29 Jul 2020

Judith Stenneken's 'Staircase' - a study of displacement and adaptability

Zoë Foster

Judith Stenneken's 'Staircase' - a study of displacement and adaptability

An in-depth look into German artist Judith Stenneken’s video work, ‘Staircase’.

German artist Judith Stenneken bases herself between New York City and Berlin. Her practice spans photography, video and installation. She uses book-making, photo-prints, video-installations and interactive pieces as means of expression. In ‘Staircase’, the artist produces a powerful political video art work.

Transitory spaces

‘In my work I use moving and still images of the journey and the voyager. I explore ‘transitory spaces’ like hotel rooms and airports as metaphors to describe transitions as the sole constant in life and in-betweenness as the true state of being. The concepts of departure and arrival dissolve as the traveler keeps moving – a gravity to constant change. The voyager’s home becomes the hotel room, the airplane, and at times the airport. Spaces to pause, never to dwell.’

Staircase still 1
Staircase, 2018. Judith Stenneken.

‘a mountain is only a slow wave’

‘Staircase’ is the first video in a series of four, part of the wider political series ‘a mountain is only a slow wave’. The series consists of video, photography and interaction. In the series, Judith Stenneken explores ideas around both displacement and adaptability.

The title of the series, ’a mountain is only a slow wave’, describes an alternate perception of the world. This perception is different from ours today. For instance, it invites us to perceive the mountain as fluid rather than fixed. Similarly, we also perceive the mountain as something that flows and changes at all times, despite its static appearance.

Staircase 2
Staircase, 2018. Judith Stenneken.

Berlin Tempelhof Airport

Stenneken sets the stage for the works in Germany’s historical airport Berlin Tempelhof (THF). The famous airport closed in 2008. After that, it was then subsequently partially converted, reopening as a refugee camp in 2015. This is the year that the German government accepted one million refugees. Many of the refugees were fleeing the war in Syria.

Staircase 4
Staircase, 2018. Judith Stenneken.

Hael

In ‘Staircase’, the artist collaborates with Hael. Hael lives as a refugee in Tempelhof’s hangars for over nine months at the time the video was produced in 2016. In the looped video, we see Hael endlessly walking up and down the stairs.

Above all, Stenneken looks at Hael as a role model for the human capacity for imagination and adaptation.

Staircase

Judith Stenneken

Staircase

1 Channel video projection, 2018

3’40” loop

For her, Hael, if he wants to survive, he must shed his identity and to adapt to a new people, language and culture. Similarly, we too must transform from the core in order to survive. In our case a moral change is required, a change from within. As well, we must detect the narratives, beliefs and attitudes that are deeply interwoven with us. These also hurt us and threaten our existence. Therefore, to survive and to thrive we must be prepared to let go of them, dis-place ourselves from them. We must imagine and learn to adapt to new concepts and ways of being. The applies both in this world and with each other. This is what it takes to evolve emotionally and spiritually. It is also what it takes to overcome what Martin Luther King called ‘man’s ethical infantilism’. 

Staircase still 7 detail
Staircase, 2018. Judith Stenneken.

Vilém Flusser & Douglas R. Hofstadter

Stenneken creates a dialogue with ideas from philosopher Vilém Flusser and cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter in ‘Staircase’. In other words, the artist uses their ideas as a framework to explore the emergence of meaning through repetitive motion.

In Flusser’s essay ‘Exile and Creativity’ from 1984, for instance, he compares exile to “an ocean of chaotic information”, through which one must process or transform the data in creative ways in order to survive. Similarly, Hofstadter’s key publication, ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid’, from 1979, also explores the possibility that for meaning to take shape it requires repetitive patterns such as ‘strange loops’. He therefore finds examples for his thinking in the works of mathematician Gödel, the drawings of Escher, as well as Bach’s fugues.

Staircase still 7
Staircase, 2018. Judith Stenneken.

Above all, in this series, Stenneken suggests that the interplay of repetition and meaning is also true for us today, as we experience the challenges of the digital revolution. She draws a parallel to those who seek refuge away from home and are forced to adapt to another society, language and culture. In other words, Stenneken argues we are all expellees as we move from the physical world into the virtual realm. We are questioning not only how we will survive the shift, but what the values of the new information age will be.

Staircase installation
Staircase, 2018. Judith Stenneken.

10% of the sale of this work is donated to a charity working with refugees. Doctors without Borders in Greece

Untitled #36 (Staircase)

Judith Stenneken

Untitled #36 (Staircase)

Archival pigment print, 2016

91 x 61 cm

About the artist

Judith Stenneken’s practice spans photography, video and installation. Similarly, she uses book-making, photo-prints, video-installations and interactive pieces as means of expression. Originally from Germany, today she bases herself between New York City and Berlin.

Judith Stenneken portrait
Judith Stenneken portrait

Her first self-published book ‘Last Call | Zentralflughafen Tempelhof’ won the Grand Prize of Blurb’s Photography Book Now contest in 2010. Similarly, the same body of work won the Young Talent Award of the F/Stop Photo Festival in Leipzig in 2009. After that, it also has honourable mentions from the New York Photo Festival and Hey, Hot Shot! in 2010. In 2011 she was selected as one of ‘PDN’s 30 – New and Emerging Photographers to watch’.

Exhibitions

Judith Stenneken holds a MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts, New York (2013). In 2011 she was named one of PDN’s 30 – New and Emerging Photographers to Watch in 2011. She is also the Grand Prize Winner for ‘Last Call’, Photography Book Now, Blurb (2010) and the Recipient of the International Young Talent Award. She won F/Stop 3rd International Photography Festival (2009). 

Her numerous solo and group shows include ‘Denn Bleiben ist nirgends’, Galerie f5,6 (Munich, 2016); Together, art:i:curate (New York, 2015); ‘Guest Room’, Der Greif in collaboration with Galerie f5,6 (Munich, 2015); ‘A Survey Of Documentary Styles In Early 21st Century Photobooks’, PHOTOVILLE (New York, 2013); ‘Last Call’, Galerie Gebrueder Marten (Leipzig, 2011).

DISCOVER MORE ABOUT JUDITH STENNEKEN’S WORK