Friedemann Derschmidt: On Collaboration.
Initiatior of Permanent Breakfast and founder of the Rites Institute/Denkarium in Vienna.
Transcript from interview between Friedemann Derschmidt [FD] and Markuz Wernli Saitô on April 12, 2006 (translated from German).
How did your initiative Permanent Breakfast come into being? FD: When I attended the art academy I was in a painting and graphic arts program. At that time the school allowed students to establish their course of study called 'Art, Society and Public Space'. They discarded this individualized approach because it requires the faculty's close involvement. Naturally I chose the public domain as my 'studio' since it represents the medium between art and society.
With a few friends we started to set up a table outdoors on Karlsplatz, Vienna's spacious cathedral square. We understood this temporary rearrangement of furniture as a 'staging of space', a proactive expansion of the urban architecture. At a certain point I had the idea to send out a chain letter and turn it into a public event. I always avoided to slide into a 'socially chic' art action, but proposed the reclaiming of spaces and use of moral courage to forge arbitrary boundaries.
Elements of self-organization and multiplication are integral to the rules of Permanent Breakfast where participants commit themselves to set up another breakfast within ten days. We started to call this movement a 'benign cancer'. In Catania, Sicily the breakfast evoked an autonomous collaboration with the art group 'Illegal Art Show'.
What are the challenges of working with so different entities?
FD: As Permanent Breakfast got more established and 'professionalized' we got entangled in problems of authorship. The gap opened between artists and activist individuals. The first group strives to establish with artistic work a career and livelihood. Contrary to activist individuals who primarily are looking to test-drive alternative ways of living. Seven years into Permanent Breakfast we received grant money from the European Union ('Interreg EU') to realize a breakfast series which zigzagged along the Czech-Austrian border. Moving from East to West we held public breakfasts alternatively in border towns of either country. Along with the EU money we got structural problems because the opposing motivations split the organizers. More important than the EU grant's modest financial injection was its representational value which gave us the official framework to work through the bureaucracy. When the mayor of the city of Brünn sat in incognito at the breakfast table and suddenly media people showed up the lines between official and unofficial started to blur.
Our point of departure is the question of who owns the public space and how local situations determine that. Historically the open domain was a stage for authoritarian entities. Nowadays there is supposedly a guaranteed right of assembly which in fact is more than infringed. This discrepancy allows us to engage in a play with authorities. Permanent Breakfast in Chile was non-stop escorted by a patrol car... With our form of breakfast we displace the context between private and public and we permit ourselves to temporarily (re)claim our public spaces. These provocations stretch our assumed realities and demonstrate how much leeway to act in public we usually don't utilize and sacrifice. Some activists pursue the 'grinding' of authorities by filing permission requests for public art actions simultaneously at all different judicial levels.
In some instances intersecting unrelated groups can harbor surprising outcomes. One breakfast we organized with retirees and drug addicts in Vienna which was a very compatible match because both groups have to create their own worlds neglected by mainstream support.
What critical points are to be considered in collaborations?
FD: As an artist and professional mediator I am fully responsible for efficient ways of communication. Especially in socially engaged projects prolonged monitoring and guidance is elementary. I find it irresponsible as a media artist to just temporarily tap into social issues and get my feet wet. Conceived by Usch Hofbauer and Andreas Müllner we realized a sophisticated wine tasting ('Weinkost') for the homeless in Vienna beneath a bridge — of course with sommelier and premium wines. Besides the winemakers we had particularly strong backing from the homeless gazette and its founder, literati and activist Robert Sommer, which gave this action dimension and meaning.
The artists held a ritual of moderation with the homeless population who proved to be respectable wine connoisseurs able to keep up with experts. The action showed how the shifting context determines the handling of a drug.
Long term the primary issue of our work is a matter of identity, the dialectic play between me and society. In this wide field perseverance and maturity make all the difference because so often ideas are maybe exposed but hardly thoroughly implemented and transposed. Often we settle too soon for mediocre compromises and don't pursue.
Momentarium creates situations where our very presence becomes the catalyst for shifting experiences we can integrate into our lives by fusing reality with co-created artifice.