INTERVIEW WITH PETER KALVELAGE
I was introduced to Peter Kalvelage by Dagmar Woyde-Koehler. She told me that he was interested in making a film about the MINDKISS project and that his work was closely related to the WE idea. So I immediately agreed to do this interview. Peter is an anthropologist by training and he thinks a lot about how society works, what the glue connecting people is made of, and what kind of rhetorical devices they use. For him, in short, anthropology is a WE science; it focuses crucially on the relationship of the I and the WE, a universal and existential polarity.
What is your perspective on the concept of WE as an anthropologist?
PETER KALVELAGE: In any culture there’s always a juxtaposition of I and WE, and there’s always a contradiction and a tension between the interests of I, the individual, and WE, the group – not tension between me – as a person – and the group, but between the cultural concept of an I and a WE. Social rules and habits and culture in general are the media through which this existential contradiction and tension is evened out.
What is your understanding of WE? Are there various WE’s or is there just one specific WE?
PETER KALVELAGE: There is not one specific WE; after all, we all hope there’s something behind the word WE, a definite meaning or something we can hold on to. WE is a small grammatical entity, it’s purely and simply a phoneme. But what does it evocate and what does it mean? What does it mean to put the WE into being, to live it?
It depends on how we look – what perspectives we take. As an individual I always want to be part of a WE. I want to be part of a WE and sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not. And that can either hurt – because I’m excluded from a certain group – or it can be a very pleasant state of being, gratifying and socially satisfying.
So it’s kind of fluid?
PETER KALVELAGE: Yes, of course it’s fluid, we always have to move from I to WE and somehow balance this.
How is your work related to this idea of WE?
PETER KALVELAGE: Well, one thematic objective is to work on something I call the ‘art of cooperation’. This takes place in companies, in organizations, inner city neighborhoods or even in small teams in schools and universities. It’s a universal issue. I’m trying to focus on topics that consider and explore what cooperation means.
PETER KALVELAGE: Cooperation, Collaboration, Co-creativeness is something which might seem natural and self-evident but as we can see in organizations, and especially in very hierarchical big organizations, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. WE is something we pay lip service to – something we know is important even while we work against it.
In my filmwork I try to explore how highly efficient groups (like sailing crews or orchestras) work together. And this may serve as a blueprint for the viewer to get a better understanding of the inner mechanics of cooperation and hand-in-hand processes.
When does a WE work, when does it flow?
PETER KALVELAGE: One prerequisite is that the group or team members must have an experience of how it feels when it doesn’t work due to a lack of communication flow. Then they can become very aware and develop techniques to make things work, techniques which lie mainly in the intuitive realm. A good team performs according to the ability of its members to “walk in the same mental landscape”, to anticipate all eventualities and cooperatively react to them. You trust those who give you clear signs of their awareness of the situation. Leadership is not obsolete, but the question is then who is leading? If it’s the WE, then there surely is flow. This is something that can be learnt but you have to internalize it. It has to become part of the personality. Of course it’s much easier if a person has a WE-character by nature.
So it’s more like a value set?
PETER KALVELAGE: Yes, it’s a value set but from the value set you develop a certain responsiveness to your social environment, a certain awareness or respect. It’s a big word ‘respect’ everybody uses it – excessively so. But in fact, yes, it’s a question of attitude and then it’s a question of the chemistry of the team or the chemistry of the group, and the will to develop that chemistry. If you have a community or group-based job and you do it well as a team, then everybody sees that this chemistry happens in the moment, in the here and now. And it reminds us of what life is actually about – about being and doing things, bringing things to a successful outcome, but also enjoying the process and having fun doing work.
Would you consider that it takes a pretty strong ME to do a great job on the WE?
PETER KALVELAGE: Yes, you have to be determined to do it. It takes a strong ME and that’s always relative to the WE. It’s interdependent, but how do I know how strong my ME is? And where does the particular strength of my own ME lie? I have to be a listener – to both the inside and the outside.Generally, we have this mindset: “ME against the world. I have to trespass and trespassing is difficult: the OTHER is keeping me away from the well, from the water hole, so the OTHER is an enemy.” Which of course, you know, is true sometimes.
Why are you interested in the MINDKISS Project? Why did you get involved?
PETER KALVELAGE: MINDKISS is a very interesting undertaking. There’s a definite communication that Dagmar Woyde-Koehler is trying to establish – a very unplanned and unorganized and deep communication – with the work of OUBEY.
So, by presenting a certain painting of OUBEY to somebody who has never seen it before, it provokes, it evokes something. And what it provokes is a very direct and deep reflection of the one who sees the picture, who encounters it. It tears open a curtain to a very specific view guided by the life-theme or profession of this person. A continuation of OUBEYs exploration of the universe. is This a we thing?
For me it is, of course, it’s a WE thing. But as a filmmaker – if you can now think as a filmmaker – why are youinterested in this MINDKISS Project?
PETER KALVELAGE: I think there’s a deep story in handling the cognitive and the artistic – the creative heritage of somebody like OUBEY. OUBEY had a very strong interest in understanding the world through his art. So it’s also a way of exploring OUBEY. Making a film is exploring in all these different directions, exploring what his questions were and making the relevance of his questions visible.
And then bringing in his voice and witnessing the communication between him and some- body else who has something to say about the world, someone who is also very curious, who has also chosen his topic. And in this way, it opens up new perspectives. So, in following the voyages of OUBEY, something which is very virtual becomes very real. That’s a challenge, but it’s always a challenge for a filmmaker to step into the unknown because you never know beforehand if it’s really going to work.
If what is really going to work?
PETER KALVELAGE: If it’s going to make a really strong story. If the story is evocative and generates energy – because it should generate a certain kind of emotional energy. If someone who encounters this art is moved and provoked to respond and react, he is motivated to share something of himself or herself. So, all of a sudden, different realms – the ‘I’ of OUBEY and the ‘WE’ of the communication – come together, merge, and something new is established or happens. Putting all this together – the various stories of the various people encountering OUBEY and his work – is a story in itself. It’s a story about the unknown. Of exposing oneself to the unexpected and trusting it will make sense. And it’s a story about curiosity, about the wish to see into the heart of things, the same desire that motivated Goethe’s Faust: “That I may detect the inmost force / Which binds the world, and guides its course …”
I think OUBEY had a polymath’s perspective. I have this idea that he was transdisciplinary in the sense that he couldn’t accept the mainstream perception of art as production of values for well-heeled collectors. He wanted to know, and for him his paintings may have been like stepping stones crossing and exploring the immensity of life! “M'illumino / d'immenso” Ungaretti said in his shortest poem. With such an attitude art is science and science is art. MINDKISS in this sense has very many facets that I'm interested in.
What is art for you? I mean you’ve just said that art is science and science is art, but what is art for you?
PETER KALVELAGE: Oh, there are many answers to that question and I have only a few!
I think a work of art is like a membrane. The very specific experience of the artist and his expression is set free. And then there’s me as the recipient or the viewer or the listener or the essential counterpart. It’s like a door opening onto the heart of the artist. And it’s also like a door into the heart of darkness. To a certain extent, it’s always dark inside the other.
Would you consider filmmaking as an art form?
PETER KALVELAGE: Yes, in a certain way I consider filmmaking as an art form. Well, I consider it as a form of art as well as a form of craft, more a craft but also an art. And if you go back to the septem artes liberales, the liberal arts as the old perception of arts, the disciplines that permeate the world and shape our perceptions of it, then film involves some of these arts. It’s grammar, it’s rhetoric, music and dialectics. It’s story-telling on many levels. A visual song actually.
A film has to have a certain order which is reflected in our inner being – the viewers also have a certain order in themselves to categorize the world and understand it. So the discourse of the film, the story or the rhetoric, should match with the internal cognitive order of the viewer, with his mindset. And vice versa. Film is an ambiguous and multi-dimensional medium. It combines many channels of communication. A big part of film reaches us on an emotional level, pictures, music and the fine organization of time evoke feelings, but even so, what makes a “good” film is that WE feel the logic and truth in it.
That’s why we all like certain film classics. That’s why we like Chaplin for instance, that delver into the human psyche or soul. He’s so archetypal and he touches so many patterns, we can’t really withdraw from that. We’re drawn in.
So, what you are describing and actually saying is that art somehow needs a WE? Is there art without a WE or can there be art without a WE?
PETER KALVELAGE: Yes, of course. Of course.
Artists have a feeling they have to express. You can’t think it without a WE but it’s mainly their own drive and their existential battle with the exterior and the interior – the reflections of the interior and the exterior – which makes them produce art, in my understanding at least. Many other theories are possible. But something drives them to do so.
The inside of course is a reflection of the outer world, and art is a way of reorganizing these two aspects. But then what makes art valuable is that it touches the world from a completely outward and different and non-rational perspective. And it touches us, it surprises us, it makes us play, it leaves us with the freedom to play and to look at things from a completely different angle, one that was unknown to us a minute before. And then, of course, there must be certain structures in everybody which makes art a universal language. Why is it that our prehistoric pictures and cave paintings are so touching? Because there's something deep inside most of us that communicates with them.
So, in this sense art is of course a WE thing, a WE thinking, a WE business, a WE matter. Like for example, what we started with – this existential contradiction between the I and the WE.
The existential contradiction, yes.
PETER KALVELAGE: The existential contradiction which we all have to deal with. There’s a fascinating short story by Albert Camus: “The Artist at Work” about the painter Jonas who, caught in the straightjacket of his rising reputation, withdraws more and more from his admirers, friends, family and society in general until he finally retreats to a little dark cabin high under the ceiling in his atelier where people come to look at his art or visit him and he’s not interested. He ends up with a blank white canvas with only one word on it, a word so blurred that it can be read either as “solitary” or “solidary”. SOLIDAIRE – SOLITAIRE. The whole conflict is contained in the nutshell of these two words.
I think that OUBEY must have found himself trapped in the Jonas dilemma to a certain extent.
If you look back at the work you have done, the films you have made, in terms of this understanding of WE, what was the most challenging job you ever did and why?
PETER KALVELAGE: One of the really challenging ones was doing the first program on team work because I was convinced that this was a very relevant issue. A very relevant issue in terms of societal change and the change of paradigms, one that people should be interested in. And then when it was already accepted, some high-level TV people said, “We don’t want this soft-skills stuff. We’re cancelling the commission.” I had to decide then – do I want to do it or not and if I want to do it I have to fight for it. Which I did. It worked out and it so happened that many other things developed from this point. But I don’t know if this is what I would call the most challenging job. There’s always the challenge of following your ideas and then getting things done as a group.
Do you see any kind of paradigm shift nowadays in society?
Successful action, production, communication and giving space to this part of ourselves which throughout evolution has been tuned in to help others. Man is a WE-Animal, as the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello put it. I agree with him. I think we are much more cooperative by nature as human beings than people probably realize. To be aware of that, of course, also gives space to greater satisfaction, to a better flow, to better relationships between colleagues, and it makes things much faster, much easier.
Why do you think this is emerging right now? Do you have any ideas on this?
PETER KALVELAGE: I’d say that we have now come to a point where so much information is available on the right way and the wrong way to run things. Over the past decade we’ve had a few major breaks that produced a very natural and hopefully salutary fear. Things need time and patience and a certain kind of conviction that the very limited influence each of us has on existing economic structures can have an impact. Private and professional networks are merging, new approaches are popping up everywhere and they are communicated: we hear about them, we see them, we may even be part of them. It’s a huge testing field. And we have access to all this knowledge.
So the Internet has something to do with it?
PETER KALVELAGE: Of course, it’s spreading the virus in the good and the bad sense.
It’s a question of how we digest this knowledge. WE are digesting it, it’s a fermentation process, like with bacteria.
Interview by Ulrike Reinhard
Peter Kalvelage studied anthropology and philosophy at the Universities of Göttingen and Mainz. After teaching visual anthropology at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Mainz University, since 1992 he has worked as a freelance filmmaker, author and producer.
His work ranges from documentaries for public service television in the fields of culture and science to communications for industry and scientific research institutes, and has also included the conception and realization of various major exhibitions.
His special interest in processes of change and innovation in organizational and regional development has led him over the past seven years to be part of a think tank for a company in the Ruhr district. As a filmmaker he has also participated in an ongoing project on cooperation strategies in a city district of Detroit. One recent project was a scientific program for the German ZDF channel on High Performance Teams.
Peter Kalvelage is also an associate lecturer in media theory at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences.