BERLIN – Tourists and Berliners lingering around the Berlin Wall Memorial this past month may have seen an odd sight every Sunday and Thursday on the corner of Bernauer and Ackerstraße in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood: A woman dressed in a crisp sixties secretary suit, with matching vintage jewelry and hair, seated at a small fold-out table, with an authentic sixties typewriter, stamps, and a big smile.
Sheryl Oring, a performance artist and the woman in question, spent the month in her little pop-up office, asking passers- by to stop for a minute and share their stories and memories of the Berlin Wall.
For every volunteer, she dutifully typed up their recollections on little postcards, stamped them with “Achtung,” (careful) “Ungültig,” (invalid) or “Wichtig” (important), among others, and filed them away to be displayed as part of an exhibition at the Kennedy Museum in Berlin beginning on November 6th.
Oring, 48, a performance artist and former journalist, performed this, her most recent work, Maueramt: A Project of Memory and Storytelling between September 4 and October 9 at the Berlin Gedankstätte. Her exhibit of these postcards – little snippets of memory that will help to color in the picture of what Berlin was like before, during, and since the Wall has fallen – will be one of the many that marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany. In the first two days of her performances, she said, she collected between 35 and 40 memories.
“It is a little harder to convince Germans to participate than it was in the States,” said Oring, who has done similar typewriter- based projects in the US. “In my estimates of how many I would do in a given day, it is dramatically lower here. I think people are a little shy or not sure. But then the people who do sit down and really talk to me always have really good stories.”
For example, one woman who told Oring she moved from then-Czechoslovakia to Germany in 1962, just after the Wall went up, to marry a man she had been in correspondence with for two years, but whose language she didn’t speak. “We got married without language skills,” the post card reads. “We even had a child without language skills!” Another young woman from Ukraine told Oring about how her mother informed her that she and her family would be moving to Germany after the Wall fell. “[My mother] tried to convince me that things would be better there, because I would have to leave all my family and friends, but I would get a piece of chewing gum every day,” the woman said in her postcard.
An older gentleman shared the story of watching the wall being built with his parents, and then accidentally finding themselves on the wrong side – that is, the West, and he lived in the East.
“His parents kind of pulled up this barbed wire and went through and went back to the East, but he, as a little boy, didn’t want to go through,” Oring recalled. “So they had to pick him up and actually carry him back into East Berlin.”
“Just little things like that are touching and nice to preserve as a historical memory,” Oring smiled.
Oring, originally from North Dakota, has adapted this same persona – time period costume with a typewriter – for several other similar projects surrounding other major world events, such as the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, when she did a project called “Collective Memory.”
“For that performance I had 10 typists, so it really expanded in scale,” Oring said, “and we had this huge kind of performative event behind the public library in Manhattan.”
The first time she came with this “way of working,” as she put it, was for a 2004 project called “I Wish to Say,” for which she adopted the same sixties secretary persona and sat with a typewriter on a main street in Oakland, California, asking pedestrians what they thought of then-US president George W. Bush and the current state of affairs.
All of these projects, Oring writes on her website, aim to “incorporate old and new media to tell stories, examine public opinion and foster open exchange.” Her former profession as a journalist also greatly informs her approach.
The whole persona and the idea for these projects was really inspired by her grandmother, Oring said, who was a non-religious Hungarian Jew, and who worked for many years as a secretary in and around Washington.
Oring grew up in North Dakota with a Jewish father and Jewish grandparents who escaped 1940s Europe. Growing up, she said, it was no secret that part of her family was Jewish, but she was raised mostly as a secular American, Christmas tree and all. But Oring was very close to her grandmother and was fascinated by the history of the Holocaust. After studying German in secondary school, Oring came to Berlin as part of the Arthur F. Burns Fellowship for Journalists in 1999, and ended up staying in Germany for six years after that.
“When I came to Germany, it made me feel like I needed to know more about being Jewish,” she said. During this time, she officially converted to Judaism.
Today, Oring splits her time between Berlin and Greensboro, North Carolina, where she is a professor in the art department of the University of North Carolina.