Breitenau: The Workhouse Project
The visitors from the big cities remark on how beautiful it is. And it's true that the Benedictines had a knack for choosing the finest locations for their monastaries. And this one, too, sitting alongside the long river Fulda, amid verdant meadow, its large buildings nestled in alongside the smaller village houses, farms, and woods, makes a good impression. Slowly, Ines shakes her head. No, no. "It's not beautiful," she says. "It's claustrophobic." I understand. I'm prepared for a haunted ruin of an old prison.
So began a talk by Avery Gordon, the Anna Maria Kellen Fellow at the Academy this spring. She was reading from "Notebook #41," her contribution to the 100 Notes—100 Thoughts publishing series that will be presented at Documenta 13 in June. It is there that Gordon will present a project she has been working with the Berlin-based artist Ines Schaber: a multi-media installation -- including lectures and activities -- entitled “The Workhouse,” which focuses on questions of labor, correction, and reeducation in the district of Breitenau, in the town of Guxhagen, just twenty kilometers south of Kassel, where Documenta takes place every half decade. Gordon's work as an academic sociologist has centered on "radical thought and practice and over the last several hundred years," and she has long been writing on imprisonment, war, and other forms of dispossession, perhaps most noteworthily in her 1996 book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, hailed by the sociologist George Lipsitz as a "provocatively imaginative book explores the connections linking horror, history, and haunting." Gordon's "Notebook" picks up on all these themes, delving more broadly into the crevices of "subjugated knowledge" found in Breitenau.
Breitenau, Gordon retold, began as a twelfth-century Benedictine monastery. When Protestant reforms forced the monasteries to disband, in 1527, Breitenau became an estate of the local aristocracy. By 1579 the original monastic church had been converted into storage for agricultural produce and a dairy products. That's also when the first prison arrived. But it was badly damaged in the seventeenth century and then stood empty for much of the eighteenth. It was during the nineteenth century that the site began its career as a place of confinement and correction. In 1871, for example, it was employed to house 750 French prisoners of war following the Franco-Prussian War; in 1879 it opened as a workhouse and correctional facility for the rural poor -- beggars, vagabonds, and people who simply did not want to work -- and prostitutes, who actually wanted to. Breitenau remained a workhouse and prison until 1949, having been remodeled in 1911 to accommodate a modular cell-system, whereby solitary confinement could keep the "intractable" inmates at bay. These structural changes would be perfectly suited for government use during the Nazi regime, which, in 1933-34, housed hundreds of accused communists and socialists, as well as, beginning in 1938, Jews -- prior to their deportation to labor or extermination camps.
During the reign of the National Socialists, the Gestapo used Breitenau to house local prisoners, including over 7000 forced and foreign laborers who refused to work or tried to escape. After the defeat of the regime, in 1945, Breitenau was transformed into a prison for homeless youth, people with sexually transmitted diseases, and for "difficult girls." By the late 1960s, the institution had become specialized on locking troubled young girls away; it had also become the subject of extreme public scrutiny for its harsh methods (brought to light by journalist and eventual left-wing terrorist Ulrike Meinhof), which led to Breitenau being shut down in 1973. When it opened again later in the decade, it was transformed into a closed psychiatric hospital. Today, the location that used to be a monastary, storage facility, workhouse, prison, penal institution, correctional house, and psych ward, now serves as a facility for outpatient psychiatric care.
Given its darkly oppressive past, Breitenau has also served the more enlightened causes of memorial, museum, and research center. In 1984, a museum and archive were opened to the public where one can learn, thanks to painstaking historical research (such as that by Gunnar Richter, director of the museum), of the erasure of evidence of the Gestapo's mass killings and burial grounds. The years 1927 to 1945 are referred to in the records as a phase of "architectural renovation." Gordon's own research on Breitenau addresses this era, as well as those past, asking, What kinds of knowledge were being erased? What was the purpose of repression, whether by fascist regimes or capitalist socio-political systems of order?
Historically, prisons have served two major ordering functions, Gordon says: to manage socio-economic crisis and to suppress actual and potential political opposition. The rule of law, she notes, "has legitimated and mystified the role of imprisonment by criminalizing the poor and the troublemaker" at will. Breitenau is an ideal example of many episodic social and political changes of the last half-millennium, offering a kind of encyclopedic overview of the types of undesirable people who were subsequently removed from view and everyday life. "Extraneous persons" is one term given to people have been extracted from society and into the state's hold. One can delve into the past, however trepidatiously, Gordon says, because the prison, the place of repression, "confines or encloses within itself the ideas that the prison is set up to eradicate." This is why it they are permeated by an underlying hysteria. The prison, whether inhabited or long since deserted, is a repository, an archive of a "subjugated knowledge" of what haunts it. This knowledge yearns for justice.
And so, the Workhouse project. Developed in the 16th century, workhouses were prisons were people were put to work, corrected, punished, and reformed. But instead of constructing a "monument" to the kinds of people that were subjugated, Gordon and Schaber are looking for the ghostly knowledge that has been deposited in the prison itself, investing the images left behind, the narratives that could have played out, with a second life. The semi-fictitious result, which will be shown at Documenta in Room Two, will be unlike a workhouse altogether: a comfortable space for the critical investigation of the practices an ideas of bad workers, idlers, strikers, prostitutes, or there otherwise kicked aside. "The workhouse might not produce anything productive at all," Gordon admits, with a hint of antagonism. "Or, it might possibly build a fictitious rendering of historical alternatives that could have been taken, but were not." At a minimum, she says, "the Workhouse will constitute a different kind of labor from that which Breitenau conscripted and produced."
(The above image from is plate seven of Käthe Kollwitz's "Peasant Wars" series, from 1908.)