Walden Street in Whitechapel in London's East End is an unprepossessing row of 19th century terraced houses. Initially built for traders and artisans working close to the arteries of Commercial Street and Whitechapel High Street which pumped people and goods into the City of London, many of these streets were condemned as slums in the 1960s and 1970s and knocked down. Somehow, this enclave around Walden Street survived relatively intact. Although close to London's Square Mile, it has never been a wealthy part of town.
Die Familie Schneider was open by appointment only. Visitors - always two for each appointment - collected the front door keys for the two houses from a small office a few minutes' walk away in the same street. From the outside, 14 and 16 Walden Street looked the same, down to the white net curtains in the ground floor windows. One visitor entered 14 Walden Street alone, whilst the other visitor entered next door at the same time. After a period of up to ten minutes or so inside the house, the visitors exchanged keys and went into the second house for a further period. At no time was there ever more than one visitor in each house.It is not easy to describe the heightening of sensation, the existential anxiety, which many visitors felt as they put the key in the door and crossed the threshold from the street to the inside, and made their way through the small kitchen and living room on the ground floor, the claustrophobic bathroom and bedroom with no windows on the first floor, and the dark spaces of the basement in each house. Reading a review or hearing a rumour may have prepared them for the uncompromising nature of the experience, but other emotions and thoughts very quickly kicked in with the realisation that they were not alone, that the house was inhabited, that perhaps they were in the wrong place, that perhaps they were not meant to be there at all. The house brought on conflicting feelings of attraction and repulsion, of wanting to go further in, and wanting to get out.
Stepping into the second house brought on the perplexing realisation that it was an exact double of the first. The entrance hall and stairs had the same brown carpet, the same wallpaper, the same yellowy light. You heard the same sound from the kitchen and the bathroom upstairs, smelt the same fetid atmosphere, saw for the second time the same sparse furnishings, cracks and stains, the same middle aged woman washing dishes in the kitchen and the same naked man in the bathroom and the same small figure with legs protruding from under the black garbage bag in the corner of the cream bedroom that you had just seen in the other house.Seeing all this for the second time offered the opportunity for a different register of experience - less of an immediate psychological challenge, more of a philosophical enquiry about memory and experience. The visitor was compelled to try and match what he or she was seeing with what they remembered just having seen. As Gregor Schneider has noted "The visitor by necessity observes himself. He is beside himself. He walks through the house next to himself."
Comparisons have sometimes been made between Schneider and the work of Samuel Beckett, but if Die Familie Schneider was drama at all, it was of the most muted and undemonstrative kind. The identical inhabitants in each house made no attempt to interact with or acknowledge in any way the presence of the visitor. They did not speak, even when spoken to. Beyond the evident estrangement and isolation, there was no narrative about the nature of the relationships in the family - each person was in a room of his or her own, absorbed in their own activity, cleaning, masturbating, concealing. Nothing changed when the visitor entered a room. Nothing differed if the visitor went back. The figures were completely self-absorbed, the tableaux of the rooms self-contained.
The rooms, already small, had been made slightly smaller to the specifications of the artist. Probably this was imperceptible to the human eye, but the body somehow knew that the proportions of the rooms were not quite right. There was no distance between the interloper and the inhabitant, yet at the same time they were distanced from you. Immersion walked hand in hand with estrangement, and every decision as to whether to open a door, or to take a step or two into the room was an acutely conscious one. Die Familie Schneider was all interior to an almost suffocating degree. Being inside, it felt as if there was no outside. But on being outside, the visitor realised how little access to what was going on inside they really had. Stepping out of the houses and back on to the street was almost akin to breathing again.