The German-born artist on how her latest film installation unpicks the idea of freedom, and questions to whom it belongs
“The film is not about the telling of a history,” Grace Schwindt explains of her latest project, Only a Free Individual Can Create a Free Society. It investigates the notion of the word freedom: What does it mean? How has it been used historically? Who possesses it?
Inspired by the German-born London-based artist’s experience growing up in leftist Germany, Only a Free Individual is scripted around an interview Grace conducted with a German taxi driver, who recounts his political experiences through the 1960s and 70s with radical left-wing groups like the infamous Baader Meinhof Group, the Frankfurt School and Outer Parliamentary Opposition. An edited version of their eight-hour interview forms the dialogue of the film, a mix of the taxi driver’s memories and his present political views too.“There are three main threads to this investigation of freedom” she says, “the title itself, that only a free individual can create a free society; conversely, the Marxist idea you have a free structure with more equality, and freedom can develop.”
Moving from the macro of society to the micro of the family unit and the individual, she says, “The family is inherently a social construction, not separate from the public sphere. Problematic too is the Lutheran idea of ‘inner freedom’, that the Good Christian Man need only real freedom inside of himself. These are all social constructs.”
It’s a complex notion, one that also applies to the nature of language itself. “My starting point is that I assume nothing is neutral: how I sit, how I speak, every gesture is not neutral.”
Starting with spoken language, she explains: “I ask the dancers to speak every word with the same sense of agency: you, table, terrorism – whatever they say is said as a word, devoid of the emotional or social values that are usually attached to them. I work with dancers, firstly because of their movements, but also because it is easier for them to enunciate the way that I want them to in my work, to remove emotion and meaning. Neutrality is really hard, it’s a process of unlearning how we normally speak.”“This ‘unlearning’ is a process where language and gestures are brought down to their most elementary form: Walking isn’t about moving from A to B to tell a narrative – walking becomes material itself. This process includes, for example, instructing the dancers to lift their leg up, forward and down, and whilst they are doing it, making themselves hyper-aware of how it feels in the rest of their body, in their shoulder or their cheek or their hand.”
Those expecting a historical window into life in Cold War West Germany with Only A Free Individual will be challenged, as Grace stresses, “I am not interested in witness. I don’t want to represent that in my work. Nor is the film literal” she adds. “The car in the film is not representative of the taxi”, there is no character symbolising the driver, nor Grace herself. Instead, the film is the vehicle for the journey of investigation.
It’s also the germ at the heart of the project. On the interview process, she says, “Originally, I wrote questions and sent them to him, and he wrote back, but a lot more questions came out of this correspondence. I asked him for a larger interview, which he agreed to and we decided to do over the phone.” This telephone correspondence would typically take place when he was making his return journey from the countryside to Frankfurt, something that becomes an important feature of the film. “He’d comment on the changing landscape, what was going on outside.” Much of the script is fictionalised from the driver’s dialogue: translated from German into English, Grace adjusted and embellished the script to further remove any sense of witness. Combined with the set, and the projection of the film into the physical space of the gallery, it calls into mind the starting notion: nothing is neutral. Our experience, as an audience, is being directed in the same way the film is being projected, as the leg is being lifted. Meaning is inherent, though always subjective.
And though the nature of freedom is never resolved, the dialogue is absorbing.