Women We Love: Aino Laberenz

Veronika Heilbrunner & Aino Laberenz

Aino Laberenz is a costume designer and the managing director of Operndorf Afrika. We met her for an interview at her home and at the foundation’s office

As a kid, I overheard a theory that every person has seven doppelgangers out there, people whose DNA might even match yours to a good extent. I sometimes still think about these “twin strangers” because there’s this situation in which, quite clearly, such great external and internal congruity can’t simply be interpreted as the result of common interests or social factors. And, for me, that situation has a name: Aino. Aino Laberenz!

Slight – no, very slight – in appearance, (almost) always wearing no make-up, and with exactly the right, carelessly-styled looking hair, she seems almost childlike at first glance. Elfin. I constantly experience these special feelings of congruity when I see Aino. Then I even think (or wish) that I’m her and that she’s me – were it not for this big difference between us, namely our different heights ;-). I already felt like that before I had met her in person. At first I thought, and purely based on external factors as I only knew her from photos: “That can’t be, I’m wearing exactly the same thing right now.”

In the meantime, and thanks to the most modern of technologies – aka writing text messages – we also know that, despite the different places we find ourselves in, we always perform the same morning ritual: green-tea-with-a-coffee-and-even-better-when-there’s-a-green-juice-as-well. And when I catch sight of a pair of sneakers by Acne Studios and write “Potsdamer Straße tomorrow to buy shoes for New York” on my to-do list, then it’s guaranteed that Aino is already wearing this same style somewhere else. We’re also very sociable and happily lose track of time and space in the company of our mutual friends. You could say we enjoy the little free time we have gabbing and doing nothing with just as much abandon as we do working hard. It might sound totally banal to some, but I still get an adrenaline rush from these similarities.

Likewise, I would have sworn with my hand over my heart that certain heavy-boots-with-super-romantic-tulle-floral-dream-dress-outfits are rather for taller people. Aino is proof that isn’t true. She can rock that like no one else! You could say that’s no surprise: After all, Aino does work as a stage and costume designer for numerous opera and theater productions. And what a costume designer she is! Her engagements are a never-ending train ride from Vienna to Hamburg, then Zurich, Hannover and, of course, back to Berlin, her chosen home of many years, whenever possible.

Aino designed the costumes for the walk-through installation Kaprow City at Volksbühne Berlin in 2007 as well as pieces like Mea Culpa at Burgtheater Wien in 2010, Denn sie wissen nicht was wir tun at Schauspiel Stuttgart in 2014, and Wut by Elfriede Jelinek at The Deutsches Theater Berlin. She works on the ideas with the director and with the performers, which she then realizes in the respective opera or theater’s in-house workshop. When the curtain goes down and the audience applauds, Aino is already long-gone and off on her way to her next challenge.

One very special challenge is Operndorf in Burkina Faso, which her husband Christoph Schlingensief started in 2008. In 2010, after her husband’s death, Aino took over managing the business. Christoph was able to see the groundbreaking and the first foundations for what now numbers more than 20 buildings – including an elementary school attended by 300 children. Aino goes to Africa up to four times a year.

I find it unspeakably impressive and brave that Aino has continued this fantastic, incredibly wonderful project and that it thrives under her leadership. But now I’ll finally let Aino Superstar have her own say – et voilà – here are excerpts from a conversation we had at the beginning of August.

Veronika Heilbrunner: How long does it take until a costume is finished? One or two days?

Aino Laberenz: Well, it takes a little longer than that. You could compare it to completing a custom-made suit. Especially with historical costumes, you have to look at the cut precisely. I like to misappropriate materials, though. Sometimes I look at the hardware store and not just in normal fabric shops.                         

VH: Do you keep your favorite costumes you’ve made in an archive?

AL: No, unfortunately. You relinquish the costumes as a matter of principle. Even when a piece is eventually played out, they land in the storage of the respective theater or opera house.

VH: But is there a costume that you’d really like to have for yourself?

AL: Yeah. A few. One costume looked like a sea cucumber – I thought that one was really good. I always like the things that aren’t normal, but which I somehow invented. For example, I always wanted to have a star like these ones for children, the music boxes for babies: a kind of pillow that makes music. I also produced something like that for a piece once. I’d like to have that.

VH: Particularly because your life is really exciting and you’re mostly off to the next great production every eight weeks, do you still manage to keep something like a routine?

AL: Yes, absolutely. I’m really happy that I’m not just working in the theater these days. I’ve been doing that for 16 years now and I was basically always working in theater before. But I also need something else as well because theater, as an art form, is rather hermetic. So I’m happy to also be working in the field of visual arts.

Of course I’m generally very busy with Operndorf. It can happen that I’m exchanging ideas with filmmakers and directors, speaking about projects, although I don’t actively work in that position. But I always recognize how much I need that for myself to keep my head free and to stay open. It was also a conscious choice to take over Operndorf with my team. By no means am I leaving the theater for it, but I made a clear decision to continue with Operndorf.

VH: How long has Operndorf been around now?

AL: The groundbreaking for the first building in Burkina Faso was seven years ago, but Christoph Schlingensief had the idea for it 17 years ago. He founded a limited liability company and went on a search for the right land. The concept was to build a platform – or let a platform develop – where artists of different backgrounds exchange views at a specific location. And this exchange would happen, for example, in the school or at the hospital – the core of the whole thing is the artistic input, whether in workshops in the school or through the residency program. Besides a specific location, it is perhaps also important that one tries to get to the bottom of the perspective of artists across the African continent. Accordingly, it was also always a decisive factor that the platform is allowed to develop and that a discussion keeps going.

VH: What have you personally learned in – and from – Africa?

AL: What I’ve absolutely learned from Operndorf is how badly people listen sometimes – listening in the sense of “engaging with something.” Of course, people always have a certain picture or (pre)conception in their heads that they carry around with them; we operate from our own contexts, and only then do we notice how difficult it is to push all of that to the side and react to something that works differently.

As Europeans, we’re stuck in our own logic and traditions, but in Burkina Faso and in other African countries there are other layers in effect that are equally exciting; when it’s not just about explaining everything in terms of European logical principles – it doesn’t even have to be mystical, because there are entirely different ways to look at the world.

Looking at the idea of “German goes to Africa,” for example: One applies their “own” principles of evaluation really quickly and then experiences that there are many other ways of perceiving things. I remember that when Christoph died a lot of people there said: “Maybe he’s still around in the form of the wind, or as the copy machine.” What I mean is that there weren’t just spiritual approaches in Africa for “dealing” with his death, but also tangible ones – and I find that a very, very nice idea. That also means that you deal with people differently. Whether they have passed away or not, people are simply all around you – and that’s OK. It’s not considered ridiculous that people think that way. I find this way of thinking incredibly beautiful.

VH: Art auctions play a big role at Operndorf. You make really great things there. Now, the third auction is about to take place. Could you explain what’s happening with that and when?

AL: We organize ourselves through donations for the most part. Of course, we have to see to it that we can finance the projects. There are the standard models that lots of other organizations use, and an art auction is one of them. I believe our first auction took place in 2011 and it got the building work at Operndorf going, so to speak. We sold pictures and artworks – it went mind-bogglingly well.

But you can’t always just do the same thing – we’re obviously not an auction house. So the idea for the t-shirt auction came about. Artists got white t-shirts from us and could do what they wanted with them. My next thought was that it was definitely going to be great, but nothing wearable was going to come of it. However, and funnily enough, often the result was actually wearable – it’s just that you can’t wash the t-shirts. A balancing act between “it is an artwork, but it is a wearable artwork.”

We’re showing the artworks that were created this way in Johann König’s gallery. We discarded the idea of showing the t-shirts in a fashion show because we thought it was nicer to make installations out of it instead – to simply be able to look at them and go deeper in the act of looking. And, at the end, a traditional auction will take place.

Products from the benefit auction for Operndorf Afrika:

Thanks a lot to the amazing team and the great support of Operndorf Afrika.

If you’re interested in bidding – like us here at hey woman! – here’s more information regarding the wheres and whens:

September 22nd 2017, 8pm
König Galerie Berlin
Alexandrinenstraße 118-121
10969 Berlin

Website: operndorf-afrika.com or artnet.com
Facebook: facebook.com/OperndorfAfrika
Instagram: @ainokristina, @operndorfafrika

Photographer: Silvia Conde
Production Manager: Julia Knolle
Video and Edit: Sabrina Hubert
Production Assistant: Catarina Marques Teles
Translation: Melissa Frost

Born and raised in Munich/Germany, Veronika’s professional career has developed from being a model to a fashion editor, to online luxury retailing and most recently style editor of Harpers Bazaar Germany. She currently lives in Berlin where in the beginning of 2015 she started a company with Julia Knolle, the ex-editor at large of Vogue Digital.
Oh, and she loves pugs!