in conversation with the artist and activist Talya Feldman.
Talya Feldman is a time-based media artist from Denver, Colorado. She earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently a graduate student at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg. She has exhibited in Chicago, New York, Hamburg, Halle (Saale), Frankfurt, and Berlin. Talya Feldman was awarded the 2021 DAGESH-Kunstpreis for her sound installation 'The Violence We Have Witnessed Carries a Weight on Our Hearts' at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and has received global recognition for her projects combating right-wing terror in collaboration with activist and research-based networks.
Anne: What does activism mean to you?
Talya: I approach activism through my work as an artist. I believe in countering the harmful narratives and imagery we see so often surrounding violence, for instance, by offering alternative narratives, primarily narratives of strength and resistance.
Not negating, of course, the history, the pain that so many of us feel as people affected by racism and antisemitism. But focusing on the strength and the power within our communities to fight back and to change society. It's very important for me to focus on how we can change the ways we speak about violence. Change the ways we speak about remembrance, and about each other.
Anne: And do you think there's more activism in Hamburg than in other cities, or do you feel a different way of activism in Hamburg?
Talya: I think that in Hamburg there are a number of initiatives who are combating right-wing narratives and who are fighting for remembrance of their families, and who themselves have been victims of right-wing terror and racism at the hands of the police and society. And I do see that more in Hamburg than in other cities. I do see that there are a number of initiatives here that have been fighting here for a long time, on the streets, in schools, in all areas of Hamburg city life for justice and for clarification and for change and remembrance, which I find very empowering.
Anne: Could you name a few of these initiatives?
Talya: The Semra Ertan Initiative. They've been here a long time. Fighting for recognition of Semra Ertan, her poetry, and for a street to be renamed for her. Also the Yaya Jabbi Initiative. They've also been here a long time fighting for remembrance and recognition of police violence against Yaya and also against people of color in general. And in addition to them, I’ve become close to – or at least aware of – a number of other initiatives for Ramazan Avcı, for Achidi John, for Nguyễn Ngọc Châu und Đỗ Anh Lân, and Süleyman Taşköprü. There are so many people that have been killed in Hamburg because of racism over the last decade even, who are not recognized or acknowledged. Their names, and who they were, are so important for us and for Hamburg to remember. Some of these Initiatives that I just mentioned, some of them have been fighting and speaking for over 30 years in Hamburg for remembrance and justice. It's important that we recognize that just because we didn't hear them before, doesn't mean that they hadn’t been here, speaking all along. It’s always time for us, but especially now – it is time to start listening.
Anne: What drives you in your work as an activist or linked to it, in your work as an artist?
Talya: I use the tools that I have as an artist to be active, to counter images of violence in our society through images of resistance and resilience. To support my community and many others. When I get this question about what drives me in my work, I often think of Douglas Crimp, an activist during the AIDS crisis in the United States. He's a very powerful writer and in an interview about the AIDS activist group Act Up, which he was a part of in the 90s, he explained how important it was to combat the harmful narratives surrounding LGBTQ people, by creating their own visual information – in order to save lives. When you understand the urgency in a statement like that, then you know you have to do something. It is important that we feel this urgency, as a society, and not just leave it to certain communities who are more targeted by right-wing violence. We must work hard to understand that we are all impacted by this violence and that we all share in the responsibility, the urgent responsibility to fight in order to save lives.
Anne: In your work, you are focused a lot on the culture of remembrance – what does it mean to you and how do you live it?
Talya: Remembrance is not an act of the past. Remembrance is an act of the present and future. It is not linear. We don't remember only to reflect on something that happened 40, 50, 60 years ago. We remember so that the violence we witnessed in the past does not continue now. Because the violence is happening again, and we all carry the responsibility of remembering, in order to act. It is a very active remembrance that we have to be doing in our society in order to end this violence. People often tell me that when they were
younger learning about the Holocaust they found it very boring. That’s a very terrifying thing to hear. If we cannot see how history carries into the present, how it impacts the way we interact with one another, how the systems within our society continue to allow for hate and bigotry to spread, how victims of violence are still blamed for what happened to them, then perhaps we are not teaching the past correctly. So many survivors and victims of terror are pushed to the background of their own stories. They are not believed and they are not heard. They're told that they are weak. There is so much power and strength within ourselves as human beings, within individuals who experience these acts of violence. We are more than what happens to us. These are the narratives we must change within our society. That the past is the present, and the future. That this violence has continued, but we believe in ending it. That people and communities who experience violence are incredibly strong, and should be listened to.
Anne: Do you have some kind of instruction on how to deal with the culture of remembrance?
Talya: I think the biggest thing that we can do for each other in this fight for remembrance and change is to listen and to hear, especially the voices of people affected by right-wing and extremist violence – and recognize that we all play a role in our society in ending that violence. We must recognize the impact that we all have on one another, especially in the language we use, and the imagery we share. So often when an attack happens perpetrators and sensationalist images of violence are elevated in the news and on social media. It is crucial, urgent, that we focus instead on the victims, on their families, on building spaces of empowerment that don’t feed into these cycles of violence. That we take the time to ask survivors and the families of victims what they need and not assume we know what is best for them.
It is also good to stop and reflect on the fact that resistance and solidarity don’t always mean that you are in the street and going to a protest. Resistance is also when we listen to someone who is affected by racism in our class. It's about building relationships and being there for those around us in the ways that they need. There are so many ways we can create change. When we talk about anti-racism work or fighting antisemitism, it is also about having difficult conversations with ourselves, with our families, and challenging a lot of the common stereotypes that we are raised to believe in our society. It's hard work, but it's work that is worth it for all of us.
Anne: And it's so much easier if you have allies, right? But how do you manage to ally with others for one cause - how can you find a group?
Talya: To quote Sara Ahmed, I think it is important to recognize that when you say that you are in solidarity with another person, it is not saying that you share the same experiences, that you understand their pain, their struggles, or that you even have the same goals or dreams. It is saying that you stand on a common ground. The common ground that we need each other in this fight to save lives, we can't do it alone. The common ground that we are here, that we are staying here, that we are continuing forward, that we are fighting for a better future for all of us.