German born Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven (born Else Hildegard Plötz 1874 – 1927: henceforth Baroness Elsa), is the Western art field’s pioneering fabulator, who invented the dérive and found object. She was born in the German town of Swinemünde, now Świnoujście in Poland, and later lived and worked in Germany, America and France. Her promiscuous, resourceful, ingenious and timely interventions melded the contradictory and overlapping aspects of alienation and creativity at the heart of the everyday, where she took her costumes into the streets of Greenwich Village in New York and opened up a new public space for art interaction. Wheels are growing on rose bushes, gray and affectionate (Wheels are growing) is a tribute to her.
As a film/installation, Wheels are growing draws loosely from the disrupted filmmaking model of ‘The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus’, where Terry Gilliam turns the sudden death of lead actor Heath Ledger into a newly invented filmmaking process and adapted storytelling opportunity. Ledger’s ‘friends’ worked collaboratively to complete the film as a tribute to him, and a unique film resulted. Our work, if developed through Fabulation for Future, sits in similar terrain, exploring a new participatory model partly put in place due to the unforeseen disruption of the COVID pandemic.
Baroness Elsa’s worldwide imaginarium involves the anti-capitalist themes and narratives embedded in her jazz-inspired 1920s New York street dérives and other performative actions. Her ‘bodily bricolage’: “would appear like some strange mechanized figure pieced together with the debris of the industrialized city. Her appearances sometimes featured a shaved and painted head, shaved eyebrows, yellow face powder, stamps as beauty marks, celluloid curtain rings worn as bracelets, a coal shuttle used for a hat, tea balls hanging from the bust of her dress, or a set of working taillights attached to her bustle”.(1) Her commitment is summed up in her poem from August 1927:
With me posing as art—aggressive—virile extraordinary—invigorating—anti-stereotyped—no wonder blockheads by nature degeneration dislike it—feel peeved—it underscores unreceptiveness [sic] like jazz does. But there are a number of bright heads that have grasped fact to their utmost pleasure—advantage—admiration of me.
As the focus of the German program is ‘fabulating for future’, like the idea of storytelling being what sustains the universe in Gilliam’s film, Wheels are Growing focusses on specific ‘fabulating’ performative actions. Baroness Elsa’s performances can segue to related nested local onground initiatives and poetic storylines facilitated by co-deputies and others.
Found footage, google paste-ups (such as her New York dérive routes), synchronised and mapped portraits (like the New York Times’ storming of the Capitol), archival footage and photographs can assist. Here Gilliam’s set of the travelling theatre van is supplanted by Baroness Elsa’s distinctive street level community-action caravan that included her yapping dogs trailing behind her. Scripting is in keeping with some of the Faustian plotline of Gilliam’s film, including the relationship between our imagination and desires, and how they can open up windows to greater prospects or close us down with mirrors reflecting our gratifying ignorance.
One of Baroness Elsa’s performances protested the rise of the supermarket and another celebrated the progressive agenda of fellow migrant Nikola Tesla (some detail on these below). By presenting positive initiatives and other protest actions being implemented today, we can consider them as a type of legacy. We will undertake filming of our Katoomba-based Baroness Elsa doppelgänger, a performance artist and jazz band singer, as well as partners Farm It Forward, scientist academic/policy advisors, and inventors.
The work will also explore Baroness Elsa’s other protest actions that show how she perceived war and other societal injustices from an economic perspective: American industry with particular attention on Henry Ford and the American desire to cling to Victorian gender roles (she wore a set of working tail lights as a bustle); nationalism as indicated by visa restrictions for the poor, and its hollowing out the true spirit of events (she wore a candlelit cake-hat to the French Embassy in Germany on Bastille Day); and war-mongering and the lack of response to it by the New York art world (her work Urinal submitted to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917).
Rise of the supermarket
Baroness Elsa, in defiance against the introduction of supermarket commercialisation in America in the 1920s, wore a hat adorned with fresh vegetables to celebrate home-grown produce to protest this industrial development. She incorporated iterations of this theme into her costumes, including ‘planting the technological and consumer items on her performing body, grafting them alongside organic matter, including gilded vegetables’.
Blue Mountains based Farm it Forward (farmitforward.com.au), comprising filmmakers, artists and young creatives can be considered as a successful legacy-in-practice in response to Baroness Elsa’s protest action. Their work provides a fantastic model for adaptation, replication and amplification and begins a mapping conversation about best-practice locally-tailored models worldwide. Fee Altmann, course organiser for the German program has contacts across Europe to assist here.
Farm it Forward’s coordinator, Emmanuela Prigioni Alebardi, is a graduate of the UTS Masters in Documentary (final year work screened at World of Women Film Festival and the Italian Film Festival in Sydney) and the UNSW COFA undergraduate degree in time-based art. Emmanuela will assist by coordinating worker and volunteer filming participation in the project that will include footage of: food growing activities using member mobile phone generated clips, and making a garden for our Katoomba-based Baroness that links the realms of Baroness Elsa to the present day and our workshop.
Embracing progressive agendas in scientific work
I believe Baroness Elsa’s LImbswish was created to celebrate and promote, amongst other things, the work of Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943). A closer analysis of this work and how it was used in Baroness Elsa’s performative practice provides insights into how she can be better appreciated for her role in highlighting the importance of Tesla’s scientific work, given her signature pioneering creative efforts demonstrate her commitment to giving voice to those silenced by dominant discourses and ideologies.
Related material for this story is French painter Francis Picabia’s (1879 – 1953) cover illustration for the periodical Dadaphone in Paris, 1920. His cover can be interpreted as showing a narrow and patriarchal art establishment view in relation to Baroness Elsa’s creative interpretation of Tesla’s invention, Baroness Elsa herself and possibly also Tesla’s invention. Limbswish encapsulates the way that Baroness Elsa refused to allow conventional thinking and hegemonic processes to prevent her from understanding and presenting Tesla’s work as part of a social progress agenda. By focusing on Baroness Elsa’s work that draws in the ideas of Tesla, critical conversation can engage with Tesla’s firm beliefs in green energy and the dangers of burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, as well as the barriers to implementing progressive policy today.
A design workshop will explore a COVID safe produce pick-up possibly donut-like infrastructure for Farm It Forward with Sydney University science professors Richard Banati (ANSTO director) and Ian Hickie (mental health and policy), and covid air-scrubbing technology inventor, Jamie Walden (aerospace engineer, advanced ventilation expert, CEO of Bio-Air, and member of the ANSTO NANDIN Innovation Precinct). A cooking oven that can reach 300 degrees driven by a solar panel will also be made. Professor Hickie is a strong advocate for matching technology needs with local applications within custom-designed community driven design processes. Specifically in the area of COVID policy he is encouraging a shift from policing individuals to supporting group driven collaborative processes that include individual and group responsibilities alongside appropriate use of the best-available technology. We hope Gardening Australia will partner this program as Manuella already has a relationship with the program. Her personal journey to growing food is their most viewed segment, a brilliant example of gardening through mental crisis. https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/more-than-a-garden/11350600. Filming Farm It Forward’s filming of Gardening Australia’s filming of the workshop elucidates how Baroness Elsa amplified progressive agendas as part of her practice.
Relating to the work’s theme of theft, the storyline will explore how Marcel Duchamp was able to steal Baroness Elsa’s work Urinal and how fellow migrant Nikola Tesla’s work was stolen, along with Baroness Elsa’s possible murder in France in 1924 that has until my research been interpreted as suicide.
(1) Irene Gammel. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 3.