In German the word for 'history' is Geschichte. By adding only one letter, singular becomes plural and 'history' turns into 'stories' – Geschichten.
The project Demmin – eine Stadt zum Klingen bringen ('Demmin – letting a city sound') explores and gives voices to the history and stories of the German city of Demmin. The initial idea of 'letting the city sound' led to a questioning of which stories are told and which stories are silenced and forgotten. These 'other' stories are present in our environment, in the architecture, in the landscape and in the people. The aim of this project was to find a way to empower them through the expressions of human voices in dialogue with local architecture. Based on the notion that these silenced stories are carried within and among local residents (those who can still remember and tell them, and those who wrote them down) the project attempted to address the stories with the same degree of care and attention that is usually granted the official and dominant version of history.
The Haus Demmin site consists of the ruins of a fortress from the 11th century and a former mansion. The mansion was a private estate from 1850 onwards, but became a boarding school after World War II (the school existed between 1948 and 1986). Both of these structures are placed in an area that once constituted the centre of the city, but which is now marginalised, neglected and overlooked.
Exploring what stories could sound and resonate at the site of Haus Demmin, a dialogue between architecture and voice was created in collaboration with the local choir, Peenechor. This choir consists of amateur singers with varied backgrounds, united by the joy of singing in diverse musical styles. During a workshop which lasted for over two weeks we experimented with forms of fluid sound architecture and sonic placemaking. The two buildings were both inspiration and resonant bodies when we explored the relationships between place, history, architecture, stories, people and memory.
As a result of the workshop an open-air spatial composition and performance for voice and architecture was created, where stories and history as well as local fairy tales were formed into vocal music. The careful dialogue between ageing voices and decaying architecture concluded with a day of public sharing. With their voices the singers led the visitors on a journey around the estate of Haus Demmin. This listening experience gave space for contemplation, memories and imagination.
Due to its location at the crossing of the Peene, Tollense and Trebel rivers, Demmin was of strategic importance in numerous wars over several centuries. The oldest record of the city dates back to the time of Pope Innocent II in 1140. From 1283 to 1615 it was part of the Hanseatic League. After a thriving phase during the 15th and 16th centuries Demmin became Swedish in 1648, Danish in 1715 and then Prussian in 1720. In 1860 Demmin became a Garnisonsstadt for the Weisse Ulanen ('White Lancers'), a Prussian regiment, and remained so until 1920.
Demmin is located in the east of Germany, and during the last days of the Second World War the inhabitants of Demmin had to endure the atrocities of the approaching Red Army. Many hundred citizens committed suicide in the rivers to escape rape and executions. Their desperation was also due to exhaustion at the end of the long war. Nearly all of the Old Town was burned down by the Red Army. This series of events left a scar in Demmin that is still not healed. Many stories were silenced.
From 1945 until the unification of East and West Germany in 1990 Demmin was part of the German Democratic Republic. As it was described to me in Demmin, life in the GDR was “accompanied by restrictions on the individual and a focus on collective wellbeing”.
In Demmin history is visibly present. The Ulanendenkmal memorial is a remarkable example of how the history of Demmin has been linked to political agendas, and how shifting political realities often have led to a rewriting of history. The Ulanendenkmal is a memorial for the White Lancers located on a hill next to the train station, built around 1923. The monument was assembled from erratic boulders taken from ancient graves at locations in the vicinity of Demmin. These graves date back to as early as 3500 B.C. When the memorial was erected germanic engravings were added to the boulders as runes. In the wake of 1933 the monument was reinterpreted to align with national-socialistic ideologies, and from 1935 Demmin served as a consecrated place for the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP). As part of the denazification process following WWII the Ulanendenkmal memorial was destroyed. First the figure of the rider on his horse was dismantled in 1946, and in 1952 the 'Runen' were cut out and erased from the boulders, and substituted for geometric pattern markings. The torso of the rider with his inhumanly tensed muscles was later put back onto its pedestal on top of the memorial. Graffiti tags have subsequently come and gone from the monument.
In recent years right wing extremists from all over Germany have been gathering in Demmin on May 8 (the day of the capitulation of the German forces in 1945) for demonstrations, exploiting the history of the city for their own political agenda.
Around 6000 of Demmin's 16000 inhabitants left the city when the wall fell. Most of the local inhabitants who now live in Demmin have lived there their whole lives. This is partly due to the fact that education and work were regulated by the state in the GDR, and one could not choose freely where to go. The inhabitants are still marked by the history of the traumatic events in 1945 and they silently carry the weight of the past. The older residents tell both visually and aurally vivid stories of their lives here. Many of these witnesses are deeply upset by the noisy annual demonstrations on the 8th of May. This regular reminder of the trauma that the citizens of Demmin had to endure repeatedly removes the scab before the wound has healed, and it overshadows the other stories. These other stories are what fascinated me most when I experienced the city. They are when the private reveals the political, where local fairy tales give insight into life circumstances and hopes. Many stories don’t reach closure. They vibrate and resonate, and they need to be heard.
The remaining historic architecture is quietly decaying all over the city. There seems to be little interest in or priority to renovate and preserve it. Many old houses are sold to investors who wait for the buildings to decay beyond repair so that they can be legally demolished. The city does act against this, but often too late.
This is the case with respect to the two buildings forming Haus Demmin that were dialogue partners for this project.
The historic importance of the 11th century tower of the former castle at Haus Demmin was only recognised when it almost collapsed some years ago. In 2007 a sarcophagus of bricks was built to support and protect what remains, as a temporary solution. This may preserve the still extant structure of the tower but also makes the original tower inside invisible and inaccessible.
The former mansion and boarding school of Haus Demmin burned down in 1997 after it had been reassigned to the von Rohr Family in the wake of the reunification of Germany. After the fire the property was sold to the city. The remains were stabilised and a metal roof was added to protect the building from rain. The building is still left in this temporary state, a skeleton held up by crutches until it gives in to gravity.
The neglected architecture of Haus Demmin and its surroundings became a space of possibility in my project. The architecture was our ally during the attempt to listen out for its past, and have its stories resonate into the present. The combination of sound as an invisible and fleeting material, corresponding to the voice as a fleeting phenomenon, along with the seemingly permanent buildings visibly shaped by time, combine to create a strong sensation of both ephemeral and material presence.
In this project the architecture and the immediate environment shaped the music that could take place. Patterns of memory, story, architecture, nature and history guided the sonic dramaturgy and choreography. The mutability of sound allowed for time and space to be freed at a paralysed site. The perception of time and space could expand during the experience of the spatial musical performance at Haus Demmin. As the performance unfolded connected memories could be recognised. The spatial voice composition could reveal what was previously unheard.