Filmstaub Altes Gaswerk Film Dust Old Gasworks An exhibition title that poses a riddle. The old gasworks refers to the IV. Berliner Gasanstalt, which started operations in Prenzlauer Berg in 1873 and supplied the district with illuminating and town gas for 108 years. And of course with soot and various other environmental toxins. Nobody cried a tear for the latter. But the three gasometers, one of them with an impressive dome, shaped the cityscape and became a landmark for the residents. But how does the film dust get into the Old Gasworks? The sprawling industrial site also served as a film set, but the set designers hardly needed special film dust at this location. In three photographs we see props left behind. At the moment of recording, it had already become a relic itself. Like the advertising pillar in front of the “metal workshop”, the so-called UTP barracks, where Betina Kuntzsch also received lessons in technical production as a pupil. Another prop was the vintage car, which can be seen in the picture entitled “Film set” and next to it in “Vintage car”, where it can only be guessed at dimly. Just as if he were immersed in black film dust.
Of course, we are not talking about the commercially available mineral rock dust used for dust effects and explosions on stages, in film or television. The artist gives the term its own meaning and visualises the dust that has become embedded in the film layer. Don’t wipe it away, but make it consciously visible and thus also time.
The photographs were taken in 1982, some in spring 1983. Two years earlier, production had been shut down. Betina Kuntzsch had just graduated from high school and was taking photographs as part of a traineeship at GDR television In the conception for her series she wrote: “This gasworks, which has supplied us with city gas, soot, dust and stench for so many years, all my life so far, is now to be demolished.
How does this happen? How are the people involved? To what extent can the fate of the gasworks be linked to that of Wenk, who had been working there since 1947?”
Questions that were on the minds of many people in Prenzlauer Berg at the time. A hint of the amusing kind is given by the finding that Betina Kuntzsch did not photograph, but kept as a document, with the saying: “Berlin without a gasometer – is like Boulette without mince pies”.
The monument value of the gasometers was discussed, artists, architects and students developed ideas and visions for cultural use concepts.
Humboldt University was also involved, as was the Weißensee School of Art. The planned demolition of the gasometers sparked citizen protests unprecedented in the GDR. Even today, there are voices that see this as the nucleus of the later citizens’ movement. But the people Betina Kuntzsch included in her concept, the workers and the residents, were not involved in the future fate of the gasometers. Not even colleague Wenk. In July 1984, the last gasometer was “expertly blown up”, as the writer Rolf Schneider wrote in Der Spiegel.
The Ernst Thälmann Park was created, with over 1300 flats and the planetarium. An area where at least the gasometer with the dome could have been integrated. Whether the gasometers were a thorn in the side of an SED functionary or whether the Soviet sculptor Lew Kerbel saw them as competition for his Thälmann monument is still a matter of debate today. Betina Kuntzsch shows the monument as a monumental cardboard model and in relation to the water tower of the gasworks. Scratched by the traces of time, even before Kerbel’s monolithic bronze Thälmann was cast.
The artist grew up not far from the gasworks. In Greifswalder Strasse, which can be seen in two photographs where it is hard to tell what is real soot and what is film dust, and in “Dimitroff- (Danziger)/ Ecke Greifswalder Strasse” with the prominent Karl-Marx in the background. At the time of the demolition, Betina Kuntzsch was a second-semester student at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. The gateway to painting, as Kunstforum once wrote, although it added a question mark to the title. Which is why Betina Kuntzsch made her graduation diploma in 1988 with a video. Since she lived in Leipzig – and only took the Boulette Gasometer leaflet off a tram disc during a visit home “with a guilty conscience” – there are no photographs of the gasometer demolition in the exhibition.
But as is easy to see, the series “Film Dust Old Gasworks” is not about photographic documentation either. Because any documentary character was washed away, literally. First when water flooded the artist’s studio, later the already damaged negatives were stored in a cellar, which in turn was flooded once again. Betina Kuntzsch nevertheless kept the negatives and viewed them again decades later.
Those who know the artist and her work are aware of her preference for material defects of all kinds, which then provide her with the occasion for the poetic images. In the video drawings “Bahnblick” it was scratched tram windows, in “Eine Reise tun” video half-images became rapid interference waves, in the photo series “Blüte” it was the torn plastic bag in a tree, a material defect of civilisation, so to speak. In the series “Silver Salt” she has developed almost abstract salt prints from found material – from destroyed nitrate films of the silent film era.
In the series “Filmstaub Altes Gasworks” the found footage consists of Betina’s own negatives. Although a number of the photographs seem to be from times long past. Even seem removed from the 20th century. It is precisely with the artefacts, with actual or supposed dirt, with disturbances and image noise, that Betina extracts a very unique materiality from the photographs. Very individual and idiosyncratic narratives.
“But in fact, for there to be any ‘messages’ at all, […] there must be noise”, says Michel Foucault in Message or Noise? The disturbance or accident and not least also chance form a material resistance from which the artist elicits exciting structures again and again. Which is why, for “Filmstaub Altes Gasworks”, she deliberately sorted out the undamaged, correctly exposed and sufficiently developed negatives. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)
Now, in times of established rubbish art, art dust has also long been socially acceptable. In the 2002 exhibition Fractals III, Thorsten Streichardt formed an oversized mouse out of real woollen mice, while the young Spaniard Olmo Blanco uses dust as a drawing material. At the beginning of the 1980s, Erwin Wurm discovered the dust sculpture. With ordinary house dust, the Austrian sculptor marked an object that might have stood on the pedestal. Wurm let the physical emerge as a potential image in the viewer’s mind. Betina Kuntzsch does it the opposite way round. In her concept, the representational is immaterially superimposed by the film dust in the film layer. Even the possible image has mostly evaporated in these photographs. Lint and scratches, dirt or water marks form a new one under which the original motif has been deposited. A faded memory that we suddenly rediscover. Similar to Proust’s Madeleine effect. Because you don’t see anything on the majority of the negatives. Some are just plain white. With analogue means, nothing more than a black surface would be visible in the photos. Betina scanned them – along with the dirt and water damage or cracks that had dug into the film layer, as well as the film grime that would develop anyway through ageing – and enhanced the contrasts. The digital restoration makes the window in “Neon” visible in the first place. Likewise the worker in “Water Tower/Worker”, where, in addition, a small film tear becomes a mysterious flying object – something between candy and bomb. In this way, ‘disappeared’ content is rediscovered and new content is created.
When the “Water Tower I” is woven around by a spider’s web or a water stain in the photograph “Factory Site” to the eruptively fraying sun. While the real shattered glass in “Outlook” itself seems like the remnant of a small puddle of water, or the “film dirt” – which is probably the end or the beginning of a negative strip – turns out to be an abstract-painterly motif. Which is fascinating in itself, but becomes even more astonishing when, next to it in “Bunker View/Winter”, the film dirt covers the city silhouette with similar, raindrop-like traces.
In the interweaving of analogue and digital techniques, Betina Kuntzsch extracts her very own material qualities from the destroyed material. The scratches and the image noise embed time loops in the documentary moments. Memories of transience.
Of utopias, too. In the 19th century, the gasworks stood as a symbol of technical progress. In the 1980s it became a symbol of the burgeoning resistance in the GDR. In some photographs, the still invisible rumbling of that time seems to come through in the film dust. The black film dust in “Exit Dimitroffstraße” rises like bubbling steam from the underground. A water stain and a dead-straight scratch or bend strike out like a pendulum in “Water Tower II”.
In Goethe’s Faust we read:
To the moment I’d like to say
Stay awhile, you are so beautiful,
Then you may put me in bonds,
Then I’ll gladly perish.
Then the death knell may sound,
Then be thou free from thy service.
The clock may stand still, the needle may fall.
It was the end of time for me.
The Old Gasworks is history. Just like the GDR. Only the Thälmann monument has survived.
Opening speech for the exhibition
BETINA KUNTZSCH „Filmstaub Altes Gaswerk“
at Galerie Mönch Berlin, 18. Oktober 2014
By Michaela Nolte