Veronika at Pankumenta (Credit: Daniel Kovács)
One of the three possible concentrations of the Humanities, the Arts, and Social Thought (HAST) program at Bard College Berlin is Arts & Aesthetics. This concentration encompasses a variety of art forms and fields, including the performing and visual arts. Two students who demonstrate the vast array of possibilities that arise from pursuing this major are Ania Flanigan and Veronika Rišňovská, two of the graduating seniors from BCB’s Class of 2020, who I recently interviewed and who will be following completely different paths. As a student in the Economics, Politics, and Social Thought (EPST) program, I wanted to learn more about the types of classes and activities that HAST students are involved in throughout these four years of college. I was also curious about how their experiences with a liberal arts education have shaped them as artists and activists, and influenced their plans for the future.
Daniela Silva: Tell me a little bit about yourselves… Where are you from? What are some of your interests?
Ania Flanigan: Hi, I’m American, I come from Baltimore, Maryland and for the past couple years I’ve dedicated a lot of time to exploring film studies and film production because of the passion I have developed for documentary filmmaking. Consequently, I end up joining my personal life with academics, as I find myself going to watch films, taking film courses and now researching the ethics behind documentary filmmaking for my thesis project.
Veronika Rišňovská: I’m from Slovakia, my field of interest is the practicing arts, and I mainly focus on performance and theater, but also find ways to get involved with a bit of sound and film production too. I go to the theater often, as well as galeries around the city. Berlin has so much to offer in terms of art which makes it the perfect place to be to study performance.
D: What are your future plans for after you leave BCB? Where do you see yourself working/ living/ studying in the next year/ next few years?
A: Well, for a long time I’ve been debating whether to move back to the United States or not, and finally decided I will because of the type of work I want to be doing in the future. I want to make documentary films about different social, political and ecological issues that society faces right now. I realized that it makes no sense for me as an American to sit in Germany and watch the country I grew up in go through these major problems and not take any action. So, in terms of a job, I want to join the movement to create and stimulate change by being back home and present, and I want to do work that spreads this type of awareness.
V: Some of the options I’m considering are taking a break from studying in the form of a gap year. I also applied to some artistic residencies which I’ll be hearing back from later on, and I was offered an internship in a theatre that I’ll be considering, too. To me what is most important is to be involved with art in some way, either by curating, producing or assisting with direction. Even if it turns out to be unpaid at first, I understand the importance of taking things one step at a time and creating a network. When it comes to living, I’m leaning towards staying in Germany, because it has become home to me and it is full of possibilities. Moving somewhere else in Europe, as a European citizen, could also work out. In turn, what I hope for the future is that the legacy of Pankumenta, our student-led arts festival, lives on. I was its founder, and it is so dear to me, so as I leave BCB, I hope it continues to be this event that unites all artists of BCB with the outside Berlin community.
D: Now, I invite you to reflect a little on your education. What do you feel like you will take from what you’ve learned during your time at BCB to your personal and professional life after graduating?
A: Every year has taught me something different. My freshmen year was about understanding this newfound freedom away from my parents and the experience of being in a different continent. It took me some time to get adjusted to everything. In my second year, I moved off campus and it was a time for me to learn about sharing community spaces. Academically, I was trying out all sorts of classes that fit into my degree and I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted my education to look like, so I was just exploring. Then, in my third year I spent a semester abroad at Bard College in Annandale and it definitely set me up for the next two years as I felt confident that filmmaking was what I wanted to. Study abroad was when I finally tailored my education with what I’m most passionate about. I have valued highly the feeling of living in a city like Berlin and meeting so many inspiring and interesting thinkers from all over the world.
D: What was the highlight of your college experience?
A: I’d be surprised if people didn’t answer that the biggest highlight for them weren’t the people they’ve met, because this community is so beyond special. However, another major highlight for me was getting to know Berlin. Berlin has a lot of good things to offer, but more important to me has been seeing how Berlin (and Germany as a whole) deals with its problems in comparison with how my home country does, for example. Questions like, “How does healthcare work here?” and “What is the mentality behind public transportation functioning so well?”, were so eye opening and inspiring to me as I discovered the city and its systems. A simple example that comes to mind is German grocery stores. I was absolutely fascinated at the fact that there are no plastic bags available and how normalized this behavior was. Now, when I go grocery shopping back home with my parents I always tell them to bring bags.
V: I believe BCB offers the perfect balance between life on campus and life in the outside world. While we do spend a lot of time dedicated to our courses, we also get the chance to complement our education with real life internships and valuable experiences. Once again, I feel like my time at BCB would not be the same if it weren’t for the wonderful, motivating and supportive professors I encountered here, which I keep retaking classes with every year. The relationships I built with some of them (hopefully they know who they are) were so important to my growth and trajectory here.
D: What were some of the struggles? Was there anything you wished had been different?
A: Well, I struggled a bit with German and was never able to fully get into the language like I wished. It was difficult for me at first because I imagined that living in a German city would have me speaking German all the time, everywhere I went. I soon found out that Berlin is a special case, and it is very easy to fall into the trap of speaking English everywhere I went. In fact, it’s not just English but almost every language that I heard being spoken around me like Arabic, Turkish, French, and then German here and there. But the fun part was that I felt as though I practiced my Spanish as much as I practiced my German while living here!
V: I guess personally, during my first two or three semesters, I was still imagining what my life and education would look like if I had gone to a proper traditional drama school elsewhere and this type of doubt was a struggle in the beginning. Yet, with time and through an exchange period I did at a theater academy, I was able to find myself in the education I was getting at BCB. I realized I enjoyed the balance of critical thinking and analysis with craft making that I had at BCB and that I didn’t necessarily get at the academy.
D: What are some classes that influenced you at BCB?
A: Actually, in my first semester I took an Intro to Film: Hitchcock course with Professor Matthias Hurst and it was so fun. After a few classes, I immediately knew he would be someone I would retake classes with, and now he’s my academic advisor. It has been a really cool trajectory of getting to know him as a film lover like me even before I had found this passion for film. He’s someone I can always talk to, and that’s a great feeling.
V: I think it is less about the classes and more about the professors. I have three women mentors and faculty that I look up to a lot and who are assisting me in different ways with my thesis project: Julia Hart, Nina Tecklenburg, and Dorothea von Hantelmann. However, if I had to name a few unexpected courses that influenced me a lot, these would be the Early Modern Science Core Course, Origins of Political Economy Core Course, and Forms of Love Core Course. None of them are necessarily art related but became my favorites because they really expanded my horizons and also reminded me that I am interested in thinking about how society is managed when it comes to politics, science and religion. Furthermore, Early Modern Science led me to better understand the revolution of Epic Theatre, since what Brecht was trying to do was to break away with the Aristotelian dictatorship in theater (similarly to Shakespeare), which was essentially what many scientists of the 17th century were also doing. All three core courses forced me to go outside of my comfort zone but it did not hurt. Surprisingly, it became a fun and interesting experience that deepened my understanding of the world and influenced my art.
D: Could you tell me a little about your thesis?
A: My thesis will be about the ethics of documentary filmmaking. I noticed that documentaries are where art and politics meet each other, and films have a lot of power of potentially creating change. However, I will argue in my thesis that this change doesn’t really come about most of the time. Filmmakers make tons of films about parts of the world where tragedies and wars are happening and about other extremely difficult topics to deal with directed at predominantly Western audiences, but then nothing really happens afterwards, the population affected in, for example, the Global South isn’t helped in any way. These were issues I was considering when I decided to dedicate my life to making films, finding ways to use them for a cause, and making the final product be meaningful. As a filmmaker, I think it is of utmost importance to think about how harmful the process of making a film can be and not only think about getting the best shots or advancing your own name.
V: I’m writing my thesis about the working structures of the state theatres in Berlin, with a focus on three specifically; the Volksbühne, Maxim Gorki and Theater an der Parkaue. I’m basically analysing how all of them joined a democratic movement based on equality, tolerance, antiracist, and antifascist ideals. Theaters put on shows dealing with capitalism, global warming, migration and more, but, within themselves as institutions, their creative process and their power structures are still very hierarchical. For example, women actresses get paid less than male actors. This just shows how what they perform contradicts who they are and how they behave “backstage.” I will be analysing this situation and point towards alternatives and solutions for this problem. To add to my work, I am interviewing people from the three theatres about their views on this issue.
D: Do you feel like you’ve changed since you first started studying at BCB? Has your education here shaped your decisions for the future? If so, how?
A: Oh yes, I have changed on so many levels. Before coming to Berlin, I thought college was an exit button from high school and living with my parents, but then I soon realized that it was actually an enter button to a whole new chapter of my life. I have definitely matured in the way I use my time as well, and I’m sad to leave both this institution and city because I could keep taking classes here for years and years here and still learn new things everyday.
V: Yes, for sure. Thinking back, I see myself as more independent as I was four years ago. I’ve acquired so many new skills, I’m more aware about the world and became a critical thinker in all that I do. Coming from a circus school and then dance school, I also had the plan of being a performer all my life, but then gradually I found a passion for directing from a class I took with professor Julia Hart at BCB, then also for curating from a class with professor Dorothea von Hantelmann. I changed in big and small ways, evolved and became open to other possibilities I hadn’t considered before.
D: As a final question, if you could give advice to someone following a similar academic/career path as yours at BCB, what would it be?
A: Don’t stop at one class, learn from different types of artists and professors because they all will teach you something new in their own way. I have taken film courses with at least four different professors in the past two years and it is so enriching, even if it seems like the content you are offered is somewhat similar. Finally, be open to the core curriculum courses, despite some of them seeming unrelated to the Arts & Aesthetics concentration like The Early Modern Science Core, be open and like me, you might be surprised.
V: I would tell them not to be shy or afraid to reach out to people and find your own opportunities. Also to make the most out of what you have available, establish relationships with the wonderful people you will meet at BCB and enjoy the wonderful city that is Berlin.
D: This is great advice, thank you for talking with me!