Anna Mields

Utopia Konferenz

What looks at first glance to be a reddish flag is frozen, proudly, in mid-flutter, on a pole. It could be shouting “Communist revolution!” or maybe: “Long live our ideology!” The pole, tilted forwards, seems to be marching onwards. It has a defiant attitude. Funny then, that while this calls to mind a socialist or communist symbol, it is in fact cast from a Sainsbury’s bag (Bag, 2007). And, on closer inspection, it is more orange than red—the British supermarket’s well known brand colour. Food shopping in Britain is always a statement about social values; you wouldn’t shop in Sainsbury’s for a bottle of Krug to go with your caviar, but you might pop in to browse the assortment of olive oil they offer. In short, the shop is, well, middle class and proud of it.

This guise of revolution—and its almost guilty revelation of a bourgeois mentality—is a common theme that links Anna Mields’ eclectic practice. Whether working in film, installation, performance, or sculpture, drawing from British or German culture, working alone or in collaboration, Mields’ practice is essentially a commentary on the desire to break away from an imposed social order, to imagine one’s own utopia and then to work towards its creation. She doesn’t, however, present this as a straightforward act of rebellion, nor does she offer an optimistic glowing future. Instead, in an incredibly sensitive and often humorous way, she explores the contradictions and conflicts inherent in this desire.

‘Yeah, yeah, I know Anna. Her parents moved to a farm in our village, reckon I was about 6 at the time. Those were the good years... there was some community spirit between those artists, doctors, writers an’ priests. It was just the politics they didn’t agree on. I guess they were bound together by their common decision not to leave, to try an’ make the best out of it, y’know, work on the survival of those communist ideals. Maybe they were hiding too a bit. And after all, there was some kind of freedom in this not free zone... and protection too.’
Marko, childhood friend, XXX village

Farbenlehre (2011), a film collaboration with Alex Gross, opens with something between children’s TV music and the title sequence music from a 70s Open University program. For those who were not in Britain at that time or up at the ungodly hour of 6 in the morning when it was aired, the OU produced educational programs for adult distance learners, so that they could study towards their degree at home. In Farbenlehre this music gives us the inkling that we are about to be taught something, whilst lending a tongue-in-cheek nostalgia to the film. This idea is later reinforced as the two interviewees, both art teachers, reminisce about their involvement in setting up a commune in Spain. They had hoped to found a community based on left-wing ideals that arose from the ’68 student movement, such as anti-authoritarianism, common-property, and free love, but they quickly discovered that the nitty-gritty of everyday life, differing political views, and the bourgeois norms, packed in their rucksacks and transported with them, meant that they had, in part, founded a home from home. The arc of this journey—from idealistic hopefulness in West Berlin, to dissonance, idleness, and the dissolution of ideology in Spain—is mirrored by both the films trajectory, beginning and ending with shots of German forest, and the last narrated line of the poem by E. Schoen, which laments that the once imagined community is, after all, “first and foremost a suburb of Nürnberg.” We find a similar nostalgia in Utopia Konferenz (2010), a performance that took place in the former Hungarian cultural institute in Berlin. In the GDR this was an important meeting point for creative people who were able to see films and attend conferences that were not entirely endorsed by the regime. The artist and two friends, wearing casts of their fathers’ noses and unnervingly realistic facial hair, gave an interview about “their” subversive creative outlet in the socialist era—a puppetry group. The script, taken verbatim from the mouths of the fathers, and the absurd coupling of its re-enactment by the daughters honoured the energy and impulse that led these grown men to play out the story of the Argonauts in miniature, while simultaneously poking fun at the quaint hopes of the last generation.

That a utopia cannot be imagined under any political system without acknowledging the failure of the present is, by now, a matter of course. Utopia presupposes that what is in place right now is not enough; it is romanticism as a reaction to political disappointment. “We imagined and tried to instigate a new future!” Mields’ protagonists exclaim, even if in reality, as in the Spanish commune and the rebellion of the puppeteers, it fell painfully short of its own ideology. Anna Mields’ work could be seen as a rather bitter lesson on trying to build one’s own utopia. There is certainly ruefulness in her practice—but as viewers, we are not left to wallow in regret.

There is also the communal celebration of reactionary beginnings—beginnings that are important and beautiful in their own right. In Farbenlehre, people wiggle behind squares of green and orange material against a picturesque backdrop and pieces of brightly coloured card float through the air. Referencing the colour theory art lessons of the 70’s, and using what we would now understand from a contemporary art perspective to be a more naïve performance art, Mields also brings across the energy of optimism, of hope and of belief that creativity can help build a life based on a different social order. Likewise, in Utopia Konferenz, although the “elderly gentlemen” onstage are presented as parodies, there is a genuine excitement which gains momentum during the performance as the daughters retell their fathers’ stories, mimicking gestures they have obviously witnessed countless times as dad banged on about this, that, or the other.

Mields uses television language from ‘lite’ breakfast TV talk shows (Utopia Konferenz), or reality TV. “A place in the sun,” or “How clean is your house?” spring immediately to mind. She couples contemporary television’s fascination for “non-normative” lives with an artist’s research into the impetus behind these breakaway acts. Employing a cinéma vérité filmmaking style, in both Arkenberge (2010) and Farbenlehre, she and Gross mix documentary with more stylized camera techniques, and intersperse these with scenes that can also be seen as art performance. The male interviewee grills his pork cutlets and relates the sad chain of events that led him to live at the foot of a rubbish tip, while a beautiful, heavily made up man in drag clambers around the snow-covered dump in a pink dressing gown. Similar only by the tenuous link of “outsider,” the viewer naturally builds associations between the two characters, yet these are neither confirmed nor denied by the film. Mields prevents the development of blatant stereotypes which modern media feeds to viewers, and in so doing, she disallows the authority of documentary film to present a full, easily digestible version of reality. Whilst her films, performances, and installations revolve around reactionary biographical narratives—from the ghost of a GDR housewife who leaves her family in Sibylle – ein Monument (2008) to Susan Boyle’s ascension from unknown into the ranks of celebrated household name (Das Susan Boyle Phänomen, 2010)—these biographies are never potted or easily palatable. The characters remain partial entities, but Mields hints at their emotions and thwarted aspirations by providing sets that play with cultural stereotypes—the gherkins and the cabinet for the East German housewife, the red brick wall and the drapes for Boyle.

I remember Anna playing hide and seek in my brand new Trabi. God! How I looked forward to getting that thing, seemed like I’d really gone up in the world. Saved up for it for years, I did. And just think, at that time, we could choose from one of three!
Nicolle, Neighbour, XXX Village

In Time for Revolution, Antonio Negri puts forward the idea of utopia within bourgeois ideology as being necessarily bound up within economic determinism. Utopia is posed as an alternative to a system; when in actuality, it delineates the horizon of that system. Not only does the imagination of utopian ideals re-establish what is already in place, the creativity and innovation involved in this imagination also power the system. We see the very same ideological struggle in Mields’ practice.
Sibylle – ein Monument, references the living conditions of women in the GDR. Supposedly emancipated, there were no housewives as such, women worked. Yet typically, in the home, they still did the same traditionally female household chores. The fight for equality that took place in the West passed the East German “Hausfrau” by, and her longing for a different role is epitomised in Sibylle as a divorcée’s shiny new living room furniture. A keen awareness of the troubled position of creativity in utopian discourse is also directed back towards art itself. Mields’ work swings away from documentary towards mockumentary when she references outmoded artistic styles and when she deals in stereotypes, but this is only to acknowledge that, even in the present day, the vocabulary of art (irony, self reflection) conforms to certain utopian standards and this, in turn, will be seen as naïve idealism in the not too distant future. As the green, phallus-like gherkins that swarm behind Sibylle’s cabinet also prop up the façade of the new, Mields seems to be saying, art itself is supported and restricted by the ideological system that produced it.

‘I used to walk Anna’s dog with her sometimes. This dog had a real knack for cocking its leg up against expensive motorbikes... Anna would see the owner getting mad, but she wouldn’t pull the dog away. Sometimes they even yelled at her, the owners, but she would just smile to herself. She used to say to me: that’ll show ‘em not to take their property too seriously...’
Brigit, former classmate, XXX tenth-grade school

“Pacific Quay” sounds like an idyllic location for a holiday. Not so apt a name then, for the patch of wasteland situated in Glasgow, where Dreckecke (2009) was installed. This façade of a dingy alleyway was a monument to those communal spaces found tucked away in the dark corners of every city, which are often made good use of after time is called at ‘The Dog and Duck’ down the road. It was fitting then, that overnight Dreckecke turned into an introverted stage for acts of vandalism. Arriving in the morning, the artist found that the installation had been partially kicked in.
Vandalism can only have an impact if its object is considered valuable or worth preserving in some way, or if the object is antagonistic to a belief system. What is funny about Dreckecke is that it is not self evident that this installation, placed in an urban landscape and without the protective white cube surrounding it, would be perceived as valuable to non-art viewers. So what might it stand for? Perhaps it is work and effort towards an ideal that is not supported by the local community. By literally voting with their feet, the late-night actors reclaimed their communal space, making the artwork into a bourgeois imposition on their territory. In documenting these changes, Mields affirms the aggression as part of a communal sculptural process, validating the reaction as equal to her own input. But as she claims the traces of vandalism back as art, does she also admit to modern art’s own bourgeois mentality? According to Negri, “Utopia is first and foremost an extremely realist thing. There is utopia when there is construction, or a revelation of the common.” Accordingly, Dreckecke provides a stomping ground for the battle of the commons, whether that is fuelled by a naïve belief in a better way of life, or simply a metal toe-capped cultural rebellion.

Kym Ward is a freelance performance artist currently living and working in Berlin

Antonio Negri, (1997), Time for Revolution, Continuum, London
Hans Ulrich Obrist, (Sept. 2010), In Conversation with Antonio Negri, eflux journal 18 [online] [accessed July 2011]