The Most Beautiful Workplace on Earth

A conversation between Irena Haiduk and Dean Kissick

by Dean Kissick

Irena Haiduk is a Serbian artist who wants to change the world in unusual ways. She’s a co-founder of the collectively managed corporation Yugoexport, which promises to make life better for its workers and customers alike. She’s also, slowly, scene by scene, room by room, over the course of many exhibitions, filming an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s dark, twisted fantasy novel The Master and Margarita (1966). She teaches at Barnard College in New York City and has her own cabaret troupe, Cabaret Économique. Most recently she opened an exhibition at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) about the Frauenbank Berlin, a credit institution for women founded in 1910, and Yugoexport opened its solo show All Classifications Will Lose Their Grip at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen.

This summer, Irena and Yugoexport together with Urbane Künste Ruhr, will commence building a Healing Complex in the desacralized former church of St. Bonifatius in Gelsenkirchen. In this brutalist 1960s polygonal structure they plan to build a communal oven to start hosting baking competitions – they’re dreaming about building a spa as well – and to ask the local community what they’d really like to have there.

I met Irena at a Szechuan restaurant in New York City to eat spicy tripe and hear how art might help us improve our world.

You started thinking about this Healing Complex in 2018.

Yes. Britta Peters [artistic director of Urbane Künste Ruhr] contacted me in 2018 and asked me to be part of this public works project, which usually involves sculptures or temporary large-scale works. And I have a problem with that in general because I don’t want things to be thrown away or not used anymore, because I’ve witnessed a lot of parts of things that I made just become trash after the exhibition. I told her that I’m not interested in making a public sculpture, I’m interested in something that will stay as long as it can, a longer period of time, not just a year. At the time I was in Athens and researching this idea of the Ancient Greek healing complex: I found out that the nosokomeío, the hospital, was in the same place as the theatre and the same place as the spa. A very important aspect of this complex was togetherness, having a large amount of people experiencing something together; and in classical theatre there was often this moment of poiesis, of experiencing tragic terror or comedic laughter together.

Anyhow, Britta liked the idea a lot and started researching possible sites with her team, some of which I came to see myself. After a while she called me and said there was a good opportunity to establish the project in Gelsenkirchen, which has a long history of migration. The whole Ruhr area is a former mining region and a lot of people moved there for work. So I thought, maybe we should create a place where we can bring together these cultures from Syria, Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany, and see what they have in common when it comes to day-to-day life. One of the things we found out was that all the cultures had a public baking culture. In Germany and North Africa and the Middle East there’s a culture of communal ovens, where an oven is always running and you can bring your stuff just to bake it there; “Backstuben”, they were called in German. So we’re going to build a communal oven, and this summer we’re going to bring people in through a series of baking contests and baking shows. When I’m there I’m going to make real Neapolitan pizza and sourdough or rye.

Saunas are also found throughout all the regions and faiths. So I had an idea to create an oven that will power a baking enterprise on one side, and the excess heat will be funnelled off and will power the sauna. This place will have a very robust economy. Part of it will be the economy of bread: bread was the basis of the first currency, so the first coins were worth one loaf of bread. We want to have an economy within this place that is not going to be connected to money. So people will be able to donate work or other services to use the sauna or get baked goods and food. But also I’ll have an economy of frottage [artworks made by taking rubbings], so they’ll be able to rub notes that are valid in the sauna ad hoc, to rub their own money and create a currency.

Tell me about the baking contests. Will they be competitive?

Yes. Competitive. There’s a huge baking community in Germany. Amateur baking is, I think, a point of pride in every culture. There’ll be awards, but the point is to have a monthly contest with the oven, and for people to get to know each other. The judging is beside the point. It’s to bring people to the place, to ask them if they would use a place like this. We’ll have an exhibition period of several months this summer, during which we’ll figure out if there’s a need for this sort of place in the area and how it could be realised. Later, if we determine that there is, we will build it.

I think coronavirus has severed connections of a certain kind and this is a great opportunity to tie those things back together in a different way. There could be a real use for a place to rest, to make and hopefully to think of healing as a practice and a right, really. I guess I’m also thinking about myself, and what I wish upon myself, I wish upon others.

What do you wish upon yourself?

I wish for myself to have the most beautiful workplace on Earth, where everything that one does inspires more work of that kind, and also togetherness and a right to poetry. In the end, what we want to build is a best-practice model of a place that doesn’t waste energy, that we’ll insulate with soil, and we’ll collect rainwater, we’ll use solar power for the ovens, we’ll heat it with geothermal energy. I want to show that it’s possible and I think governments should subsidise these types of places. Not to cause any guilt for anyone; I just think this is the way it should be.

This should be a good way to test how one can seduce people away from money and away from accumulating wealth. There’s an idea of common use: I think everything should be a library. I’ve been talking to my students about it. It would be great if we could all have a library of apartments, and a library of clothing, and a library of everything. So this is a good place to see what art can do, because the frame of art allows for many other things. One is allowed to have a bakery without really being a baker. The fact that there can be anything can really open doors, and I’m interested in what will happen here.

What’s your dream outcome?

To make a self-sustaining, both ecologically and economically, common space. I’ve never learned from someone telling me something; I always have to be shown that it’s possible. So the best case… I mean, the world is at stake right now. And people have to be seduced into wanting to live differently and to value things differently; this is a test to see if art can be of use in that process.

Dean Kissick is an editor at Spike Magazine, New York. In his monthly column, he examines the culture of a collapsing society.

He was born in Germany and brought up in the Oxfordshire countryside, before moving to London at 18 to study at the Courtauld and the Royal College.

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