Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert

The rising star of Berlin’s art world is full of surprises

Words By Marc Yates
Photos By JWO photos: Svenja Trierscheid / all others: JWO

Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert is a young artist and photographer already making waves in the Berlin art scene. A student of Universität der Künste, he’s also hard at work promoting his first book Gender as a Spectrum, a collaboration with Siegessäule editor Kaey that was released back in February. The book took more than a year and many air miles to make, and the result is an impressive 300-page collection of portraits and interviews of 80 individuals who defy the gender binary: drag queens, drag kings, trans people and many more.

He’s busier than is really reasonable for a twenty-five year old student, so we’d planned a straightforward catch-up interview with the little time we could get with him. We know Joseph well enough to know that he doesn’t linger on one project for long, so we were excited to find out what had been going on since the book launch.

As we sat down in a busy rooftop restaurant, the sun beginning to set behind us, he casually asked: “Did I tell you I’m opening a gallery?” We had to laugh. With that, the interview took an unexpected turn.

You’re doing what?! Yeah, I’m opening a gallery in September. It’s not built yet, we’re in the planning stage for the stairs, the bar, the gallery space and the office rooms. It’s awesome, really great. We’ve been looking for a long time now and we were so lucky; it’s got five-metre-tall windows to the street – it’s awesome.
It’s called P7, the address is Prenzlauer Allee 7, and it’s gonna be a creative workspace. I want to focus more on publications – magazines and books – and work with different artists and photographers in Berlin. Every time we publish something I want to have an exhibition for the people who are in the publication. It’ll be a gallery but also a space for magazine launch parties, and a space for us to work on a magazine maybe.
It’ll be open in September or October-ish, I’m not quite sure yet. Everything’s in the making but in the last few weeks that’s what I’ve been focusing on.

Are you ready for people to talk about this yet? Like, can we publish this? Yeah sure! Everything is signed, so it’s no secret now. [Laughs]

And there’ll be a magazine to accompany the space too? Yeah, maybe. It’s hard because I have to separate who I’m friends with and whose work I like. What I really don’t want is a magazine full of stuff I think is ok because we just need to fill the pages, you know? When I have a magazine I can tell in five seconds if I think it’s good or not, and like 80% of the magazines I see are just like what the fuck. Of course I don’t have much experience besides that I worked for and shot for magazines, but with the book I did the art direction, and that was good training for me to learn how to handle everything; to work with the printer, the publisher, the graphic designers, translators, editors.

Speaking of the book, how’s the promotion going? It’s good! I’m not really working on it at the moment, my mother is. I don’t have anything to do with the financial stuff because when I have money transferred to my account it’s gone for other art projects. I can’t be trusted [laughs], and of course the bills have to be paid – printing costs and so on.
But it’s going well. It’s selling, but of course I want it to be going even faster. 1000 copies is a lot. You think it’s just 1000 but then you have a THOUSAND of these things standing in your apartment and you’re trying to find places to put them.
The price is really fair, but it’s also not a price many people are willing to pay for a book. It’s a little bit of an investment, which is nice because money is a form of respect in some ways, but it’s still hard to get it to people.

How has the reception to the book been? It’s really good! I haven’t had even one bad review, which is really nice.

That’s great, because you’ve had so much press actually – Interview Magazine, i-D, Out Magazine…we’ve read so many articles about it. Yeah that’s what I’ve been doing in the last few weeks – I don’t have a manager to handle the press. It’s an advantage for me that I worked with all these magazines before, so I have the contacts. They know me and they know my work and they are more willing to publish it when they can say, ‘it’s our photographer and he’s published a book’, you know?
It’s still a lot of work though. Every spare minute I have I’ve been just sending the book around and there’s still a lot of stuff to be published about it. I’m reaching the point where I’ve run through all my contacts and I still have half of the books left, so when we open the gallery it’ll be nice to have a space where people can go to see it.
Actually the next really big thing that’s going on is I’m publishing my next book.

What? A gallery, possibly a magazine, and another book? It’s with a publisher here in Berlin, and they want to print 1000 copies and sell it internationally. It’s going to be a lot thinner than Gender as a Spectrum but a bigger format. It’ll be more like a diary; pictures from years ago, little drawings, stuff I’ve found on the street – very personal. So now I’m working on the aesthetic, we’ll see.

When do you think it’ll be done? We’re aiming to publish it in September.

That’s pretty soon considering everything you’re doing! Actually I should be sitting there at my desk now working on it! I think it’ll be 40 pages, maybe 50, but yeah I really have a lot of work to do. It’s more work than just doing a photo book. I have to do the selections of the pictures and put them in a nice layout, and even though there’s not much text, it’s a real diary. We’ll see how people react! You’re gonna see my dick probably. I always wanted to publish my cock somewhere.

On Grindr everyone is sending dick pics to everyone, but then they won’t let me photograph them naked!

Well we can’t wait to see what you can do with a humble dick pic. It’s on my bucket list. I’m really against this fear of being naked. These days everything is so over-sexualised, but everyone is so scared of being naked, you know? When I work with models – even people who are really trained and have a super fit body – when they’re in their underwear you can tell they’re still uncomfortable, even though they have no reason to be!
I think it’s because on social media everyone judges so quickly. On the other hand on Grindr everyone is sending dick pics to everyone, but then they won’t let me photograph them naked! Like, I’m only about the aesthetics, and then in 50 years you’ll be grateful you have the pictures of you when you were young!

There is this strange double-standard between a fear of being naked in front of a professional’s camera but then sending a dick pic to a total stranger who could distribute it however they want. Strange. Yeah exactly, so getting my dick in print is a bit of a statement, showing people they shouldn’t hide themselves behind an imagined shame.

Speaking of social media, we saw you as Josie Dix on your Instagram recently, are you going to do drag again? [Laughs] I’m no drag queen. Some people are, and some not. There’s more to being a drag queen than putting make up and a wig on. I liked being in the attitude, being sassy – I’m not bad at it actually. It’s fun, but I could never do it with the shoes and the dresses and everything. When I was Josie Dix I was in full face but was wearing regular clothes. Which was also pretty funny, to do this gender-bender thing of being in drag make-up but actually dressed like a guy. I did enjoy it, the attention I got was amazing. But um…she’s…

She’s sleeping. Yeah, she’s sleeping!

Who did your make up? Two of my friends from Vienna who came for a party weekend. I have so many friends who are drag queens but I’m not so close to them that I could go over and ask them to do my make-up, but then I was with them and I asked if they wouldn’t mind. I’ve been thinking about it for so long – I did this book but I’d never done drag! Kind of embarrassing, right?
I did put make up on once but it was so bad – really trashy. I went to Chantal’s House of Shame and I think it was appropriate for that, but not for an actual drag event. Josie Dix was more appropriate, don’t you think?

You looked so much like Adore Delano actually, it was so good. [Laughs] Thanks!

Well shit Joseph, you totally ruined the interview we had planned because you had way more interesting news for us. Now I have the pressure that the gallery has to open on time, and the book! I’m still talking with the publisher about the contract, I’ll keep you posted.

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