For those of us who design, collaborations often pervade our everyday practices—materializing as modes of teamwork, allyship, solidarity, or struggle. Below, Interactions editor Daniela Rosner speaks with artist Jeanno Gaussi on the theme of collaboration. Having grown up in Kabul, Delhi, and Berlin, Gaussi expands our thinking on this process by reflecting on transnational memory. Her practice engages fragmentations of media, memory, and locale to emphasize curiosity and generosity across difference. Drawing on her training in graphic design and, later, industrial design, she shows us how making space for following dreams, slowing down, and not predetermining outcomes may enliven new forms of collective imagination.
Daniela Rosner: I thought we could start with you sharing one of your favorite moments of collaboration. Could you tell us about such a moment?
Jeanno Gaussi: For me, where the collaboration work was the most intense was when I collaborated with a billboard painter named Ustad Sharif Amin in Afghanistan, in Kabul. I was five when I left Kabul. Going back there many years later, I had some images, but nothing that gave me a full idea of where this place is, of where I used to come from. The billboard painter was painting carts, creating big paintings. He had a shop around the corner from where I lived, and I found it by accident. I was really impressed by this kind of craft still existing. I met him on the very first journey that I made back to Kabul, and I visited him constantly after that. We basically had tea, because he's also a really nice guy, and he allowed me to hear some stories about the neighborhood, about the time during the war, and about the time during the Taliban.
DR: The piece Family Stories was made up of your recordings of those conversations with Sharif and his painted replications of your family photos. Those were some of the few items that your parents could take with them when they left Afghanistan. I can imagine so many ways that experience made for an intense collaboration. How do you make sense of that intensity?
JG: Our relationship was the intense part. I didn't go there and suddenly have an idea, a concept, a project, and then start right away. I created something out of my relationship with this person. I slowly understood that there was the potential for working with each other, but still there was no project. Then I began this process where I tried to get information not about the surroundings but rather about him and his work. At some point those puzzle pieces came together and there was this project.
DR: How did you decide to work with this sign painter, in particular?
JG: It was pretty clear to me that this was a piece I had to do with him. I did research, I visited other billboard painters, and I tried to have the same conversations elsewhere. But I realized that, no, this isn't something I could do with a random person. It had to be someone who also was maybe crazy enough to do something so abstract. I mean constantly this person is coming by again, again, again over the years and asking to do interviews with him. But I think he was the right person to work with.
DR: Have you had similar encounters in other work?
JG: Yes, when I made my work Dreams on Wheels in 2013, it was with someone who allowed me to have another view on Afghanistan. Because he was a refugee in Pakistan, he grew up more or less the same way as me, a refugee outside the country. But unlike me, he was in a border country. I wanted to understand how he came to do what he did—painting all these trucks and buses, which is still a craft but also disappearing. But he—this very smart person, who's so reflective, but also so in love with his work—used to say that he loves to paint other people's dreams and that his dreams are driving through the mountains. It's just so poetic, I thought. It's just so surreal. I wanted to do a project with him because I thought that we're basically both foreign to this country. What I did first was to interview Afghans here in Berlin but also people outside, people like him who went back and people who never left. And I asked them for their dreams. Then, out of these interviews, we sat together and tried to bring it to specific topics. He translated those dreams and interviews into paintings.
|Dreams on Wheels (2013).|
DR: You use dreams as a theme in other projects as well, such as your piece at the 12th Havana Biennale where you collaborated with local graffiti artists. What was that collaboration like?
JG: It was really a fun project because the team of graffiti artists had these bicycles called bicitaxis in Havana. I met this bicitaxi driver, and he was the guy who I interviewed about his dreams. I also interviewed other people about their dreams, because we had this idea that there is a bicitaxi that transports people into their dreams. We also had the audience that was coming to the Biennale, so how could we bring those two things together? So, I did interviews with citizens from Havana about their favorite place, but without writing down the location—just through a personal moment, a description. The address was only given to the bicycle driver, who knew where this place was. But as a guest, you could just select this very poetic, very personal story about a place and then go there.
For example, I remember there was this one story about a specific place on the coast next to the city. A place where this person goes, in tough times, but also in beautiful moments. I didn't know where it was, but the bicycle driver took me there, and it was so stunning. It was nice because, again, it was about place and dreams.
I spoke with a few people who did this tour as a guest and they said it was so nice to first go to that place through the image you create from the story that was given—and then suddenly you arrive there and you build up your own emotional story to that place because you know this person was there, or was always going there, or had their childhood there. And you combine those two: you and this unknown person.
DR: This connection between the known and unknown has a lovely connection to other works of yours, beginning with people you're traveling alongside. I'm thinking of your fellow artist-in-residence Youmna Chlala. What was it like to collaborate with her for your piece Home Sweet Home in Shatana, Jordan?
JG: It's funny because we didn't connect around wanting to do a project. What happened is that we started to build a home and everyone came to visit us, because we were the two lonely girls. We were unmarried ladies—no kids, no husband to take care of us—who ended up in that village where the average age was I guess around 80. It was just one little kiosk where you could buy sweets and Coke, and that's it. The supermarket was in the town outside.
We had all these aunties, grandmas, everyone coming over, and that was the project that we started to film. For us, coming from big cities, suddenly being there, trying to understand. We did it with ourselves. We put ourselves in the role of the monkey in the zoo. We put ourselves in this house and just tried to be part of things. But it happened by accident.
DR: This approach to taking things as they come seems to thread through your work.
JG: This is something really important to me. I can imagine as a painter being in your studio and very much being in conversation with yourself. All this might then happen with yourself. But I don't have just one way. I use whatever is best for the project in the moment. You can just do it in that way. You let things come to you.
DR: How did you come to work like this?
|Bicitaxi from Dreams on Wheels Habana (2015).|
|Family Stories (2011–2012).|
JG: There was a critical moment in Havana when I was running out of time. I went out for lunch and at some point I was like, "OK, we have to get back to this, we have to continue." We had certain issues. In Havana, we couldn't get every kind of material, and we were searching for this paint we needed. So there were issues, and I wanted to experience the city exactly through doing that. Mostly I didn't take anyone with me. I was doing sign language, moving my hands about, trying to explain what I meant. And it worked well. But that afternoon I was a bit pushy, like, "Come on, let's go!" There was this curator and he turned around and said, "You're getting very German right now." And I said, "What do you mean? I'm pushing because of the time." And he said, "No, you're big into this mode that there is a measurement of time, and a measurement of tasks. They are not fulfilled."
I was so thankful for his critique. I thought: We have this mechanism in our brain because of our upbringing, because of our cultural background, which is European, especially German. It's not really flexible. I was working until 3 o'clock in the morning, but the other artists left. If I try to force my way of thinking and working on them, this is, first of all, not respectful, not OK. And secondly, it will basically be all mine and there will be no collaboration because I don't let others work at their own rhythms. That was really good because it was at an early stage, and I switched off. If I want to work at 3 a.m. that's OK, but I can't ask that of everyone else. It was really nice to have this outside alarm.
DR: How did this shape your approach to collaboration?
JG: This is really the key. If you want to work in collaboration, I mean you cannot stress this to the end, but you need certain agreements for sure. Because one person is always suffering, and the other is doing what they want. In general, I think it's much easier if you basically erase your idea of how these things should go and just say: Let's see what happens.
DR: How do you make sense of that tension between something that influences your thinking and something that touches the world?
JG: Yeah, I think in the very first line, before I start any kind of project, there's just a feeling. An emotional feeling. There is no bigger thing. It's just, I step into a space. I step in front of the curtain. Or into a scenario, a landscape. Whatever. And I think: Wow, that is so wonderful. It's doing something with me. Then everything comes later. I'm not really the artist who goes somewhere and has an idea, and then goes back and does research over days, weeks, months at the table, and then goes back and uses the research. I'm more like, yeah! There is this feeling. There comes a need. A passion. It really happened to a few projects of mine. They were not in my mind, or they did not come to my mind when I was awake and making sketches, thinking, and researching. I was just dreaming about them. I would go to my partner and say, "Hey, I have this dream." And it's there. It just has to be.
Jeanno Gaussi was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. Initially focused on film and video art, she now transcends genre boundaries in her work. Gaussi creates installations that include video, photography, objects, and texts. Gaussi has participated in numerous international exhibitions, including the dOCUMENTA (13) and the 12th Havana Biennale. [email protected]
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