Dance with the Desert | Cooperation project within the framework of 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany | UE Berlin – Prof. Katharina Mayer and students | HSD Düsseldorf – Prof. Anja Vormann and students | Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem – Hadas Satt and Students | onomato Artist Association Düsseldorf

In the context of the anniversary of 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany, the project Dance with the Desert was submitted to and approved by the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community and the State Chancellery of North Rhine-Westphalia for funding through the association of the same name in conjunction with the onomato Artists Association in Düsseldorf. Dance with the Desert is a cooperative research project of three universities; The University of Europe for Applied Sciences Berlin with Prof. Katharina Mayer as the initiator of the project, The University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf with Prof. Anja Vormann and The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem with the lecturer Hadas Satt.

An exchange project was initiated in which a young generation of art and design students, using language, images, audio or performance, entered into a kind of »aesthetic resistance« to the stereotypical media images of »Jewish life in Germany«. Israeli/German communication should begin where everyday life is being shared in the present – where the big political and religious stories dissolve into many small individual life plans and perspectives, due to different socialisations. Personal views taken seriously and condensed in their multitude will produce a differentiated and diverse picture of »Jewish life in Germany«.

Aesthetic work is always also the search for new forms of expression and interpretation. By means of experimentation with language, image and body, art and design students produce »hazinesses« which point towards voids where interpretation and meaning are still open. Artistic exploratory work produces more questions than answers, forges new connections, and tries out alternative perceptions and images of the world. 

It adds something to the »either or« and thus counteracts polarising views of the world.

This work is relevant because students of art, design, film and advertising are future media producers and thus multipliers of opinion. They have the knowledge of what constitutes reality, of how rhetorical influence is exerted, and in which context a message achieves the greatest effect, how it can be networked and circulated.

Individual Approaches, Phase 1

The project began in the Summer Semester of 2021 via an online seminar. Individual works on the subject of »Jewish life in Germany and Israel« were developed from the departments of video and photography at the three universities and discussed together in the seminar. The approach could be chosen freely, both in terms of content and media. The starting point was each student’s individual personal daily life and context. In the chat, fragmentary discourses oscillated about life, friends, music, studies, photographic and videographic position, subcultures, digitalisation, politics, jobs,…, topics of conflict were not excluded.

The cooperative project Fields of Dialogues, for example, formed an experiment in intercultural communication, the work Overcoming Exclusive Narratives staged a reciprocal role reversal between Israeli and Palestinian young women. In Empty Slogans, Hebrew protest signs were shown via projectors in German cities. Some students approached the topic through interviews, for example with Israeli conscientious objectors, with their own Jewish grandparents who had fled, or with Israeli skaters. Portraits or the Jewish music and DJ scene as well as the queer scene in Berlin were created. In further works, questions about individual identity and longings were asked. 

Experiments were conducted using systems of measuring the body copied from the Nazis and applied to today`s images of the body. Virtual formats, such as VR reconstructions of destroyed synagogues or the founding of a queer Jewish cinema are also results of this first project phase. 

Conversational Cultures, Phase 2

At the end of the Summer Semester, the first meeting of the two German universities took place in Berlin. The occasion was a 10-day interview project by the OB-van team Paradise–Park–, which was carried out on the forecourt of the Jewish Museum Berlin and with its support. Here, via a specific interview format, research, recording and archiving was done on contemporary Jewish life in Germany.

Our method consisted of the systematic deconstruction of the »interview«, which was called »conversation« from the very first. Target groups were not defined and interview pairs came together randomly. There were no key questions – in fact, there were no questions. A trilingual set of terms (German/English/Hebrew) was the element of interaction, from which questions and narratives could unfold.

The dynamics, who-asks-whom, how the cards are brought into play – drawn, chosen together, processed one after another… was left entirely to the interaction of the respective conversation pair. There was only one rule, a Jewish person always meets with a non-Jewish person.

Journalistic or scientific formats are disciplined, in form, execution and limitation of the topic. A deconstruction of such formats brings freedom, chance, improvisation and diversity into play while at the same time breaking through the statistical ascertainability and logic of proof with which truth is otherwise all too quickly configured in media. 

Although this method programmatically produces diversity, it also produces visibility. If the cards are seen as actors, they show us which concepts/discourses seem more relevant, more crisis-prone, more conciliatory. Numerous differently developed linguistic approaches condense around the terms, blurring them and serving to dissolve stereotypes.

The result is 25 video conversations that show a differentiated picture of Jewish life in Germany; for use a travelling archive, in exhibitions, or for further research. 

The accompanying program was an exhibition at the feldfünf Gallery in Berlin, where the students` »Work-in-Progress« projects where shown.

There were also live screenings with the Israeli students, as well as a Jewish cinema program with filmmaker Esther Zimmering and a reading by Toma Gardi. Parallel to this, photographic, film and installation works were exhibited in the UE Pavilion.

Design Spaces, Phase 3

In Berlin, it already seemed strange to all participants that students from Düsseldorf and Berlin were able to exchange ideas in real space, while communication with the Israeli students was only conducted digitally. With a lot of effort on both the German and Israeli side, and further generous support from the State Chancellery of North Rhine-Westphalia, a meet-ing with the Israeli students and their lecturer Hadas Satt could take place at the beginning of the Winter Semester 2021 in Düsseldorf.

All the students came together for the first time at the onomato Artists Association. The task was the conception and realisation of a joint exhibition. Through the discussion about the selection of suitable places for the respective works, while taking into consideration the mutual reference of the positions, an exhibition concept crystallised out of a wild medley of unpacked works. This developed under the mutual understanding and agreement of all participants.

In the process, it became clear that the students were able to develop a repertoire and a breadth of discourse out of their common discipline of design, a cosmos of material, working methods, technology, framework conditions, references and artistic ideals which produced a similar closeness to that of eating or celebrating together.

Trip To Israel, Phase 4

In November, UE and HSD made a return visit to Israel. Shir Zilberstein, an Israeli student at UE was the reference person for all organisational and content-related negotiations concerning the program of the excursion. She chose special places and made experiences possible that were equally valuable for all the students – for example, the joint hike through the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert or the stay over several days in the Mashabi Sade Kibbutz. The student communication which had grown over the course of a year, led to mutual support in projects such as Alma and Lior by Amira or collaborative works such as Pants with pockets by Netta, May, Laura and Janna. In Mashabi Sade Kibbutz, Lea opened a tattoo studio and in the Negev Desert, Dance with the Desert suddenly became real. Everywhere and everything was photographed and filmed, cooking became a project, the hostel became a concert space. Despite the many relaxed experiences, there were extremely overwhelming moments as well, such as the visit to the incredibly impressive Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which touched me in every way – as a German, as a woman, as a filmmaker, like no other previous confrontation with the topic. 

Cooperations, Phase X

The project Dance with the Desert, by university standards, has been a very long period of joint work. Students from all semesters were involved. Some have now graduated, while others are gaining deeper experiences via further exchanges. Bahaa is going to take a semester abroad at HSD and Lilli at Bezalel Academy. UE has made a new cooperation agreement with Bezalel Academy and HSD has applied for an Erasmus+ program with Bezalel Academy. A symposium will be held at UE in June 2022 featuring students` works and the OB-van conversations. Hadas Satt will be giving a workshop for the students and the archive of the conversations will go on tour. If all goes well, all this will continue. 

Bahaa Abu Hussein
Michal Arnheim
Pauline Bewig
Ian Kiplimo Busienei
May Chen
Alma Ben David
Netta Gaash
Luka Godec
Laura Maria Görner
Lior Harel
Amira Hartmann
Ari Hillel
Marcel Mücke
Fabio de Saldanha
Henrik Stuch
Lea Weigert
Lilian Wunschik
Lior Yeger
Nelli Scheiermann
Shir Zilberstein

Research Assistants
Patrick Kruse
Janna Lichter
Laura Oldörp

Prof. Katharina Mayer
Hadas Satt
Prof. Anja Vormann

Other Contributors
Prof. David Adika
Dr Nikolaj Beier
Dr Regina Plaßwilm
Rotem Ruff