I find it helpful to talk to myself as a child when trying to grasp and make understandable what I am seeking in co-creation with children. I was not a particularly lonesome child. I’ve had a loving mother, an absent father, caring grandparents, my dear sister, some peers and many trees around.
But I always longed for an adult friend of a different kind. I got furious when I realised that some adults were only pretending to be interested in my endeavours. I was longing for some sort of Peter Pan, joining my childhood adventures, taking them as seriously as I did, but being capable of doing things a child cannot do. Helping to realise fantastic plans, building stuff, or just assisting with endurance if I lost track.
When my first nephew L. was born eight years ago, I decided to try the best I could to be such a friend to him. But I did not expect what a close friend and artistic companion he would become to me.
When he was three, he sent this poem to me:
Ich wünsche Dir schöne Geschenke im Winter.
/ I wish you beautiful gifts in winter.
Und schöne Schmetterlinge und Hasen in tot, die man anlangen kann.
/ And beautiful butterflies and rabbits in dead, which one can touch.
Sonst die ganze Welt in ganz ganz schön blau.
/ Else all the world in all all-beautiful blue.
I was moved to tears. Since then, we have written a book about a sea-sick pirate, a knight who specialised in spinning fabric for tunics with a curly-haired horse, a lonesome pink dragon, a wolf that longs to be a dragon and miniature omniscient mole-dwarfs digging themselves from story to story. All of them fragile hero*ines, overcoming what Ursula K. Le Guin named the “killer story” (Le Guin 1986/1996, p. 152) and finding affirmation of different kinds.
We made audio pieces about the jungle-sea and its dwellers, with oceans walking over shady grounds and crabs becoming secret letters when they die; about wobbering, spinning, hovering, floating creatures and critters from other galaxies; bacteria as big as a blue whale, monsters hollowing out the sun, firedogs dying paw on paw; there were trees full of honey and water grounds gloopy like ice; dancing houses with secret mechanics, always close but never touching and a moon made of stardust.
We made animated films that took us to outer space in rockets made of wizened leaves. We’ve been turning L.’s room into the sparkling kingdom of a jellyfish. We read The sea around us by Rachel Carson, examined the sun’s surface, recorded mud puddle music and spoke to a fish. Dear L., you gave treasures to me no kingdom could pay, and I tried to find things as precious to give them back to you.
Implying our relation, what we did together, the gifts I made for L. and even more what he gave to me, to my artistic research, to my PhD endeavour, at first seemed to yield clarification: It was just the two of us – not 125 foreign kids, no institution intercalated, no labour contract, no debts and duties.
But I soon realised my dilemmas followed wherever I went: L. and I were just two, but what we did was never clearly framed as a workshop, as something partly public. It had no defined beginning and will – hopefully – have no end. It is always intimate, private, and surprising. Plus, I am not only his aunt, his co-artist, and his friend, but also the sister of his mother, the daughter of his grandmother, the aunt of his younger brother, the sister-in-law of his father and so on and so forth. With all those people and, of course, many more, we both have relations that couldn’t be more differing.
If I try to reflect on what L. and I do, the relations to all those people play immense roles. How did I communicate with and involve my sister, making it possible she would trustfully let her young one join me, going to places that she wouldn’t? How do I not lose sight of my dear other nephew, whom I want to be a good aunt for just as well? How do I, often inexplicitly and from afar, anticipate the familiar situation L. finds himself in? Is it helpful for the whole family if L. is occupied for a while or is it rather stressful to set up a skype call for us?
These are rather truisms, but I realised that if I wanted to go deeper reflecting on what I do with L., what we do together, I find myself lost again in birch wood forests of relations even vaster than before. And: There is hardly any thought worse than the apprehension that L. could one day resent me for having published or “used” what we’ve had together.
Thus firstly, I am working on finding artistic forms with L. that we both agree on and want to share. But it is rather absurd to ask L. for such decisions, so in the end, deciding on what to publish in what way is part of my risk and responsibility. I have to approach imagining L.’s present and future perspectives as well as I can.
Secondly, as a researcher, I am trying to find language and form to make my/our birch tree forest accessible, offering walkable paths, observation decks, ways in and ways out – keeping some areas restricted for privacy reasons or for the danger of getting irredeemably lost.