Venus on the Streets

Recently, messages of women* speaking out have been popping up all over the city. If you happen to come across multicoloured paste-ups showing women’s portraits and a quote, then the feminist Stadtpirat!n-Kollektiv may be active in your neighbourhood, too. I met with one of them to find out more about their work. 

My walk with Aika starts at the corner of Berliner Platz/Ludwigsplatz in Giessen. Traffic roars loudly around the square on three sides and even though we are close to a pedestrian traffic light that changes to green notoriously slowly, people are probably wondering by now why we keep staring at a post box. I’m studying a small picture glued to it, maybe 10×14 cm. Emma Watson’s face is staring back at me, but I have a hard time making out the writing since some layers of paper have already started to peel off. 

It once read “Girls should never be afraid to be smart”, I am told – I’d agree with that. The Stadtpirat!n-Kollektiv plasters empty walls and spaces throughout cities with small collages like that. They usually consist of the picture of a woman*, a portrait Stadtpirat!n draw themselves by using a photograph as a template, and a handwritten quote of the person in question. Both are glued to a colourful background before the ensemble finds its way to walls and other surfaces in the city. For environmental reasons, as well as to be able to remove them, they use a water-based adhesive even though it makes the images less long-lasting.  

Acts of Piracy

First, I am interested in what the Stadtpirat!n-Kollektiv is about. Its appearance in Giessen is a rather new development; it actually originated in a German city a hundred kilometres south-west, Mainz. Quoting from their manifesto, with their first project #voiceofvenus the Stadtpirat!n-Kollektiv wanted to capture empty walls with three goals: to make the city more beautiful and colourful, to make us reflect and to make us smile. They achieve that by giving a voice to remarkable women* of the past and the present, hoping to visualise their ideas and achievements.[1]

Aika: One of our goals is to send a political message. The creative aspect is of course also important to us: the collages are supposed to be appealing, to engage people. Even though we select the quotes, the message itself is not even really ours, we rather understand ourselves as mouthpieces.

Why It Would be Indecent Not to be a Feminist[2]

As we continue our walk down Ludwigstrasse, a street famous for its pubs and bars frequented by students and other city inhabitants alike, we encounter some more pictures and hear the voices of others, among them women* as diverse as Katherine Hepburn, Fiva, Margarete Stokowski, Sookee, and Hannah Arendt. Their very first paste-ups comprised pictures and quotes of Frida Kahlo, Astrid Lindgren, Carolin Emcke, and Gianna Nannini. 

I’m a bit surprised by the last one, an Italian singer, probably not that well known in Germany, at least not among younger generations. She stands for the struggle and courage that is still needed for women* to make life decisions, especially when it comes to family planning, which diverge from mainstream concepts: Nannini announced her pregnancy in 2010 at the age of 56, earning a lot of criticism for her decision to become a mother this late in life. A criticism that was not silenced by her publicly addressing the issue of previous miscarriages and her desire to have children. Nannini gave birth to her daughter Penelope later in the same year.[3] So maybe seeing her unfamiliar face here, close to one of the high schools of the city, might inspire young people to read up on her and her story.

rw: How do you decide which women* to put on your paste-ups? 

Aika: When we started, we did some brainstorming: which women* can we spontaneously think of that deserve to be heard – of course everyone deserves to be heard –, women we personally find interesting? Their quotations don’t even necessarily have to be critical; their purpose often simply is to cheer you up, encourage or elate you. Of course, we also choose on the basis of our own interest and sympathies, to some extent, we are all caught in our own bubbles. Currently there are no people with a background in science in our group, for example, therefore we don’t spontaneously think of women* in science who have been inspiring, even though it is obvious that they exist. However, we try to reflect on questions of diversity and intersectionality. Our project and thus its variety is still rather small, but we are very open to new ideas and suggestions and would thus like to expand more and more.

A few weeks have gone by between our walk through the city and the nightly appearance of the paste-ups. Since then, the women and their voices have started to change or to fade away. Some of them have been damaged heavily in the meantime, either by weather or by attempts to peel them off (Aika laughs and says that they always hope that doesn’t mean someone tries to destroy them, but that people try to take them home).  

Their ephemerality is one feature of the paste-ups that strikes me personally as very intriguing. Especially the way they interact with the city surrounding them, how they wither, shrivel, and are overlaid by other signs and artefacts. We encounter an impressive example of that right in front of the university’s main building where a laminated sign tells us to follow the Covid-rules of physical distancing, not to consume alcohol on the premises, and so on. Half-concealed under this appears the face of Sophie Scholl together with a famous quotation that was recorded during one of the interrogations she had to endure before being executed for her resistance to the fascist regime: “Law changes. The conscience doesn’t.”[4] That still rings frighteningly true in the face of not only one, but several global and humanitarian crises the world is facing. 

Covid – of course

Next we stop in front of the ‚Späti‘ in Ludwigstrasse, an institution of central importance to German cities: a kiosk that is open and selling beer until late at night. The picture glued to a street light here has found its way into the Corona-Archiv, an initiative by German historians that seeks to archive impressions of our everyday lives during Corona by collecting photographs and other documents.[5] It seems we can’t really escape the topic of the Covid-19-pandemic these days, so I give in. 

rw: What was the impact of the Covid-19-pandemic on your project? 

Aika: We put up these pictures in May, some of their messages have therefore been chosen in the corona-mood and give a statement that can be read as pertaining to the current situation. 

The quote in question is by Rosa Luxemburg and reads: “That’s life and that’s how one must take it: courageously, intrepidly and smilingly – in spite of all.”[6] That works very well as a message to give hope and courage, I find. Knowing that Rosa Luxemburg wrote these words while in prison gives things some perspective for me. Then, a little later, we come across another message that – if not directly corona-induced – seems to be very fitting, at least. It’s a portrait of Mascha Kaleko reading: “Tear up your plans. Be wise and stick to miracles.”[7]

rw: Do you think the pandemic and especially the lockdown changed the way people interacted with your art and urban art in general?

Aika: It’s hard to say if more or less people notice something like that on the streets. We have discussed how to handle the lockdown and that we maybe need more street art in times when life is mainly happening outside. A new project was also going to happen during the main phase of the lockdown. In cooperation with Katholische Erwachsenenbildung Rheinland-Pfalz (KEB)[8] we had planned to distribute self-made postcards and posters with feminist messages in cafés, but we’ve decided to postpone that: we didn’t want to send the wrong message, highlighting all that is not possible at the moment on the walls of closed cafés or motivate people to leave the house when we all are asked to practice physical distancing. 

Closing the Circle: The Literate Passer-By

We continue to pass by some of the Stadtpirat!n’s works in the neighbouring streets, then circle around to head in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, Aika tells me stories about other street art projects in Giessen we encounter close to the paste-ups and how she herself has learned more about it during her nightly wanderings. In front of my inner eye new routes through the city unfold, following colours, murals, and tags I am barely able to read (if at all). I must agree when Aika says that for some types of street art one needs a certain kind of literacy to decipher them. The handwritten messages of their paste-ups, however, are supposed to be easy to read and as barrier-free as possible.

But I notice there is also another way of reading them: by holding the camera of my phone in front of the QR-code that is printed on them. It leads to the Instagram profile of the collective and me to a question I have been pondering before. How does street art – especially one like this, not made to last for more than a few weeks – go together with its reduplication in digital media and the seemingly endless memory of the world wide web? 

Aika: Reactions to our pictures on Instagram make it possible for us to see that we really reach people. That’s great since it’s what we were actually hoping for. Plus, our messages become more durable while the actual paste-ups aren’t made for eternity. This way, we can give contexts and additional information or connect the quotations with recent events. Via Instagram there is also a possibility to contact us and propose co-operations which in the past has led to great encounters with people we would have never expected.

rw: You have already mentioned your cooperation with the KEB. Were there others?  

Aika: There are more and more enquiries of other artists to design new material together. In the past, we created postcards for Pro Familia Rheinland-Pfalz[9] on the occasion of the safe abortion day, themed “my body, my choice” and “trust women,” and showed some of our work in the context of the Feminist Comic Festival in Mainz.[10] Most recently we have been approached by the lovely people at the meeting centre Walltor3 offering to be a venue for an exhibition of our work early next year – so watch this space![11]

We are closing in on Berliner Platz again, the square at the edge of Giessen’s centre and its most important junction for bus traffic. When I remark that they don’t seem to shy away from bringing their art from the streets into more institutionalised contexts, Aika laughs:

Aika: It’s not like any of us has deep roots in the very diverse and complex scene of street art. It’s not about claiming street credibility, even though we would always like to think we have a bit of that, too, of course. But mostly, we have a pragmatic take on things. It’s a nice pastime for us: we mainly use material we’ve anyway got at home, like upcycling scratch paper or scraps of old wallpaper – and that’s all there is! 

Our walk ends where it began, surrounded by new streams of people crossing streets, entering the surrounding buildings, leaving in different directions. I wonder how many of them notice the cautious smile of Astrid Lindgren between the book shop and the jewellery store and if anyone maybe even hears her voice: “The world needs more robber’s daughters and fewer princesses.”[12]

(c) Stadtpirat!n
(as all slideshow pictures above)

[1]  https://www.instagram.com/p/B6VdJ9ooHVT/?igshid=4fgmkc5zf8fj and https://stadtpiratinkollektiv.wordpress.com

[2] The first line of the German rapper Sookee’s song Frauen mit Sternchen („Ich fänd‘s unanständig kein*e Feminist*in zu sein“).

[3] https://corrierefiorentino.corriere.it/firenze/notizie/spettacoli/2010/26-novembre-2010/-nata-penelope-figlia-gianna-1804251867872.shtml

[4] „Das Gesetz ändert sich, das Gewissen nicht.“ (Translation taken from: https://www.en.uni-muenchen.de/news/newsarchiv/2018/weisse_rose.html)

[5] https://coronarchiv.geschichte.uni-hamburg.de/projector/s/coronarchiv/item/4375

[6] „So ist das Leben und so muss man es nehmen, tapfer, unverzagt und lächelnd – trotz alledem“, Rosa Luxemburg in a letter to Sonja Liebknecht in 1917, translation S. Bronner (ed.), The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (New Brunswick, New Jersey, Humanities Press, 1993, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/luxemburg.html).

[7] „Zerreiß deine Pläne. Sei klug und halte dich an Wunder.“ Translation by Hildrud Enders (https://miksang-fotografie.de/en/rezept-von-mascha-kaleko/).

[8] https://poesiepaedagogik.jimdofree.com/projekt-blog/

[9] https://www.profamilia.de/angebote-vor-ort/rheinland-pfalz/landesverband-rheinland-pfalz.html

#safeabortionday 2020: https://www.instagram.com/p/CFzA13TJeue/

[10] https://www.instagram.com/p/B5z9LXTIptF/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

[11] https://www.facebook.com/stadtmitplan/

[12] „Die Welt braucht mehr Räubertöchter und weniger Prinzessinnen.“

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