29.09.2023 © Silvia Russo
"Seduta Artistica" is a project curated by Silvia Russo, focusing on the free emotional and creative expression of emerging artists engaged in self-development within a contemporary reality they have to deal with.
The curator-artist relationship is based on direct listening.
In the interview, the curator intervenes as little as possible, allowing the interviewee's stream of thought to flow freely without being contaminated.
The project aims to give voice to that lesser-known, more intimate part of the artist, which is often (unconsciously or intentionally) hidden from the eyes of others.
Anika Krbetschek is a bright interdisciplinary artist, curator, and author based in Berlin.
She is energetic, active, constantly evolving and experimenting, and... we chatted about so many things!
Our long conversation focused on several crucial issues, with particular attention to the destigmatisation of so-called “mental illnesses” and the role of contemporary art in addressing issues of identity, perception, and social inclusion.
With great insight and honesty, Anika shares many traces of her past, including her time as a patient, worker, and artist within the psychiatric environment. Through these personal experiences, she has gained a unique perspective on the challenges people face when they find themselves on the margins of society, leading her to realize that her place in the world exists through artistic expression.
Anika’s artistic practice is an in-depth investigation of internal psychic phenomena and their impact on an individual’s reality and perception. In her work, she seeks to give visibility and promote the destigmatisation of mental disorders and neurophysiological divergences considered to be outside of the supposed normality.
The artist not only questions the label “illness” for inner psychic experiences but transcends the concept of boundaries, treating them rather as a continuum of human experiences. Her artistic works act as reflective frames for the audience, offering a space in which people can understand and connect with psychological manifestations within their personal spectrum of experience.
During the conversation, we explored the influence of her past and challenging background on her artistic practice, as well as the importance of her commitment to making the voices of marginalized people heard in contemporary (art) society.
By exploring her past, we get inside the mind and soul of the artist, who aims to transform the dialogue on mental health and social inclusion through her creative work and ongoing activism.
CN/TW: This interview touches on the topics of psychiatry, trauma, violence, abuse and rape. There are no explicit descriptions of violent situations.
Hi Anika! I am so happy that you wanted to undertake this “Seduta Artistica” Project with me by being interviewed and want to share with me very important parts of your life and your artistic research.
I would say let's start with introductions right away then!
How do you feel you want to introduce yourself?
Thank you very much and thank you for inviting me.
Before I start speaking about my work and my approach, I think the starting point for me and all my actions is that I'm a spring-born and that means that I believe in the beginning, in the heart of a first light, in growth and blossoming.
I believe in change and for change-making I truly believe in passion, collaboration, in participation. With these comes sensitivity as well as curiousness and emotional empathy. I also believe that we act very reality-related, surely political as well as honest, maybe even true, when we work out of an inner drive, when we put inner worlds into art, when we understand that inclusivity is good for everyone. I come from a place of deep sensitivity for emotional perception, sensation, and imagination, as well as pain, abuse, and mistrust. Bringing that together might be a personal life goal.
Using that to be part of a world with more justice and healing is my work goal for sure.
What I think is very interesting about you and your work, is that you manage to combine the person you are and who you feel you are, with your artistic practice, without hiding.
So now I would ask you spontaneously, what is the main driving force behind your primary research in your artistic practice? And, what motivated you to pursue an artistic career?
Actually, this formulation of the question leads me to a lot of thoughts, and I am thinking about whether the choice to work or the thing I am doing artistically actually has anything to do with the will to pursue it. The word pursuing an artistic career I pay attention to, because I never felt like I wanted to be an artist for the sake of pursuing an artistic career, or it wasn't a work decision in that kind of thought or sense. It was not really a choice at all.
I started making art when I couldn't do anything else to survive. It sounds dramatic, but maybe it was. I started making art intensively when I was suicidal, in psychiatry. And since then, it’s all I can do. It is my way of transforming my feelings, to absorbing myself in a non-harmful but beautiful and freeing way. As I did years of art therapy, it shaped my whole artistic approach.
So for me, it is like this: theoretically, I find that making art is the most effective way to pursue my therapeutic and activist goals. In practice, I also have to say that it is still the only thing I can do without 'getting sick'. This is a different starting point from wanting to be an artist, right?
This is the situation in which your art practice saved you, right?
Yes. I came to art through art therapy. My first session of art therapy was at the hospital and it took me like 20 minutes before I asked the art therapist:
“Okay, what do I have to do to become an art therapist?”
It was so clear to me from that second on, at that moment, to become an art therapist from that point on. I evolved from a patient to working at the Atelier of my art therapist. On my way, I created many different artistic formats and projects, which led me to the realization that there I could develop other ways of working therapeutically with art as an artist than I could do as an art therapist. That’s where I am now. I guess the approach that I learned in art therapy is still shaping my work, and it’s different from what you learn in academic arts. I’m still, like, aggressively process-orientated.
This is very touching, and so I would like to go even deeper by asking you, how is it for you to deal with these issues from an artistic point of view on an emotional level? Also, what was the transition between doing art for yourself, to survive, and then doing it for an audience?
There was a point when I realized that sharing my stories and feelings meant not only working on a personal level but also making the experiences of others visible. My own experiences are rooted in structural issues within a hegemonic patriarchal society.
They are not solely personal; there is a broader societal context behind them. Making these issues visible is thus not just a form of self-therapy; it serves a purpose within an activist context and aligns with justice-related work.
So making them visible primarily aims to destigmatize them and also involves presenting alternative perspectives, often marginalized ones. Presenting these diverse perspectives always entails crafting new narratives, which inherently question the prevailing societal structures. This, I believe, is a part of driving change.
Psychological processing and art share a deep connection for me. Art is essential for processing these experiences on a personal level. However, it goes beyond self-therapy. This, in turn, challenges established structures, both in the societal system and the art world, and contributes to inclusive change-making.
Do you find it challenging to effectively destigmatize the perception of mental health issues among the public, or do you believe you are making progress in achieving this goal?
What I find quite difficult is that I am still part of a system that causes health injustices, as well as other structural injustices that lead to mental problems. I believe in the power of the arts and dedicate my life to that work, but I find it ironic that this kind of work also threatens my health. This is because of an unhealthy, injustice system and not primarily because my work is centered around dealing with illness and pathology.
Of course, I am constantly engaged with topics like pain, damage, violence, societal, political, psychiatric, and therapeutic systems, as well as patriarchy and capitalism.
But how could there be a way for me to avoid these topics anyway, as they are a part of my own experiences as well as part of my privileges, which I certainly have and must take responsibility for.
No, the real unhealthy part is the precarious conditions of art-activists and non-commercial FLINTA*-Artist with underrepresented topics.
Anyway, I've noticed that when my work is exhibited, it receives considerable recognition. Visitors engage in discussions with me about their thoughts and their personal experiences.
They often say, "Oh, I've never heard of this illness”, or “I've never thought about it, even though I've heard something about it.”
But now, as they have a frame to reflect on it, they get to know what it is on a quiet sensory level. Many realize then that it's a reality for many people, perhaps there’s even something relatable for themselves. So, I believe that my work truly has an impact, when people immerse themselves in the artwork — I say “immerse” because it’s often in the form of installations. Then they have a feeling as a starting point to reflect on it and to draw connections between what’s there and their own lives and experiences. I'm very pleased that this happens because it aligns with my goals.
However, this is only possible because I am in a position to work in this way. I am not anymore part of the psychiatric system, and I am no longer in an unstable position. I possess the strength, privileges, and perhaps even the courage, which is associated with those privileges, to genuinely engage in the work that I do.
I'm currently intrigued by your perspective: why do you believe that individuals who undergo what is commonly termed "mental illness" rarely choose careers within the realm of the arts? Do you think this might be due to a lack of recognition of their artistic talents or simply a lack of interest? From your point of view, why isn't this a more common path?
I guess, as you mentioned earlier, it demands a substantial amount of courage, much like you possess, to immerse oneself in such a pursuit. It's not a path open to everyone—to channel all one's emotions into art, not just for personal expression but for sharing with the public.
I believe, on one hand, it might have to do with the challenge of exposing one's vulnerability in general. Even though art is perfect for it, as it offers the tools to encode emotions through metaphors and symbolism. Many artworks hide deeper meanings behind rich symbolism. But truly naming things requires outing oneself in some way, and not everyone is comfortable with that or in a position to be able to do so. It can be dangerous, in a way.
So it's not just about “bravery”, it's also about having the necessary resources. If you lack the mental resources or a secure situation to engage the public in this kind of work, it's understandable that you wouldn't pursue it. But not working as an artist does not necessarily mean that you don’t do the art.
The real reason for what you’re addressing is an ableistic system full of barriers for people with diagnoses or experiences with severe mental illnesses. But, there is a substantial community of those artists - tellingly they’re called “Outsider Artists”. Most of them don't necessarily label or contextualize their work as I do, but they explore similar territories. Outsider art is a complex topic in itself. It's heartening to see them gaining more recognition, especially concerning mental health, which is becoming more socially accepted. However, there is still a tendency to see mental problems only as problems to be solved, rather than as part of the human experience.
I would like politics, society, and the healthcare system to adopt a more sociological perspective, recognizing that systems can produce these illnesses.
People should not be blamed or seen as uniquely responsible for their conditions.
Your most recent project, "f44(0)," explores memory loss in various contexts, such as childhood, randomness, and dissociative amnesia due to traumatic stress. It was showcased both at the 48h Neukölln Art Festival and at the Kulturfabrik Moabit in Berlin last summer as part of the exhibition 'Molding into the Fabric.' I wanted to ask, why is this topic very important for you and does it relate to the destigmatisation of mental illnesses?
It’s connected because everything I do is guided by this approach of creating contexts in which people can experience a kind of psychopathological manifestation of what we all go through. I hope that within this context, they can relate to their own spectrum of personal experiences and understand that it goes beyond the boundaries between illness and normality, between what is considered normal and not. It’s about recognizing that it's a continuum, perhaps even part of themselves.
And I believe this is crucial for destigmatization.
We can talk extensively about mental health and its expert specifics, but if we don’t reach that point, it's futile.
The aim of our recent installation “f44(0)”, which is a collaborative project I did with Marco Borowski - a collaboration of artists with and without severe trauma-related experiences - was to illustrate two types of memory loss or two categories of memories that tend to fade away. One type includes memories that are perhaps too random to be consciously recalled. In this case, we worked with Marco’s personal archive of video recordings that happened randomly throughout his life. The other type of memory, that was translated into video art, is one that wasn't even initially stored in the brain because it was so intrusive or harmful that the brain had to dissociate from it. However, I firmly believe that nothing truly gets lost in this sense. It remains in the unconscious mind, and that's why it still influences us.
In this project, then, I approached the subject of memories in a very technical way, thinking about the brain’s mechanism of processing memories differently, depending on the effect they have on our emotions and our inner being.
In general, I am artistically very interested in the concept of fragmentation and dissolution, and these are also very interesting artistic concepts - but they may have a different meaning when we put them in the context of the psyche, as they are fundamental principles of dissociative processes, and in particular dissociative amnesia, which causes memory loss, which we worked on in the installation you are talking about.
I can use these artistic concepts, abstraction, to make the processes and mechanisms behind these pathological things understandable.
Now that we are going deeper, I would like to talk about something more intense, if you feel like it!
Since you had experiences in psychiatric hospitals, both as a patient and working there artistically, I wanted to ask you, since there is often a reluctance to know and a tendency to turn a blind eye to things that are not considered 'sexy', what really happens inside a psychiatric hospital?
How was it there for you?
Regarding my experiences with psychiatry, it's quite interesting because I've been on both sides, as a patient and also working there.
For me personally, I just needed to have a place outside of society and my environment in the first place. Even though I would criticize the practice of separating the “mentally ill” from society, sometimes it can be beneficial for them, I guess. In some cases, it's really more about how society can be more dangerous for them, than the other way around.
The children’s stations in this case are still a different thing as well. You cannot decide anything on your own: strict rules on the station, no going out without permission from parents, no phone, your parents decide who is allowed to call the station or visit you. I mean, of course, we were under 18 years old; but for me personally this lack of self-determination made everything harder. I remember how high the walls were, I remember how their stones felt. You can still see the names of my station mates and the year they finally left carved into the red bricks. For the first two weeks, I wasn't even allowed to leave the 50 meters of the station floor, get visits from friends, not even go downstairs. This was for my protection, actually, but still: I could not see the sky, my trees, feel real ground underneath me. So, I had to find my own ways to escape.
I find myself romanticizing my own time in the clinic, I tell people it was like a school trip. That is because I was the oldest and could fully live my “helper’s syndrome”. I cared and advocated for others there, as I recognized that these were even less privileged than me. There were kids, where I wondered if they would ever get out. I didn't know how they would live once they left because sometimes their parents had been in other sections of the psychiatric hospital, so they couldn't even go out because their parents were also in psychiatric care, and so on. And I learned then and later on, how abusive the system treats those who are dependent on help.
So I felt lucky and privileged about my own experience, even if I also had some challenging experiences with the therapists there. When I look back on some things they said to me, I realize that they were some dangerous and foolish statements. For example, one doctor told me once: “You are this kind of woman, that will always be with violent men.”
They also told me that when I got dismissed, I would surely relapse and it would be my own fault and stuff like this.
You can imagine how devastating this was, especially for a female who socialized at a very young age.
When I later worked at a psychiatric station myself, I will never forget the feelings I had about the isolation rooms, which I felt were quite inhumane. Locking people in a room where they couldn't leave, felt like something out of a horror movie. Of course, when people in need of help are locked in a room with nothing, they start scratching the walls – I would do so. It was unsettling. I remember a young woman about my age at the time who was always very quiet. She gave off the impression of being intelligent and kind. But every time she got out of the isolating room she would find a way to slit herself open until she lost all of her blood. So: I am aware of why these rooms exist. But: That something might be necessary does make it right. I find that heartbreaking.
Sometimes, I'm still thinking about some of these people: What happened to them? Did they manage to get out of the psychiatric circle?
Listen, I have another story to tell you!
I remember this girl I met at a child's psychiatric station when I was there myself as a patient. She was eleven years old at that time and I was very young too. Later on, when I started working in a different psychiatric hospital, she was now a patient on my station and I was worried she might recognize me from my own time as a patient. I didn't tell anyone on the station about my past as a patient back then, because I feared the consequences. She was 20 when I saw her again. In those nine years of her young life, she never got out of psychiatric institutions. It was a shock. It made me realize the challenges of reintegrating into society after being in the psychiatric system for years: How could this girl have done it after almost her whole life in a psychiatric hospital, where that became her only reality? What would have been there for her outside?
I learned that many of the people there are very much outside society, but there are also some who have a life that is considered normal, but it is still difficult for them to live, in a way. The line between normal and out of normality is sometimes more blurred than you think.
I would like to connect your personal story to your artistic practice, starting by asking, do you have a clear idea at the beginning? Are you obsessed with any idea before you start working on a new project?
I have two different approaches. One that is more process-oriented: In the beginning, there is nothing, just a need to express something (even when uncertain about what), or a particular emotion requiring transformation. Then I often paint or write, because these are the means with which I am more genuine, which I feel is more like a voice than an instrument. These processes unfold intriguingly, commencing in an abstract and emotional realm, evolving gradually into clearer, more organized expressions, eventually revealing the underlying subject matter behind the initial emotion. This approach has given rise to complete concepts, stemming from bodily and intuitive explorations.
On the other hand, I also do a lot of research into the psyche, trauma, and neuropsychological mechanisms. Having technical knowledge and psychological expertise helps me personally to separate my experiences from feelings of guilt and to understand that these are neurophysiological mechanisms, patterns, and not personal failures.
Often, this research serves as the foundation for new artistic projects. This is because, in the end, my way of doing research is artistic, turning this knowledge into art is the way I understand things with my whole being and not only with my brain.
But also sometimes, when I approach the work intuitively, I realize later, in the painting or the text or whatever, that I have transformed one of these aspects that I researched beforehand.
As I mentioned earlier, it's truly intriguing how you explore diverse facets of artistic research. Since your artistic expression spans from performance to installation, to visual art, I’d like to ask you, how do you experience performing, and what drives your instinct to engage in it?
Also here, a reference to how therapy goes can be drawn. For me, technical research, psycho-education, and analysis have been the most regulating approaches. To understand the psyche means for me to understand myself. But certain topics or especially certain memories cannot be approached directly, not really technically or analyzing. Especially in trauma work, you need more abstract techniques. And sometimes you just need to feel and transform that, to scream, run, throw yourself into the sea, dig yourself into the earth.
So when I process experiences or topics that are related to traumatic experiences, I do use performance for this, when I really need the existence of myself, of my body and being.
Afterward, I sometimes think it takes a lot of courage. Especially as I wouldn’t say I am a performer of character, or because I like this way of expression particularly. I don’t do performances until I feel the need to. But when a subject calls for this particular transformation, I have an irresistible urge to engage in it. That’s why I won’t think about shame, vulnerability, fear of the stage, outing myself, or even retraumatization or breaking down on the stage, before I perform. I just need to do it then. I am relieved from whatever it was.
Emotional performances can be incredibly powerful. In a short span of time, they can touch the deepest chords of our being and convey a message or story in a deep engaging way. But this is especially true for the performers.
So how do you feel during, after, and before performing?
I will explain with an example.
There was this time when I was re-reading my old diaries, that were about experiences of violence. I felt like I had to face this situation again, but it would always bring me into retraumatization and I felt quite alone and hurt by it. And then I asked myself: What would happen if I put all of this on stage? What if I frame it in an artistic act, instead of sitting here alone and going through it alone? Could I even get some kind of control back over an ever-retraumatizing situation like this?
And then I just did it.
When you consider it, placing oneself on a stage, fully aware that it's a typical re-traumatization scenario, is rather dangerous. It could have been me up there, reading this diary aloud, potentially experiencing dissociation, re-traumatization, perhaps breaking down in tears, or any number of reactions. My therapist didn’t agree with me doing that.
But I had this need, you know. I really wanted to bring therapy on stage. So I did the performance "Saying No. A process in six Acts."
And this actually turned out to be a very powerful act.
I mean, I had a very intense reaction from my body and my being, it wasn’t comfortable, but I did not retraumatize really. The most interesting thing for me was that it wasn't just me having this therapeutic moment on stage, but the audience was also coming to me, and there were a lot of FLINTA* with such an intense emotional reaction because I had touched on the issues of abuse.
It was a bit strange because I came off stage and I was so free. I felt so strong, I had my moment of transformation, you know, it was kind of like, it sounds weird, but this kind of show feels like an exorcism, kind of like, you know, I'm there and I'm letting it out.
Through the reaction of the audience, I realized then: If my voice, my experiences represent a whole group of people affected by abuse, rape, and violence, then there must be a structural problem.
Anika Krbetschek | "Saying No. A process in six Acts" - Performance
In the end, this was not only self-therapy but therapy for others too, group therapy. And you managed to perfectly touch all the people in the room, creating such a deep connection that you then helped all those people.
It seems to me that the only way to survive for you was to create art, so you didn't really choose to be an artist. It just happened.
So I was wondering, now that you know this, would you have done something else if not for being an artist?
It’s always hard with terms: I don't necessarily need to conform to what is commonly defined as “working as an artist”, because I believe there could be several interpretations of that term, and I might not fit neatly into all of them.
I just need to do what I do, regardless of whether it's labeled as art, therapy, or activism. For instance, if I feel that I could better pursue my conceptual goals through writing, I would become more of an author than a traditional artist, right? In fact, I already engage in various projects, including writing, curating, and art projects that have a strong cultural and educational component. However, all of these projects come from the same source, my artistic heart, and are therefore connected to art. Overpassing labels.
I believe there is a unique potential in art that I don't see in other fields, and I wouldn't want to miss out on that! So, I can't really envision another reality for myself. Besides, as you've pointed out, I became an artist because, in the end, it was art that saved me from my condition. Therefore, sometimes I fear that if, for some reason, I couldn't create art anymore due, for example, to financial constraints or other limitations, I would wonder how I should stay healthy.
I totally feel you, it’s very scary when you figure out what you are passionate about, and how fulfilling it feels, only to face the uncertainty of not being able to pursue it anymore for various reasons. This brings us straight forward to the last question I wanted to explore with you: what are the real challenges of being an artist nowadays, from your point of view?
I often find myself torn between my personal values and how the system operates. I still believe that if there's one sector that can create different realities where you can have independence in your work and life, it might be the art sector. However, despite holding onto this belief, I'm aware that the art system is also influenced by capitalism and patriarchy. I'm strongly guided by principles, and you can imagine it can be a bit challenging to find ways to finance my work. Berlin has an abundance of cultural events and workers, and we often compete for funding while advocating for more inclusivity and creating spaces that go against the grain of the mainstream. In a city like Berlin, you think these things are possible because Berlin is based on culture. However, working on topics considered relevant to society must always interface with something bigger, as this "relevance" depends on the political situation.
I'm a social artist with activist goals, and all my art is non-commercial. My aim is to make everything I do as accessible as possible. I don't have issues inside my artistic practice, my only problem is the cultural-political and systematic situation around it.
Thank you, Anika. It has been really great talking with you about so many things, exploring your journey, and your priorities in your artistic practice, and getting a glimpse of what's going on in your mind.
Anika Krbetschek per "Seduta Artistica" | July 2023 | Berlin