Overline: Fellowship
Headline: Citizen Objects: Challenging the Authority of Data

Artist and RIFS Fellow Julika Gittner went to London in the 1990s to study art and later architecture. She has taught at the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture and History of Art for many years. Julika Gittner joined the RIFS in April. In this interview, she talks about her work and current projects.

RIFS Fellow Julika Gittner
RIFS Fellow Julika Gittner RIFS/S. Letz

As an artist, you work primarily in the field of sculpture. What can you reveal about the project you’ll be pursuing at the RIFS over the next few months?

Julika Gittner: I’ll be working with the research group on Co-Creation in Democratic Practice, which is studying pedestrian-centric superblock projects in Berlin, also known as Kiezblocks. My project will contribute to participation processes facilitated by the research group and will visualise data through sculptural works that will be displayed in public spaces and other sites. These works are intended as alternative mediums of communication or conversation prompts that can support the transfer of knowledge in participation processes. As part of this work, I also plan to hold workshops with different groups on site, where participants will be invited to create their own sculptural data visualisations.

What do you want to achieve with your works?

J. G.: My works attempt to reveal the disconnect between abstract data, scientific knowledge and citizens – and to explore ways of bridging this divide. The objects that I create make abstract data more tangible and enable people to grasp their meaning more directly. My sculptures are made from everyday materials such as old mattresses, stockings, blankets and plastic bags. Their ubiquity helps to build a connection between the subject matter and people's everyday lives. 

Materialising data and ideas through the use of everyday objects is a crucial aspect of my work and aims to facilitate an intuitive understanding. I would like to use my work here to question the hierarchies and barriers between experts and citizens that often arise within participation processes. The authoritarian language of expertise, with its focus on facts and figures, can be a barrier to understanding important information. It can also alienate people and stop them from thinking critically about the data they are presented with. 

What interests me is the way that objects can be used to relate this kind of information to our bodies and lifeworlds. Literally anyone could take an old mattress and create an object that communicates a particular set of factual circumstances. I hope that this connection to everyday life will enable people to develop a different, more critical understanding of data. In short, my work is an experiment in alternative forms of communicating data and facilitating participation.

What exactly do you mean when you refer to ‘data’? 

J. G.:  From a layperson’s perspective, “data” is numerical information representing complex relationships that is gathered through measurements or statistical surveys. This information is often presented using pie charts or bar charts. How many people travel by car? How clean is the air? Are we seeing more or less air pollution? This is the kind of information that needs to be communicated if you want to empower citizens to make decisions or participate in the development of superblocks, for example. It’s difficult to make decisions without this knowledge. For democracy to function, we need to create participation processes that genuinely include people. and we need to foster a critical attitude towards data. The authority commonly attributed to data can be very convenient for those who manage democratic processes. Data is often deployed in a way that ignores important qualitative aspects of the phenomena it represents. My works question this and seek to explore other approaches. 

Would you say that your sculptural objects are a form of science communication? 

J. G.:  Yes, they are a kind of critical science communication. I want to make statistics easier to understand, while criticising the authority afforded to them at the same time. Why do these figures exist? Who gathered them? What are they about and why are they so important? 

You mentioned that you use everyday objects...

J. G.:  Most of my works are created using objects that I find on the street and recycle. At the moment, I’m working on a model of a superblock – it looks almost like a three-dimensional map. The idea came to me after several people asked me to explain exactly what superblocks are, how residents access them, and whether through-traffic is permitted. The work that I am developing aims to make the concept more accessible.

How are you approaching this project?
J. G.: I see myself as a kind of filter for the wider public. I read the research group's texts, sometimes I spot a headline in the newspaper or someone says something at one of the public participation events and that sparks an idea. I am driven by the fact that I don't understand a lot of things myself and so I approach things by asking: What does that actually mean? What does it mean when people think that a superblock is a sealed off area that cars can neither access nor leave? What would that look like? Then I find a way to represent this idea by embodying it so that I begin to understand it better. Or, if we take the notion that traffic “evaporates” when superblocks are established. What does that mean? 

What is new for me in my project at RIFS is that I will be working directly with a group of scientists and participating in public participation processes. So there is a lot of new ground for me to cover and I’m excited to be here.

Many people struggle to understand art as much as they do statistical data... How do you deal with this?
J. G.:  The objects that I create can be viewed from two perspectives. On the one hand, they are models that can help us to understand or visualise phenomena. The fact that they are works of art and whether they are perceived as such is not especially important in this context. On the other hand, these works could equally be shown in a gallery, where visitors could consider their formal qualities or conceptual background. I think it’s fascinating that art works can assume different roles and that you can talk and think about them in multiple ways. 

Where would you like to be at the end of this year? What is your overarching goal? 
J. G.:  I hope that by collaborating with RIFS researchers and observing and engaging with public participation processes around Berlin’s superblock projects, I will discover new strategies and new fields of inquiry and approaches for my work. I would be delighted if our workshops succeeded in providing people with a different form of engagement with the Kiezblock projects. I’d also like to open a small window for experimentation with practices not usually seen in science, which conventionally focuses on intellectual and technical approaches that leave little room for people to establish an emotional connection to knowledge. This is a stumbling block for many people and I hope that my work can facilitate a different relationship. My sculptures don’t necessarily achieve this, but they set something in motion and highlight other possibilities. 

Will your sculptures be displayed at the site of the proposed superblock?
J. G.:  At the moment the plan is for the objects to be put on temporary display in public spaces. I would also like to invite schoolchildren or other groups to a workshop where we could create representations of data together. These could then also be shown on site.