EMBRACE at Badischer Kunstverein, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Badischer Kunstverein, credits: Marta Bogdańska

Kerstin Möller and Karolina Sobel in conversation with Charlotte Eifler.

In January 2022 the two founders of the EMBRACE PLATFORM, Kerstin Möller and Karolina Sobel, invited me to become part of their exhibition program at Badischer Kunstverein and Kinemathek Karlsruhe. The exhibition Embrace advocated for gender equality and the normalization of non-binary gender identities in Germany, Poland, and Europe more generally. The emphasis was on artistic exchange surrounding the topics of LGBTQIA+ and women’s rights, as well as on forms of nonviolent resistance. EMBRACE itself is a nomadic platform for interdisciplinary cultural and artistic exchange designed to promote both national and international cooperation. Grateful for the exchange with the invited artists Mara Ittel, Edka Jarząb, Jessica Kessler, Karol Radziszewski & Queer Archives Institute and Liliana Zeic, I felt a very specific form of togetherness within the framework of EMBRACE.

In November 2022 we met in the digital sphere to talk about the founding of their platform and the balancing act between art, politics, the public sphere and the respective framework conditions.

Charlotte Eifler: Karolina and Kerstin, could you tell us a bit about the political context in which EMBRACE was founded?

Kerstin Möller: The starting point for the foundation of EMBRACE was the election in Poland in 2020 in which the right-wing nationalist party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość ) increased the size of it majority. The situation for the queer community and also women in Poland has continuously gotten worse, as the queer community has been subjected to efforts that aim to render it invisible, or in the case of women efforts that increase restrictions on the right to self-determination, with the now almost complete ban on abortions. But there are also other cultural, political, and social situations that we have been observing or experiencing for a while. The tightening of abortion laws, the violence and exclusion towards LGBTQIA+, the emergence of “LGBTQ-free zones” in some parts of Poland—just to name a few examples specific to the Polish context. We both had the impression that in Europe, but also worldwide, there are tendencies and developments that would like to see women return to more traditional roles, especially in Poland where the (Catholic) family order is promoted again as the family idea. This of course not limited to Poland, however. The recent election outcomes in Italy but also Sweden are alarming. Today we can see that contemporary art centres in Poland appoint directors that support far-right propaganda, xenophobia and the curtailing of rights and freedoms of women, the LGBTQIA+, and queer communities. In the first year of EMBRACE, our focus was on Poland and the political situation there. EMBRACE PLATFORM, however, is not exclusively relating to a single national context, but as a platform should be able to act fluidly and actively where we see a need.

Karolina Sobel: Since 2015, a right-wing conservative government has been in power in Poland. The political situation for minorities has been worsening. The every-day oppression is present—from the local news on the radio to national TV news. A public narrative is being spread that queerness is a disease or plague, that “LGBT” is an ideology, and drag queens are equated with pedophiles. The society is polarized and that influences the everyday lives of non-heteronormative people. In order to avoid stigmatization one has to think twice before coming out, before mentioning the name or gender of one’s partner in workspaces or in the grocery shop in your neighborhood . . . Myself, I have been living in Germany for ten years now and this oppression has not directly affected my adult life. But since I come from Poland, the circumstances there motivated me to act in solidarity. In 2020 I showed my diploma project Lesbians in Warsaw—it was directly related to the first gay Polish exhibition in 2005 by Karol Radziszewski, titled Gays. It was an artistic coming out for me. The work deals with the issue of affirming the queer gaze and revolves around the intimacy between non-heteronormative people. How does this intimacy differ from a normative one and to what extent, if at all, does it threaten society? It was very important for me to bring my work back to my home country. In the framework of the exhibition program, Kerstin was invited to give a concert, reacting to the urban structures on site and contributing with a short film to the ever-evolving exhibition. On the day of Kerstin’s concert, the mood in the city of Warsaw was quite murky as the “LGBTQ ideology” had been mentioned by the Polish President Andrzej Duda as the “state enemy.” It was a small initiative that time, but we created our space ourselves. We felt there was a need for more affirmation and also a great need to relax. People wanted to be together. This was exactly the context for the creation of EMBRACE. What we continue to do in Germany is a kind of “building bridges” and networks between Poland and Germany.

CE: EMBRACE as a reaction to the once again increasing discrimination against LGBTQI+ communities and as a place of togetherness: from my experiences within networks, collectives and platforms, the balancing act between empowerment, public education and representation crystallizes repeatedly. As I understand it, you want to give participants a retreat from the daily repressions in a professional, artistic framework and at the same time create visibilities. What role does the audience play for you?

KM: I think EMBRACE PLATFORM can be understood as a container for different facets. On the one hand, it’s about networking within the scene, but also about creating a public understanding, exchanging, and maintaining visibility where censorship is already in place affecting individuals or groups. This includes a clear mediating approach within an exhibition that presents artistic positions on certain topics. So far, we are very happy to have attracted a very intergenerational audience of people between sixteen and eighty years old to our events.

KS: The audience is indeed important, but is not essential. So far, we have successfully tried different public formats (including exhibitions, workshops, concerts, DJ sets, cinema screenings, artist talks, city tours on female and queer urban histories, and roundtable discussions.) For me most important is to set the empowerment level quite high in the team, and to choose people and artworks that can carry and support this. That energy radiates later on in the events we do, and this is what the audience receives.

EMBRACE at Künstlerhaus Hannover, artist Liliana Zeic, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Künstlerhaus Hannover, artist Liliana Zeic, credits: Marta Bogdańska

CE: When you look back, did you feel that a platform that explicitly exhibits queer was lacking?

KS: Yes, I did feel such a platform was lacking on an institutional level , although not at the grassroots levels. The last three years we have observed a lack of institutional support for minorities in Poland, especially from public institutions. It leads to a shortage of funds to practice one’s art and survive. In other words, the state is trying to get rid of queer artists. In response, various independent initiatives are developing. EMBRACE became one of them. However, the success of these initiatives depends on the determination of the artists, curators, or art producers themselves. In Poland, many of the structures that have dominated the institutions so far will have to be reassessed. We should rethink which formats still have the power to convey a message. Clearing up the Polish art scene of queer artists and banning them from an “official” discourse is a real threat to society, which only deepens divisions. It is up to all of us to decide what model of community we want to maintain and continue.

KM: What I have been missing is a platform that has a direction/framework but can react flexibly to current issues. A platform that can support our individual but also collective practices and collaborations. However, EMBRACE does not explicitly exhibit queer artists—it is not only about queer art, but also about women’s rights, gender equality, and normalizing gender diversity. Basically, it’s about basic democratic values. That’s why it’s been so important for us to create a platform that can act and react flexibly. The political implications of the EMBRACE PLATFORM encourage collaboration, care, anti-colonial, and anti-xenophobic approaches to work.

CE: The idea of our current issue political bodies also implies that not every body, every entity is granted equal possibilities and rights, let alone a universalism. Do you sometimes feel that as queer artists you have to produce specifically queer work? Or do you tend to work against labeling?

KS: In my view, queer artists don’t have to produce queer work. I don’t describe myself as a queer artist either. It is about the “gaze” who looks at what and how. A work could be produced about stones, but still it is made by a person with a queer gaze. I believe that the metric is reflected in the work and other parameters are accompanying the process. It is a choice to label oneself or not, it is a question of visibility and identity politics, how radical or open we would like to act.

KM: What kind of society do I want to advocate for? How can I incorporate a feminist and/or queer approach into my work whilst supporting the work of others? EMBRACE is fluid enough to open the door to other bordering topics while maintaining its own base. The queer term that I am more interested in, and that I see as the basis for EMBRACE, is not positioned exclusively on issues around LGBTQIA+. I see it as an understanding that relates to intersecting identities and social power structures such as race, religion, class, etc. And how each of these impact social oppression and privilege. I was told very casually in a press interview last year, and kind of put in a corner, that I was advocating for “women’s issues”—whatever exactly is meant by that. So, I was already labeled.

CE: The founding of a platform also opens up the possibility of defining the working conditions and the setting in which art, discourse, and networking takes place. To grasp the bigger picture: how do you want to work? What is important to you?

KS: EMBRACE PLATFORM for me means creating longer-term structures surrounding how we want to work, who we want to work with, what we want to build. How do we communicate and how can things work? We’re reinventing this over and over again. It starts in the moment we receive funding, then the work of the participants can be rewarded. The context of the institution is extremely important because it creates visibility, and gives us access to a discourse. There is then also the backdrop for the art, which becomes a physical place to meet and to find and host the audience.

KM: Yes, we can influence certain parameters of our working environment and that’s what we’ve geared EMBRACE towards: exhibition fees, good communication, and clearly setting capacity limits, and the best working environment that we can offer within our limitations—these are all important points. Also, it is central that our guests feel comfortable and so we try to create safe spaces where necessary. It is also about understanding art and cultural institutions as spaces for political and social action and to give visibility to specific discourses and themes. We are definitely still in the development phase, and we are incredibly grateful that we had the opportunity, for example at the Badischer Kunstverein, to simply do it, to test and to make. Anja Casser (Director of Badischer Kunstverein) has given us a lot of trust, for which we are thankful.

CE: I have to tie the institutional theme to this: how important is the framework of a professional art business to you? Do you think that something is lost on a political level or is something gained, when you work in a within those structures? It is, I guess, the age-old question on the relationship between politics and art . . .

KS: In my view, politics is an amplifier for us at the moment and has also motivated us to act and take a stand. EMBRACE was founded in order to intervene within the professional art business. In Germany, it is easier to cooperate, and we are then even welcome in institutions. In Poland it is a completely different situation. For our next EMBRACE event we gained a partner institution in Poznan, where we want to organize events next year. This institution works like the backstage of a national institution. It is a state linkage and in this setting, we wish to intervene in Poznan.

KM: In any case, there is also the question of how institutions can be involved to make political works visible. Either by cooperation or peaceful occupation. I’m also still wondering about the boundaries and trajectories of activism. There is so much art that is already activist out there, that is clearly anchored in the institutional art context. And it works.

CE: A question to conclude, transferring from the art world to the teaching world, from one institution to another: As current and former teachers at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe (HfG), you’ve gained insights into the various facets of an educational path. What (political) framework conditions would you like to see implemented in the university context?

KS: I think mandatory training in the areas of anti-discrimination, and LGBTQIA+ awareness for all employees at the university would be desirable. They can start in very low-threshold formats, but that’s how an understanding of these issues can be reinforced.

KM: Yes, I agree and a conscious approach to power structures and issues of intersectionality! It also leads to the topic of equity vs. equality, and how all students can be supported well, as different financial realities exist. How can the capitalist pressure, which is definitely there, be connected with artistic freedom and critical questioning. I think this will remain an inexhaustible topic, which might be intensified by the current inflation, energy crisis, price explosions, etc. I am currently reading about “Queering Pedagogies,” this could also be great as a project seminar.

CE: Dear Kerstin, dear Karo, thank you for your time and this conversation and I am looking forward to your upcoming projects!

Embrace website is coming soon, stay tuned:



EMBRACE at Kinemathek Karlsruhe, Charlotte Eifler & Diana McCarty, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Kinemathek Karlsruhe, Charlotte Eifler & Diana McCarty, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Badischer Kunstverein, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Badischer Kunstverein, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Künstlerhaus Hannover, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Künstlerhaus Hannover, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Künstlerhaus Hannover, credits: Marta Bogdańska

EMBRACE at Künstlerhaus Hannover, credits: Marta Bogdańska

About the authors

Karolina SobelKerstin MöllerCharlotte Eifler

Published on 2022-12-08 12:45