In this week’s contribution for our focus theme “Opulence”, writer and art historian Theresa Weise and Berlin-based artist Anna Ehrenstein delve into the realms of authenticity, fashion, collaboration, and cultural dynamics. Ehrenstein, a German-Albanian multidisciplinary artist, aims to confront the precarities and politics of our time in her work. With Weise, she talked about her series “Tales of Lipstick and Virtue” and other works that explore the power dynamics between East and West, the genuine and counterfeit, and the political nature of wearing luxury brands.
THERESA WEISE The works in your series “Tales of Lipstick and Virtue” (2013–2018) are preoccupied with authentic and fake brand clothing. Why?
ANNA EHRENSTEIN The series is based on research into imitation textiles from Albania and the question why such a huge number of them are in circulation. Having said this, the research is ten years old. Now there are a few stores in Albania that don’t sell fake but “real” brands, but fifteen years ago you wouldn’t have found a single trademark store. The textile industry allows you to see many of the power disparities between East and West, between the global South and the North. You can observe a similar dynamic in contemporary intellectual property rights: branding and design happen in the West while production is outsourced to the East. To me authenticity is a means to discriminate, a weapon that allows you to enforce asymmetrical power relations. At the same time it’s a term that can be defined in various ways.
TW Has this always been the case?
AE Take the twelfth century as an example, a time when many Europeans went into the Orient, which led to a boom in oriental rugs. The fascination with so-called “Turkmen carpets” resulted in the West dictating how these carpets were designed. A Western person might have thought that the rugs represented a coherent language, but ultimately they were only appropriated symbols that sold well.
TW What happens when you wear fake brand clothing?
AE People can experience a certain form of discrimination if they try to construct an identity using fake brand clothing. Dominant society will mock it or, in the worst case, not accept it. When I was working on my work “A Lotus is a Lotus,” I looked at the contemporary circulation of exotica and found that a fake Balenciaga cap could also be considered contemporary exotica.
TW How so?
AE If you were to go to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, you’d notice Western tourists recording videos for social media in which they explain how to best negotiate with local vendors. For “A Lotus is a Lotus” I researched 3D-stock-image-platforms to see how Oriental patterns were represented there. I also looked at markets in China and Egypt and examined contexts where these folk objects sat alongside fake objects, which gives you an opportunity to purchase and take home something “wild and authentic,” so to speak.
TW Are brands political?
AE I think everything is political. Brands are a particularly interesting case because they reflect the global economic structure. The LVMH conglomerate reveals the structure of our economy, from Fordism to haute couture as a mass phenomenon. Perfumes and handbags are financing fashion houses.
TW Is there a connection between quiet luxury and bling-bling brand fetishes?
AE They’re iterations of class society. Quiet luxury or post-luxury is old money that has been passed on from generation to generation. There’s now more social inequality in Germany than in Belgium or Finland, but it remains invisible because the old money guard does not boast with their wealth; they don’t want to be mistaken for nouveau riche or dressed-up plebs. This absence of transparency is deeply political.
By the way, the Burberry check is the most copied pattern in the fashion world. After it was faked numerous times, it was briefly taken out of the Burberry catalogue – because rich people complained about it.
TW Where does the new money aesthetics come from?
AE New money aesthetics imitates 1990s Black culture and adds a whole lot of bling bling and glitter. It tries to establish a connection to the streets, to have street cred, and to claim “realness” for itself.
TW But there’s also an aesthetics of poverty, isn’t there?
AE Yes. To some extent Demna Gvasalia, the designer at Vetements and Balenciaga, sold the poverty aesthetics of 1990s Georgia. That can be funny because it produces pseudo-fakes and all the other things that are sold in poor contexts, such as misprints from warehouses that read “Abidas” instead of “Adidas.” At the same time it is also dangerous because it romanticizes poverty and turns it into haute couture.
TW What happens when you transform poverty into haute couture?
AE Class appropriation, but in a way that isn’t that easy to recognize. And these days people go too far. The primary mechanism of cultural collaboration is cultural appropriation, but you have to differentiate between bottom-up and top-down appropriation.
TW How can different cultures live alongside each other?
AE As far as multiculturalism or conviviality are concerned, societies should influence each other without there being any assimilation. We need differentiated conversations, including in pop culture. Class appropriation is rampant in Berlin: “acting poor, but actually not.”
TW What does collaboration mean to you? Or, more to the point, what does it mean to expand your context with the help of the people you work with?
AE We’re stumbling from one political crisis into the next, and I consider it highly important to critique power. But now we have a left that uses a form of cancel culture not against power but against itself. The result is that everyone is belaboring the story of their own grandfather because they are afraid to make mistakes. For me this has been a very sad experience. Now, I do think that it’s important to be conscious of your own position, but I studied at a school where people think that they can judge a certain context after a week – and that simply is bullshit; you can’t even do that after a year.
When I make reference to or engage with other countries in my work, then it’s crucial for me to work with people from these contexts. This doesn’t mean that these people represent or ought to represent the context, but simply that they have situated knowledge that I have no access to. I also think that people are now slowly beginning to realize that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, only localized knowledge. On the one hand, I’m grateful that so many doors have been opened for me; on the other, it’s also exhausting.
TW Why exhausting?
AE I absolutely want to avoid romanticizing collaboration; it makes for extremely difficult work and artistic practice. I have worked with people who stole from me; I’ve worked with people whom I let down; and the list goes on. It’s certainly more exhausting than painting.
TW What does collaboration with people from different contexts look like?
AE I come from a marginalized background, and I work with people that have experienced different forms of marginalization. Two years ago I crossed the precarity threshold in Germany and have been working towards the middle class. For the project “Tools for Conviviality” I worked with five people, some of whom were much wealthier than me but did not have a European passport and consequently were not as free to move and couldn’t attend the exhibition. There can be such extreme differences in power when you collaborate with others, and it’s not about an “Oppression Olympics” and who suffers the most severe marginalization to decide who gets to speak first in the group; it’s about finding a way to practice solidarity while being anchored in a system responsible for us profiting from the suffering of others.
TW What is “Tools for Conviviality” about?
AE The project considered how migrants work creatively in surveillance capitalism beyond Western contexts. Here the general consensus is that migration goes from the South to the West and from the South to the North, but 90 percent of the migration on the African continent is intracontinental. I believe that the only thing that gives me the right to work in contexts I’m not familiar with is collaboration.
TW You work with many different types of media. Do you conceive your works beyond medium?
AE My work is based on types of research that can significantly differ from each other. I read an awful lot, then I write, and from that I develop the form of the medium. But there are exceptions: last year a curator asked me if I wanted to do an exhibition in a public space. I immediately knew that I wanted to make reference to the CDU car that drove through Neukölln in 2021 covered in racist remarks. Once I took my nose surgery as the basis for one of my works because the responses around me were so extreme and varied. Then I thought: I’ll do a performance that will become a video work.
TW Do you work with ChatGPT?
AE Yes. I’ve been working with it since it became available. It certainly will revolutionize both work and art. The big tech bros think that they’re only distributing information, but these algorithms also structure information. ChatGPT will be a topic in my upcoming exhibition at Kunstverein Braunschweig in December 2023. It deals with the way algorithms structure our internet. Tag words, keywords, safe searches, and ChatGPT allegedly make sure that our digital architecture is super woke, but ultimately it reproduces many of the prejudices that are deeply rooted in our society. ChatGPT is an awesome playground, but you can only hope that human rights will be respected and that the tech companies that study our reality make their algorithms transparent and open.
TW You frequently use glitch aesthetics. Why?
AE I work with precarious assemblages, which is to say, I myself am sometimes more, sometimes less precarious; the people I work with are sometimes more, sometimes less precarious; and the materials I use are also mostly precarious. This stems from my habit of appropriating things for which I don’t have the sufficient capital. For “Tools for Conviviality” we worked with a 360-degree-camera. It was a cheap GoPro, which we could only afford because the camera has been turned from a high-tech medium into a democratic tool into a mass technology. When I work with other people, I’d rather pay decent salaries than use expensive materials. Though I sometimes also use 3D prints. But generally the use of technology derives from an idealistic desire to ensure that my working processes are ethically correct.
TW The glitch presupposes a malfunction. Do you understand this as mere coincidence, or do you see meaning in it?
AE For me the glitch is a metaphor for the impossibility of translation; I work with glitches and layers to emphasize that what is shown is my subjective perspective and that misunderstandings are part of the process. We’re all people; we make mistakes; we all come from contaminated contexts. With this in mind, I consider the glitch an analogy for how our knowledge and the way we speak to each other gets recycled and ruptures.
TW What’s the task of institutions in your view?
AE Generally, I believe that it’s the task of an institution to establish a discourse that cannot be offered in other contexts and to represent an urban space. Even though many things have changed, and institutions have created new forms of access, certain groups still feel unwelcome in museums. Aside from representation, which is essential, it’s also important to ask how you can facilitate access to this world, how you can create a fair working context. The art world is already highly precarious, which is a huge societal problem. Why are people in culture paid so much worse than in other sectors? At the same time it’s an extreme privilege to work in this world and to even have the time to engage with it. In other words, you have to consider the context in which you’re complaining.