Over the past decade or so, the German artist Gabriele Stellbaum, who lives and works in Berlin, has become known for severe narrative films and installations that often have a distinctly dystopian, Orwellian air. Stellbaum is director, cinematographer, script writer, editor and usually the only actor in her films. Speaking in English with a slight German accent, she cuts a striking figure on the screen, with stylish bobbed hair and clothes that come from an earlier 20th-century era.
Recently, Stellbaum’s films have dramatized scenes from classic literary texts, such as Kafka’s The Castle and Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. The films are short, perhaps 10-20 minutes in length. These narrative extracts focus on the anguish of waiting, the dreariness of institutional settings, and our impotence in the face of bureaucracy.
Her works constitute a kind of poetry of exhausted affect. The camera pans the room, cuts, fades, repeats. Stellbaum’s voice resonates as it loops and echoes as the story unfolds.
For "Bartleby," her video installation based on Melville’s 1853 story (installed at Goldsworthy Gallery in Berlin in 2009), Stellbaum re-figured the gallery’s main space into a film set, with drab brown walls and two desks with chairs. In the video projection, Stellbaum plays Bartleby as a female office worker, an insignificant clerk who nevertheless drives her employer to distraction by her calm but resolute refusal to comply.
The construction and conception of identity is a pivotal, reoccurring thematic throughout the body of Stellbaum’s works, where her particular mise-en-scène locates the obtuse questions of identity within a complex of relationships: between societal structures, economy and the pursuit of individual existence.
The following interview was conducted in Berlin by Kathrin Becker, head of the n.b.k. Video-Forum.
Kathrin Becker: The characters in your video works, who are often influenced by literary archetypes (Melville’s character Bartleby, the Scrivener, for example), have all been transformed into female figures. Are you also reflecting gender identifications within your narrative (re)constructions?
Gabriele Stellbaum: Absolutely. Most of the plays or stories I adapt for my work originally have male protagonists. The characters that I choose, however, are not imbued with expressly male affections throughout the narratives and can be easily transformed into female identities. I am revitalizing the stories of these characters for a contemporary environment while staging the solitude and loss of a middle-aged, confrontational female professional. My characters are secretly rebellious towards what is a repressive surrounding -- they unsettle it -- but they are unable to fully succeed in their quietly antagonistic mission. This is true today in Germany, where women have been pronounced equal to men, but where they still earn, on average, two-thirds the salary men receive, especially in the art field.
K.B.: You have always played the female roles you have re-scripted from transformed literary characters and narrative paragons. It would be rather obvious and perhaps a cliché to ask to what extent your personal life experience influences your work, so I would like to turn the question around: How does your work influence your personality?
G.S.: It is nearly impossible to play a character like Bartleby without adopting or becoming that personality. Undoubtedly, only a few people in this world would not be seduced by Bartleby’s polite but insistent refusal of work. Every character that I play leaves a trace, an imprint, and becomes attached to my personality during the production process. I sometimes catch myself repeating certain gestures, movements and utterances of these characters in my everyday, off-screen life. It is like I’m carrying on the lineage of these newly transformed characters, even post-production. These characters are an extension of my person and are brought closer through the development of the visual and performative world of the character -- the visual translation is my way of thinking and reacting to these figures.
K.B.: Does the mise-en-scène of your work follow a general structure -- or a basic, foundational one -- concerning, for example, the positioning of your isolated protagonists in relation to the proportions, depth and framing of your performative spaces?
G.S.: I used to be a sculptor before I came to the medium of video, so the positioning of figures in space are still persistent considerations, as if making an installation. I find architecture and design emotionally charged and I use them to convey anonymity, failure and oppressiveness of social or political systems. My protagonists are often lost, secluded or trapped in an impersonalized architectural environment. The focus of the frame, however, remains on the figure and the camera watches the protagonist from a distant perspective. I unconsciously use a mathematical system to portray and display proportions, figures, angles and temporality in a repeating esthetical configuration in my works.
K.B.: These esthetic constants you mention make me think of the décor and interiors of your video works. The furnishings and costumes have a specifically "prudish" feel to them, in my eyes, a prim and exceptional styling. How does this formal styling add to your videos?
G.S.: I choose the furnishings and costumes in order to establish a design setting that can pass as generic, say from any time during the last 40 years or so, and that can still be recognized as contemporary in certain parts of the world. The set dressing and staging in my videos is purposely minimal and demure -- often beyond function. The real space of reference exists or is completed only in the imagination of the viewer. The minimal settings orient the focus of the viewer on the protagonist. Besides this, I use colors and patterns with sociopolitical meanings to evoke a certain memory of bureaucracy and institutional spaces, but also to play with the notion of our own biases of visual encoding.
K.B.: Have you ever considered using your own original scripts, your own original material -- beyond literary archetypes -- for your work?
G.S.: At the moment I am working on my own script for a new production -- I could not find an existing script that suited my idea. Titled "I bruise easily," it takes place in different countries and involves five languages. The work deals with the political guilt of the individual within a global context -- the subject’s own sensed culpability, which has yet to be widely addressed in a literary, cinematic or theatrical context.
KATHRIN BECKER is head of the Video-Forum of the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) in Berlin. Her recent projects include "No more bad girls?" at the Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna (2010) and "Art and Publicity. 40 Years n.b.k." in Berlin (2009).