Nadja Abt

Nadja Abt combines fictional writing with visual art. In her performances, videos and paintings, she constructs feminist narratives that reference the world of literature and film. While at Amant, she will continue her current research on seawomen. Female sailors currently make up about 1% of the ship workers on container ships. She will look for traces of female* dockworkers and sailors in queer feminist* cultural history and conduct field research in the New York harbors. With the help of the archive, and motivated by her own biography, Nadja creates new, fictional characters that appropriate the male-dominated space of seafaring and the port.
Nadja is an artist and writer who lives between Berlin and Lisbon. Abt studied Literature and Art History at Freie Universität Berlin, as well as Fine Arts at Universität der Künste Berlin and the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires. Between 2015-2018, she lived in São Paulo, Brazil. She is part of the artist collective Michelle Volta. Recent exhibitions and performances took place at Kunsthalle Freeport, Porto (2021); Galeria Diferença, Lisbon (2021); Galerie Kirchgasse, Steckborn (2021); HUA International, Beijing (2021); Bärenzwinger, Berlin (2021); KW-Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (2021); Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2019); Casa Triângulo, São Paulo (2018), and Pivô, São Paulo (2017).

Meet the Residents Nadja Abt

Conversation in Nadja’s studio, surrounded by her 90-days diary, which coincided with her time in residency at Amant. Nadja talked about her research and past projects around female seafaring and how it sparked her exploration of the female cultural production surrounding New York’s piers.
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Sarah Demeuse: This is Meet the Residents, a series of interviews with Amant’s artists-in-residence in which we speak and digress about research, the impact of context on artistic process, serendipity, and making community.

Amant is a nonprofit arts organization and residency in North Brooklyn. Our studios are at 306 Maujer, where we host four artists for three months, one cohort in fall and another one in spring.

My name is Sarah Demeuse. I’m your host and Amant’s head of publications. This is our spring 2023 season. Today, I’m in Nadja Abt’s studio.

Nadja, thank you for inviting me to your studio. I’m sitting here on a cozy couch surrounded by many things that are going on. As a first introductory question, could you tell us a little bit of where you came from? Where were you before coming to New York? What was the story before we met you?

Nadja Abt: Okay. Yep, that’s already a bit complicated because I have a flat since 17 years in Berlin where I live sometimes, but actually, since 11 years, I’ve been more or less living out of a suitcase between, first, Argentina, then Brazil and then Portugal. The last four years, I lived between Berlin and Portugal and Lisbon. Yeah. When I arrived, I actually came from Berlin.

Sarah Demeuse: Okay. What does it mean for you then to come to a place as an artist and to do your practice? I guess, specifically, I’m asking what does it mean to be an artist-in-residence in a place that is not your home base?

Nadja Abt: I mean, for me, it depends on the residency first and the city, of course. For me, at the moment, it means that I can work only as an artist, which is great actually because I usually have to work also for money jobs on the side. For example, these three months, I can just focus on artistic practice and have a studio because, since as I was working out of a suitcase basically, I never had a proper studio the last, I don’t know, seven years maybe. It’s great to have one here, first of all, and then it’s New York, so I, of course, do also a lot in the city and get every influence that I can from the outside.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. We are sitting in a studio that is fairly secluded and private. It’s in the heart of Brooklyn, but, in a way, you also feel in a very-

Nadja Abt: Spaceship.

Sarah Demeuse: Spaceship? Maybe. Someone else called it a ship. Yeah, a ship, so I wonder in what way the context infiltrates your thoughts or, perhaps, it’s just in fact the city that allows you to also focus on yourself. Sometimes, the relationships are complex between New York City and someone who’s here to do a project, say. How is it in your case?

Nadja Abt: I mean, yeah, it feels really cut off from the outside to be in here. In a way, I think it’s pretty good because you can focus. One part of my practice is writing. It’s very quiet in here usually. You can write very well, or I need silence to write. Some people write with music. I can’t, so that’s actually a good thing. You can lose time in here. I have the feeling, sometimes I get out of here, like, “What’s the time? What’s the weather? In which city am I?”

On the other hand, of course, I love to watch out of the window when I do things. You can look at the city. Especially when you’re in New York, you want to look at the city and look what’s going on outside. Sometimes, I think it’s also a bit sad that I don’t have this window to the outside while working actually inside on my stuff. I think the contrast is pretty strong between this studio in particular and the outside world when you step out of Amant and then you are in this area of construction, warehouses, people bringing boxes from A to B. I mean, there’s so much to discover actually in this neighborhood when you walk around.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah, in a way, it’s the back-end of the city. Having a computer, you have the content management. Here, you see all of the management of the goods, but I’m interested in learning what you originally thought you were going to do and what you are doing now. What happened between, not necessarily what happened to you, but what happened to the project from sending in your application to become a resident to actually being here and then developing a research project?

Nadja Abt: The original proposal was, as I worked for more or less five years on female seafaring or fiction around female seafarers, that I go to the harbors and create new stories about female seafarers, and then the whole project was more fictionalized through time actually. It was not so much about really documenting them, fictionalizing stories around seafaring.

When I arrived here, I already opened up a new chapter actually in Berlin about the topic of obsession, which has maybe something to do with seafaring, but it was for me, okay, I did a lot about seafaring now for four or five years. I also want to do something else. I want to put the focus a little bit somewhere else on things that I’m also interested in, but then also when I arrived, I mean, I still have it in me, so, of course, I went first to the piers and then looked at all this history around the piers, the New York Waterfront on the west side of Manhattan, the works of Gordon Matta-Clark, Alvin Baltrop, then the occupation, the stories around David Wojnarowicz. I read the John Giorno autobiography, the Samuel Delany autobiography in all place-

Sarah Demeuse: Everything while you were here?

Nadja Abt: No. Before, in preparation actually.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. Yeah.

Nadja Abt: Yeah, that would be-

Sarah Demeuse: It’s sizeable.

Nadja Abt: I knew a lot about these pier or the stories, and I was interested, as I’m always interested, in occupying these male-connotated spaces. In this particular thing, it’s the gay male space of the cruising area in the ‘70s and the stories that are built up around it. It’s like mythologizing all those space that was for marginalized people, but it was also very dangerous to go there as a gay male person. I read all these stories, and then I knew, of course, the work by Every Ocean Hughes, a.k.a. Emily Roysdon, who did The Piers work series and, yeah, I have David Wojnarowicz’s work that is also hanging here.

Sarah Demeuse: The tiny postcard behind that. Yeah.

Nadja Abt: Then I became interested in are there any female stories around, as I did with the seafaring actually, are there any female cultural production around the piers, not only were there any women involved in this cruising area actually, was there, for example, lesbian sex happening at the piers, but also is there any female cultural production around this? Are there stories around? I went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. I talked to Saskia, who is co-running the LHA at the moment. She talked to Joan Nestle, who was one of the founders of the LHA. It was very interesting actually because there were actually women involved in this pier story. There was, for example, lesbian sex happening at the piers, but, of course, not as much because it was way too dangerous, I guess also, also because the scene was a little bit happening somewhere else and they had their own spaces, of course.

Yeah, and then I researched the works of Jill Johnston, who was an art critic in the '70s, who wrote a lot about the dance scene, but also about the lesbian scene in New York. Yeah, I was interested in this kind of works that is already a step further. Actually are there works of cultural production already? Is this existing already? Not can I write it, but is it existing and can I share it somehow or can I collect it?

This was one part I did here, and it changed from the part of like I go actually to the harbor and look if they are female seafarers, too. Is there cultural production so it went a step back and distanced a little bit from the actual site, let’s say?

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. Yeah, so when an artifact or something that circulates in different areas?

Nadja Abt: Yeah. Exactly.

Sarah Demeuse: Good. That’s basically just because of time and where you are personally, and then I guess also just by virtue of being around and learning from the archive, and it seems also from personal conversations a lot. That’s part of your process.

Nadja Abt: Yeah. Yeah.

Sarah Demeuse: I mean, maybe a step back would be to ask you what is generally a research project like for you?

Nadja Abt: It’s a little bit of everything actually. I read a lot. I read a lot of fiction. Then I look at art history, of course, but also, for me, a big part is talking to people and experiencing the experience itself. When I did, for example, this going on a ship, going with a cargo ship from Hamburg to Santos, Brazil, it was more like I want to have the experience and then I can write about it or I can say something about it. I don’t want to just read about seafaring stories and never been on a ship before. Yeah. That’s, I guess, a mixture and then the experience of also… or the research, I think a part of the research is then also the product that comes out of it.

While being in the studio, I write a diary at the moment here. Then you added already in your head what you researched or what was important yesterday, what happened yesterday and what was important or what is part of my research, what is private, what is political. I guess it’s all a mixture, but then what do I filter out of this and put it in part of like in a work of research.

Sarah Demeuse: For you, the diary is tying together all of your research. Is that how I understand it?

Nadja Abt: Yeah. Yeah, I guess so because I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m just like a fan of different directions that I’m interested in. I’m also interested in film, in film history, feminist film history. As I said, the whole literature poetry scene in New York is very strong. I went a lot to Poetry Project to see Anne Waldman, like for example, like all these legend people that I only had in my head, and then you can see them actually, and then you go, of course, to the galleries. It’s so much happening at the same time that I had the feeling I have to somehow bring it together at least in a text that somehow, yeah, it’s not like only a stream of consciousness or a diary of my inner thoughts, but also somehow it helped to memorize what I’ve researched on or what I experienced.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah, but do you normally write a diary or this the first-

Nadja Abt: No. This is the first time. No, not the first time. I mean, I wrote a diary when I was a teenager, but since then, never. It feels very strange. It has a big thing of like a big, embarrassing… That’s why I call it diarrhea.

Sarah Demeuse: Okay. Makes sense. Yes. Yes.

Nadja Abt: It’s… How do you say it? There’s a German word for it. In German, you would say, “Fremdschamen,” this thing where you feel that it can be embarrassing also for somebody else-

Sarah Demeuse: For others, yes.

Nadja Abt: … for others to read it. I think it’s always that thing when it comes to diaries or letters that you publish. I’m reading now the letters between Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer. Some things are really not that interesting, and then they’re published. Some things are very poetic, but you have all this unedited thoughts that come out.

Sarah Demeuse: True, and maybe, with the letters, I’m not very familiar about the history of them and how they were edited into a book. With your diary you’re actually writing, or shall we call it a report per day, but then you actually also surround it or you embed it within a page that is painted so it becomes part of something else. There’s a sense of this needs to be seen, it needs to be read, but it also needs to be seen as an image. You’re making it public in a very vibrant way. The colors are just screaming, “I’m here,” so your diary is not private.

Nadja Abt: No.

Sarah Demeuse: I mean, we can see how much we include on the website, for example, as a point of reference, but just there’s a style that you’re developing through it. It’s not just, “Dear diary.” It seems that you really did think about the form in which you’re going to present this. I think, personally speaking from a space as Amant, it’s interesting to see that this becomes a place where all research comes together, and it’s also through a filter of emotions and your own physicality. Everything gets mashed-up in that one page per day.

Nadja Abt: Yeah. Yeah, plus, it combines the two things that I really like like, first, writing and then painting. Maybe I’m not perfect in either. I would not consider myself a painter, as an artist. I would always say I’m an artist, not a painter, but then also I’m not really an author. I write, but I’m not like a novelist maybe. It’s this vague in-between state, but it combines also two practices that are in way very different because first I can write in the morning and I’m very clear, my head is clear. I’m more like a morning person. I’m focused. Then I can write down the stuff that I experience, and in the afternoon, after lunch-

Sarah Demeuse: It’s all a blur.

Nadja Abt: It’s a blur of using colors and being more this intuitive person with crayons and gouache and expressing thoughts in a different way somehow. Maybe also the painting on top of it like in this collage develops through time. I mean, I started very abstract, and I thought it would stay abstract, and then it became more an illustration of what is written in the text, and then sometimes it gets back to abstract forms. It’s not always like a children’s book like, “Oh, this is what I did, and this is what you see here,” kind of like maybe a second layer of interpretation.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. Throughout, I mean, there are a lot of moments where I still see water as somewhat of a reference, so the seafaring I feel. If I want to see it, I can see it. Also, the sense that it’s a diary, it reminds me of the practice of writing a log when you’re on a ship.

Nadja Abt: Yes. Right. I forgot that. Actually, I did a diary on the ship, so that’s why when I did the video work about my trip from Hamburg to Santos, actually that was based on my diary on the ship.

Sarah Demeuse: See? This may again have a similar function. Who knows? Yeah. It’s also interesting to see you recognize, and so the plan, Nadja, is to keep doing this every day, or am I just now thinking that you have a set program?

Nadja Abt: The plan is to do it for 90 days or exactly the time I’m here. Yeah, I’m a little bit behind, as you can count.

Sarah Demeuse: I haven’t seen it, but thanks for pointing that out. Yeah.

Nadja Abt: No, but the plan is 90 papers. The practice has also a lot to do with actually this residency life. I guess you talk to a lot of artists who’ve been on a lot of residencies before or they’re artists like residency artists.

Sarah Demeuse: Yes, for sure.

Nadja Abt: I guess I’m also one of them who’s traveling a lot, and then, of course, you have an artistic practice that is usually lightweight, in suitcases, so it’s usually paper or something small or fabric that you can fold and bring somewhere else, so, yeah, the practice comes with the travel aspect I guess.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, and it’s a standard page. I mean, On Kawara, it’s a similar thing, he was also in different places and kept doing that. The format was defined by the fact that he was traveling places, so indeed, yeah, wow. Yeah, I’m curious to see the wall at the end of the studio. Maybe it closes over into the hallways.

Nadja Abt: Maybe not for the diary.

Sarah Demeuse: Well, by that time you’ve all become really close. This leads me to another question about just the idea of the residency and how being so close to the three other residents, how something might happen in that dynamic of being a micro community within this large, behemoth New York City.

Nadja Abt: It’s nice. I mean, I’m not sure, but I have the feeling I’m the only person who hasn’t lived in New York before for some time from us four. Yeah, I don’t even have a friend structure here, a close one. For me, it was super nice to be surrounded by other artists. Usually, we have this open-door policy, so if someone is here, the door is open. We read and we have lunch together and, yeah, that’s actually very nice.

Sarah Demeuse: This is probably a strange way of ending a conversation, but I wonder if you have questions for us, for Amant or the residency. I don’t know. I’m always curious to think what people might be thinking. Sometimes, there’s also nothing, so that’s fine.

Nadja Abt: I mean, of course, it’s this residency and then the staff of the house. It’s like this weird “we look at you, you look at us, who’s behaving…”

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah, we have our roles. Yes.

Nadja Abt: Yeah. Exactly. Of course, I guess it’s like a spontaneous question, so what would you think is the impact on your work here, and has it changed over the time?

Sarah Demeuse: You mean Amant’s work in the environment or me?

Nadja Abt: You personally.

Sarah Demeuse: Ooh.

Nadja Abt: I cannot imagine, after the 10th resident, you’re a bit like, “Yeah. Okay.” It’s like-

Sarah Demeuse: No. Weirdly enough, Nadja, I feel like this is the first cohort for me that I feel I get to know better because we have more casual encounters. Maybe it’s because you all use the kitchen more than other people before. I feel, on the contrary, that the relationships are actually stronger now than they used to be in the past. Of course, there is a sense that we are facilitators for you or something, but we are all also very interested in art and artistic practices. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We’re all eager to know more about you, too. Sadly, the office schedule and the demands of the job often don’t allow you to get to know someone’s practice as much as you would like. That’s what we keep working on, to find more spaces for our conversations. The open-door policy sounds fantastic. Maybe I’ll just come by every once in a while to see if doors are open.

Nadja Abt: Yes, I know. Yeah, I would love that.

Sarah Demeuse: On our website, you can find images of some of Nadja’s diary entries as well as the transcript of this conversation. Go to In our next episode, I talk with Abigail Lucien.

Our theme music is composed by Silas Edgar. Eda Li recorded and co-edited the interviews. Sound editing and engineering is by Isaac Silber. Thanks for listening. Join us again next time.