Behind Closed Curtains
‘Berlin Offstage’ is the photographic project documenting the stories of local performance artists
Some of the most vibrant characters, colorful stories, and subversive performances in Berlin have been silenced during the past year. In response to the lockdown, photographer and former performance artist Aja Jacques made it her job to tell the stories of the artists who lost their platform.
It’s no secret that over the course of the last year the cultural sector has been hit hard. Not only have bars, venues, and clubs closed, but artists, musicians, and performers have lost both physical performance spaces and their creative outlets. The full cultural, financial, and emotional impact is yet to be seen, but Aja has found a way to document the characters and stories from some of the performance artists who were hit hardest.
Berlin Offstage is an online platform that showcases the on- and offstage personas of 13 performance artists who were involved in the immersive art exhibition, Overmorrow, held at Wilde Renate during the summer and early fall of 2020. Aja photographed and interviewed the artists in their homes, both in everyday clothing and in-character. She documented the personalities, transformations, stories, and individual struggles of everyone she visited, ensuring that the cultural community built around the exhibition wasn’t lost.
Part of the inspiration for Berlin Offstage comes from Aja’s direct involvement with the community she documented. Formerly from Vancouver, Canada, Aja has been living in Berlin for five years. Although she has switched her focus to photography in 2019, she used to be a performance artist herself.
Aja’s background in performance began in Berlin with Bad Bruises, one of the main organisers of Overmorrow. Much like the artists photographed in Berlin Offstage, her style of performance is hard to pin down. When describing her on-stage experience, she says, “I would perform mostly at night clubs or parties. I never got good at explaining what I did, but my performances were mostly dance-based with elements of burlesque. I would also use a lot of elements to bring in emotion, fear, and grotesqueness.” Like many other artists, the Berlin stage gave Aja an outlet for experimentation and creativity. Her own style was defined by traversing boundaries between performance genres, and her act was aimed at eliciting complex reactions from both herself and the audience.
One of the most distinctive sides of the performance art community in Berlin is that it allows artists to actively experiment while expressing their individual personalities and styles. Onstage, Aja was able to combine different elements into her performance in subversive or even surprising ways. “My goal was always to turn the audience on but also make them uncomfortable. So I would use fake blood or I did fire-eating as well, so different props to bring in that.” Before COVID-19, many of the venues in Berlin provided this kind of platform for new forms of expression and experimentation.
I didn’t want all of the performers to be forgotten about during lockdown.
On the Same Stage
Berlin Offstage is, in one sense, a way to tell individual stories. But it also tells another story – one about the community and venues that have been struck by the pandemic. Overmorrow, for example, was the result of a combined effort of many of Berlin’s culturally important groups. The event series was co-organized by Billie Rae of Bad Bruises, Trash Era, and Wilde Renate, and it also featured other local collectives like Berlin Strippers Collective and Venus Boys. The exhibition employed 70 Berlin-based performance artists and provided a stage and a community to over 100 individuals. The financial support it provided was, of course, significant, but perhaps less talked about is the emotional support and creative outlet it provided to both performers and audience members.
Aja herself was positively affected by the exhibition and the community feeling it brought. Despite having ended her career as a performance artist in 2019, she remembers, “I did come out of my retirement at one point this summer to perform at Overmorrow.” For Aja and other artists, the exhibition was more than just a way to provide for themselves – it was a glimpse of normality and a safe space to re-form the community that they had been missing. “And over the summer when Overmorrow happened, even though I wasn’t working there I would go over there a lot to be around people that I knew and to have some sense of community during this really difficult time.”
This community feeling being taken away was one of the main motivating factors for Aja to start her work on Berlin Offstage. She wanted to ensure that there was still support for the performance artists during the lockdown, and that their stories were heard. “When Overmorrow was shut down in the last weekend of October, that’s when I got the inspiration to do this project. Because I didn’t want all of the performers to be forgotten about during lockdown.” And so Aja used the tools she had been developing as a photographer over the past few years to start capturing the stories that would have otherwise been lost.
I was really surprised and thankful about how open and vulnerable the artists were willing to be with me.
Although the idea was born out of a difficult situation, the aim of the project is not to focus entirely on the negative side of the story. Hardship and struggle is necessarily part of the narrative, but strength in the face of adversity is also an important facet. Aja says, “I just really wanted to show performers’ stories and uplift their voices.” Giving performers a new, digital stage for both their on-stage characters and their everyday personas is Aja’s way to make sure that the community isn’t left behind. “That’s what I was scared of. Because we were all going to go into lockdown and everyone is struggling and the news isn’t really paying attention to out of work performance artists.”
The project itself gives an intimate glimpse into the day-to-day lives of performance artists in Berlin, regardless of the current cultural climate. Her photos capture the transformations each artist goes through when getting in costume and into character, and the message is an uplifting one that speaks to the strength of the individuals involved. Her project has been able to document the struggles, financial and emotional, that performers are dealing with daily, to light in an intimate, visually striking way.
In order to get a real sense of what each performer’s experience and personality were like, Aja traveled to each person’s apartment and conducted the interview and photoshoot there. Although she had a general idea of what she wanted to capture, she also left a lot of room for the project to take on a shape of its own.
I just really wanted to show performers’ stories and uplift their voices.
For each photoshoot, Aja made sure she had a certain number of shots of artists both in and out of character. “I would always go in knowing that I need a certain amount of tight shots of them looking normal, or out of character, and a certain amount of them in character, but aside from that loose guideline I didn’t have super specific plans.” Shooting the performers in their own space was also an important element that added variety to each shoot. “With most of the artists I had never seen their apartments until I arrived on the day, and I never brought any lights with me. I was always only using the available light, so it was really about being spontaneous on the day and working with what was there and what they wanted to work with.”
That flexibility allowed Aja to capture the strong personalities and voices of the performers she was shooting. “I think all of the performers made it really easy for me to take photos of them. I didn’t struggle with that with any of them. Once they transformed into their characters it was such a beautiful thing and it was a really easy thing for me to capture, because they all have such vibrant personalities.” Seeing the contrast between the day-to-day images of performers and their in-character personas also adds an important intimacy to the project, highlighted even more through the interviews that Aja included.
Although she had a focused vision and list of standard interview questions to ask, Aja found that the interviews provided a space for the artists to really open up and deeply explain their experience. “I really enjoyed the interview process and I was really surprised and thankful about how open and vulnerable the artists were willing to be with me. Some of them I had never met before – they were strangers before that day. But during the interview they really opened up.” Through the interview process, Aja was able to give performers another important platform to be heard and to show an audience who they are both on- and offstage. Even further than that, the interview process allowed Aja to blur the boundary between on and offstage, capturing offstage moments during a time when onstage personas aren’t immediately performed or accessible.
Berlin Offstage has also managed to document important elements of the collective experience of the performance art community in Berlin. Aja found that one of the main trends was, predictably, economic difficulties. “Of course there was the trend of artists struggling financially – most of them are right now, and a lot of them are not eligible for benefits, and there’s almost no government help, especially for foreign artists.” One of the main stress factors in not being able to perform is also being left without an income, which is especially difficult during a time when the future of both nightlife and the economy are uncertain.
Financial difficulties can absolutely have a huge impact on mental health, but Aja also uncovered another important emotional element to the performers’ stories. “A lot of them are having a really hard time not having the outlet of performing, because for a lot of them performing is a creative outlet. It’s also an emotional outlet that a lot of them use to process difficult things in their lives. And the community surrounding performing also helps them a lot, so having that taken away makes things a lot harder.” Being left in a state of uncertainty is one thing, but many of the performers are left in a position where their normal coping mechanisms and support systems are also not available to them.
One of the main focuses of Berlin Offstage was to start an active discussion about what’s happening in the cultural sphere. When asked if the discussion ends with performance artists’ stories being told, Aja doesn’t think so. “I don’t want the discussion to be finished when the lockdown ends, because even when this harsh lockdown ends, performance artists still won’t be able to do their jobs for a very long time. The venues that they perform at are going to be the last things to come back, so they’re going to be facing these issues for possibly another year. So I think it’s really important to keep this discussion going for as long as they’re still struggling with that.” Even though this project gives a glimpse into the difficulties many individuals are experiencing here in Berlin, the struggle doesn’t end as normal life begins to return. The effects will inevitably last longer, not only because these spaces will be the last to re-open, but because the security of cultural institutions have been shaken to their core.
Importantly, the project is able to highlight not only what artists are missing due to the pandemic, but also what Berlin as a city is missing. Aja hopes that the stories she has been able to tell will also remind people of how important performance artists are. “I hope that people don’t forget about it once they have a little bit of their normal lives back. And even when artists are able to return fully in the capacity that they were before, I hope that people are more appreciative of what they bring and the role they play in Berlin’s culture.”
Aja hopes that in the future her project will form the basis of an exhibition or book, but as it stands Berlin Offstage provides an important catalyst to start a wider discussion on cultural institutions here in Berlin. Although Aja doesn’t have explicit plans to expand at this moment in time, the discussion she has contributed will hopefully stay present and allow for more acknowledgement of the contributions that performance artists make to the culture here in Berlin.