Svea Braeunert is a DAAD Visiting Associate Professor in German Studies and Film and Media Studies at the University of Cincinnati. Her research interests include twentieth- and twenty-first-century art, literature, and film, media theory and visual culture, concepts of memory, trauma, and deferred action, and gender studies. She is the author of Gespenstergeschichten: Der linke Terrorismus der RAF und die Künste (2015), and co-author and co-curator of To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare (2016).
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We asked Svea a few questions about her work and experience:
1. What sparked your interest in education and teaching, especially teaching abroad?
I got drawn to art, literature, and media early on, and I still consider it a privilege to work in a field I truly care about. I enjoy teaching, because I continuously learn from my students, and I love to see them grow, develop their unique interests, find their own voice, and become independent thinkers.
Teaching German Studies as well as Film and Media Studies at the University of Cincinnati is a wonderful experience for me. I became part of the department at a time when it reinvented itself as a place for German Studies with a focus on media cultures. Together with the department’s emphasis on experiential learning and on the development of interdisciplinary projects in collaboration with the community, I found a temporary home here that suits my academic interests and work style.
Furthermore, having studied previously at Washington University in St. Louis and at Cornell, I had a pretty good idea of US academia before coming to Cincinnati, and one of the things I have always appreciated the most about the US system is the way in which students and professors are able to work together here.
2. What are you currently working on?
A recurring concern of my research is the intersection of aesthetics and politics, covering topics such as terrorism, war, drones, surveillance, and migration. Furthermore, I am interested in the relationship between text and image, understanding literature as an expanded field, while drawing on theories of perception and perspective to analyze the narrative structure of literary texts. Within these fields, I am currently working on three large-scale research projects.
One is a book tentatively titled Urgency and Uncertainty: Media Cultures of Drone Warfare that deals with the ways in which contemporary art has addressed drone warfare; a precursor to it was the exhibition To See Without Being Seen: Contemporary Art and Drone Warfare that I co-curated with Meredith Malone: https://www.kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu/ToSeeWithoutBeingSeen. Related to this project is a second book on German literature’s writing of aerial warfare combining narrative and spatial perspective. And third and last, I am interested in what I call the Liquid States of Migration, looking at migration, media, and ecology.
3. You recently participated in A Night of Philosophy and Ideas at the Brooklyn Library. What topics did you discuss and how would you describe the experience in general?
My talk at A Night of Philosophy and Ideas was titled Media Cultures of Drone Warfare: Thinking About the (Un)Seen. It dealt with the rise of drones as new military tools in the 21st century that effect a drastic shift in power dynamics. For a long time, there were hardly any images available to document the drone war. Artists sensed this void and created a number of works responding to the lack of images and the new forms of vision and perspective put forward by drones. In my talk, I presented a number of these artworks, but I also raised the question whether the impetus on making visible is always appropriate in a constellation that can – and indeed often is – about queering and questioning dominant modes of visibility. My elaboration of these ideas was pushed forward by the fact that, due to technical limitations on site, I was not able to show any images as part of my presentation. That led me to describe a number of the images I have worked with for many years, which in turn led to new and intriguing insights. I find this particularly intriguing, as I am increasingly wondering what happens between different media and modes of expression – as the result of a translation between words and images for instance.
A Night of Philosophy and Ideas is a truly exceptional event. It is immensely inspiring to see people come out in large numbers – there were about 8,000 people throughout the night – to hear a wide range of interdisciplinary scholars speak about their take on today’s world. Also, I found it remarkable that people seemed to come from a wide range of demographics and were open and eager to engage with each other for a night. There were so many conversations – as part of the official lectures, but also afterwards in the stacks. I absolutely loved being part of that experience, and I hope events like this will continue to bring people together and engage in conversation in these often antagonistic and sometimes even anti-intellectual times.
4. What was the most challenging experience you have ever had in pursuing research/teaching abroad?
The first time I was in the US was when I was sixteen. I lived with an American host family in Massachusetts and went to a US high school for my senior year. When I first arrived there, I had to realize that the English I had learned in school did not help me much in communicating everyday tasks. I did not know words such as sheets or silverware. Also, it took most of my energy and attention to just figure out what was going on; that made it difficult to actively participate in conversations. Naturally, after about three months, this was not an issue anymore and I sounded like any American teenager. However, when I returned to the US six years later on a Fulbright scholarship, this is exactly what became a challenge. I had to realize that my colloquial English was not suitable for an academic context, and that I had to learn it all over again.
5. What was the most ‘German’ experience you have had in the United States?
That depends on how you understand the question. If you mean moments in which I realized that I am German –or European –, I can think of several instances. They range from the produce I buy and the way I cook to my tendency to be pretty straight-forward and critical. Interestingly though, most people assume that I am Scandinavian and not German. But that might be due to my first name, which is Swedish. If you mean moments in which I encountered German culture in the US, they were also numerous. A number of my colleagues are German, and Cincinnati is most likely one of the most ‘German’ cities in the US due to its immigration history. One of the most popular neighborhoods is called Over the Rhine, and there is lots of German heritage visible throughout the city.
6. What advice would you give to students who are thinking of choosing your field of study?
Learning German can be an asset for students in a number of different fields, including engineering, design, art, and music. Hence, it might be beneficial to learn the language and take German as a minor no matter what your major is. If you do, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and don’t be frustrated if you don’t understand every single word. The most important thing is applying the language and enjoying its cultural nuances. Also, if you get the opportunity, spend as much time as possible in a German-speaking country and get to know life there. I am sure you will enjoy it!
If you think about pursuing an MA or PhD in German Studies, make sure you are passionate about German literature, art, or film. Get ready to read, think, and write – a lot. Get ready to question what you have taken for granted. Understand that the field is changing and that the PhD might not necessarily lead to a tenure track position in academia, but to an exciting job in cultural programming. And enjoy the opportunity to explore, grow, and find your own stance.
7. What advice would you give to German students and researchers who are thinking of pursuing research abroad in the United States?
Before choosing a specific school or program, talk to several people about your interests and ask them for their advice based on your research profile. There are a number of fantastic programs in the US that you might not be aware of, because they are not based at one of the Ivy League schools, although they are just as good or even better.
8. Which pictures, plants or unusual objects are there on your desk?
I just bought myself a toy New York City subway cart, which makes me smile at least once a day. When you switch it on, its doors open and close and you get to see a fantastic and rather excentric combination of people riding the subway.
9. Can you cook a German dish without a recipe? If so, which one?
When I moved to the States, I noticed how little of my cooking is actually German. One of my standards that I can cook without a recipe is Flammkuchen (tarte flambée).
10. Who has inspired you the most in your career and why?
I was very fortunate to have many people who have supported and inspired me throughout my intellectual development. However, Sabine Eckmann and Lutz Koepnick probably had the biggest impact on me. I met them when I studied at Washington University in St. Louis in 2004/05, and due to their background in art history, curating, and media studies, they sparked my interest in interdisciplinary work. They have supported me at various junctures in my career, and I value their feedback to this day.
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