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Studio Abroad 2015: Berlin

By Dyana Wing So.

Back in high school, the thought of going abroad in college was such a dream. Like most kids, I dreamed about seeing Europe, but my romanticization was furthered by my parents’ romance. They toured the continent for their honeymoon, and it was the first time they were abroad together—two young lovebirds with a camera to mark all the places they saw.

By the time the Fine Arts Department offered their fourth consecutive Studio Abroad course, I had already done some traveling on my own. I had achieved my “dream,” so to speak, and though I came back from Berlin, Prague, and Tel Aviv full of awe and refreshing viewpoints, I could not shake off the shadow of romanticism. Physically I was in the foreign places I saw in my parents’ photo albums, but it is one thing to go abroad and take back photos to remember the trip by, and another to go abroad to make art through photography.

As a rising senior in Visual Studies, questions about the relationship of what we see and what we know have become a kind of framework I reference constantly to navigate the world around me. When the application for the 2015 Studio Abroad class was made available and I learned that the class would go to Berlin, I saw this as an opportunity to truly learn from an applied, embodied experience.

Studio Abroad, or FNAR-515, is offered every two years to about fifteen students during the spring semester. Applications are open to anyone eligible and available to take the semester-long course and to participate in the culminating exhibition at the end of the term. Taught by two faculty members from the Fine Arts Department, Studio Abroad integrates the conception, preparation, process, and production of photographic art practice, with travel and cultural introduction revolving around one carefully selected city.

With past classes having gone to Beijing, Mumbai, and Istanbul, Berlin was a less “exotic” choice for a photography class of American college students making art in a foreign city for two weeks. Berlin, despite its historical nuance and rapid cultural changes, also has many similarities with other major American cities that ultimately made this city a more tangible workspace to transition into and work from. Another factor that helped us ease into our work abroad was all the culture and language learning we did prior to our travels. Our class met once a week for three hours each, and within that span of time, we took a crash course in German with Professor Claudia Lynn, a lecturer from the Department of Germanic Languages and Civilizations; presented independent research on significant aspects of German culture and history; and engaged in group critique of one another’s developing project ideas. On top of all of that, there were optional movie screenings every other week on two major films about Berlin (a personal favorite was the 2003 tragicomedy film, Good Bye, Lenin! directed by Wolfgang Becker).

Brent Wahl and Jamie Diamond were the co-instructors for this year’s course. There was a balanced mix of graduate MFA and undergraduate students, in addition to employees of the university. Though it was favorable and beneficial to have had some formal photography training or education prior to the course, it was not a requirement. If anything, photography was the common ground everyone started from and met at. Everyone ultimately went off on their own unique paths as their journeys progressed.

A walk around our class’s exhibition at the Charles Addams Gallery, or a look through our class catalogue, is telling of just how unique everyone’s ideas and processes actually were. Regardless of the inevitable adaptations and adjustments we all went through, one common objective was clear for everyone: to come back from Berlin with a project to show for our group exhibition. Some came back with photos, while others came back with footage for a film. Some decided not to come back with any of their own photos at all, but with found photos from the flea markets in Berlin (such was the case with Mary Stachofsky’s work).

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The class pursued a myriad of concepts, all in consideration of how each student-artist saw Berlin as their “blank canvas” to work off of. For some, Berlin was an opportunity to explore personal identity. Daria McMeans and Heather Raquel Phillips both meditated on, and expressed their identification with, their partial German ancestry. For others, Berlin became a sampling ground for specific experiences—Mabel Luu explored her faith in this majority-atheist city, while Emily Lipson and Ali Lotz explored the depths of the city’s clubbing scenes. Some felt that Berlin was like any other city in the world to further their artistic inclinations, waiting until inspiration and prolonged interaction with the environment revealed the work that needed to be made to them. For instance, Chiara No’s interest in the abundant and eye-catching band posters she discovered throughout the streets of Berlin ultimately became her central piece at the exhibition: an army duffel stuffed with band posters, standing as an evocative portrait of Berlin’s complex present and past identities.

For me, this trip to Berlin was the first time I had traveled back into a foreign place to learn more outside of the beaten path of tourism. Interested in both its history and the city’s relationship with all the marketed representation made for outsiders, I used Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Alone in Berlin as my map to navigate another realm and time of contemporary Berlin. After I arrived in Berlin, I later learned that the title of this book was actually renamed to be more appealing for the French and English markets. The book’s original name, Jeder stirbt für sich allein, actually translates to Every Man Dies Alone. This discovery encouraged me to reassess my own relationship with the novel, as well as how travelers perceive Berlin by the way it’s been presented to them. After finding out the book’s actual title when I got to Berlin, I decided to travel out to the specific locations mentioned in Fallada’s novel, documenting what I found there as I went. My project let me see a quieter, local side of contemporary Berlin that I did not anticipate. From personal courtyards to weekend farmers’ markets, from neighborhood alleyways to even a synagogue amid elementary schools, boutiques, and homes, I interacted with my camera in a way I had never done before. I was using my camera to learn, to produce pictures I’d investigate more deeply later.

Two weeks, in hindsight, does not seem like a lot of time to pursue ambitious photography projects, but somehow, in addition to doing just that, our class managed to go on arts and culture tours in Berlin, meet with famous local artists, and travel to the neighboring cities of Dessau and Leipzig. For me, highlights from this trip—and there are so many—include sleeping over at the world-famous Bauhaus school in Dessau, checking out art galleries at the Spinnerei, having group dinners with artists Joachim Schmid and Olaf Nicolai, being in awe of Arthur de Ganay's private collection of large-format photographs by the Spree River, and accidentally running into an anime convention amid  an admittedly dull book fair in Leipzig. 

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Spending spring break and the following week in Berlin certainly gave me a profound coming-of-age experience, but it also gave me some time to meet the inspiring and talented peers I took this course with. Back on campus, assignments, deadlines, and exams become a giant, speeding whirlwind, and I find that there is little time to truly interact deeply with my peers unless one makes the extra effort. Surrounded by a majority of students who were much older and wiser than I was, I felt I gained a better understanding of what life after undergrad was like, as well as whether I was a good fit for an MFA program later on in life.

Our time in Berlin would not have been as informative and dynamic as it was had it not been for the support and guidance of Thibaut de Ruyter, a local Berliner and former architect, whose expertise in architecture, visual arts, and street-smart tips about Berlin helped to shape our understanding of the city in light of our work, and pointed us to the proper places to meet our snitzel cravings. Sam Belkowitz, our designated technical assistant—who you will likely see whenever you check out photography equipment from Charles Addams Hall—helped us from beginning to end, from preparing everyone’s specific tech needs, to never being short of his humor during the trip.

As a special finale, our exhibition opening was followed by a private dinner at the Penn Museum to formally thank those who helped make our class and trip as fulfilling and smooth as they were. At my table sat Patricia and Howard Silverstein, whose generosity has made this program possible, in addition to Professor Ken Lum, Director of the Undergraduate Fine Arts Program, and PennDesign Dean Marilyn Jordan Taylor

This class is unlike any course I’ve taken at Penn, and despite all its challenges, it was definitely the most reflective, meaningful, and informative class I’ve taken thus far.

View the full gallery of photos from the opening reception on Flickr>

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Dyana Wing So is a senior majoring in Visual Studies and minoring in Cinema Studies. At Penn, Dyana is also a speech adviser for Communication Within the Curriculum (CWiC), and a research fellow representing Du Bois College College House.

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.