Margaret Raspé has explored and upended structures of perception in an oeuvre that spans five decades and encompasses film, performance, photography, and large-scale installation. She is perhaps best known for her “camera helmet,” with which she made a number of radically self-reflexive films in the 1970s and ’80s. Here, Raspé recalls the initial breakthrough that led to those early works and spurred her enduring interest in forms of automatic action in both art and everyday contexts. Her first retrospective, “Automatik,” is on view through May 29 at Haus am Waldsee in Berlin, where the Wrocław-born artist has long been based. A major monograph to accompany the show is forthcoming later this year.
I FEEL I NEED TO START AT THE BEGINNING. How it all began is important, as this is how I came to make my first films and started thinking about the automatic, a theme and approach that is present through all my work. I moved into this house in Zehlendorf, just outside of Berlin, in 1962. I made many of my works here in this kitchen and outside in the garden. When we moved here, I had two toddlers and a newborn. I had trained as an artist—in Munich at the Akademie der Kunst and at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Berlin—but then I got married and had children, and soon the question arose: “How can I be an artist in my life?”
We didn’t have any money; we had bought the house for next to nothing. It was partially bombed out, and property prices plummeted when the wall was built in 1961. I spent my time renovating and furnishing the house and taking care of my three daughters. I did the work and I did the work and I did the work. My husband was a macho and I realized that he had never understood that I was an artist, even then. I grew up in a family of women—my mother had five sisters and the men were all in the war. For me, it was clear that women can decide what they want and what they do. I only found out later that this was not clear at all to some men. I was deeply unsatisfied with the housekeeper role. I read art books while the children slept, but couldn’t even think about making art. My life was really restricted; I could hardly stand it. I was filled with real rage. In 1968, my husband told me on the telephone that he wanted a divorce. That same afternoon, I went to a friend’s house and met Günter Brus, the founder of the Vienna Actionist movement, who had fled Vienna the night before as there was a warrant out for his arrest after a particularly scandalous action. I offered him the spare bedroom and he and his family moved in, initiating my exchange with Actionism and with other Viennese artists. This opened up new perspectives for me.
And so I was on my own with three small children, but I had an open house and it became a place of exchange between Vienna and Berlin, which was quite rare at the time, and between leftist friends, many interesting (and some less interesting) artists, writers, musicians. I felt I was in between the roles of artist and housewife, like a kind of intermediary. I couldn’t call myself an artist at that time, because it wasn’t what I was doing. What I was doing was picking up, cleaning up, fixing up, cooking, calling a handyman, supervising the handyman, gardening. This was work: my work. This work was very physical, corporeal, and one day, in the midst of it—this was in 1970—I had the shocking realization that I wasn’t really looking. I just chopped or swept and did things quickly and automatically, like driving on autopilot. I was horrified to realize, I don’t pay attention to anything anymore! Because I want to know what I’m doing. I want to see. And so I thought of making a film, from my perspective, of what my hands were doing. This was the handlung, which in German has a double meaning that refers to a tactile knowledge, but also a plot or action. So, with advice from a number of friends, I devised a camera helmet—a Super 8 camera affixed to a hardhat—that allowed me to film steadily from a central perspective. The first film was of me making a schnitzel. Later, I filmed myself slaughtering, preparing, and cooking a chicken; doing the dishes; baking a cake. For me, part of paying attention, waking up from this trance, was really tracing things back. The hands have a material understanding of widerstand—resistance or tension—which came to be a factor in automatic work that I was interested in. When you do something repeatedly, you have a knowledge of the resistance involved: You use one knife to cut meat and another to cut a vegetable. The automatic brings a lot of questions to the fore. What do we eat, or how do we live, how do we treat the planet? These are all physical and philosophical questions.
When the camera helmet films were first shown at the Arsenal in Berlin around 1975, the only people who seemed to immediately really get what I was after were the London Film-Makers’ Co-op. They accepted me as a filmmaker. The feminist community wasn’t somewhere I felt I really fit in, which was disappointing at the time. My work is concerned with the question of work and how it is valued—housework is unpaid or very poorly paid—but also the question of work processes and conditions. In later drawings, performances, and installations, I continued to think about how mental and manual labor might be connected. There was a headline in a German newspaper a few days ago, referring to my show at Haus am Waldsee, that said something along the lines of “Doing the dishes is art now too,” which is obviously cheeky. Yes, I’m an artist, but this certainly doesn’t transform doing the dishes into art. That’s not what is at stake here. Art constitutes a very sharp attention. For me, it’s about precision.
— As told to Camila McHugh