Berlin, March 2017

Artist Dis-Placement 03: Jan van Esch about his experience with volunteers at the Red Cross Berlin

Jan van Esch is part of the Artist Dis-Placement Project. After the first two placements at the city’s waste management BSR and the Berlin Fire Brigade, this one is focusing on the social infrastructure of the city.  Jan is working at the Red Cross Berlin three times a week, looking at the different stories behind volunteer work. Here he gives an insight into how artistic practices in a non artistic context can look like.  

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KrP: Jan, you have a very diverse academic and artistic background and  lived in so many different places. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Jan: When I was 19 I studied two 2 year at the Maastricht Drama School in the Netherlands, after which I decided to not pursue a career in the theatre. A year later I started a master in Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Nijmegen.  After finishing the degree, I worked in Russia, initially for two commercial companies and the last years for Médecins Sans Frontières / AIDS Foundation East West (MSF/AFEW) in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
Questioning the changing political climate and the assumptions of the AIDS epidemic made go for another master in Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, USA. I did fieldwork in Burkina Faso, wrote my thesis about relations between donor, money givers, and the receiving end. Then I worked in Nigeria and Tanzania public health, where I saw the downside of the development/aid business; Too big, too far from the target groups, too much following the money, in short not my place.
Due to a personal loss, I took a year off, and decided to stay in Tanzania. During that year, I wrote and painted, something I had been doing next to my day jobs since I moved to Russia. At the end of that year I had a solo exhibition that gave me the courage not to go back to the international Public Health field, but continue in the cultural sector. Not long after that, a cultural centre in Tanzania (Nafasi Art Space), asked me to manage the place. That is where I stayed for the last 5 years and build up a multi-disciplinary art centre. At this place, I could combine the arts with social topics, by on the hand establishing the centre itself that provided work, exhibition and training space for Tanzanian artists, and on the other hand in organizing community and social art projects.

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KrP: For the Artist Dis-Placement: why did you want to work in the social field?

Jan: I was asked by the ZK/U founders for the artist dis-placement program, when they came to Tanzania. I think they asked me because I have a combination of an academic, entrepreneurial and art background. And that is also why I think the Artist Dis-Placement residency it is so interesting, and moreover it is a very nice way to return back to western Europe after 21 years ‘overseas’.
At ZK/U I am placed at the Red Cross, as I was interested in an organisation that combined some of my past experiences, social with public health topics, and where I could use my anthropological approach to create an art project. Pretty much seems to combine my past experience.

KrP: What did you expect? Is it different now as you are there?

Jan: I tried not to expect anything, but that is always very difficult. It is a very active process, trying not to expect anything. So I am not saying what I expected as that I had my opinions of the Red Cross, that I tried not to ratify. And some things seem in line with what my (unwanted) starting outlooks were, but they are of course more layered and with more subtleties.
I was also afraid that I would too much look like a ‘management consultant to the Red Cross’, and would see flaws in the system and would focus on ways of improvement and change, and get myself in this that mindset.
The other trap was the anthropological research method approach, participating observation. I try to get into the project by participating, but as there is a strong focus in anthropology (at least when and where I studied it) on trying to be objective, I think, in fact, I need also to focus and register my (very) subjective views, and with those experiences make my project.
By forcing myself not to be any of the two natural roles (manager / anthropologist), and let things happen and document them, I think that have been able to let go of those initial traps,.  And it’s a lot of fun of being there, having the opportunity to work along people in situations that I am very new too, without feeling the responsibility to improve or assess them.
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KrP: what do you think you can learn or experience, you could not learn or experience somewhere else?

Jan: What I learned that could not be learned otherwise, is literally stepping into some worlds that I was never part of and would not have been without this opportunity. For example, I drove one night along with the ‘Wärmebus’ from the Red Cross and was several times surprised by the conversation that went on between the volunteer and the homeless.
Vol.  ‘Hi J. how are you today’
J. ‘Super, just have new tires on my trolley, and they are really super ….’
Vol. ‘Would you want some tea’
J. ‘No thanks, I have already some, give it to someone who really needs it …’
I am also surprised how little people are able to verbalise the work they are doing and the impact. If I ask volunteers, who volunteered for many years, to tell about their motivation by giving some anecdotes that describe what they are doing and what makes them going, they say they can’t remember any. Sometimes I observed or participated in such a story and when I bring that up, they agree, but said they were not able to describe that themselves.
It is always a great treat to be able to step into another culture, which I have done by living in 5 different countries and learning the local (4) languages. At the Red Cross, it feels again like stepping into another culture, and that can only be learned by being part of it. It makes me think and reflect on problems that were rather abstract before.
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KrP: What kind of project are you implementing? Why?

Jan: I am weekly volunteering in several volunteer and partly volunteer run programs from the Red Cross, for example for the ‘Kleiderkammer’ where second hand clothes are donated, sorted and given out, Wärmebus for homeless support, Youth Red Cross for first aid courses for youngsters and in day care for elderly with diverse smaller and bigger disabilities.
I notice that the Red Cross volunteers work in many direction and fields. I notice that although all these topics are in one organisation, there is little cross pollination between the different fields. So I am thinking how that could work, as well as within the Red Cross as outwards with other organisations.
With the ‘Kleiderkammer’ I have set up a pop up shop at one of the open houses and am working on ‘an online draw shop,’ hopefully with collaboration with other people from in and outside of the Red Cross.
I am also collecting stories from their volunteer experience, and am looking for a way of representing them. I am thinking of literally ’small’ stories (cartoons/animations/drawings) to capture the absence of self-promotion from the volunteers, while highlighting the dedication (and impact) of their work.

KrP: Do you think the employees of the organisation benefits from the Artist Dis-Placement project? How?

Jan: I hope so, and in fact, do think so, as much as they also have me benefitting from their work. It took initially rather a bit of time to get access to the organisation, but I have experienced a more welcoming attitude and interesting dialogues with the volunteers and the managers.
From my side, I am very impressed by the dedication of the volunteers to dedicate their time and energy year after year and surprised how little they boast about it or can make it attractive for outsiders. which also is a critical point. From my encounters with no-Red-Crossers there seems to be little understanding and knowledge of what all these different volunteer departments actually do.
Among other ideas I am trying to work with these ‘smaller’ and ‘intimate’ stories. I just re-watched one of my favourite scenes from Tarkovsky’s movie Nosthalghia, and in the final monologue, Domenico one of the main characters says ‘Great things end, small things endure’. And it is those small things, the things that impress me, I would like to bring on one way or the other to the surface.

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