with Katja Stuke
Katja Stuke & Oliver Sieber
with a text by Kerstin Meincke
244 pages; 20 x 28 cm
supported by: Kunststiftung NRW
Verlag Kettler / Böhm Kobayashi
Kerstin Meincke, Peripheral Experiences
Right at the beginning of his 1964 essay La Tour Eiffel, Roland Barthes states, “And it’s true that you must take endless precautions, in Paris, not to see the Eiffel Tower; whatever the season, through mist and cloud, on overcast days or in sunshine, in rain—wherever you are, whatever the landscape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, the Tower is there.” He continues: “There is virtually no Parisian glance it fails to touch at some time of day.”1 For Barthes, the Eiffel Tower—a relic of the Exposition Universelle, the Paris world’s fair of 1889—is a locus of transference: “An object when we look at it, it becomes a lookout in its turn when we visit it, and now constitutes as an object, simultaneously extended and collected beneath it, that Paris which just now was looking at it.”2
This “seeing” Eiffel Tower is central to Katja Stuke and Oliver Sieber’s work, Peripheren, which was created in Paris and is reproduced in this book: by taking up the tower’s (imaginary) line of sight at certain points along Paris’s expressway, the Boulevard Périphérique, the artists act, as it were, as amplifiers of its gaze, which is carried on in a kind of close-up view, zoomed into suburban areas located far away from the tower itself. They take the Métro to reach the spots where their photographs are taken—almost always the last stop on the line.
The names of the places they visit can be found here on the book’s first double-page spread, presented in the form of a typographic map that picks up on the annular structure of the Périphérique. The cartographic model shown here provides the basis for linking Paris and the Ruhr, a connection that is unfolded over the book’s 244 pages. In the model, a site in Paris is juxtaposed in each case with a Ruhr-related location: for example, Porte Maillot is twinned with Essen Altenessen and Porte de la Chapelle with Gelsenkirchen Mitte. In the space between the images, we find a specific pairing of words: Tour Eiffel / Zollverein.
The coupling of these two monuments has its origins in a rhetorical comparison—one that is widely promulgated in the (German) media—which attempts to characterize the Zollverein colliery as the “Eiffel Tower of the Ruhr Area.”3 This performative staging of the coal mine acts as a fixed point in the spatial transfer of the cartographic grid, which was developed in Paris and is now mapped to the Ruhr region. It defines the location of an “imaginary Périphérique” running around this point, along which Stuke and Sieber now move. In this system, the places they visit are arbitrary. They are randomized fragments of the city on which the urban experience is founded.4
Unlike in Paris, where the Eiffel Tower is always in the background, with
the view leading away from the center, in the Ruhr Area, the artists orient all the places they visit in relation to the Zollverein complex, which is located in the northern part of Essen.5 Yet this building is also nowhere to be seen in the photographs. We may conclude that there is a political notion underpinning this decision that is focused on the relational asymmetry between center and periphery.6 The monocentric character of Paris is still evident today—even if the city has, over time, naturally produced a nuanced array of different centers.7 However, in the polycentrically structured Ruhr area, multiple internal boundaries can be seen, both between and within the cities that make up the region.8
It is not surprising then that, as witnessed by their photographs, Stuke and Sieber mainly operate in parts of the Ruhr area that seem less busy, moving through housing estates, parks, and, on occasion, deserted streets that bring to mind suburban areas. Set against the elements of Peripheren that originated in Paris, these scenes can be read as a further extension of the visual axis drawn from the Eiffel Tower. While the focus of interest in the Paris images is on the still heavily frequented transit points between center and periphery, the “Portes” located along the Périphérique—which connect the capital with the rest of the country as the fulfillment of French centralism expressed in transport terms—these gateways now lead further afield, not to the banlieues but rather to the disadvantaged cities and districts of the northern Ruhr Area. It is perhaps no accident that the map in the book is north oriented: the usual north-south political connotations of this cartographic convention seem to be turned on their head by the socioeconomic divide running through the Ruhr, which separates the region’s richer south from its more impoverished north.9
This interest in marginalized regions and neighborhoods—or areas that have been stigmatized in the collective perception—figures in many of Stuke and Sieber’s works, which track and amplify the narrative dimensions of these places through the practice of visual mapping. Their explorations are usually undertaken on foot, as is the case with the places they target in this book, or using the remote perspectives offered by Google Street View (as in Konohana Dream, 2020) or the lenses of local photographers (The Indian Defense, 2021).10
Their different projects based on this mode of associative mapping are linked to one another at the levels of content and form by the long-term artistic project La Cartographie Dynamique. Although the project’s collection of works can always be viewed individually—as is also the case with Peripheren—at the same time there are reticular connections cross-linking them that become obvious at various points in the working process, such as when the artists are doing walking tours or editing or archiving the individual images. For example, the travels of the Japanese anarchist Ōsugi Sakae, who spent several days in Paris in 1923, creates a historical axis between the French and Japanese capitals: this, in turn, brings into focus questions about (global) protest cultures and the impact they have on urban space, one effect of which is to lead us back to Paris, where, in 2018, Stuke and Sieber produced a work inspired by the Yellow Vest movement (La Ville Lumière, 2021).
Another example of this artistic method is their current project on the New Silk Road, which deals, among other things, with the rail connection between China and Germany—and the movement of goods associated with it—which links cities like Chongqing, Wuhan, Mannheim, and Duisburg. This method of questioning, seeking orientation, drifting without any preconceived outcome in mind is a channeling of the concept of the dérive, which goes back to the artist, author, and filmmaker Guy Debord, one of the founding members of the Situationist International. In the mid-1950s, he outlined the “theory of drifting” (Théorie de la Dérive), opening up new ways of seeing urban spaces.11 On their perambulations, the artists, absorbed by this mindset, often discover unexpected overlaps and connections between places, actions, events, and actors that are geographically and temporally disparate, picking up their trails and weaving them together across national borders. The apparent arbitrariness of these juxtapositions ultimately points all the more emphatically to the lines of connection that could only be articulated and anchored by means of cartographic practices, alerting us to the abiding correlations between these lines and the multiple dimensions of power inherent in these practices.12