Interview: Joanna Kamm

Joanna Kamm | Portrait ©Sophia Steube

Having your own gallery is more than just a one-way ticket. We talked to Joanna Kamm, the former gallery owner and now curator, about what happened after her hiatus

Galerie Joanna Kamm was long regarded as an agreed upon center for courageous conceptual art in Berlin. She presented countless exhibitions by young, unconventional artists like Simon Dybbroe Møller, Kate Davis, Karl Larsson, Amy Granat, Albrecht Schäfer, and Bernd Ribbeck. Individual and collective identities and their stamp across the constituent greatness of the present formed a common theme in her work. Then in 2014, Joanna Kamm surprisingly announced the closing of her gallery. The art scene pricked up its ears.

Joanna Kamm has recently starting bringing her determination and passion to new projects as a journalist and curator. She is currently presenting the exhibition program Stop making sense, it’s as good as it gets at Munich’s BNKR alongside Ludwig Engel. We met Johanna at the Something Fantastic space, which presented her last exhibition Do Things, and spoke to her about what comes after owning your own gallery.

Joanna, you were in Italy for the last few weeks. What took you there?

I actually spent several weeks with a friend in Turin, then went from there to the fantastic biennale in Lyon for Spike Art Magazine and then to Venice to see an equally great exhibition, The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied.

The main reason, however, was my exhibition program Stop making sense, it’s as good as it gets. The concept is based on Tom McCarthy’s novel Satin Island. The novel begins in Turin and is about an anthropologist who is supposed to write a large report on the present for a business consultancy.

Ludwig Engel and I worked closely with the author and he regularly gave us topics from the book, which we then transformed into pictures, schematics, and the like. We are presenting the results of our research in the basement of BNKR, which we have set up like the basement office of the protagonist from the novel.

Tom’s final task for us was to travel to Turin and to produce Nietzsche’s descent into madness. This was to be done following a connection between the Shroud of Turin, which is meant to have belonged to Jesus Christ and is located in the city, Nietzsche’s time in Turin, the Turin airport – which serves as a hub in the novel – and the term “buffering.”

What fascinated you about Satin Island so much that it became the foundation of your exhibition program?

I read the novel for the first time in 2015. The way in which the protagonist tries to get a grasp on the present, and then fails at the task, moved me deeply. At the time, it was like a moment of happiness: Someone could express everything that up until that point was buzzing around confused in my head.

I also met Ludwig Engel around this time and I was stunned because he was also very intensively engaged with this book. When I received the request from the BNKR, it was clear to me that I wanted to do the program concept with him on the basis of this novel.

Was the program at BNKR your first major project after closing your gallery in 2014?

Yes, I completely withdrew from art for two years. Then I slowly started writing more and working on different projects. The project at the BNKR was the first one I went public with.

How did you reach the decision to close your gallery after 13 years? What was the process?

It was, in fact, a process – of course you don’t do that from one day to the next. I started thinking in greater detail about what a gallery can actually mean. I was primarily interested in the gallery’s location and what art spaces can look like, which then makes other structures possible – in terms of exhibition duration and exhibition chronology, for example.

I wanted to concentrate on getting people into the gallery again and I did mediation work. In the course of that, I withdrew from trade fairs and left the committee of Art Basel Miami Beach. Financially, however, it became even more difficult. At the same time, I didn’t have an idea of how I could proceed differently. That was the moment when I unfortunately had to decide to stop.

Martin Klosterfelde had also decided to close his renowned gallery in Berlin the year before. There must have been a lot of noise about that.

I called off a lot of interviews at the time, simply because I didn’t see myself as being in the position to give a general statement. I had the feeling that my choice to close was being exploited. The art market was already being watched with suspicion and of course all the journalists wanted to hear from me how terrible the art market is. But that’s not what it was about for me at that moment. First and foremost, it was a personal decision.

For many, having their own gallery marks the culmination of a successful career. What was it like for you?

For me, the gallery was more than a career: That was just me, 100%. When that ended, I was nothing. My whole identity was wiped out. You are actually only a gallery owner as long as you have a gallery.

This freedom that I suddenly had was something I experienced as extreme uncertainty. One can be too free – I was aware of that. For me it was neither a setback nor liberation, but I felt that the closure was a huge catastrophe, an existential one.

The position that you held in the art world is also quickly gone, and not at all because you’re no longer interesting to the others. It’s because you don’t even know what to talk to them about.

How did you open yourself up to new possibilities again?

As far as my genesis, completely withdrawing from the art world was very important. I can see that very well in retrospect. The decisive point for me was that I started reading a lot again back then: The world and my own identity were reinvented through reading.

I experienced first-hand during this time that this deep belief in literature and culture can be recomposed. Through that, curiosity returns. The moment the curiosity came back, things could move forward – step by step.

The topic is very current again: Some galleries in London, New York, and Berlin are closing, Andrea Rosen and Micky Schubert, for example. The art market is changing. Is the classic gallery model obsolete?

I think that it has become more difficult to run a gallery with pure idealism. Nowadays, you need a more thoroughly entrepreneurial spirit than I probably had when I started in 2001.

It is still extremely important for galleries to provide artists with a space where they can make art. I believe that art must be experienced physically. The internet can’t deliver that, by no means.

That’s why I feel it’s important that this location gets even more attention. That was the idea behind Gallery Weekend in Berlin, which I helped organize: To attract people back into galleries for exhibitions – and that worked very well.

New distribution channels should be considered – as alternatives, not as replacements for galleries. I don’t know what they could look like, but open-mindedness has become very important here, even outside of the usual structures.

Do you feel that you’ve become a curator with your work at BNKR?

That is still an ongoing process. My work with BNKR is a great opportunity to combine many areas that are of interest me. Ludwig calls it a real-life laboratory. I actually still don’t know if I want to focus more on writing or on putting together exhibitions. For me, it’s primarily about the link between literature, architecture, art, and science. So, it’s about the question of how culture can be conveyed in which form. So that the audience can take an inspiration for themselves, no matter how small.  

The uncertainty that I have experienced on a very personal level and which is currently defining our world – culture does not eliminate this insecurity, quite the opposite. But it creates an intensity that helps us deal with it.  

The opening of No Longer Art: Salvage Art Institute at BNKR in Munich took place on the 11th of November at 7pm with a lecture by curators Elka Krajewska and Mark Wasiuta. The exhibition is part of the Stop making sense, it’s as good as it gets program, in which Joanna Kamm and Ludwig Engel will present different artistic positions on the topic of time through July 2018. More information about the exhibition program can be found on the BNKR website here

Fashion, art, and pop culture are her cosmos; the written word, the material she uses to bring it all together. After studying in Leipzig, Lola Fröbe moved to Berlin in 2014. She works as a PR consultant and freelance journalist for publications such as L'Officiel, i-D, and Material Magazine.