Presence and Imagination
“For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Walter Benjamin 
When I was a child, I imagined that the paint on the walls of the rooms I lived in would record every single sound to be heard there, similar to the magnetic tape used for recording; for this reason, nothing would ever be lost and, with the right equipment, you could listen to anything that had ever happened here—children chattering, declarations of love, music played on the radio, or conspiratorial agreements. I never really gave up on this idea, and anyone who has moved into a house or apartment previously occupied by strangers and, upon removing layers of old kitchen wallpaper, has uncovered even older newspapers behind them, who has found a coin jammed between the floorboards or a random selection of pan lids, old shoes, dilapidated suitcases, and other junk in the loft, will perhaps recall the strange chill they felt when they came across these things. It is a sudden reminder that others have been where you are now; others lived here and went about their everyday activities, then they disappeared, leaving nothing behind except some random, fragmentary, mysterious traces as irrefutable evidence of their existence. Only later did I come to realize that what I had wished for as a child was a peculiar totality—that everything should be preserved, accessible and meaningful; no disappearance, no death should be final. None of these wishes were ever fulfilled.
A piece of land near Berlin’s main railway station was once the site of the Zellengefängnis Lehrter Straße, a solitary confinement prison that was built in the late 1840s and mainly held prisoners on remand. The prison complex suffered extensive bomb damage during the Second World War and most of the buildings were demolished in the late 1950s. The three remaining buildings had previously been used to house prison guards and administrative staff. Between 2003 and 2006, a large part of the former prison site was transformed into a “history park” dedicated to the resistance fighters and activists who had been detained there, including members of the clergy, Communists, and some of those involved in the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. The apartments in the remaining buildings were rented out; Beate Gütschow now uses one of these as a studio.
The park is one way of dealing with a past that has condensed into history, in other words, into a network of names, dates, and events—an arrangement of facts and accounts. It is a history with its own words and images, a history that can be communicated, examined, and articulated, whereby it shows itself above all as something absent and resolved. It can be converted into symbolic monuments, memorial stones, and plant arrangements, and it can also be represented in a museum context in the form of relics—mundane everyday objects such as caps, spoons or pencils—that are usually unable to provide specific information about what happened but are assigned value as relics because they were in a particular place at a time when history was being made. Such constellations enable history to be recognized as an occurrence and to be banished; they invite shocked emotional responses and may lead to the claim that lessons have ultimately been learned from what took place. But is that possible? Can something be learned from history for the present? This history is less for than about the present—a present that prefers to transform the space and time of its past into memorial sites and days of remembrance ensures that this history can simultaneously be separated from itself as something that is over and done with, finished, something that has passed and may now be occasionally recalled in a ritual manner, as a tradition or day of commemoration. And while installations such as the park may attempt to translate history into the present tense and give it presence, these transformations into copper beech hedges, keyholes in the climbing wall of a children’s playground, or lines from poems written by a former inmate can easily be overwhelmed by the incidental banalities of everyday life in the present.
Yet it is precisely into everyday life that not so much “history” as “the past” can seep, its pores opening up in places where this past has remained material and the relics have not been completely stripped of their accessibility and their specific functions. What we then have are reconstructions in the subjunctive—this is how it might have been, how it could have looked. Although such reconstructions are also based on historical knowledge, the result is not a historicist determination of “how it really was” but rather an oscillation between presence and imagination.
This hybridity is evident in the reconstructions themselves. They lack not only the cheerful assurance with which visions of the future are so often imbued, for example the simulated everyday scenarios of architectural renderings, but also the unity of such simulations. The images are not intended to illustrate or represent the past; instead, for the time being, they extend the realities of the respective presents into these pasts. The reconstructions cannot achieve completeness; they can only create a roughly defined image that remains open to other subjunctive forms of the past: if it could have been like this, how could it have been different?
Tietjen, Friedrich. “Presence and Imagination” In Beate Gütschow: ZISLS. Heidelberg, 2017, pp. 90-103.
Translated by Jacqueline Todd.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in idem, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn. London: Pimlico/Random House, 1999, p. 247.