Crossing spaces

The Dutch-Westphalian Railway Company began transporting passengers and goods from Gelsenkirchen Bismarck via Borken to Winterswijk in 1880, with connections leading on from Winterswijk to the international seaports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The line was discontinued for freight just under a century later, but had already stopped taking passengers near the border at the beginning of World War II. The section between Burlo and Winterswijk is now a natural conservation area.

The interactive Raumquerung or “Crossing paces” project by Danuta Karsten, an artist from Recklinghausen, Germany, has brought the original line back to the present day using modern media. Large and conspicuous orange markers at selected stations along the current Emscher Valley Railway and at Dutch stations guide you through a virtual journey through space and time using QR codes.

Dortmund Central Station ● Wanne-Eickel Central Station ● Gelsenkirchen Zoo ● Gelsenkirchen-Buer South ● Gladbeck East ● Gladbeck Zweckel ● Feldhausen ● Dorsten ● Winterswijk ● Amsterdam Central Station ● Rotterdam, Seaport

Real space – Artificial space

Danuta Karsten has been developing works on space-related themes for years, adding scale, extent, function and history to their aesthetic appeal with subtle interventions such as foil, paper cuts and strings. Carefully crafted structures occupy the space using their own idiosyncratic logic; it’s often impossible just to take a fleeting glance at the whole thing with obstacles getting in the way of what are mostly extremely delicate structures, cutting up the space continuum with horizontal, vertical or hashed lines and leaving you with an interpretation of the place whose poetic strangeness will remain with you for a long time to come.

Danuta Karsten’s installations always begin in an actual place whose architecture, function and history the artist has meticulously researched and reinterpreted. Her research often takes weeks or even months, the work crystallising gradually depending on a number of factors that are not always predictable, or are deliberately left open to question. Karsten’s work is not conceptual, but more akin to the tradition of site-specific objects whose design in form and content emerge in dialogue with the respective location. This applies not least to the material that has to be found for it to take form. Similar to a research laboratory, she tries out different ideas, discarding the first solutions and modifying others towards a gradually materialising result. Bureaucratic hurdles also affect her work – she can’t do everything everywhere.

Itinerary and route
Danuta Karsten’s works investigate, delineate and transform spaces. Raumquerung is her first project to take space as a route, an actual itinerary from here to there – specifically, the historical route that coal took from the northern Ruhr to Rotterdam. The important link between Gelsenkirchen Bismarck and Winterswijk opened in 1880; the Emscher Valley Railway now travels part of that route. She has used the old tracks from Gelsenkirchen Zoo and Dorsten coming from Dortmund. The journey continues from Dorsten to Borken taking the regional railway from Essen. You can only get from Borken to Winterswijk by bus today; however, you can join the old Dutch railway network again from Winterswijk.

On the way
Raumquerung takes you through the old railway route as if you were on a massive map beyond the disused section that nature has since reclaimed. The markers are bright orange chalk circles two metres in diameter that the artist sprayed before the entrance and exit of each station between Dortmund and Rotterdam. Observant travellers will find QR codes near the markers; the QR codes take you to the project’s website where the virtual space of the Internet connects the historic route with today’s in a unique way. Where you just see a point – the place you are actually standing on in real space – you will suddenly see people in front of a huge, brightly painted marine buoy on your smart phone. You will also see a diagram of the route on the display that matches the “real” one, but takes it a step further – clicking the individual markers will open a similar picture, station by station, showing people looking in bewilderment at this weirdly displaced object in the familiar environment of a train station, while others seem oblivious to it.

The buoys originally set up directly onto platforms are actual objects familiar to the seafaring community; Danuta Karsten found and photographed them at a buoy depot near Rotterdam. Buoys are a visual navigational aid to marine shipping, and are often positioned at dangerous locations at sea. They are clearly distinguishable by shape, colour and light marks and signals, and have internationally standardised meanings that are open to highly ambiguous interpretation in Raumquerung. As sculptures, displaced objects, navigation aids or symbols, Karsten almost playfully explores range of possible interpretations in her visual layouts.
The buoys take you on a journey back in time as if they were preparing you for a later destination. Time frames shift, and the boundary between reality and fantasy blurs with buoys leading the way; their enormity will come as a surprise – you’ll never see their lower halves encrusted in barnacles and algae until you see them on land. These idiosyncratic structures almost seem like free-standing sculptures at some of the locations, but their stark dominance is unsettling due to the incongruence. You start to cast your eyes around for tell-tale signs, perceiving the actual surroundings of the objects more intensely – the strange object drawing your attention out of the picture and into an actual place. Karsten’s variegated artistic intervention gives the location a new kind of visibility.

Place holders and avatars
Karsten uses another method of suggestively integrating you into the picture, a method developed in the European panel painting that includes figures – like avatars – set into the composition to act as a kind of viewer by proxy. Most of these figures appear from the back, looking in the direction you are meant to follow. Posed in an eyewitness role, they imply the truth of the account that the picture illustrates. Danuta Karsten’s visual layouts revive this tradition – her figures turned towards the buoys act as place holders for the artist’s inner view. Observers staring in amazement present the ideal reaction to distract you from what is obviously manipulated and staged, but the incongruence of the whole thing remains. Karsten discovered and photographed her avatars during her research visits. A dummy made of plastic sheet marked the spot where the six-metre tall objects were to appear.

Changing perspective
The unsettling interplay of views and changing perspectives run through Danuta Karsten’s project; the website shows more examples. Video sequences taken by drone above the railway station forecourts give you a bird’s eye view, while photos taken from the side of the train through the window with their typical motion blur blend with photos to the front taken from the driver cabin. The space crossed shatters into a variety of possible perspectives, and the result is not a uniform whole with a clearly delineated space – Raumquerung marks out a world of movement and discovery where mobility, change and the virtual world on the line and online are the dominating visual and topical themes revealing fascinating new perspectives and interpretations as you stop and look closely, following the logic of Karsten’s subtle interventions.

Sigrid Godau