Almút Sh. Bruckstein is a curator, independent writer, former professor of Jewish Philosophy, and founder of Taswir projects. Her curatorial praxis is part of a rigorous agenda of research she calls “diasporic thinking” and is rooted in personal encounters with artists and intellectuals from various places and contexts. Together with Navid Kermani, writer and scholar of Islamic studies, Bruckstein once aimed to establish a Jewish-Islamic Academy of the Arts and Sciences in Berlin. Instead, in an epoch-transgressing spirit, she later curated the large-scale Taswir exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Since then, Almút Sh. Bruckstein has been developing Taswir projects, the House of Taswir producing international exhibitions, and her own art-space and personal non-profit auction house Meine Kleine Mnemosyne at the Pergamon-Palais in Berlin.
For years you have been traveling as a scholar and curator to places such as Berlin, Hamburg, Istanbul, Tbilisi, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar etc. More than ten years ago, you founded Taswir projects and in 2009/10 you curated the first major Taswir exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin with over fifty participating artists, such as Mona Hatoum, Rebecca Horn, Yayoi Kusama, Wolfgang Laib, Walid Raad and Shahzia Sikander.
In your Taswir exhibition, you implemented a method developed in the 1920s by the art historian Aby Warburg. On the basis of series of pictures, he attempted to make visible analogies in form and expression through space and time in order to study the afterlife of the ancient pathos formula. Correspondingly, in your Taswir research, you pursue the diverse synchronic and diachronic relationships in the arts, although there is neither an attempt to be exhaustive nor classifying, but rather to find “a new definition of knowledge not only shaped by the so-called West,” in your words. Aby Warburg described the process in his picture atlas Mnemosyne as displacing the panels, which is also characteristic for your method. Warburg had reproductions of artworks and other material mounted on panels, bringing them into new constellations by moving them. This strategy enabled works to be liberated from their prescribed fixed positions in hierarchies of genre, schools, and epochs. This combinatory process can express pre-conscious ideas, making unexpected meanings flare up.
Since the creation of Taswir projects, you continue to develop this open encyclopaedia, in the form of a virtual atlas, which is connected to exhibitions you have curated, but also to books you have published. Could you describe the Taswir Atlas upon which Taswir projects is rooted?
The Taswir Atlas is, in fact, a kind of an open encyclopedia that constantly grows with each of our research topics and exhibitions. It is a digital palimpsest in which we document, comment, expand and update our exhibitions. Each exhibition has its own atlas. The Atlas thinks associatively and in object relations, it pictures thematic spaces that resemble curated spaces, but allows for a variable displacement of each of its objects into the open - using the atlas means moving the object outside the curated context – beyond the curator's imagination. Thus, the Taswir Atlas operates on a permanent displacement of its objects, a shift which is impossible to implement in analogous spaces, although we know, of course, that each object, in addition to the context exhibited, could still illuminate completely different constellations independent of the one that happens to be curated. The Atlas thinks in relationships, transversely, associatively and is object-oriented. The basic prerequisite for all our projects and exhibitions is the fact that every object of our work has an infinite number of facets and can always move in new thematic constellations depending on a given respective question. As with traveling, the objects, in their openness towards their surroundings, always enter into new thematic links, which then become new research topics for us. The shifting of objects in the atlas is governed by a matrix of attributes. It works through an algorithm that I have been developing with a team of programmers for over a decade.
During the past few years, we have been able to develop the atlas into a tool open to every researcher, each material collection, each curator. Anyone who has an interest in arranging disparate materials according to personal parameters, or the desire to create variable object-relationships criss-crossing over linear time, can build his own atlas. The Atlas will always show the unconscious of the curatorial hand of a given project, so to speak—even of entire institutions. So far, we have only begun to open the Atlas to institutions.
On your website the following description of Taswir can be read:
TASWIR IS A COLLABORATIVE AGENCY FOR ARTISTIC AND DIASPORIC THINKING We develop concepts for exhibitions and research projects with artists, scholars, and institutions. We are an imaginary university with nomadic seminars, international public talks, and publications. We develop the Taswir atlas and build the House of Taswir to cultivate techniques of free association, and connect objects, positions, people, places. We work with a loosely associated faculty and create knowledge from constellations yet unknown. Our projects are driven by people who are passionate about theory and art and who celebrate collaborations.
For a long time you lived in Jerusalem before moving to Berlin. Recently, during a talk with the Palestinian artist Steve Sabella on his book “The Parachute Paradox” at the Berliner ICI, you mentioned the term “diasporic thinking”, that you also describe in your book House of Taswir, published in 2014. What do you mean by diasporic thinking, also in relation to the Taswir Atlas, or even in practice?
What I mean with diasporic thinking is a movement of thought in splintered, fractured constellations. Diasporic in the sense of dispersed, splintered. Yes, true, this term is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, but we invoke it not in the modern sense in which it is now defined by a nation state to which it serves merely as negation, an outside-of.
On the contrary, diasporic thinking for Taswir projects takes its inspiration from a literary model developed by the ancient rabbinic masters who over centuries created a text with a myriad of layers, hosting commentaries from various places and in various languages, and who lived in dispersion, with no allotted territory, creating a “homeland” for themselves that is literature and poetry; the Talmudic scholars of Baghdad, for example, and their famous Houses of Wisdom. Taswir readdresses and resurrects certain alinear ways of reading traditional texts and commentaries in rabbinic contexts and transforms them into spatial architectures of a kindred spirit. Taswir projects emulates the movement of a literary model which we then translate into architectural sketches to show contemporary art. An ancient page with its wide and encompassing margins in which you find overflowing commentaries engulfing a text has no limit and is studied for generations - this inspires us to develop an epistemic architecture resembling a landscape of dreams.
What I mean with diasporic is a way of thinking that moves from margin to center, from the periphery to the heart, outside in, inscribing itself in-between letters, words and things, moving the meaning of things into the open instead of occupying them by interpretation. The architecture of an ancient text like the Talmud or any other medieval commentary inspires us to structure our projects in non-linear ways, criss-crossing time, allowing for constellations contemporary ancient, and to make room for various belongings of anything and anyone, objects and people alike.
“Diasporic” thinking, in a way, is the alternative to “intercultural dialogue” – instead of claiming different cultures in order to then connect them in an essentialist discourse of multiculturalism (which is a veiled form of racism), we begin with a splintered, fragmented scene in which an object seeks its alliances as it moves/is moved along driven by desire, following the lead of a shared question, or an unexpected moment of touch or encounter developed by a faculty of artists and thinkers whose connection is borne from collegiality and common interest rather than interdisciplinary research. Thus we have staged a seminar called Professional ID in Tbilisi, for example, taking place in a public café. Flaneurs were joining in from the streets and became participants in the seminar – next to invited scholars, journalists, artists, and curators – sharing resources and deeply personalized knowledge.
Taswir seminars and exhibitions are hosted by institutions whose protagonists we have had the pleasure to encounter and who we’ve had the privilege to work with ever since. Since we do not have any institutional setting of our own, we are always both hosts and guests in our own projects. In a way we take every one of our projects to the place where it “originated” – i.e., to the place where the relationship between the protagonists feels mostly at home.
All our projects are conceived by the logic of touch and follow an erotic method, if you wish. In a way we work in similar ways as the ones developed by the situationists in their “psycho-geography” – losing the bird’s-eye view, exploring the multi-faceted worlds of circumstance, not unlike a traveller living by the gifts of encounter driven by desire and curiosity, finding alliances across borders as a by-product, unintended. Always a bit queer to the main scene, off-scene, circumventing divisions.
Based in Berlin, you often travel to Istanbul or Tbilisi, Jerusalem, Beirut or Mostar, and you take Taswir Projects along with you. In addition, fellows from Kabul, Tunis or Sharjah, e.g. funded by ifa, join to do research at the Taswir Institute in Berlin. How do you find these places and the fellows?
Taswir projects is really tiny – its Berlin headquarters is located in our living room and occupies about 30 sqm filled with work tables, art works and books. But yes! - We exhibit in many places, and in a way we find the places by moving our questions across personal encounters and then following the kinetic energy of the objects and artefacts that interest us. A self-portrait of the late Arnold Schoenberg from the year 1944 evokes different associations when shown in a Jewish-Turkish gallery in Berlin together with Syrian and Kurdish artists living in the diaspora than the same portrait would develop in a National Gallery in Tbilisi where its gaze might be subcutaneously associated with the multi-faceted hermeneutics of reading icons. Taswir projects accepts fellows, young thinkers, researchers, artists, activists from all over the world. In a way, Taswir projects acts as a tiny institute of advanced studies. Over the last five years we hosted fellows from Damascus, Kabul, Baghdad, Berlin, Erbil, and Tunis, many female fellows, from various fields of study. The Taswir fellows find us via our international network, via our extended faculty of thinkers and artists, via the Goethe Institutes to which we are connected, or via the Institute of Foreign Relations which is a collaboration partner for Taswir projects for some years. Some of them find us online, encountering the website of Taswir.org by chance or circumstance. We are proud of our fellows, they contribute in amazing ways to our projects.
Interview by Lotte Laub