nathalie koger

reanimations – newly narrating (hi)stories

Gabrielle Cram

As a scholarship holder in Wiesbaden, Nathalie Koger initially set her work and artistic investigations in relation to her surroundings. On the one hand, she recognised Wiesbaden as a "spa town" and therefore included the strong presence of wellness and massage offers as a condition in her work. On the other, she decided to research the materials of the Deutsches Filminstitut and integrate them as one component of her work. The artist was primarily interested in the collection of silent films, which forms an essential part of the Deutsche Filminstitut's archive. Combining the present with the past, she first approached the archive with questions related to and in search for healing body contacts, touches and the like. She soon found out that she wouldn't really make a find there, since physical, affectionate, touching devotion and intimacy were for the most part still a taboo in the depictions of the silent film era, or they were expressed in other forms. What surprised her, though, was a different kind of openness and the taboo-free treatment of corporeality in a documentary, which was perhaps granted other means for the sake of documentation. The film Koger references in her work, excerpts of which are also part of her installation, was shot by Wilhelm Prager and documents the first Workers' Olympics held at the Waldstadion in Frankfurt am Main in 1925.
Already at the end of the 19th century, workers' sports clubs were formed and workers' games held, since labourers were denied membership in bourgeois sports clubs and women were not admitted at all. In contrast to the competition and performance-oriented claim of the "regular Olympics", the Workers' Olympics, from the very onset, focused on physical movement in the wake of health-supporting measures and on the experience of community, solidarity, self-organisation, and the notion of internationalism. Women were not just accepted but welcome, and the games were not only carried out in the vein of an anti-hegemonic counterculture, they also stressed autonomy and shaped the image of the workers' movement.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that what we experience in the image material of the documentary, in addition to the formation of an aesthetics and representation of the workers' movement, is a quality and body politics of cooperation - and not just the inflated stylisation of bodies through strength and the attendant beauty ideals one is familiar with from hegemonic sports competitions. What we find here is something like beauty in the execution and precision of joint choreographies and the togetherness prevailing in the events, which were accessible to all. Koger recognised the quality of the image material in regard to its significance for the questions she raises and her artistic examination, and therefore made the Workers' Olympics and the participants active players in her installation.
While doing archival research and editing the material, the artist visited various natural health practitioners (massage, shiatsu etc.) in Wiesbaden. Depending on the foundation of trust and their consent to being included in an artistic examination, she talked with the women, conducted interviews, let them show and explain their diverse practices, to then record them (Tantra, Thai, Swedish massages, and others) under the direction of the artist. This experimental and practical research allowed Koger to gain a prismatic, multifaceted and complex view of the various techniques along with the surroundings, conditions and stories of the practitioners. As the subtitles of the three films made using the material also relate, various themes were dealt with, including economic precariousness and dependency, the desire for self-organisation and other issues.
Now how are these many and multifaceted voices integrated in Koger's work and installation? At first it appears as if they had been downright de-animated. The black-and-white film, deliberate "material defects" and the specific features of the 16mm camera she used, such as strong contrasts and vibrating lighting effects, seemingly throw the actresses back in time, their quality becoming similar to the images of the Workers' Olympics. An analogy to early silent films is created not only via the aesthetics of 16mm film but also by the narrative commentaries supplementing the images in the style of silent films as well as Uwe Oberg's composition that spans the space of the two filmic-contentual components and consists of slightly deconstructed entrance marches and experimental soundscapes. However, the work reveals an analogy not only to the visual culture of the silent film era, but also to different cinematic avant-gardes, for instance, the films of Maya Deren or the image worlds of a Jack Smith.
By connecting present-day processes with the period before the Second World War, Koger succeeds - despite all difficulties inscribed in representations of bodies and body cultures as well as in the concepts of health and healing along with their historical meanings and usages - in revealing viable continuities between them. Therefore, what at first appears as a de-animation of the present not only reanimates the stories of the past, but also establishes contact between different moments of the past and the present, when the issue is to create continuities and newly tell stories in the sense of consciously recollecting (hi)stories. By juxtaposing and rearranging the different materials and narratives, Koger's work facilitates the production of new references and relations, while at the same time allowing the exhibition visitors to establish links to their own subjective experiences, which also harbour components of collective narrations and discourses.
The artist's aesthetic interventions enable a play between and shifting of closeness and distance. The introduction of a supposed temporal distance by showing present-day portraits in black-and-white, for example, engenders a closeness. Events of the past - the Workers' Olympics and the interests of the workers' sports movement and the labour movement - are placed in a present-day perspective. Yet at the same time, the disassembly of the film into its individual components (sound, text, image) also prompts the viewers to take the initiative: Since the elements of the exhibition need to be reassembled, the stories of the present - those inscribed in the work processes and production means of the masseurs - attain new and deeper attention.    

translated by Karl Hoffmann