BY Jörg Scheller in Features | 08 SEP 16
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Issue 25

It's Complicated

How is contemporary art responding to the current refugee crisis? Three case studies ...

BY Jörg Scheller in Features | 08 SEP 16

Artists are often accused of escapism, fleeing into their own practice, drifting off into parallel worlds of purposefulness without purpose, indulging in decadence, frivolity and a lack of responsibility. The perennial criticism stems from the early modern period, when Quatremère de Quincy castigated the salons as ‘arts de luxe’, through to today’s artistic research, which would like to cast out the supposed devil of artistic autonomy. Where the current refugee crisis is concerned, however, there can be no question of artists avoiding the subject. Many art projects have addressed the political and social situation, from photo exhibitions in churches and cultural centres, to interventions in public spaces or the media, through to themed shows and lectures at art institutions. The issue’s urgency is reflected in the unusually short reaction time of the art world, and in links to specific political initiatives. Badischer Kunstverein, for example, put artists, scholars and activists in a group show and series of events titled ‘We Refugees – On the Right to Have Rights’, while the project ‘Kunstasyl’ by Swiss artist Barbara Caveng aims to give visibility and better integration to a refugee home in Berlin’s Spandau district. In this way, Peter Weibel’s concept of ‘artivism’ is taking shape, diverse shapes in fact, as art and action enter into an ever more pragmatic alliance. In the German-speaking world, 2016 was an acid test for ‘artivism’. Three case studies that bid farewell to the comfort zone of the symbolic also raise the question: should art thematize, negotiate or act?

Cologne, June 2016 

On the evening of 5 June, an unusual panel came together at a venue called ‘Die Maske’ to discuss migration, refugees and integration. The panel comprised the radical liberal journalist David Schah; a retired police chief and expert on Turkey and integration, Bernd Liedtke; Pirate Party-member Jan Sicars; ‘worker and artist’ Salah Eddine; a natio­nalist Pegida member and right-wing musician (‘Rechtsrocker’) Frank Kraemer; and a member of the small extreme right-wing party Pro NRW (Christopher von Mengersen). Originally the event was scheduled to take place at a local art gallery, a neutral branch of what Friedrich Schiller called the ‘empire of play and illusion’ – the buffer zone that still constitutes the art system, where anything goes until it becomes ‘real’ (Bazon Brock’s ‘verbotener Ernstfall’, 'a ban on emergencies') and where contrary, even antagonistic forces which in real life are combatted can be approached with playful seriousness. The discussion had to be moved on short notice from the art venue to an unspectacular multipurpose space, as the panel’s make-up was too explosive after all. The buffer zone remained in effect (the replacement venue also often hosts art events). As in a Surrealist collage, encounters of the more improbable kind took place, temporarily bringing together things that don’t belong together.

„Multikulti trifft Nationalismus“, panel discussion, photographic documentation, Cologne, 2016. Courtesy: Multikulti trifft Nationalismus

Big words made the rounds and can still be heard in the videos documenting the event: ‘Every migrant should cover the costs of his own integration’ (Schah); ‘There is no law that gives a fixed definition of German culture’ (Liedtke); ‘We don’t have to let ourselves be killed and raped until the immigrants have adapted to our rules’ (Kraemer). The initiator, moderator and – with Kraemer – organizer of the evening was the German-Ghanain publicist, events organizer and networker Nana Domena. In 2015, he was bold enough to approach Kraemer at a Pegida demonstration. Against the odds, this encounter led to a dialogue. Domena’s aim is to get antagonists to talk to one another, rather than contributing to their respective isolation.

Welcome as Domena’s approach may be, the discussion made it clear that the right to express one’s opinions says nothing about the quality of these opinions. To put it bluntly: the world won’t be improved by everyone declaring what they think is best for themselves. A clash of one-sided positions does not generate a many-layered view (the same is true, of course, of mainstream talk shows). Everyone has the right to their opinion, but that doesn’t mean they’re right, wherever they are on the political spectrum. The event lacked a moderator who not only listens and mediates, but who also intervenes when things get too obscure, probes, or tries to develop higher-order intersubjective criteria for the validity of arguments. Such an anything-goes free- for-all of particular pseudo- or half-truths and lofty ideals was surely not what Jürgen Habermas had in mind for his republic of discourse. Certain remarks brought to mind Søren Kierkegaard’s Either-Or: ‘People hardly ever make use of the freedom which they have, for example, freedom of thought; instead they demand freedom of speech.’

Vienna, March 2016

At Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), the art venue has been transformed into a workshop where refugees and visitors bend over tables with kits of wooden and plastic parts while 3D printers hum in the background. There is no discussion of right or wrong. No talk of nebulous concepts like nation, integration, people or culture. The focus here is on producing and communicating. In the three-month project ‘Green Light’, the Icelandic-Danish designer-artist (and, somehow, unofficial politician) Olafur Eliasson tried to render his vision of compre­hensive inclusion and networking productive for the refugee crisis. Refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq assemble lamps designed by Eliasson out of sustainably produced components and tell their stories, stressing, for example, that at TBA21 people from a wide range of backgrounds ‘have become a family’. The proceeds from sales of the lamps go to foundations active in refugee aid. The manufacturing scheme is accompanied by German courses, shared meals and other events including lectures, screenings and discussion panels. Interpreters and social workers are always on hand. Speaking to the author, Eliasson says: ‘I wanted to present a pragmatic, realistic solution to show the politicians that the cultural sector is far from the periphery of our society. Instead, it is at society’s heart, a driving force behind the shaping of identity.’1

Olafur Eliasson, Green Light – An artistic workshop, photographic documentation, 2016. Photograph: Sandro E. E. Zanziger/TBA21

Just as the heart is linked by blood vessels to the entire body, Eliasson’s ‘Green Light’ can be understood as a set of organic connections, a circulatory system of collaboration and interaction. As well as refugees, those involved include chefs, experimental pharmacists, curators, designers, dramaturgs, anthropologists, NGO representatives, media theorists and sound artists. All of this is based on Eliasson’s assumption that networking and exchange will make things better. In a polemic vein, however, one might riposte: Is a swinger club really a guarantee for more love? Is it not possible, as suggested by the course of globalization, that more collaboration and networking leads to more conflicts and misunderstandings, to an increased desire for purity, clarity and overview? Examples of legitimate, successful parallel societies do exist. Art, too, was once such a society within society, especially in the post-war period when the Frankfurt School, rejecting totalitarian cultural policy, opposed any instrumentalization of art, contrasting it with the ‘cacophony of societal interests and endeavours’ (Dietrich Schwanitz). To avoid the danger of turning the transdisciplinary imperative and the civil religion of inclusion into new ideologies and glorified 'isms', it is well to bear these examples in mind.

Whereas Friedrich Schiller (and neo-Schillers like Jonathan Meese) upheld an ideal of inconsequentiality, Eliasson cultivates a philanthrocapitalist-managerial understanding of art that aims for applicability and quantifiability. For him, art is embedded practice and, what’s more, embedded result: ‘In the art world, the belief still prevails that the potential of art lies in its object status. In truth, it is the consequences of art and culture that lend them their power.’ In this spirit, the refugee crisis offers an opportunity to demonstrate the consequentiality and effectiveness of art. Art as agent, art as catalyst, art as design, art as politics. In Eliasson’s practice, things come together that belong together, as long as this can be made to serve the good cause of artivism – which also cut a fine figure at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, where Eliasson spoke. The price he pays for this is that his participatory-inclusive projects have something of a social-democratic meeting and a Protestant convention about them, as well as something of the neoliberal emphasis on empowerment and the servility of creative industries. But as the musician and activist Henry Rollins said, ‘the ones who don’t do anything are always the ones who try to put you down.’

Berlin, June 2016

Doing nothing, once lauded by post-operaist thinkers as an antidote to co-optation and instrumentalization, is taboo for the Center for Political Beauty (ZPS) founded by Philipp Ruch. With spectacular actions, the group works to bring art out of its symbolic comfort zone and harness it directly to left-wing progressive causes. So, too, during the refugee crisis. At a ‘federal blackmail press conference’ held at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre to launch the project ‘Eating Refugees’, the ZPS announced its plan to charter a plane to fly refugees directly from Syria to Germany. Under the motto ‘Mercy Before Law’ they specifically suggested abolishing §63:3 of Germany’s Residence Act which states that transport companies may not bring people into the country without a valid residence permit – causing refugees from crisis-struck regions to make their way to Europe in ways that are illegal, as well as far more dangerous and expensive, instead of simply taking a plane. Should their action fail, the ZPS announced, desperate refugees would feed themselves to four (real) tigers outside the theatre.

Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, Flüchtlinge fressen, performance documentation, 2016. Courtesy: © Patryk Witt / Zentrum für Politische Schönheit

Of course, the action was not allowed to go ahead. No one ended up dying in a tiger enclosure. And §63 was not abolished. But once again, the ZPS played to great effect on the emotional keyboard of the media society – at the risk of blunting the receptiveness of that society to the Center’s concerns with such ritualized, high-intensity moralizing. Although refracted by the referential prism of the art system, the nonetheless vigorous, latently paternalistic sloganizing and visual populism of the ZPS, both clearly indebted to Western traditions of avant-garde activism, inadvertently confirm Hannah Arendt’s remark in her 1943 essay ‘We Refugees’: ‘We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions.’ For the ZPS, refugees do not constitute, as Arendt argued, the ‘vanguard of their peoples’; instead, they are inserted into an existing avant-garde matrix. The Center is clearly not interested in asserting the validity of the refugees’ own languages, views or mentalities, but in reshaping them in a way that is ultimately patro­nizing. This is exactly what Arendt is talking about when she refers to the lost ‘naturalness of reactions’.

Late last year, writing in the German weekly Die Zeit, the art theorist Wolfgang Ullrich rightly placed Philipp Ruch’s ideology in the ‘slipstream of the long tradition of anti-modernism’, remarking: ‘Alt­hough the spirited language that dominates the actions of the ZPS might previously have been seen as artistic exaggeration, it is now clear how literally everything is meant.’ Actions like those of the ZPS deflect attention from far quieter, far more sustainable citizens’ initiatives and from the tireless, long-term grassroots and lobby work of a whole range of organizations. In their rejection of the latter, but also in their eloquent superficiality (the end justifies the means) and self-righteous missionarism, activists on the left and right cosily concur. As history has shown time and again, the most critical voices often come to resemble the object of their criticism. In this way, for example, the Soviet Communists became feudal lords, while Europe’s conservative right currently excels at 'protecting' the West from raping, pillaging Muslims by cultivating the very atavisms of which they are accused.

On the other hand, a sense of balance and impartiality is a privilege of distanced, uninvolved observers, such as artists or scholars in the conventional sense. Every activist knows you need pressure to make things move. Once the key has been lost, some doors can only be opened with a crowbar. Precisely in this respect, the harmonious discourse in Cologne where even radical positions were allowed to present themselves as socially acceptable was misleading. In an idealized way, it suggested that everyone would be able to get along, the Teutonic nationalist with African migrant, the Pirate party politician with the extreme right-winger, if it wasn’t for ‘them up there’, if it wasn’t for ‘the system’, as a feverish character in the audience mumbled to all-round approval.

Eliasson’s fundamentally diplomatic, anti-authoritarian approach excludes radical positions – that must, after all, be dealt with – and advocates a process-oriented pragmatism that sees the solution not in shared ideology, but in communal production – in acting together. But ‘discussing’ is only possible where ‘negotiating’ and ‘acting’ have not yet begun, or where there is no urgency or immediate time pressure. Where concrete action begins is where the remit of art in the Schillerian sense ends – its function as a mediator between the cruelty of nature (e.g. tiger) and the cruelty of laws (e.g. §63:3 of the Residence Act). Art as a middle way grants a reprieve, a breather. In this light, ‘artivism’ is an oxymoron. As the Baroque poet Friedrich von Logau knew: ‘In danger and emergency / the middle way shall deadly be.’

So should art discuss? Should it negotiate? Or should it act? In some situations, these questions are merely academic. In a 2014 interview with the author, the Hong Kong ‘Umbrella’ activist and theorist Michelle Wong said that she and many others did not take part in the protests against China’s imperialist, anti-democratic policies as artists or theorists, but simply as citizens. In spite of this, the spirit of Schiller’s ‘empire of play and illusions’ could be felt in the protests: They were imaginative. They were largely non-violent. And they had no effect.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 Quotations are from an interview with Olafur Eliasson on 20 May 2016.

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist, musician and contributing editor of frieze. He is a professor of fine arts and art education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.