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Follow your own visions: In conversation with Aino Laberenz

Aino Laberenz sitting on a pink sofa
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Aino Laberenz, all-rounder and multitasker par excellence, gives us an insight into her project of the heart: the Operndorf Afrika in Burkina Faso.

We meet up with Aino Laberenz in the offices of the “Operndorf Afrika” on a cold morning. Her co-workers have already provided us with tea when Aino enters the storefront just a little while later wearing a thick knitted cap, casual boots and a cosy synthetic fur jacket. Her appearance is instantly mesmerising. She is known in the capital for her style at least as much as she is known throughout Germany for her work at the theatre and in the arts environment. However, her heart has been in one project above all since 2010: the Operndorf Afrika, which she has further evolved and fundamentally built up since the passing of her husband Christoph Schlingensief. The globally conceived art project sees itself not only as a place that offers perspectives; it also and above all wants to be a sphere of creative exchange between cultures. Not an easy task to accomplish. But Aino Laberenz is nonetheless keen to face it every day anew. The same is true for her work as a stage and costume designer, which she also pursues regularly. At the same time, the petite 36-year-old is an integral part of Berlin’s cultural and scene life – be it a fashion event, film premiere, vernissage or cultural event: Aino Laberenz seems to be everywhere. That too is part of her job. However, in the conversation with She’s Mercedes it quickly becomes evident that behind all the hustle and bustle is a strongly grounded woman, who draws her strength especially from the profound passion for her work.

She’s Mercedes: You are carrying on the vision of your deceased husband Christoph Schlingensief with the Operndorf Afrika. Did you know from the start that you wanted to dedicate yourself to this project? How strong was the pressure?

Aino Laberenz: I was already a part of it when the project was created. That is why I never asked myself whether I would continue, but rather how. During my first trip after the passing of Christoph Schlingensief the people in Burkina Faso begged me to continue the Operndorf. Christoph’s vision was and has always been the starting and the reference point for the realisation of the project. I have tried to make his idea a reality as good as possible.

What then is the idea behind the Operndorf? How has the project developed or potentially even changed as the result of your work?

To me, those are fundamentally very different questions. The project certainly changed with me – just as it changed me, too. With me and without Christoph Schlingensief it has gone its own ways. Although it would have been weird to me if this change didn’t happen. It is important to me that while we outwardly uphold Christoph Schlingensief’s idea, we nonetheless above all also focus in more detail on the entire implementation, on the people, on the place and all that. The Operndorf is meant to be a platform for intercultural exchange, relevant discourses and creative development, or rather it already is. In future, this is supposed to come to the fore much more strongly still: We want to create something where people have respect for each other, where they engage in an artistic and interpersonal exchange and work together. The whole thing is not only supposed to be linked to the specific place in Burkina Faso, it is also supposed to create an equivalent sphere for us here in Germany.

What obstacles did you face at first? What hurdles did you have to overcome?

There are actually obstacles time and time again – they are merely always different ones. Just that the project spans two continents, different languages are spoken and different cultures come together is not always easy. The obstacles were definitely of a bigger nature at first. It was difficult to start the Operndorf after Christoph Schlingensief’s death – in the building of it and in other areas – and having to deal with the void he left behind at the same time. This void still exists today and it also will always remain visible. All in all, I would not consider these obstacles as something negative, but as part of the process and as something quite fundamental that concerns you and that is being condensed in the Operndorf project.

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How is the project financed?

The Operndorf Afrika is financed by private donations, which make up more than 90 percent of the budget. In recent years, we have built a circle of loyal members and are in the process of expanding it continuously. We also get project funding every now and then, for example from the German Foreign Ministry, the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development or for events sometimes from the German Federal Agency for Civic Education. The Goethe Institute also is a permanent partner. But we finance our main part through the private commitment of many individuals – and we see this above all as encouragement for our work.

We want to create something where people have respect for each other, where they engage in an artistic and interpersonal exchange and work together. Aino Laberenz

You also organise art auctions at regular intervals. The last one took place in late September. Please tell us a little bit more about it.

In the last seven years, we put on three very different auctions. The last was a t-shirt auction. International women artists designed custom t-shirts – that resulted in 37 unique pieces, which we auctioned off in the KÖNIG GALERIE in Berlin. The auction was an affair that allowed these women artists to spread their wings freely, which was fun for them. To me, it is important in general to work closely with the art scene: I am interested in its perception and it is very important to me personally – including in the exchange on the Operndorf. It is after all an art project. Of course, I was very delighted that KÖNIG GALERIE and Lempertz Auction House helped us with the t-shirt auction – we have a great circle of supporters. My wish is to expand it yet further.

You are also the administrator of your husband’s estate. How do we have to envision this work?

Working with the estate includes dealing with inquiries from various exhibition fields, planning exhibitions, securing, archiving and restoring works and texts. But also talking about publications and releasing images. To this end, I am working with Hauser & Wirth Gallery, which represents Christoph Schlingensief, and in addition with Film Gallery 451, which handles the cinematic estate. Part of the estate also lies in the Academy of Arts. There I ensure that the work is made accessible for the academic debate. Basically, it is about finding a way to deal with the works of Christoph Schlingensief after his death.

You are a stage and costume designer by trade. With all the work, do you still have any time at all to pursue this occupation?

I would certainly say that this is an area I need and from which I draw new input for myself. It is important to me in general to be moving in different spheres and stay open for new things. The theatre provides me with yet another point of access to different contexts and of course that is also how I earn my living. Working for the Operndorf is in an honorary capacity. That in turn requires good planning in connection with the project and the administration of Christoph Schlingensief’s estate. Nevertheless, a lot of things run parallel – that is sometimes unavoidable, but it can also be fruitful.

It is important to me in general to be moving in different spheres and stay open for new things. Aino Laberenz

Anyone who even briefly clicks through your image galleries or your Instagram account will immediately notice the wonderful style in which you dress. Is fashion a private passion of yours?

Because I am a costume designer, I am close to fashion – even though fashion and costumes are very different. I am generally interested in forms of expression, and that is what fashion also is, of course.

You said in an interview that you actually do not want to be satisfied, but much rather want to be in search of something. Are you afraid of stagnation?

I wouldn’t say afraid, but I prefer to keep moving. I think that is easy to understand for anyone who works artistically or as a freelancer. As such, you’re always on the move in general.

With all the different tasks, is there anything resembling routine in your life at all?

I love having smaller routines in my daily life, for example, the morning coffee or tea. I also like to follow certain rituals when I travel.

What do you do for balance and relaxation?

Basically, I like my work and don’t experience it as something that I need to balance out. I also don’t feel that I am permanently stressed by it. However, there are definitely phases where a lot is coming together all at once, and then it helps me to have certain things for balance: do sport or go to the sauna sometime.

Do you have a very special wish for 2018?

I am not a person who makes grand resolutions for the new year. The Operndorf alone will keep us thoroughly busy in 2018 and my wish is that the projects all turn out fantastic. I do not plan my calendar from start to finish, but I need structure nonetheless. I more and more feel the desire to try something new, to grow personally and to leave old pastures every now and then to discover new ones. But first and foremost, I want to realise everything we set out to do this year, and to constantly improve the project and of course myself in the process.

Thank you for the interview!