Installation in collaboration with a prisoner at Neustrelitz young offenders' institute

Since early 2008, Doreen Uhlig has been working with M. B., an inmate at the Neustrelitz young offenders' institute
who has learned to play piano in prison. The exhibition shows the prisoner's electronic piano standing inside a
schematic floor plan of his cell. At the same time, a recording of M. B. playing Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca" is played.
His highly individual interpretations and repeated self-corrections have been transfered onto a musical score.

Request for the complete score here

Knast sind immer die anderen / Prison is always the others
curated by Susanne Hanus
NGKB Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin / NGKB New Society for Visual Arts

22.08.2009 - 27.09.2009

Invitation / program (germ.) – download PDF

atalogue ISBN: 978-3-938515-30-3 (germ.) | ISBN: 978-3-938515-33-4 (engl.)
Link NGBK – Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, Berlin


D. U.: Okay, how shall we begin? The first question of the curator was, how did we start working together?

M. B.: I played at the classical music concert in September 2007, at the end of which you came up and started bombarding me with questions. You were there again at the next concert in October, when you asked me whether I would be interested in working with you.

D. U.: I was - how can I put it? - really blown away by the concert and the prison and by your description of life inside, really astonished and overwhelmed. If that's not reason enough for suggesting we work together, I was just very interested in trying to do something with you. But what was your reason?

Well, I guess I was also interested. I'd never done something like this before. And, I don't know, I suppose I could now say the kind of thing that people would like to hear, like "doing something positive", and stuff like that. But neither of us really knew how it was going to work out in the end, what we're doing right now. Did we?

D. U.: True. The second time we met you were hanging out with your mates after the concert, and I didn't want to disturb you. That the guards had already started saying, "time's up". That's when I went  up to you. You sat opposite me and it seemed to me like you were interviewing me, you sat there formally, with your arms on the table. All I said was, "we haven't got much time, I'm a visual artist and..." and you said, "what are you?" and I said, "I'm an artist and I'd very much like to work with you... to do a project." And you asked, "about what?" and I said, "I have no idea." I really didn't know. And you immediately said, "yes"

M. B.: Yes.

D. U.: And the guard called again, "time's up", you jumped up and so did I, and then you very firmly shook my hand, as if to make clear that you meant what you'd said. And when you did that I thought, "OK. Let's do something. It's settled now." That was great. But four month later, when I finally got a reply to my proposal giving permission to go ahead, I had to wait two month for a reply from you, and even then I wasn't sure how seriously you meant it.

M. B.: What, really? Well look, I didn't mean anything bad by it. I'm just a bit forgetful sometimes.

D. U.: But then you did answer and we met for the first time at visiting time, which always lasted an hour. There were always a lot of prisoners sitting in the room with their family and friends.

M. B.: We had a rather officious social worker timing everything, so there would be enough time for other visits. After that we met regularly in the prison, and over several hours.

D. U.: And did the other prisoners ever say stupid things to you because we were working together?

M. B.: Not really, no. In fact, not at all. If they did, then I already know how I'd react. Did anyone outside say anything stupid to you?

D. U.: They didn't say anything stupid. But they did talk to me about it a lot. Until now I haven't worked on anything that made me want - that made me need - to talk so much to other people about it. That must have to do with the fact that my experiences have been so powerful, and that can't very often contact you, my main collaborator. I also find I need sometimes to see things in some kind of perspective. But no, hardly anyone has said anything stupid; on the contrary. Of course, people ask a lot of questions. "What's it like in prison?" "Are you scared when you're together with him in a room?" And most commonly: "What did he do?" The people who now know a bit about you sometimes also ask, "How is he?“

M. B.: M.B.: And are you scared?

D. U.: No, with you I'm not the least bit scared. If it weren't for the fact that a guard kept peering into our room, I could sometimes forget that I'm in prison at all. You know, I really always sit with my back to the windows. No, I'm not afraid, but I'm often uncertain. Do you remember the time I helped you to carry the piano from the work room to your cell? I had the impression that the other prisoners where watching me very carefully. But no one actually said anything. Was there something you've said to them? Then one of them slowly got up and took the piano from me. There was some kind of tension there, some kind of conflict, but so far as I can remember no one said anything. Personally, I often still feel extremely self-conscious. I want to be able to get along normally with the other prisoners, while at the same time I know, of course, that there just isn't any normality between the other prisoners and me. Even now I still feel like I'm intruding, like I'm disturbing people. Or like I'm breaking the rules.

Let's talk about working together. What we're doing can be understood as a series of pieces. The title is PUBLICATION, which is also a programme. It was really only after some time that I clearly saw the particular desire to publish, to make something public from a prison, was effectively my own idea. It was my own projection onto you.

Publications are always important to me, and I thought that it must be even more important to me, and I thought that it must be even more important to someone in prison, because you're so cut off there from the outside world.

M. B.: Hm. You know, it isn't really that important to me. I don't really have such an overwhelming need to say something to the world that way. It's not that I don't want to, it's just that I don't have an overwhelming need to. I thing if you're an artist then it's normal to want to make something public; that's why you're an artist. But I could also live with it if we were only doing this for ourselves. Of course, it's also good when you can show something to people who have never been inside. I'm sure people outside are very interested in what life is like inside. I think that playing the piano already expresses something by itself. That's why we made PUBLICATION ONE about "not giving up". I do think that says something to people.

D. U.: I also get a strong sense from it of what matters to you in prison. And that's what I wanted to ask you: how do events going on in your life express themselves in your work

M. B.: You remember what it was like when they refused to let me out on day release; I couldn't get it out of my mind because it was so devastating. Day release would have meant that I'd have been able to get out, that I'd be able to travel around outside, first with guards and later on my own. They had more or less already promised me that they'd send off my report, but then they had second thoughts and said, let's do a review first, and that came out badly. There was that one day when I spent at least three hours going on and on about it and probably driving you right up the wall. Didn't I? And the effect of it all is to leave you feeling unmotivated.

D. U.: I can remember coming here the day after the first PUBLICATION and being in a very good mood. I had to wait a long time to see you, because right then you were having this discussion about being let out on day release. Afterwards you spent a long time telling me about it. Was it really three hours? And then you just said, "OK, now tell me about the exhibition". And I told you all about it and was very glad to be the bearer of good news. Even thought a successful exhibition can hardly be compared to getting day release. No, you've never driven me up the wall. You know, the conflict interests me, the setbacks and question of how you're going to get round them. If I'd wanted to have an easy time painting summer landscapes, I'd have never started working with a prisoner.

M. B.: Hmm.

D. U.: Maybe you could say a little more about how things are now. For the whole time the exhibition is on at the NGBK, you won't have your piano with you here in prison... Does that bother you?

M. B.: I have to say I'm already missing it. But it's for a good cause. I can still use the piano in the canteen sometimes. It's OK somehow. Although of course I miss it.

D. U.: At the last exhibition a scale plane of your cell war marked out on the floor with your piano standing inside it, while, at the same time, you had the space left by your piano marked out on the floor of your cell. I thought that was great. Of course, hardly anyone was able to see it. Including me. Only you, a couple of guards, and perhaps a couple of other prisoners would have noticed it in your room.

M. B.: Yes.

D. U.: To begin with we'd planned a different work for the NGBK...

M. B.: I drew up a recital program which involved me playing the pieces here in prison, their being transcribed as musical scores exactly as I played them, and then being played at the exhibition by a professional pianist.

D. U.: And played with all the particular peculiarities of your recital, including the mistakes and the corrections. Mistakes are in any case a crucial theme in the context of prison; when I was in prison of the first time for the concert, it was a particular mistake you made while playing that first drew my attention to you. I should explain this more clearly. You'd played such an amazing piece, a toccata and fugue by Bach adapted for piano. That's what really impressed me, your courage, or rather your presumption, in choosing this piece. Your piano teacher told me that at that point you’d only been taking lessons for a year and a half. At the time, prisoners performing at the concert were still allowed to wear civilian clothes, and you had on a dark, thick sweatshirt with a hood. During the performance I could only see the back of you. You walked over to the piano and played the toccata and fugue, and there was a point in the piece where you had to repeat phrases. You couldn’t get beyond this phrase, and kept going round and round the same part. Because I knew the piece, there were moments when I imagined I know how to find the right note, and I became really impatient. When you finally got out of it after what felt like fifty repetitions, the first thing I noticed was how tense I was. I literally sank back into my chair. But you seemed the whole time to be quite untroubled, completely calm.

If you’d played the piece without mistakes, I wouldn’t have taken quite so much notice. Perhaps I’d have thought, he can play well. But it wouldn’t have impressed me so deeply. That short moment between the mistake and the moment when you got round the mistake had great intensity for me. Partly because my wishes, hopes and expectations had become so dependent upon you, a complete stranger. It then became a starting point for our work. And it is still a theme.

M. B.: Could we take a short break? I have to go to the lav...


M. B.: They’ve just been searching my cell.

D. U.: It’s mean of them to do that just now.

M. B.: Yeah, it is. And on the weekend. Usually they search my cell on Wednesdays. That’s also what it says on the computer.


D. U.: Why did you choose the “Rondo alla turca” in particular?

M. B.: Well, I suppose because it’s so cheerful and so different from what people might be expecting. Maybe they expect some gloomy little piece, and instead they get something fast and cheerful. It makes a contrast to the place we’re in.

D. U.: Do you sometimes have good or funny moments here?

M. B.: Yeah, I do. At some point you come to terms with the whole situation, and once you do that you can actually have a laugh sometimes. I don’t know... when you’re messing about with your mates or... I don’t know, when it looked like they were going to let me out, that was also a good moment. But then it didn’t happen. But sometimes you can actually feel normal and have a but of a laugh. Perhaps not always, but sometimes.

D. U.: Maybe a lot of people would like you to spend all your time being miserable and thinking about what you did.

M. B.: But in the end that doesn’t do any good either. That doesn’t undo what happened or make it better. Of course you should think about it, but if you spend the whole time thinking about that, then I think you’d drive yourself a bit crazy. You need to get involved in other things as well. I really think that.

D. U.: Let’s talk about what we’re on and how we can get round the various obstacles to organizing it.

M. B.: At the moment there isn’t much I can do outside of here. Which means that you have to deal with everything that involves organizing things outside. The work will also be affected by the fact that you can’t stay as long as you like, but only till visiting times are over. Everything’s regulated. There are certain things you aren’t allowed to do; you need permission to take photos, you can’t show any faces, phones aren’t allowed, and you’re not allowed just to visit my cell. Or for example, you can’t just leave the recorder here so I can record what I play this evening, because recording devices aren’t allowed.

D. U.: We can’t make public everything that we record. In particular, we aren’t allowed to mention your name.

M. B.: That’s the law. To protect identities. So it doesn’t make any problems for you later on. Although even if we did mention my name now, I don’t think I’d have any problems later on.

D. U.: What I think is great is that you’ll be the only prisoner to be mentioned by name in the exhibition, even thought it’s only by your initials. Because I’m always having to explain to people that I’m not doing something with you, but that we’re actually doing something together. Which is why I’d much prefer it if I could mention your name. Otherwise people immediately get the impression that you’re just going along with things. Do you feel like you’re just going along with things?

M. B.: No, we’re doing this together. It’s not as if you suggest things to me and we do them. No, we have equal input in what we do.

D. U.: I recently gave a talk about our work together. What the audience really wanted to know was, what happened when you get out of prison? For my part I can imagine we’ll be working together for a very long time.

M. B.: So can I. But there’s still time. We can’t really say yet when I’ll be getting out. I don’t think we need to be thinking about that now, because it’s still quite a long way off.