Sunday, January 6, 2008


Born in Herford, Germany in 1935, Hans Breder moved to Hamburg in 1959 to study at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste. Two years later he received the prestigious Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, a fellowship awarded for study in a foreign country. The administrators of the fellowship intended to send him to Paris but he refused, insisting, "Paris is dead. I must go to New York." In 1964, twenty-nine-year-old Breder arrived in New York City.

In New York his constructivist-aligned work quickly garnered critical praise and in 1967 the Richard Feigen Gallery gave him his first solo show. Shortly before the show the University of Iowa contacted him about teaching experimental drawing for the School of Art and Art History. In 1966 Breder moved from New York City to Iowa City, Iowa, where he would establish the nation's first MFA program in Intermedia Arts.

Over the last forty years, Breder has worked in and between a number of media including painting, sculpture, photography, performance, video, and electro-acoustic media. His intermedia work has been featured in three Whitney Biennials (1987, 1989, 1991), "The First Group Exhibition of American Art in Moscow" (1989), and most recently in "An American Odyssey" (2004) in Madrid as well as numerous other exhibitions from Mexico City to Fukui, Japan. His work has been collected by museums and galleries around the world including The Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Most recently he has been working on a piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of composer Robert Schumann's birth for a symposium at the University of Dortmund in Germany.

Sage Elwell: 2006 marks your fortieth year with the University of Iowa. Is there a single experience that somehow summarizes your time with the University and the Intermedia Program that you founded here?

Hans Breder: Well, when I came here I was thinking, What am I going to do in Iowa, and moreover, what am I going to do at a University? And so after only a year as a member of the faculty, I proposed the addition of an Intermedia course. Well, when the faculty voted unanimously in favor of the course, I looked around and said, "How can this be?" I didn't understand how these people could vote for the idea of a performance course within the context of the arts. Well, I later learned that the reason the proposal had been accepted with so little resistance was because the faculty had difficulty understanding my accent. People didn't even know what "intermedia" was. They thought I was proposing a class in "intermediate" drawing and everybody voted. And so I proposed the course and the course became a degree program. That probably sums up the Intermedia Program pretty well.

SE: And for you personally, why was it--why is it--important to dedicate yourself to intermedia?

HB: Coming to New York and seeing how Robert Rauschenberg exploded Kurt Schwitters's collage concept--well, nothing made sense to me. And I said, "well this is it, can I do anything?" And it was about this time that Mark Rothko asked me to come to his studio, and I said, "Oh Mark, painting is dead." And you know of course I think of him as a great colorist and when it comes to spirituality, which as you know has become a major element in my work, you know, Geist ... well, he is amazing. Anyway, I was a young punk at the time. I should have gone to his studio.

I looked at the world around me, particularly New York, and I said this is a most beautiful collage. All you need to do is to pick up a frame and you have art. At that time I was also reading [the anthropologist] Victor Turner and his idea of liminality. Which again relates to my own strange place between languages, between cultures, and so on. And so that became an idea that still describes what I am doing. I am carrying my house with me like a snail.

SE: Along those lines, you've described liminality as a thin membrane that's become a larger and larger space that you've come to live in. What does it mean to live within the liminal and why have you chosen to make the liminal your home?

HB: If I didn't have that space I don't see how I could live. I don't have roots here or where I was born in Germany. For me, the liminal space has become grounding, a space where I am at home. That's what I meant by a snail carrying its home.

And I see a connection here with intermedia too. I think that whatever you do in any medium is related to life. And as I worked on this project you saw in Glasgow [Alchemies (2005)--an audio-visual trilogy installed in the cathedral at the University of Glasgow] it made me think of my mother, because of course it is about my mother. The work includes two passport photos of her, one before the war and one after--and all of a sudden I realized that my mother is still teaching me. When I was a child, she made me see and listen in a way that taught me to step back and let things come. She didn't want me to turn into these animals and fight for food. Even in this more difficult situation, she was able to tell me something that has to do with this particular piece. She was able to show me that spiritual awareness is possible even when everything is falling apart around you.

SE: How then do you understand the relationship between documentation and the primary materials themselves when you're trying to capture such ineffable experiences?

HB: Well, for me, with documentation there are three steps. First there is the concept--which is nothing until it goes through the second step, which is the process. And finally you end up with deeds--and that is of course the documentation. My way of thinking is to reinvent something with documentation that recreates an experience of what happened before. So I'm not just taking a slide of something--the documentation itself becomes a work in itself.

For example, at a certain point in my work, from the 1980s on I never had the technology that I needed. So the way I would work is I would "abuse" the technology to get what I really wanted. And by abusing it--making the wrong connections, retooling the cameras you know--it was like with drawing or painting where you would hit the brush to the canvas and almost destroy it in the process. And people who would see this work would say, "That's very interesting, I wish I had that technology." I didn't have any special technology, I abused it to a point that it looks very sophisticated.

SE: And how does that effect the entire process a given work might go through?

HB: In terms of the new technology, I have a very different way of working. Every aspect of my work is always performative--at every stage. So I set up a performance situation in the studio and film that. Then I go through another performative process where I am working with the film itself. And here people always ask, How did he do this, what filter did he use? I don't use any filter. Like this work I showed in Glasgow I mentioned before, I projected the original image into a window at night which brought out the cross shape, which originally wasn't intended, but then it made sense because now my mother is not looking out, she is behind the cross and not in front of it.

So now the work happens in the studio as a performance and the documentation of the performance is then itself put through a performative process. And in this case I'm not using any special technological devices (I hate filters). It's totally straightforward.

SE: As a final question then: What is intermedia?

HB: The unique thing about intermedia is that it resists definition. You don't want to put an end on it. Once you define it, you put an end on it. That is the real danger--you want to avoid that.

It's not really just a crossover between disciplines. It's more about one action, event or object that can be at home in any context. Because art crosses over into life, intermedia is comfortable whereever it is.

It's certainly not multimedia. It's not a question of many media, it can be one object or one action that can be read and in a certain context take on a new meaning or at the same time have different meanings. I am thinking about this in a new way again, because that is what you have to do with intermedia. So I'm constantly moving.

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