Born in Germany, Assistant Professor of Art Janne Höltermann attended the Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and received her MFA at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She commutes from Boston every Monday and Friday morning to teach Video Art. The Argus sat down with her over lunch to chat about her life as a traveling artist and a media art professor. As a frequent traveler, she keeps her suitcases and bookshelves light, but make no mistake: Höltermann loves books.
The Argus: So, I have the most original question. What’s on your bookshelf?
Janne Höltermann: I guess my general relationship to bookshelf is difficult, because I moved many times. So, there are usually no novels on there. I read [novels] and then give them away for the next person to read them.
On my bookshelf, there are always recently finished books, books that I am currently reading, or ones that are still waiting, sitting and looking at me. One I recently finished is by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, a German author. The book’s title is “The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century.” It is actually a fairly easy and enjoyable read, but also at the same time very inspiring. It essentially describes the nineteenth century through the railroads and [how] the perception of time and space changed. It is a very inspiring book for my own work.
Then there is one book waiting, and I probably will [read] it after the semester, but I’m really looking forward to it. It is by Georges Perec, [a] French author. It is written in the mid-late 70s. The translation of the title in English would be [“Life: A User’s Manual”]. I found it because I was talking to [a] friend [when] I was working on a project, and we were thinking about alternative editing techniques, [asking], “Could you base your editing strategies on a board game?” And we started talking about the literature, [which] uses non-narrative strategies. Each chapter takes place in a different room in a fictional house in Paris. From what he told me, the novel was written according to a complex plan referencing a problem in a chess game while also taking in consideration of the architecture of the house. It is a longer novel and I probably need a good weekend to get into it.
In the studio, I have other books, essays, reviews. I have a book in the studio right now that I’ve been just flipping through. It is a very beautiful book. It is “Mapping It Out” by Hans Ulrich Obrist, a German curator and critic. I guess it is a collection of artworks that deal with the presentation of space. So [the book] is more for when I want to take a break from editing.
A: You say that you are from Germany. How did you end up here in America?
JH: I graduated in Germany in 2005. I won this art prize, and it was a lot of money meant [for me] to invest in another country or travel. So I decided to go to school in the U.S. From 2006 to 2008, I went to [Massachusetts College of Art and Design] in Boston. And [afterwards], I moved back. So, [from] 2008 to 2011, I was in Hamburg. And then in 2011, I moved back to the U.S.
A: Were you always doing video art?
JH: No, I actually started out with sculpture. I was definitely always building and making things. And my thinking is still very much three-dimensional. Plus, my current video works are usually always installed [so that] the viewer can move in the space.
A: Actually, I have seen some of your video works, including “The Maze,” because I stalked you before taking your class.
JH: [Laughing] That’s good. That’s what German art students do. They first look at the professors and see if they want to work with them. I appreciate that.
A: Yeah, of course. Could you describe some of your art and what you are looking for in them?
JH: Both of my theses were so important. To say it very briefly, [the first thesis] was about camera movement in space. My interest was more in perception in general. And then in 2008, I got more interested in the perception of space. That’s when I started working and filming a lot in architecture. The first piece was in gymnasiums, because I was interested in the movement of bodies in space.
In the end, I worked with the perception of space and also how it is influenced by media. For instance, “The Maze” project was inspired by the mapping systems and how [we] move through the world as [we] look through [our] iPhones or mapping devices, like the sliding or zooming movement in Google Maps. I tried to apply that and have that dictate the editing of my camera technique. The overall question is: “Is there a spatial truth?” You see [a certain] way because somebody taught you and this is how perspective works. But who knows, in the end? Your brain and eye coordination can completely cheat on you. So is there a spatial truth, and how can media influence it, change it, and cheat on it?
It is kind of funny because this is when my Spanish studies really paid back. Because I was never big into narratives or reading novels, I chose linguistics to focus on. And I wrote a research paper on how space is represented in language using deictic elements. Words like “here” and “there.” For instance, in Spanish, there are “a quí,” “ahí,” and “allí”–three grades of distance. For English, there are only two: “here” and “there.” That’s when I started thinking about how much we really depend on how language is used and who uses it.
A: How about your current work? Is it also related to this idea of perceiving space?
JH: It is actually very related. I was going do it as my thesis project in Germany where I filmed in bunkers or just finished filming in bunkers. So I scouted [the videos] in 2005, but I was too scared of the topic and didn’t want to have World War II [in my project] at all, because it is such a heavy subject matter. But I guess now, as an artist, I have the self-confidence to address this topic and I know more what my interests are. And I know it is okay not to make a World War II documentary, because there are already so many out there and I do not need to address that specifically in my work.
I’m interested in these civilian bunkers. They [were] not for defense, but they [were] meant for the population to sit and wait until the bombings are over. So it has a lot of spaces [for] bunk beds and benches. But all of that, luckily, is gone by now, because Germany supported the bunkers until the early 90s when the war came down and the Cold War was over. When I saw them for the first time in 2005, everything was still in there, but now they are all cleaned out and [there is only] bare architecture. What I am interested in is the fluorescent guiding system along all the doorframes. Every space there is a fluorescent line—on each column—and it glows in the dark in case there is a power outage. I’m interested in following with the camera this guidance system. [The project] is all [photographs] because I needed to use long exposure times, and I am only using the reflective light for the video.
And I have another project, actually already shot. I wanted to compensate all the traffic in an airport in one image over one day. It was kind of a quick idea. So [the image would be of] the airplanes coming in and out. And it was difficult with the longer exposures, because the lines just did not get defined and dark enough. So I did it as a video project. I was filming in the Boston airport for 14 to 15 hours, like one full day. In this project, I liked how as an artist you often become a specialist for very random things. I looked up where to position myself for the camera so I can get most of the airport. You first have to bike around for the best site. And you look up how the landing lanes are oriented [according to] the main wind directions. So I have this weird expertise.
A: From hearing your story, it seems like you have been traveling a lot and exploring many different things. What is your next destination?
JH: In terms of where I move myself?
A: I guess, but also metaphorically. Where do you see yourself going in the future?
JH: Good question, a very big question. It’s a question that I’m working on a lot right now. Right now, there is another person in my life–I’m married. We live in Boston. I guess we are fairly independent human beings but we still coordinate our times. So, in terms of where I will continue my life, I’m pretty sure the next one or two years is going to be in the U.S. I would very much like to move to New York because I miss the city life in Germany, the energy of the city and [its] art and culture.
I would like to continue teaching, because I love what it does to me. [It makes me] look at other works; otherwise I would just look at works that inform my own work. But I always try to show a wide variety of works in classes, so it is a nice way to keep [myself] up-to-date. And the personalities of the students you meet are so diverse. Today in class, I thought how [their] projects can be so different and I really love the diversity. I love especially the perspectives they bring in from other classes. It is really wonderful.