skype conversation between terence koh and ellen blumenstein on bee chapel hafenCity
[10 sep 19 🌏 hamburg ↔ california]
terence: is everything gone?
ellen: yes, the bee chapel was moved to the ecumenical forum today.
terence: good. so the installation has disappeared now.
ellen: yes, and it’s a very strange feeling.
terence: surreal. hamburg feels so long ago, even though 👁 have just been back home in california for only a week. it took me a few days to be a normal citizen again who has a home with walls and roofs and heat and gets to go out whenever he wants.
ellen: at first sight, not much has changed. but it already feels like the project has affected everybody. even with my colleagues from hafenCity, the tone has changed.
terence: so weird, right? yoo never know about people, about what their experience of the project might have been. but to open up to so many chance encounters has been one of the best parts of it and a big learning experience for me. beecause it hasn’t been an art setting, the conversations have been so different to what 👁 usually talk about.
Ellen: Did you already start reflecting on the experience? Is there anything that you would have done differently?
terence: maybee my situation was too comfortable; 👁 could have been more severe. 👁 could have completely stayed out there in the installation the whole time whatever the weather. 👁 could have just slept on the boat, bathed in the river. on the other hand, this might have been too theatrical. in any case, my major learning experience was to understand that the project wasn't an art performance. It is difficult to explain, yoo really had to be there.
Ellen: Well, Bee Chapel HafenCity obviously still is an art project, but maybe not in the traditional sense.
terence: a key element was that no almost no one ever mentioned the word “art” at that location. when 👁 did performances before, they were always considered art, and the bee chapel was considered a sculpture. but this time, outside, there were also people who had no idea about art. they didn't even think about the place as an artwork, they just considered it an observational object or a scientific project. and we didn’t correct this perception; we left interpretation up to the audience. that was a big breakthrough for me!
Ellen: That is great to hear!
terence: in the art world, we are used to translating everything into an artistic language. with this project, though, we didn’t apply these rules, and still, or maybe therefore, passers-by would just come in and be affected anyways. the janitor of hafencity, for example, would peek into the chapel several times on his way too work, but he would not go inside, until finally, days later, he took courage and stepped in. this effect reminds me of joseph beuys because he addressed everybody, not only the art crowd. he was a great connector and friends with all kinds of people who had nothing to do with art.
Ellen: Beuys took everybody seriously and tried to convince laymen that they could make art, too.
Ellen: The further into project, the more connections I detected between Beuys and your work for Hafencity. You are both into bees, obviously, but there is also a common emphasis on real situations, and the idea that the encounter—and the conversation¬—is a formative part of the art. An important difference between your work and his practice, though, is that Beuys had a clear political agenda. I mean, not that your work is not political, but in a very different way.
terence: 👁 am trying to get at a similar outcome, but in different ways and with different analogies. this makes me think of beuys’ vulnerability that you mentioned the other day. when 👁 put myself out there under the bridge, 👁 also felt extremely exposed. everybody could see me, 👁 had no real protection from the weather, anyone could observe what 👁 am eating, what my kitchen looks like, when 👁 go to take a poo; all those little clues. but 👁 believed my vulnerability opened people up, it encouraged them to take on different perspectives themselves.
Ellen: There is also a necessity for visitors to get involved. The usual art performance spares people from becoming part of the work, they are either allowed to remain bystanders and observe what the performer is doing. Or, the audience is assigned a predetermined role; everybody is supposed to put oneself in a particular place or to act out specific instructions. With the Bee Chapel HafenCity, it was different. You just couldn’t experience the project if you didn’t get involved. And nobody told you what to do or how to feel.
terence: the project was also difficult for me, because in an art gallery, there are all these rules and specifications that people expect from the artist. whatever the performance, everybody’s behavior is under control. but here, we jumped into it without knowing what we were doing. we set a basic framework¬¬—like dividing the space into a public and a private section, setting opening hours for the chapel, or me making tea for people. but the project itself was as unclear to us as it was for anybody passing by. 👁 actually just realize 👁 never made a single cup of tea.
Ellen: Why not?
terence: 👁 don't know. 👁 think for the first few weeks, we were so busy setting things up and then people were coming and talking and 👁 was so engaged in the conversations that 👁 forgot. or maybe it wasn’t necessary. the tea was supposed to be the conversation starter, but 👁 didn't anticipate that the bee chapel would do this all already. tea making could even have been distracting.
Ellen: True. It would have been like a set of tasks: First, go to the bee chapel and then, drink a tea and then, talk to the artist.
terence: this is maybe what 👁 was trying to describe as “theatrical” earlier. when 👁 presented the bee chapel in an art context, 👁 wood still have to explain what the project is, how visitors are supposed to “use” it. but out there on the river in hafencity it was the best thing to just smile and say: “hello, are you here to visit the honeybees?” and people would simply say, “ja”.
Ellen: How many times did you say this sentence over the last month?
terence: many, many, many times. but if you think about it, it couldn't have been easier. because 👁 didn't start explicating, “this is the bee chapel, it is for humans and bees”, and so on and so forth. the whole point was not for me to explain it. the piece wasn’t describable on instagram either, because it wasn't just a visual. it wasn't just a sound, or just about smell and taste; it was using all the senses at once too escape time, escape our limited body, which is what art and life are trying to get at. that’s why not speaking german was never really a barrier, because the experience was happening beyond the realm of language.
Ellen: Maybe it even helped? There was an estrangement, a space between the languages that slowed things down.
terence: (smiles) yes, ironically, it actually did help, because I spoke less than usual. this erased the idea of the artist and made more space for visitors, so that the audience itself became the actor. the key thing was to put them in the same position as the artist.
Ellen: True. But I would describe the situation a bit differently. The typical visitors in art galleries know how they are expected to behave, and this knowledge keeps their fear of the unknown under control. Here, the rules were not clear, so there could have been a lot of fear. So your presence was decisive at this point: You took the fear away from us and made everybody more open and more perceptive. As a visitor, I was not really turning into an artist myself, but somehow I became part of the work and I could feel the possibility of art. You were still the core of the setting, mediating the situation. So in this sense, you were not equal; you made everything possible. It needs a clear desire to create an experience for strangers.
terence: 👁 get that. and 👁 see that it's contradictory when 👁 say that 👁 want to erase myself as the artist, but then I'm completely there as the integral part of the piece at the same time. 👁 want to erase myself, but 👁'm also a part of it.
Ellen: What totally I understand is that you don't want to be a center stage genius. You want to blend with the environment, become a natural part of it.
terence: 👁 actually joked around with garrick (my boyfriend) how easy it would have been to turn the project into a cult-like thing. if 👁 had really wanted to employ my charm, it would have been possible to seduce visitors. but seduction and the pleasure of senses was what 👁 hoped too transcend. beuys also had to deal with students or audience turning into dedicated devotees, but that was never his aim. he wanted to enable people, not make them compliant.
Ellen: Did you feel tempted though?
terence: definitely, there was a temptation. admiration is a very powerful sentiment. but probably there is no easy way to answer this issue. how did you experience the dynamics?
Ellen: I think you acted very intuitively, you didn’t consciously decide how to address people. Rather, you naturally didn’t act as a “truth-teller”, my impression was that your main concern was to stimulate the visitors’ energy, to loosen them up.
terence: yes, 👁 think that´s right. 👁
actually wasn't thinking whether 👁 was being too charming or overtaken by my childish desires. 👁 would say that for the most part 👁 wasn't really thinking, 👁 was just in the moment, simply beeing. whoever came, it was always different. cute hunk, grandmas, tourists, random strangers, 👁 just dived in.
Ellen: You just reacted to the person in front of you.
Ellen: So do you think that art world people were different as visitors than tourists or neighbors?
terence: yes. the art world people would try to put their experience in the context of art history, and they would try to bee intellectual, ask more questions we were used to. we speak the same language. with the others, depending on whether it's the janitor or the immigrant kids, 👁 would switch the topic and the tone of the conversations and adapted to the situation as much as possible.
the professionals also compared the bee chapel to joseph beuys, who for some reason came up very often. 👁 don't mind this; it’s a great compliment. 👁 don't want to bee beuys, but for a german to first think of him when seeing a project of mine is really touching. maybe it’s how beuys’ practice might have looked like today—but actually, no, not really.
Ellen: There is not so much at stake in your work. You’re accepting what’s there and what is coming out, so your approach feels gentler. Beuys is always so intense, so desperate, and so passionate, while you allow things to happen. So it's less...
terence: …heavy would be the word, right? beuys is very heavy.
terence: which is fine, because we are two different people.
Ellen: I would like to stretch the bow even further: If Beuys definitely is a reference, would you say that there is a also an influence from Asian traditions, in terms of a ritualistic approach, and also your interest in disappearing as an individual in favor of the common good? The piece is very open, but there are repetitive patterns, too, like the personal welcome or the invitation to step behind the curtain. Plus, there are routines you carry out just for yourself, like drawing in the morning, feeding the bees and watering the plants. And then there is the architecture of the chapel itself, which feels more like an Asian temple than a Christian prayer room. Some aspects are similar to your earlier performances in art galleries. But I assume that being in a public space changed the procedure, didn’t it?
terence: it's interesting that you mention the term ritual, because actually a ritual was exactly what 👁was trying to avoid with this project. my old performances played with references to christian, pagan or chinese funeral rituals and stuff like that. but what's different here is that 👁 didn't want it to be ritualistic at all. what we mean by “ritual” is that something is bound by tradition. tradition is always bound to the past, too time so 👁 wanted to doo something that was not time-bound. we spoke about the bee chapel being a time machine. even though 👁 would wake up and water the 🌱 and feed the bees and do these errands really quickly in my underwear—all the things 👁 forgot now—, maybee all this was about trying to go beyond the ritual of things into a being of things. that's why we have a hard time determining whether it was open or ritualistic because 👁 am still working it out.
Ellen: The way you describe the experience is really great, but there is still this kind of rule, and there is a procedure contained in your formula “Hi are you here to visit the bee chapel?” It's never quite the same but there is a moment of repetition or of routine.
terence: o yes!
Ellen: It's not about doing same thing all the time, but there is a kind of framing that allows things to happen. So there is a ritual, but inside of it, there is no strictness.
terence: 👁 tink 👁 know what you're trying to get at. let's say, in a monastery, everything is completely elaborate:
you wake up at 4:15, the first walk is at 4:30, zazen at 4:45 and so on until you sleep. everything is structured and has been organized for you. at first, like most people, 👁 thought of this as a prison. but then 👁 realized that in the order of these preconceived rules you get freedom. it's about contextualizing your personal thinking. maybee that’s similar to what we did: we never set any specific rules, but we set up the way how to walk down from street level to the bee chapel; you have to find it first: when you descend a set of steps, you pass through several trees sideways where this one tree is blocking you. that's like setting up the ritual and the rules. without any verbal directing, you zigzag down towards the river, where you have to make another turn to the right and pass by the benches. all this slows you down so that by the time you see me and 👁 open up the door of the chapel, smile and say “hello”, you are already in a different sort of time.
Ellen: Do you remember the elderly ladies who kept saying “oh that's schön**”? People notice that there is a specific care about the place. Of course, they don't reflect on how carefully the situation is set up. For example, our technical director Till, he wanted to install this bamboo fence to protect you from being too exposed. But you were unambiguous and insisted that the site should be more translucent.
terence: the bamboo fence was making a wall but we need less walls! both physical and mental. if you think about the ritual in ordinary terms, because the ritual is also me picking up cigarettes, so many cigarette butts. It's these little things you don’t notice when you come to the bee chapel: there's not a single cigarette butt. it's ritualistic in that it has been swept clean every day, just like in a good monastery or church. but than what 👁 really hoped too acheive is beyond ritual and physicality so we touch the invisible. it’s about a certain energy of the place.
Ellen: You infuse it with care. Maybe that’s why it felt so different to other places in Hafencity.
terence: many of the neighbors used that same term. they said that the place had spirit, which leads me too question if hafencity doesn’t yet possess a soul? all artists, all humans are trying to flow back to this timeless spiritual level, too rediscover god. art is just the receipe to get there.
Ellen: You could also use the expression “being alive”. The space itself was alive, even when you were out in the sauna. Even in the absence of its host, the space was pulsating.
terence: 👁 have always wondered if the work even needs me or not. doo 👁 necessary have to 🐝 there to set the vibration, to set the first spark? actually every individual has the ability too self-spark. every human being has the ability to get at this indescribable invisible thing we keep trying to pin down. but civilization and society is not perfect. so perhaps at the moment you need someone else too set up the spark first.
Ellen: And the church can't do it because it always has the answer already, and the answer is God.
terence: right. the church and humans in general are conditioned too want answers but god is a question.
Ellen: But as an artist, you don't have the answer either. All you do is trying to get closer to it—knowing that the answer is not waiting already. You know what I mean?
Ellen: It is also interesting that your starting point was the bees. People asked for the bees a lot, and you usually told them about these articles you read. Meanwhile, there have been many projects about bees or saving the bees, but did something very specific: You built a chapel. This is crucial. There is something about connecting this ancient, non-human life form with the urge to create a space of encounter with it—and make use of the religious connotation. Calling the sculpture a chapel is not a random decision. You didn’t call it a space of encounter or whatever. So there is a reference to the structure of religion, but you do something else. You didn’t replace religion with another belief system either; you didn’t set up a nature cult that’s not it.
terence: 👁 like that you say 👁consciously called it a chapel. it could just as well have been a cockroach chapel, or an ant chapel or a bat chapel; the bees are secondary. 👁called it a chapel because it's about god. when you talk about god, people just roll their eyes because the term is so abused. butt 👁 guess all art is about reaching god. even 👁 roll my eyes because saying “god is love and love is god” is such a cliché. only in all seriousness, when it's beyond a concept, it makes sense to call it a chapel.
Ellen: In the beginning you said that there is a breakthrough point in the project for you. Do you think that this experience will change your work or have influence on the way you approach projects in the future?
terence: this was the first time 👁 was out there in public without expecting anything. 👁 was exposed to “true society” in a sense. yoo have to be there exposed, vulnerable and all alive in all its uncontrollable manifestations. it's not that usually 👁try to do things intellectually. although, 👁 guess that deep down 👁 think 👁 am a conceptual artist—these things are so hard to explain—, but it turned out to not be a conceptual piece anymore. 👁 broke some of the barriers between what even 👁 knew what concept art is and what living is.
Ellen: This comment relates back to our discussion about the ritual. Your work is not a ritual but ritualistic. In the same way, it's conceptual but not a conceptual piece. Maybe the difference is that in a conceptual piece you control the whole process. You know what's happening, you know what you will be doing, and you also know what the audience is supposed to do. Here, in reverse, you have that vague, or maybe also that precise, idea of what the piece is about, but then you hand it over, so that it changes in the process.
terence: yes definitely. look, for example, at a performance by marina hoo is very disciplined and rigorous. we are very similar in a way, and also worked together many times. butt 👁 think what you mean is that because 👁'm looser, wobbler, the work is organic? sometimes 👁 think that if 👁 were more rigorous, 👁 wood bee more successful in the art world.
Ellen: Well, I’d say it was a deliberate decision to not wanting to be a successful artist anymore; at least not in the same way.
terence: true, true.
Ellen: If you take her performance with Ulay, where they just slap each other’s faces. There is this openness to letting go of the concept, making space for what's happening within the rules. As a visitor, you kind of know what's happening but you still have to let it happen. Which means that not everything is controlled. The concept was to slap each other till they couldn't go any more or till one of them falls down but still, they couldn't control the process because otherwise the performance wouldn't work. I haven't really thought about her work in this way before—that she integrates the non-controllable into the concept.
terence: the 🐝 chapel in hafencity was concept and non-concept, art and life. beeing in hamburg was very important. in berlin, for example, the project inevitably would have been an art event. hamburg is quieter, more natural, so here, we could do something unexpected.
Ellen: A propos, what do you think about the timing? Should the project have lasted longer or shorter, or was it just right?
terence: if it were shorter, we wouldn't have enjoyed the sunny parts because it would have ended in the rain. also, too few people would have have seen it because it takes a while, even for regulars, to take notice, and to approach the chapel. it takes a certain amount of time to understand the place. so the project could have lasted a week or two more. but then again, 👁 already started wanting to go back because the situation is intense—to 🐝 out there all the time exposed without any protection and not being free about my time.
Ellen: At some point, I was slightly afraid that the project could become hype. After your interview with the weekly magazine Der Spiegel was published, I was worried because I am not sure what would have happened and what we would have done if suddenly there were queues of people. If it had become too much of a happening or too voyeuristic, you couldn’t have had the same kind of encounters anymore.
terence: time and pace were just great. the few times when people were queuing, it was fine but it didn't feel right. 👁 thought, “o my god, this feels like disneyland”. when the first person came in to say hello, 👁’d have to act like a tour guide and tell her, “okay, now your tour is over”, and 👁'd have to repeat the same tour just with another person. 👁 didn't enjoy that, so 👁 am glad it didn't go nuts.
Ellen: Do you remember walking to St. Georg*** and discussing what would happen if put the chapel right into the busy pedestrian area behind the train station? It wouldn't have worked either. We were not too conscious about planning, but now I strangely feel that we found the right place at the right time, and we did almost everything intuitively right.
terence: o yes! that's right! we were lucky with the willow trees and the river, the location couldn't have been more perfect. it was also good to not place the chapel on the boat, which would just have been another “wall”. it was important that anybody could come visit any time of the day. someone also commented that, if the whole project had happened on a boat, it wood have spent a nice holiday. it wood have been very comfortable, and at 6 o'clock 👁 wood have brought in the boat bridge and spend quiet evenings. this brings me back to the question if bee chapels can happen anywhere. 👁 thought about publishing the design drawings including a construction manual on an open source platform, so that people around the world can download the files. 👁 don’t know… as you said, you also have to push things personally, and without the right context and setting, it’s a different project.
Ellen: That's totally what it needs, just like with any social situation: you need the host or you need the person who creates a space. I'm curious to see what happens to the chapel at the ecumenical forum. I think that Henning Klahn, the pastor, will be a really good “substitute”-co-host. Of course, the situation is very different, but he'll have love for the project as well, he's affectionate towards the chapel. That's important to make it have a real life there.
terence: 👁 tink so, too. it couldn't just be like a pop up cafe after 👁 am gone. it has to be people who have a love for it and care for it. if 👁 wanted to repeat it somewhere, 👁 would have to find people who take responsibility. it's not a commercial project.
Ellen: I hope we can move that love somewhere else or find a different object for it with another project, now that you are back in Los Angeles. Do you think you would go back to the public space in future projects? Or do you think, “That was interesting, but enough is enough”?
terence: that's a good question. every time 👁 doo a project, 👁 never want to go through that kind of strain ever again. part of me just doesn’t want to meet anybody. 👁 have this romantic idea where 👁 just do drawings at home and just fedex my drawings to exhibitions. it’s almost ironic for someone who’s naturally introverted and shy to do projects like these. but then 👁 do it, and 👁 don’t know any other way. so 👁 have no idea if 👁’m going to do this again. let’s sea how long my recovery takes.
Ellen: I also don’t want to be confronted with so many people; it tires me to be social all the time. But at the same time, I am doing a job, which is extremely social. I guess everybody is torn between needing to be alone—and I am not talking about individualism here—and being overwhelmed by the complexity of social daily life, which at least I don’t feel fit for. Do you think that working with art is a way to create situations in which one voluntarily exposes oneself to that physical and mental overload and also tries to handle it more consciously? Maybe not better, but being more conscious about what happens to you in situations you don’t want to be in?
terence: 👁 had all these selfish needs about having my own free time. sometimes 👁 just wanted to sit in the hotel room and watch netflix. 👁 was like, “ah 👁 can’t face it!” but being part of the experiences of people kept me going. no matter who came, even if people didn’t seem interested, 👁 felt that 👁 was part of a bigger whole; 👁 was not just the one individual. It felt drunk in a way. for a few moments there—for that month—it was not just “us” as individuals, while we were working together. when the “I” became a “we” it made me almost feel like we brought a gift to society. well, 👁 don’t know whether it’s a gift or not. but we sparked something in all these people, and in the end it was completely worth it.
Ellen: A gift is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it. So it’s not about giving people what they wish for, but to give something that they don’t expect or that they don’t even know they wish for. In that sense, nobody was waiting for you to come to Hafencity and install the bee chapel. But in a way, you gave much more than anyone could have imagined, and no one even new it was needed. You know what I mean?
terence: 👁 doo, because it was also more than 👁 imagined. 👁 expected to be sitting by the bee chapel and having a good time, in the summer, because 👁 thought that in august, the weather would be sunny and it would be beautiful every day. so 👁 thought it was just going to be like a camping thing, but 👁 grew into the project as it progressed, facing all the challenges, being sick and exposed… of course 👁 didn’t want to be wet and soaked but in the end, 👁 was excited to see every person who came by. again, it felt like we were part of a greater thing than just what the individual could ever do, so that’s why 👁 hope it will be remembered.
Ellen: I hope so too. Maybe it is vain to think that way, but for me, the project was definitely special.
terence: for me too!
* terence’s partner
** german for „beautiful“, „lovely“
*** neighboring, multicultural district