Barbara Diener is gearing up for an online lecture and discussion at DANK Haus in Chicago where her exhibition, The Rocket’s Red Glare is currently hanging. She recently spoke with Esthetic Lens about canceled trips, delayed exhibits, teaching in the age of COVID…and rockets!
1. How are you holding up?
All things considered, I have been doing alright. I am very grateful that, in my capacity as the Collection Manager in the Department of Photography and Media at the Art Institute of Chicago, I have been able to mostly work from home since mid-March. As a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I am using a hybrid model, delivering lectures and software demos live through Zoom, making pre-recorded demos for my students to watch at any time, and meeting with them in a limited capacity in-person to certify them for specific cameras, lighting equipment, scanners, and printers. All that to say, I have certainly been staying busy.
2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
My current project, The Rocket’s Red Glare, traces the history of instrumental rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, whose story embodies my ongoing interest in the complicated German heritage surrounding WWII. A NAZI turned NASA scientist von Braun’s life represents as much contradiction as his groundbreaking rockets do, which were used as missiles and spacecraft alike.
Wernher von Braun developed the V2 (Vengeance Weapon 2) for Hitler in Peenemünde, a small coastal development in Northern Germany. This location has now been turned into an educational facility, cultural events space, and history museum—the Historical Technical Museum, Peenemünde.
I was supposed to travel to Peenemünde in April of this year to photograph there and conduct research in the archives. Of course, I had to cancel that trip. In early March it still seemed possible to travel within the States, so I wanted to instead spend a few additional days in Huntsville, AL at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. It was founded by von Braun shortly after his Saturn V rocket landed on the moon, and it houses the Wernher von Braun Archives which contain personal ephemera and historical photographs that von Braun brought over from Germany. To create some of the works for The Rocket’s Red Glare I have re-photographed some of these photos and documents, as well as superimposed archival images found in this archive with my own photographs. With these pieces, I am literally merging time and place. Unfortunately, this latter trip was not possible either.
3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?
Throughout the quarantine, I was preparing for a solo exhibition of The Rocket’s Red Glare at the German-American Cultural Center, the DANK Haus, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. Originally the exhibition was supposed to take place in the summer and was then pushed back to September. It is currently on view through October 23 and can be visited by making an appointment with myself (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Rosa Gallagher (email@example.com).
My trip to Peenemünde was going to yield additional work to include in this exhibition but since I could not go in person I took hundreds of screenshots of the live webcam that is pointed at the Historical Technical Museum in Peenemünde. From those, I created a large collage consisting of 480 small prints of these screenshots, measuring 90 by 80 inches. Sourcing images online and working in collage have both been new elements to my practice that I would like to employ further moving forward.
My exhibition at the DANK Haus also includes a sculptural element, which again, is new to my practice but something I very much enjoyed and would like to continue. I hand-sewed 48 sandbags—plastic sandbags filled with sand and covered in black latex. They were inspired by the repeated imagery I came across in the archive, depicting sandbags used in rocket fuel tests, black latex gloves used in chemical experiments, and black leather prevalent in NAZI uniforms.
4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?
Kelli Connell has been posting a daily photograph of Lake Michigan since March 12 and it has been a really beautiful reminder to take a breath and focus on the few small but positive things.
I was very inspired by Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fundraiser during which he directed people to donate to organizations like National Bail Out or #BlackLivesMatter and, with a receipt of $250 and up, gave donors a print of his work.
5. Are there any artists, filmmakers, albums, or genres you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?
Especially as an educator, it has been extremely encouraging to see how many institutions offered virtual programming once they had to close their doors to the public. I really enjoyed the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s series Zoom at Noon every week during which one of their staff curated a thematic presentation of works from the collection.
With my own exhibition currently on view, but available to the public in a diminished capacity, I am diligently documenting the installation in order to share it more readily virtually. The DANK Haus will host a Zoom lecture and conversation between myself and a NAZI era historian on October 8 at 6 p.m. (CST). Presenting this event remotely, rather than in-person, may actually reach a broader audience.
At the beginning of the quarantine, my husband and I embarked on some much-needed re-watching of films that are comforting to us—The Godfather Trilogy, James Bond, Cohen Brothers movies, etc. I hate to admit it but personally, I also enjoy my fair share of pretty trashy TV, especially when it is difficult to deal with the real world.
Some of my work from home has involved data entry, so I have found solace in a variety of podcasts. I am glad that two of my favorites, My Favorite Murder, and Omnibus, have continued throughout the pandemic as their respective hosts have started to feel like old friends. At the start of the quarantine, I tried to get into a few of the “couples sheltering-in-place” podcasts hosted by eg. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon or Paul F. Thompkins and Janie Haddad but they got a little too meandering for me.
Lastly, I took up solving crossword puzzles. It’s a great distraction and gets me out of my head for a moment.
Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is held in numerous private and institutional collections. Diener has participated in several highly ambitious and competitive artist residency programs, the Fields Project in Oregon, IL, ACRE in Steuben, WI, and HATCH Projects through the Chicago Artist Coalition.
Diener is a winner of Flash Forward 2013, the recipient of a Follett Fellowship at Columbia College Chicago, and was awarded the Albert P. Weisman Award in 2012 and 2013. In addition, Diener received an Individual Artist Grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Events in 2015, 2018, and 2020. She is the Collection Manager in the Department of Photography and Media at the Art Institute of Chicago and teaches photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In June 2018 Daylight Books published Diener’s first book Phantom Power.
The DANK Haus is hosting a Zoom lecture and conversation with Barbara Diener on October 8 at 6 p.m. (CST).
Barbara Diener can be found online: