Paula König is an artist, researcher, educator and historian, currently based in Lisbon. After her studies in Fine Arts Painting, History, Art History and Education, she participated in the Maumaus 7-month Independent Study Programme focused on Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at MAUMAUS Escola de Artes Visuais. Currently working at the Independent Art Space Duplex, she is searching for a non-extractive practice based on painting, research and installations. Her interest lays in methods of perception and their way into image-making processes like painting and cartography, in situated cultural (hi-)stories as well as in scientific data and “feeled” work along a general focus on ecology. By blending poetic gestures with a critical approach towards western extractivism she has been influenced by cultural and feminist anthropologist Astrida Neimanis: How can we think with the “Planetary Hydrocommons”? Since a few month she is researching on irrigation systems, systems of the commons, baldios and lithium mining projects in Portugal.
Her work has been recently included in Swab Art Fair Barcelona, in Mapping the Cartographic: Contemporary Approaches to Planetarization at Drugo More, Rijeka, CR (2021) curated by Collective Rewilding, in Gottfried Brockmann Art Prize 2021 at Stadtgalerie, Kiel, GER (2021), in Burble, Gurgle, Splash (Settling at the River) at Dietikon Projektraum, Zürich/Dietikon, CH (2021) and in An Imperfect Map – [Will Have to Do] Digital Exhibition, Kiel, GER (2021). Her solo show From Where I Stand took place at Bürgergalerie, Neumünster, GER (2020). She published the artist book Hunting of the Snark and the project élan t/w Annaliisa Krae and Felisha Maria. Her work can be seen in several publications, as in Kunst Bulletin, hg. v. Schweizer Kunstverein, Zürich, CH in (2021). She gives workshops in art education, and she was involved in the artist talk ‘Planetary Cartographies’ initiated by Collective Rewilding. Currently she is active as an art educator at German School Lisbon and working on the project ARS4people&planet by the cultural administration of Fundão, Portugal.
Interview by Fernando Moletta with the artist, 2020
1. Observing your work, immediately came to my mind a dialogue from the book The Dehumanization of the Portuguese writer Valter Hugo Mãe which says in English, something like that: “When I’m big, I want to be different. I want to be far. I answered: nobody is far. People are always close to something and close to themselves. My sister said: they are. Some people are far away. When I grow up I want to be far away.” How do you deal with the disciplines of cartography and geography with yourself? I ask this thinking that you are currently on the move, between Germany and Portugal, between your home and a new home, a new studio, new landscapes, new people, and new encounters.
Thank you for your example from Valter Hugo Mae. I am happy to get in touch with some Portuguese literature, finally. Two thoughts come to my mind, while reading the quote. First, it reminds me of the ancient way of writing in dialogues to debate different perspectives in showing that there is always more than one way to see and understand the things we are looking at. Probably a thought that came to mind after recently having read a text by Paul Feyerabend, a modern philosopher of science, who reflected on the different methods of producing knowledge. He is taking the greek philosophers as an example; Dialogues sometimes served as a tool which includes various perspectives, thus averting the danger of pretending one reality. An idea which I consider as inspiring, if I think about the tendency in the debate of scientific cognition in public and media nowadays, where to retract and revise sometimes seems to be understood as a failure.
And, the other thing that came to my mind while reading the quote was a rather direct association to the hardly translatable german term fernweh, which implies a kind of desire of being far. As you mentioned, being in Portugal brings me close to many things and opens up new perspectives. Unfortunately, since my arrival in Lisbon in the beginning of 2020, we’ve been in lockdown most of the time, but still, I was happy enough to discover many (moreover empty) places. Hopefully, I will also meet some people from my course at MAUMAUS in person that I know only from the screen as of yet. However, geographical distances feel like completely disparate experiences since borders were closed in Europe and each event switched into a virtual one as a reaction to the pandemic, at least sometimes the feeling of being far remains. So what kind of relation do my experiences and my work on geographical images have? I enjoy cartography as a method to engage with our environment, as an approach that shows various possibilities to visualize experience of different places. Through reducing, selecting, estimating, restructuring, and translating space into flat images, a map contains more perspectivity than reality and tells a lot about the context of its emergence. That is what makes it so fascinating to me. Cartography gives examples of how people look at places and on what they focus on depending on their contexts such as time and place, but also motivation or targets underlying different maps. This leads me to my interest in exploring the constructive moment in the perception of our surroundings and its translation into a new form.
Last year, before the pandemic, I was planning to take the train from my hometown in Germany to Peking through Russia and Mongolia to encounter different points of view while being a passenger on the way through the different timezones and places in between. A voyage can be undertaken quickly, simply stepping out of the airport, or slowly, as with the Pilgrim Step, taking two steps ahead and one step back to slow down the movement to allow one’s mind to catch up with the body. Taking the train seems to me as having a good velocity – at least it seems to me as a good try to find out more about it.
Having researched Alexander the Great encouraged my interest in different ways of perceiving places. During his explorations (or exploitations – I recently heard, that there is no distinction in português language between exploration and exploitation, is it true?), his only guide was the ancient geometrical construction coming along with a simple mental map of the world taught by his teacher Aristoteles. I became fascinated with the simple fact that he stepped out of the european world that had been known up until his time (Oikumene) without having any cartographic view from above in mind. This is in fact something – that is hard to imagine, in times of atlases and GPS where Mercator’s projection and a satellite image of the world’s surface are always embedded in the mind. Maps’ alleged objectivity may feed trust in scientific technologies of mapping which I understand as the modern frame in the perception of places in opposite to the time of Alexander the Great or other historical eras. Nowadays, the technical translation from a place into its digital image is a journey by itself: information captured through satellites or scientific measurements, saved as big data sets on servers which are probably installed in some far off place, and retrieved as an image through our technical devices to help our orientation. In fact, a journey that technically becomes part of the construction of how a map manifests an image of the world on screen, on paper, or in the mind.
But lastly, places that seem geographically far away sometimes run the risk of becoming periphery. Maps revoke the gaze from certain places which is a part of their political power. That’s what maybe has happened to the Arctic, mostly located on the borders of our conventional maps, while greenhouse gases were increasing their impact on the region that became not only a climate tipping point but also a geopolitical melting pot. While some people are planning colonies in outer space, scientists work on the discovery of this almost unknown landscape on earth, the sea floor, encouraged by geopolitical interests in the exploitation of resources, trading routes and fishery. Recently, I began thinking a lot about how to address the ecological crises in my artistic practice without losing myself in only documentary, scientific narratives. In Instead… Of Arctic Shelves and Melting Futures (24 cyanotypes, dimensions variable, 2021) I combined my thoughts circling cartographic constructions and climate calls for the first time. In the Arctic there is this tension between a place of political, economic and scientific interest, of ecological catastrophe and a place of particularity, projection and longing that has to be taken into account. I am still figuring out how I can position myself and my focus as an artist confronted with these different dimensions of Interconnectivity.
2. I see in your works great care and appreciation for the spatialization of things among themselves, almost as a precise architectural measure. This is even more present in a work in which you move the painting canvas to the horizontal, supported by wooden pillars that resemble the arches and buttresses of a cathedral. I would like you to tell me more about these issues.
Coming from a painting background and being interested in the history of painting – its relations concerning representation, abstraction, spatialization, flattening, often circling around the question of how to translate spatial experience in the two-dimensional surface. I’ve been interested in different forms and media and how they can evolve links through their presence, material, texture, and image. At the same time, there is this moment of translation that I enjoy in cartography as well as in painting. An inversion and transformation from spatiality and flatness, from corporal experience or measured science, from a digital data set on a screen or a perceptible, material-based being in space.
These ideas are running through my work, when you can see a curtain showing an image of a stone wall, paintings of a river which ended up in pillars of postcards, a painting showing a digital hyperlink to an explanation of the round-earth-model, traditional etchings of different geographical memories in fragile MDF frames. Also, you mentioned the buttresses of the cathedral which definitely visualize my interest in the history of architecture which I encounter through my studies, while it became the scaffolding for a painting of a baroque bassin from the parc Thabor in Brittany – a watery vessel with its own cultural, also colonial history. I enjoy exploring these different encounters, floating associations between perception and the links to my research. Lastly, this appreciation for the spatialisation of things is probably also a result of the theoretical work I do. Coming from information mostly transported through text, the feeling of translating things back into a more sensory, spatial experience enables me to explore things beyond their rationality, rather than a place through a map, or an idea through an artwork.
3. During architecture school I became very interested in the contemporary debate on the concept of landscape. During these studies, I discovered the French philosopher Jean Marc Besse who affirms that the landscape is not the systematic and closed geographic space, much less the naturalist one, it would be made by being in space-time, as an experiment, where the activities of being takes place. It is “the event of the concrete encounter between human and the world that surrounds us”. Another French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy also approaches it in this way, saying that we never see the world: we are in it, we inhabit it, we explore it, we find ourselves or we get lost in it. Much of your artistic practice is explored through painting and watercolor, which are freer techniques, may contain more of the unexpected, but there are also printmaking and digital printing, which are already more associated with a design preconception. That is, I think that there is an opportunity for different perceptions of space in your work. But is there any that you believe? Or is there an effort of abstraction?
I am glad that you mentioned your interest in the debate on the concept of landscape and I would love to hear more about it. For me, this is a field in which I am engaged more from the tradition of painting and a cartographical point of view. I think that the meaning of painting, if it comes to a concept of landscape, remains very contemporary. Following the long tradition of painting, I consider the medium as a tentative way of exploring our experience, but also as an instrument to frame nature into a cultural concept of landscape. Of course, through tradition and discourse, a landscape painting today is embedded differently than back in the days of french schools, flemish baroque, or romanticism à la Caspar David Friedrich. But still, we can experience and maybe also learn from them how they encountered nature sceneries considered as landscapes. Beside european conceptions there are so many others, which I do not know enough to elaborate on. But at least, I want to mention concepts of landscape captured through traditional paintings in China, where each shape of a rock, a tree, or water is imbued with meaning. The process of Painting became a symbolic process of reflection and contemplation which makes me curious about different ways of positioning towards nature in history and the present.
At the same time, painting and related approaches can show our relation to our surroundings as an important contrast to digital images, scientific measurements, etc. The Latter are probably better in hiding their techniques in how they construct realities. Paintings in contrast do not only allow but search for subjectivity to take place. Besides this, I like the combination of different historical dimensions of media like painting or etching next to print-making or digital hyperlinks which pick up various ways of perceptions. I am not sure if there is a perception of space in which I believe. I think I am more interested in reconnecting, relocating these perceptions through my work to understand their way of constructing a certain way of seeing things.
4. Since you work with maps, and we know that they are political and have a strong expression of some power, I would like to return the question you asked me because I would love to hear from you too. So, do you believe that artistic practice is a possible agent of change in societies? And how would you define the possibilities and strategies of art’s contribution to the processes of social transformation?
I come from rereading your response to my question and I would go along with what you say. Sometimes I can not follow the way philosophers or anthropologists – even if I go along with their ideas – use art as a language of visualizing their theoretical language. Recently, for example, there was Bruno Latour’s concept at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, which seems to be a bit artificial to me in how he brought together different disciplines, but maybe this impression only comes through the digital experience I had from the exhibition through the website.
I am wondering about the weighting our society gives to scientific truth without the same way to other lenses that also construct our understanding of what surrounds us. Without refuting the value of modern scientific knowledge at all, a sunny day has to be grey only seen through strict scientific elaboration, without taking our and others’ senses and emotions as part as experience into a certain account. There comes an interview to mind from a German-British biographer Andrea Wolf talking about the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt. He is a historical figure that is quite famous nowadays when it comes to ecological thinking (besides the criticism of his imperialist background in 19th century Prussia). Humboldt used to say ‚nature has to be felt’ while at the same time he carried more than 100 instruments through the Amazonas to measure everything he could. Wolf points out that ecological debates should not only be based on calculations, simulations, and measurements but should also include the beauty of nature, as it is perceived through music, art, and literature. She, among others, advocates a dissolution of the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, between arts and science, between rational and emotional – without (!) losing the one or the other. So maybe this is my current motivation, which I constantly rethink especially when it comes to facing ecological issues and how to work on that through art. But first, why not pursue Humboldt’s vision, why not continue working on the periphery, the unseen, but also on the beauty surrounding us – to explore and escape our normal ways of seeing, to stay curious.