Resurrecting a Twentieth Century Cabaret Artist to Resist Oppression Today: Witch’s Kitchen by Shana Lutker and Active Cultures

Shana Lutker, Conversation with Adriana Lara, 2020. Screenshot. Courtesy of the artist.

Witch’s Kitchen (2020-ongoing), produced by LA-based non-profit Active Culture, magnifies the enduring efforts by oppressed communities to overcome adversity and marginalization. Hosted by Shana Lutker, the project’s title is a translation of the German word Hexenküche, the name of a bar Valeska Gert opened upon her return to Berlin. Gert, an early twentieth-century cabaret artist, became known as a “dancer of the grotesque” for portraying outcasts and the taboo. She was expelled from her native Berlin after the Nazi Party rose to power, both because of her work and her Jewish heritage; but this didn’t keep her from pushing against the sensibilities of the bourgeois and “danc[ing as] those despised by him: prostitutes, matchmakers, the fallen, and the outcast.”

During her exodus across Europe and the US, Gert transformed bars and houses into performance venues, offering otherwise suppressed creatives a space to share their work. In deference to Gert, Witch’s Kitchen was conceived as a series of pop-up cabaret performances across LA exploring contemporary efforts resisting the status quo. Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented its implementation as intended, hoping for in-person performances in 2022. Witch’s Kitchen has transitioned to an online format. As part of the migration online, Lutker hosts video conversations with collaborators from the original cabaret series and pens visual essays, positioning contemporary projects alongside Gert’s inciting work to reveal the unsettling similarities between the forces with which they contend.

Shana Lutker, V for Kaleidoscope, 2020. Screenshot.

Lutker’s excavation of extant writing for Witch’s Kitchen —autobiographies, contemporaneous commentary, and retrospective literature—reintroduces the audience to Gert. The inaugural visual essay, “V for Kaleidoscope,” collages found and constructed images alongside literary quotes. One entry, for example, presents Lutker’s play-dough sculpture beside a photograph of Canaille, a sex worker character from a notable Gert performance, and an inciting quote. The three referents animate each other: the text vividly describes her staccato motion; the photograph provides a canvas for the movement; and the sculpture a duet partner.  These collages demonstrate the past’s capacity to instruct and form the future, a symbiosis between archive and action.

Courtesy of Jessy Bulbo.

The video interviews Lutker conducted feel like diaries. In each informal chat, Lutker explored her guests’ connections to Gert, whether material or philosophical, plus their modern contribution to the legacy of her work. Lutker speaks with Liz Glynn, artist and organizer of Black Box (2012). Black Box occurred over eleven days in an emptied West Hollywood warehouse turned speakeasy, with select off-site works, and featured a rotating cast of artists. The bar-turned-performance site in Glynn’s project elongated its connection to Gert. Glynn drew primarily from her study of Public Spirit Festival (1980), an earlier multi-day and multi-site performance series. The similarities despite different source materials reveal history’s “innovations and failures” and the collective force behind it. No artist or work occurs in isolation. Work is produced in community, living and departed, and strives to carry the baton further or in a new direction than their predecessors. In another interview, Lutker spoke with Mexico City-based artist Adriana Lara to discuss a “maintenance” removal of a Columbus statue, the artist Jessy Bulbo, and rooftop concerts. These anecdotes recall the preceding summer’s toppling of racist statues, afternoons watching baseball players fidget on screen, and performances shared with an amorphous public. These conversation points exemplify the forms of revival that artists like Lutker, Glynn, and Lara perform, crystalizing each of their current roles in creating a database of actions for subsequent generations to draw from and expand on.

Shana Lutker, Conversation with Liz Glynn, 2020. Screenshot. Courtesy of the artist.
Shana Lutker, Witch’s Kitchen, 2020.

Witch’s Kitchen, and art production at large, becomes a form of archival necromancy—a reanimation of an artifact or story that would have otherwise been forgotten by time. Lutker performs this ritual upon Judith Malina’s 1943 NYC pilgrimage. Gathering the information from Malina’s memoir, Lutker traces the journey from a mid-town hotel, police endearment, across Greenwich village streets, to Beggar’s Bar and the esteemed Valeska Gert. Her movement is written in large serif fonts and back-dropped by monochrome images, stock photos, and screen captures, which gradually unfold as the audience clicks “next slide. Lutker narrates in the first person, retracing Malina’s trek over modern roads, demonstrating how easily these movements might be reproducible and how easily the reader could be this migrant person. Lutker wants the audience to be involved in this ritual. The choices in form support this transformation from a passive and distant consumer into active participants. Without this involvement, countless stories are taken away by erosive forces of time and memory. These “regurgitations,” a term Lutker uses to describe her efforts, demonstrate the need for revisiting the past. For those advocating reform, revisiting the past allows ancestral work to survive, carrying on the hope and education of their lives. In Lutker’s view, the past provides activating tools to make self-authored spaces more hospitable.

In Witch’s Kitchen, Lutker creates a novel space where Gert can return to popular attention and remind audiences how communities might come together to resist oppression. Gert’s resistance against antisemitism and censorship echoes throughout current fights against colonial monuments, gentrification, and isolation. These movements do not happen in chapters but rather as one continuous act of resistance. So long as communities continue to be silenced, people must return to the wisdom of their ancestors, squirreled away into archives of artifacts and documents—secrets tucked away into the past that might offer guidance for creating a better future.

Witch’s Kitchen
Active Cultures, Los Angeles (and online)

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