“Gender is a fundamental theme of life”

Ursula Kirsten-Collein / Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin
Weberinnen am Fenster

Julia Bee, in what way do students and teachers at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar research the themes of equality and gender?

Generally, gender is perceived in very different ways at the Bauhaus-Universität. It is relevant on the levels of content and structure. On the one hand, there are initiatives and bodies that work on equality. On an institutional level and in terms of equality programmes, our Gender Equality Officer, Ricarda Löser, works together with the Equality Committee. On the other hand, it has varying significance to professors, researchers and students. All fields of life can be observed from a gender perspective, so the field’s diversity is accordingly great. For instance: students of Urban Studies and Architecture investigate space and the extent to which it enables or hinders social participation. Gender factors play a very important role in their buildings and plans because they conceive spaces that create an inside and an outside, privacy and publicity, which are of course important criteria from a gender perspective. The same applies to artistic interventions in public spaces. I come from the field of media studies, where gender issues play a key role due to the many media productions.

When we speak of perspectives, what differences are there?

One has to make a distinction: the gender perspective on students’ and teachers’ own careers, involving gender pay gaps, the glass ceiling and #metoo. But also solidarity with other perspectives such as discrimination against migrants, multiple discrimination, for instance against people of colour, which can be combined with gender equality.

In short: a perspective on gender equality is not always the perspective of gender research. In practice, there are often exciting tensions, which are very important for advances both in the gender policy of universities and in research. But I think that gender research has emerged from queer/feminist studies that can and must always consider a political connection when addressing gender as a social, analytical and political category.

To mark the Bauhaus centenary, you joined colleagues in a series of lectures on “Bauhaus and Gender”. Who attends such events. Are there more women?

Mainly students, but also colleagues. People with very different gender identities and diverse social and disciplinary backgrounds. We tried to combine different themes from various faculties with gender as an analytical category, thereby involving a wide range of interests. Also, compared to an event on gender in our STEM subjects, different people go to events on design and gender organised by the collective noteamuse. To me, the exciting aspect is that by focusing on the nexus “Gender and the Bauhaus”, other themes and methods can be taken on board. The interdisciplinary focus also allows us to learn about the themes of other faculties. Gender studies can act as a bridge between different faculties.

Do the original Bauhaus women generally play a role?

Yes! We see the historical perspective and students are keen to study them. Ulrike Müller, who has researched extensively on the Bauhaus women, worked with us to offer a guided tour of Weimar, presenting places where the Bauhaus women worked and lived. The event was extremely well attended. What I regularly see is that we often don’t connect the significant exclusion of women 100 years ago to today’s exclusion. So we don’t ask ourselves how elementary the connection between gender and art is, as well as gender and architecture – aside from many other gender perspectives on research and teaching on the Bauhaus. Our historical image of artists that also shaped the Bauhaus is deeply determined by gender. That incidentally also applies to artistic reception of the Bauhaus, which fails to consistently take the perspective of both genders. That’s a shame. The external image of the Bauhaus artist is still dominated by male achievements, starting with the term “constructor”. It connects art and craftsmanship, as the art historian Barbara Paul has argued, which was very important for the avant garde. A specific male image stands behind that perspective.

Main building of the Bauhaus University, architecture: Henry van de Velde, 1904–11.
photo: Christoph Petras, 2011. Bauhaus Kooperation Berlin Dessau Weimar
Main building of the Bauhaus University, architecture: Henry van de Velde, 1904–11.

What does that image look like?

The question I find interesting is how exclusion has led to this image, both historically and today. At the time, the Bauhaus women were not just active in weaving (although I find the word “just” difficult, because they produced some superb work!). Their work was not supported, they were not credited for it, it was not archived or, like Lucia Moholy, they had to fight for a  long time. The Bauhaus deliberately limited admissions by women. There were only a few exceptions. The image that emerges is of a handful of women who were particularly successful. To this day, only their biographies are recounted. Archive work on their biographies is very important. And in that respect, it would be beneficial for the Bauhausmuseum to reassess the current exhibition from the perspective of: who gets space for exhibits and who doesn’t?

But we also fail to reflect on the fact that current work is created by gender subjects, i.e. men and women, and not by neutral angels. Gender aspects flow into artistic work and research. In turn, that influences biographies. By the end of their studies, if not before, students realise this in the way they receive sponsorship, which prizes they win, who employs them and for which salary, how one can combine work and the family, in other words all the significant dimensions of gender equality. As architects, urbanists, filmmakers and engineers, they must fight their way through fields that are very strongly defined by the exclusion of women. I think women should also be prepared for that during their studies, without wanting to reduce feminism to purely vocational aspects. And naturally, one should sensitize all genders, not just women – also male identities.

So not enough has changed since 1919?

Naturally I wouldn’t say that nothing has changed in 100 years! That would be fatal for the discourse and would negate key achievements on a cultural, social and legal level, which have enabled so many great women to be at universities today. The fact that female co-determination and above all autonomy is a matter of course is the concrete achievement of women who fought for it. However, I believe that every period has its gender conflicts and that genders do not simply dissolve or become more neutral over the years. We are currently experiencing a great social backlash – and a welcome political stance against it from queer-feminist movements. Right-wing and populist parties are mobilising very traditional gender roles, also to construct national unity. This leads to dangerous coalitions between antifeminism and nationalism. As our current times show: we are not experiencing the constantly growing liberation of women, transgender people and men who suffer under the gender system. Above all, our perspectives today are more complex because we see overlaps between gender and social origins, as well as between cultural identity and desires. Gender can hardly be extracted from that network of perspectives and that is important.

So are we are naïve to think that the problem will solve itself?

Sometimes, we are lured too much by a consoling narrative that everything is constantly improving and progress quasi automatically removes gender inequality. From a historical perspective, that’s not the case. Women had to struggle and fight for their rights. It is not an automatic result that women are achieving ever-increasing social co-determination. It is based on work on many cultural, social and legal levels. So I would pause and assess precisely the actual situation at universities before believing that social progress is linear. Not only at university and during training, but also in later life.

Universities should organise many more events on that theme and integrate them into their courses – especially since the Bauhaus offers so much material for debate and defined the artistic gender discourse in the 20th century.

Does the Bauhaus-Universität also need a clearer stance with respect to gender issues in view of its history as a public educational and cultural institution?

It’s not necessary for the university to speak with one voice. But it would be good for the many voices to be audible. Naturally, such an open institution must ensure participation in education and social co-determination, while proactively supporting such empowerment and questioning itself. I believe one approach can be to provide spaces where students can continuously address gender issues, encouraging them to engage with the complexity of gender and art, gender and media, and gender and climate compatibility. That can not only be done through an event or a gender equality officer, but also means comprehensively sensitizing people in all fields of research, teaching and support. Especially now, when gender studies are being massively attacked by right-wing forces, it is important to consider how the Bauhaus-Universität can contribute with research on the theme, not just in the field of careers support. Gender influences all people in different fields. It is one of the fundamental themes of life – whether we like it or not – and influences all our lives. If considerations on the field are not substantially supported, we will sooner or later lose what we have attained in the past with respect to self-determined life and communal living.

You mentioned forgotten female Bauhaus protagonists: is there someone who particularly inspired you?

Grete Stern, a photographer who travelled to Argentina and was active there in the field of Ethnology. Unfortunately, people don’t talk much about her. Her series sueños (dreams) is very interesting from a gender perspective. And of course the documentary filmmaker Ella Bergmann Michel, who was never enrolled in the Bauhaus, but produced very interesting socially critical films. Both combined their art with social criticism. But that’s my perspective as a media studies researcher – I think there are many works that combine art and the media in an exciting way.

Self-portrait / Photo: Grete Stern, 1935
Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / © Jorge Mara - La Ruche
Self-portrait / Photo: Grete Stern, 1935

Thank you for talking to us, Julia Bee.

    [TF 2019, TBR]

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