I met Christian and Grit a year ago while curating and organizing a month-long event „Workshops of Revolution” at the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznan. With the Army of Love collective, they led two-days workshops on intimacy in arts and access to pleasure for abled and disabled bodies. They used choreography, collective reading and water as mediums for producing relations based on empathy and mutual understating of needs and constraints of each member of the gathering.
Christian Bayerlein is a web developer and activist based in Koblenz, Germany. He describes himself as a nerd-loving Science Fiction. He likes to hang out with friends, watching films, enjoying arts and culture. Christian is a wheeler with SMA. As political activists, he fights for the rights of disabled people. He runs a blog „Kissability” and in 2018 was awarded the Golden Bear for the film „Touch Me Not” of Adina Pintilie.
Grit Uhlemann is an artist based in Höhr-Grenzhausen, Germany. She likes art in all its forms and loves ceramics. As a ceramic artist, she makes light objects from porcelain transmitting translucent light as well as egg-shaped objects which inspire the viewer to connect to earth and nature. She loves nature and landscapes. Having meaningful encounters and relations with other people is very important to her.
Both Christian and Grit were awarded the Golden Bear for the film „Touch Me Not” of Adina Pintilie.
We met in Poznan in May last year while you were giving a workshop with the „Army of Love“- collective. The other art project you participated in was the film „Touch Me Not” of the Romanian director Adina Pintilie. In both of the mentioned situations, you shared your intimacy and your privacy very openly, what motivated you to do so?
Grit: There are things, which are easier and the ones that are not so comfortable to share. I come from the background, where being open to emotions, being truthful was something very normal. Still, the moments of difficulty, the ones in which I try to understand myself better are also the most precious ones. I have a need to share them with others, to open them to participation.
Christian: It is also about meaningfulness and of being curious about oneself, which is worth to share with the wider audience.
These were your motivations on a very personal level. Could you tell us something more about your activist attitude, so of using closeness as a political tool in changing the neoliberal myth of a society consists of perfectly abled, independent individuals?
Grit: I would not divide my personal level from the universal one, while you practice something, you do it for yourself, but you also influence the surroundings. You would like to receive the responses on what you do and of course, you would like to change the world for the better.
Christian: Sure, when we show the world how our relationship works – that we also have an intimate life. It influences the way how similar couples are perceived and maybe it improves society as a whole a bit, as well.
How did it happen that you started to work on the participatory art projects?
Christian: In both of the mentioned situations, with the „Army of Love“ and the film „Touch Me Not”, we started to work by accident. I am personally very open person with much interest in art, even though I would not call myself an artist. People sometimes label what I do as art, but it is up to them, I don’t call myself this way. What is important for me is to have an impact on society and this is possible only by exchange, both in conversation or sharing ideas in any other form. When it comes to the „Army of Love“, I was contacted by Ingo Niermann (the initiator of the collective) directly, it occurred that we have some friends in common and that we share similar views on disability. Ingo asked me if I would not be interested in coming to Frankfurt for a workshop and training that he organizes at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. There, the most fundamental guidelines for the „Army of Love“ were discussed and decided upon. From that time onwards I and Grit participated in the installments of the „Army of Love“ in Wiesbaden and in Poznan. This year we were invited to Bochum to take part in the Triennale there.
When it comes to the „Touch Me Not” it all has started at the festival in Berlin on the Art of Lust „X-Plore“, where I attended several times — this time very much sex related — but took part also in the conceptual discussions like on building a relationship, as well as attending a workshop on death which was led by a palliative medicine doctor who works in a hospice. Adina (the director of the film „Touch me Not”) also participated in the last one and she was quite amazed by the fact how I react on some things, how I reflect on the topic of death, how important it is for me and how I relate to my body. She mentioned that she works on a project and if I wouldn’t like to read a draft for her film. I didn’t know at that time that it would be such a big thing. Two years later Adina received a prize for the best film scenario at the festival in Sarajevo and she continued the work on the film. For me, it was more like a research project not like a standard film production. It all took more than two years. We met on Skype every month. The participants of the project had homework to do, they shot their own video diaries, from which some excerpts were involved in the official version of the film. However, some parts we re-enacted in front of the camera.
Grit: For Adina, it was more a scientific, social project than an actual film, she was searching for the right people, with whom she could find common ground.
Christian: There were proper actors starring in the film, but even they were asked to go through the whole research work the same as others. In the first place, they were interested in Adina as human beings later on as professionals. She called the actors: professional humans (haha).
Grit: She gave us books to read and asked lots of questions about our feelings, our bodies, our relationship. And even if we haven’t got much to say, she could make so much out of so little. She could see the beauty in very ordinary things.
…it looks like Adina took you on an emotional journey.
Christian: Yes. She calls the whole project an emotional journey.
Grit: For me, the whole thing was rather demanding, I had to adjust to so many things, trying to find my place. It was more difficult than for Christian because he had a clear objective, to tell about the intimacy of disabled people as a whole. For me it didn’t seem so obvious, it appeared like that I didn’t have a goal. Although I also fight for humanity and truth in my life. What also troubled me, was that I felt myself very often seen as a caretaker of Christian and not as his partner…
Christian: No, it’s not true, it’s just your projection, people always see your love and how beautiful you are and how beautiful our relationship is…
Grit: Yes and no. At the beginning of our work on the film, it was mostly about Christian and his situation. Having my own spirit and ideas about things, I was really crunching my teeth. I realized that I represent a certain figure in the film and this is how I thought I appear to people. This is a difficult one… because there are as many opinions about oneself in the world, as there are moments of thought in each thinking and observing the mind. But I couldn’t really find myself in all these images. I had to tell my own story about who I am and what our relationship is and from there to enter the film in detail. In the end, once I did that, I was rewarded with a unique experience of myself.
Christian: What I find very important is the fact that usually after the screening of the film we have a debate. The discussion and the exchange between the audience and the film crew are crucial.
Grit: For me, what touch most was when the border between fiction and reality was crossed on the screen – that can be seen especially at the moment when Adina (director) and Laura (actress) swap the roles, Laura got behind the camera and Adina went in front.
Indeed, it brings to my mind the feminist film theory, like the critic on voyeurism in classic American cinema by Laura Mulvey. In the „Touch Me Not” the role of the spectator and the one who is seen (gazed at) is shifting, therefore the sexual tension based on representation with its normative heterosexual power dynamics is put into question. This film is like a workshop or psychoanalytical session.
Christian: Yes, it is not a popcorn movie.
You are also a blogger Christian, when and how did you start the „Kissability” blog showing and educating users about erotism of disabled people?
Christian: Starting the blog was my New Year’s resolution for 2013. I was more actively posting and sharing my own experience at the beginning. Nowadays I rather leave space for others, so it is more like a platform to share and find some materials on the topic. I am so busy with my other projects that this one is not so much in focus anymore, but I post some interesting stuff every now and then.
Could you say me a few words about your activist involvement, what things are to be done for the disabled people, what is to be changed? You live in Germany, so your life situation differs from one of the disabled people in Poland and therefore the needs aren’t also the same…
Christian: I wouldn’t say so. We travel a lot with the film „Touch Me Not”, we have meetings and discussions, like the one in Croatia, where you might think that the problems of disabled people are totally different. In some cases they indeed are, when it comes to medicine and social support for example – but when we consider the tensions around sexuality and disability we all face the same prejudices. Most of the parents of disabled children and adults are overprotective, they don’t recognize or even forbid their teenage children to discover their sexuality, to have a sexual life. Still, disability is seen as an illness, something that has to be treated. The stereotypes are the same all over the world. We have to tackle that and still the most influential thing for doing this – is the UN Convention. It is not a very well known legal act, but it is a very powerful tool, because every country, which joined the UN had to sign it. The problem is to make these rules happen which are inscribed in it, as well as protecting the rights written in it. There are even translation errors. Politicians very often don’t understand what they are obliged to do. In German, we speak for example about the integration of disabled people and in the original text of the convention, the inclusion is mentioned. There are two different concepts lying behind these two expressions, the integration assumes that an effort lies only on the side of the disabled, that they have to fit to the „norm” and society can just support them from time to time, while inclusion means that the society as a whole has to change, that we have to do this work together, to change the institutions and laws in order to make them more accessible.
What are you working on right now?
Christian: I am into technology right now, I am testing a special device which combines my wheelchair with the computer. It is a sensor built up in my wheelchair that sends the impulses to the computer program. I have a meeting regarding this with the wheelchair producer in Zurich. It is a start-up combined with the university. The engineers are very young and they develop their own approach to the production of the medical equipment focused on usability and design, so I am very much looking forward to that. On top of that, I have my day to day work in the German Federal Archives where I am responsible for the technical administration and development of our Intranet and Internet websites including several educational and research portals on specific topics revolving around the history of Germany.
Grit: I am working as a ceramic artist joining two different projects. I developed illuminated abstracted landscape reliefs in my final year of ceramic design. Besides, I developed a sculptural series on a very archetypal egg form which seems now to split up in different new forms and ways to install them. Soon I will exhibit them. I also study part-time technical ceramics; doing research on glazes and how their surfaces change with different atmospheres in a gas-fired kiln. Also, I am the chairwoman of the German Ceramic Association „Kalkspatz“, give courses on ceramic glazes and work in a collective of five ceramists.
Christian: At the end, I would like to share an experience, which I find important in the context of art, its institutions and individual artists, whose art pieces are often absolutely inaccessible for me as a disabled person. Once I was with Grit in the Centre for International Light Art in Unna in Germany and there was one installation of James Turrell (American space and light artist). In order to see his illuminated work one had to climb up the stairs placed in a dark room. For me, personally, it was very offending. I don’t have an answer on how to improve that, rather a question, how to socialize artists? How to do art, which could reach the society as a whole and not only the already privileged, perfectly abled and highly educated people? Most of the artists, especially the most avant-garde ones live in a bubble pretending that they have nothing to do with those issues.
Thank you for sharing your situated perspectives.