of our work is "Immersion". As you said, during your residency you did not look for individual objects, but for the collection. The aim was to create an image of the collection as a whole. After all, together with your assistant you created a "vocal object" by putting approximately 50,000 collection items in chronological order. In this experiment, you were pushed to limits. If you would have had more time, would it have been possible to explore the entire collection of about 67,000?


(DWK): Of course, this would have been possible. In that time a accelerating processor acceleration started. At the end of the time line, there are many collected works of art of the 20th century from Africa, which we recorded of course, but very quickly. The idea was to capture a "resume" of the collection. In the exhibition one begins reading the wall text in the top left and ends in the bottom right coner.


(BB): In your work you succeeded to question the common museum practice, to create a new groups of objects and to present the collection visually on a wall piece and aurally as an acoustic sculpture. What do you think, how your work was noticed by visitors?


(DWK): When I was working with the titles of travelogues and natural history books at the library of the Treylers museum, I noticed that, when reading these books, this leads the fantasy to other worlds; one goes on animaginary travel. This motivates the imagination much more than objects. The mural was a continuation of this idea. On the other hand my audio work at the window was more important to me. The ten-minute loop consisted of a faint voice coming from the heating and enumerated a selection of ethnographic objects. It was very important to me that this sound for, which I have focused on adding emphasis, rhythm and punctuation along with an actress, was ata very low volume. The visitors should come as close as possible near to the heater to bring the collection in connection with the city, the street and the banks while looking out of the window. It was important to me that a tension between inside and outside was created, that the obsession of this collection was somehow associatively or poetically brought together with the banks. This only works if the leveling voice is so quiet that you have to turn to the window in order to understand it. There is an interesting book by Umberto Eco, entitled "The infinite list". In an essay he analyzes very nicely why we create lists. One reason is the impossibility to define certain things. If something is too small, or too large, or to sublime for a definition, one would start a list of each item. This applies to a collection in the museum.


(BB): Collections are a reflection of a "collective identity". They are about objects, knowledge, memories and experiences, but in addition also about the delimitation of a subjective range ( Clifford 1988). What potential do you see in an ethnographic collection, such as the one at the Weltkulturen Museum, for the future?


(DWK): The biggest problem for me is that these collections are not accessible to the general public. In addition, there are mostly historical collections that evoke a reflection regarding their history. The project of Dr. Clémentine Deliss was very specific. I had the opportunity and the chance to make a very interesting experience. I think the idea to work with artists is totally right, because artists can reauthorize these collections in a contemporary discourse.