A collaboration between researchers, artists and architects
Interview with Stefan Krebs
Stefan Krebs is Assistant Professor and Head of the Public History Department at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH) at the University of Luxembourg. Last year, his team’s project ‘Historical Voices from the Minett’, which was created as part of Esch2022, received an award for ‘Outstanding Promotion of Science to the Public’ from the Fonds National de la Recherche. The exhibition ‘Remix Industrial Past: Constructing the Identity of the Minett’, which will take place as part of Esch2022 from 27 February to 15 May 2022, will revolve around the continuous transformation processes that have changed the identity of the region over the past century. For this occasion, the exhibition venue, the Massenoire, will be transformed into a kind of time machine. Can you tell us more about it?
We are still in the midst of the preparations for this multimedia exhibition, which is created in close collaboration between Tokonoma, the architectural firm 2F Architettura, in charge of spatial planning, and the historians from the C2DH. We developed the historical narratives and are therefore responsible for the historical content of the exhibition. However, the project leaders are Tokonoma, who have developed the overarching concept for the exhibition and are translating our historical narratives into a multimedia environment.
As in the video installation for the history workshop, the aim is to translate academic research into a historical narrative that is accessible to the general public. In this instance, Tokonoma was even more deeply involved in the reflections on how to achieve this in the Massenoire, which is after all a rather prosaic industrial hall. Apart from the three silos that have been preserved, there is nothing left of the original furnishings, contrary to the Möllerei, whose ‘inner life’ still bears witness to its industrial past. So Tokonoma thought about ways to implement a simultaneously historical and artistic exhibition in this architectural context. The exhibition unfolds across two levels. The upper part of the space accommodates an 8-channel video installation mainly based on material from the National Audiovisual Centre (CNA) – various kinds of footage, family films, TV reports, feature films, documentaries, everything you can think of in terms of moving material. It’s an edit of almost 100 years of industrial history, based on the themes that are also treated in the other part of the exhibition, but it also complements these themes and stages them in a different kind of artistic setting.
The visitor level houses 5 separate installations with an airy, ephemeral appearance, representing 5 different settings. Each of these installations is in turn dedicated to an overarching historical theme: the transformation of the landscape, the visual identity of the Minett, life in the Minett, the beautiful and the ‘dirty’ side of the Minett, and finally the role of borders.
The Minett as palimpsest
The chapter on the transformation of the landscape focuses on mining and the iron and steel industries in the Minett region. These industrial activities have led to profound changes in the landscape. Entire hilltops were flattened and large open-cast mines were built, turning a predominantly agricultural and rural area into an industrial landscape. The industrial plants themselves were modified and expanded several times over the course of time, so that, for instance, when the large iron and steel works reached the end of their life cycle, there was hardly anything left of the original constructions from the late 19th or early 20th century. These transformations can be understood as a kind of palimpsest, a process of continuous erasures and additions up to the post-industrial era. An example of this is the Belval district, which was first a local recreation area, then a modern iron and steel works, and finally an industrial wasteland on which a new area for living and working is currently being built.
The (visual) identity of the Minett
The second installation is primarily concerned with the visual identity of the region. The changes it has undergone over time can be retraced thanks to photographs of the region. For many years, representations of the region were dominated by traditional industrial photography, in which the workers appear as appendages to the machines, emphasising the size and monumentality of the plants. These pictures were less interested in the workers than in the machines, the systems. They shaped the photographic image of the region for a long time, until the second half of the 20th century.
It was not until the 1970s that things started to change, in the wake of the steel crisis. In the exhibition we show how the photographic image and self-image of the region evolved as social photography started complementing traditional corporate-industrial photography. Of course, this shift was to some extent controversial, as it documented a reality which, at least in the public portrayal of the iron and steel industry, had long remained hidden, such as workers at home in the role of fathers or collective accommodation for foreign workers, which wasn’t exactly fancy.
The Minett: dirty or beautiful?
The third theme looks at environmental pollution. With the large smelting works that started operating in the Minett from the 1870s, its small industrial towns were affected by significant levels of pollution. We tend to think that public awareness of environmental pollution started in the 1970s, but we show that as early as the 1920s inhabitants and journalists but also city councillors were very much aware of these problems. The so-called ‘dust plague’ was already a public issue in the interwar period, as it was experienced as a serious nuisance. On the one hand, it was a concern because the facades of the houses and the freshly washed laundry that was hung out to dry in the open quickly got dirty. But there were also health implications. People were advised to spend as much time as possible in the local forests and parks to recover from exposure to the dust. People effectively looked for ways to provide relief.
Living in the Minett
The fourth part deals with the living and housing conditions in the industrial towns of the Minett. The industrialisation of the region in the late 19th century prompted a tremendous growth in population. In Esch alone, between 1870 and 1914, the population increased tenfold in just 4 decades, which is a colossal surge. This generated a serious housing problem: how do you create more or less decent living spaces for such numbers of people? We know that part of the population was quite well off, and that they had ample living space at their disposal. Others, in turn, lived in dreadfully overcrowded quarters. Beds were often sublet to lodgers, prompting people to sleep and work in shifts. This part of the exhibition also addresses the role of women. On the one hand, housekeeping was clearly the domain of women. But take a different look at industrial history, through the eyes of women, as it were, whose role has been relatively neglected by academic research on industrial history.
(The) Minett across borders
The final installation revolves around the theme of the border. As with the other chapters of the exhibition, its focus is on transformation. The most significant change concerning borders in the period covered by our research took place in 1918/19. Between 1871 and 1918, when Luxembourg was part of the German Customs Union, its border with Lorraine was very permeable. With the end of the First World War, which saw Luxembourg’s withdrawal from the Customs Union and the return of Lorraine to France, there was suddenly a new customs border. This resulted in an increase in contraband activities, since it was now profitable to smuggle commodities that were cheaper in France across the border to Luxembourg, and vice versa.
The situation is similar for labour migration: in the 19th century it was relatively easy for workers to migrate to another country without proper paperwork. But from the First World War and in the interwar period, this changed significantly. Immigrants needed more and more papers in order to work legally, live legally, etc. Foreign workers had to deal with new problems and suddenly found themselves in a precarious situation.
There will be another exhibition in addition to the multimedia presentation in the Massenoire. Can you already tell us something about it?
On 14 May, we will open a virtual exhibition in which these and other themes will be presented in more detail across 20 or so chapters. The exhibition is entitled ‘Minett Stories’ and will feature a great variety of stories from the Minett. All the stories are presented as a synopsis, for which we experiment with different narrative formats: videos, podcasts, graphic novels, etc. Besides, for each story there is a more detailed historical description in the form of a text. In contrast to the exhibition in the Massenoire, which has a predominantly artistic outlook, this presentation will focus on the historical research.
How would you rate the collaboration between your team and Tokonoma?
The team at C2DH is relatively big, so as head of the ‘Remixing Industrial Pasts’ project, I tried to give each of my colleagues as much freedom as possible in researching and presenting the topics of their choice. At the same time, in keeping with the idea of remixing, we deliberately avoid starting from a common thread and instead straightaway pursued different themes and looked for similarities in the course of the process.
A key factor for the exhibition in the Massenoire was our great collaboration with Tokonoma, that is, with Chiara Ligi and her team. Although we come from totally different backgrounds, we quickly found a common language. Devising a common concept was incredibly easy. I think this has to do with the fact that Tokonoma have quite a bit of experience in devising artistic exhibitions around historical subjects. They have a very acute sense for historical topics and like to delve into the historical source material themselves. We provided them with the narratives and sources, but they didn’t simply content themselves with what we provided but went into the archives themselves, dug deeper, looked further. In some cases their findings even enriched our source material. This is not something that one expects or demands of the artistic partners in such a project. So it was a really fertile exchange but also great fun. It was a great team effort between the architects, the artists and us.