BY Christy Lange in Features | 04 NOV 12
Featured in
Issue 7

Open Secrets

Korpys/Löffler document the rituals of political power that take place, not behind the scenes, but in plain sight

BY Christy Lange in Features | 04 NOV 12

The day before the second United States Presidential debate on 16 October this year, a reporter from TIME magazine obtained and published a remarkable document called the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’. This 21-page memo, signed by both candidates’ lawyers, set out the mutually agreed protocol for the debates. The ‘understanding’ governs rules for the audience (‘There shall be no audience participation […] other than as described below’), the moderators (‘At no debate shall the moderator ask the candidates for a “show of hands” or similar calls for response’), the media (‘Cameras will be locked into place during all debates’) and the candidates (‘At no time […] shall either candidate move from his designated area’). The document confirms what we know implicitly – that these events are a series of highly stage-crafted performances in which almost all variables are tightly regulated: from the angles of the podiums to the room temperature, from the candidates’ make-up to the decision to toss a coin in order to determine the ‘first-choice of stage position’.


The work of the artistic duo of Andree Korpys and Markus Löffler is finely tuned to recognize, capture and linger on these sometimes elaborate, sometimes banal political spectacles and exchanges of power. Drawing on the tropes of documentary footage, undercover surveillance, television news B-roll and Hollywood political thrillers, they document the displays, gestures, protocols and ceremonies of secrecy and power, often from oblique and unexpected angles. In 2005, they spent a year as accredited journalists at the Vatican filming the rituals and events surrounding Pope John Paul II. For Wodu (Voodoo, 2000), they observed the personal life and revelations of Hans-Olaf Henkel, the former President of the Federal Association of German Industry. In Eure Kinder werden so wie wir (Your Children Will Turn Out Like Us, 2007), which documents the transport of nuclear waste through the forested area of Gorleben, Germany, as well as the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, their camera focused not only on the helicopter arrivals of world leaders, but also on the protestors who had camped in the surrounding woods, and unexpected details like a moth alighting on a leaf at twilight. Atom (2010) turns again to Gorleben, filming a three-day period during which police and protestors live together in the forest, awaiting the arrival of the nuclear transport. But their most poignant investigation of political spectacle is The Nuclear Football (2004), which they filmed during then‑President George W. Bush’s 2002 official state visit to Berlin. Filmed less than a year after 9/11 and a year before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, The Nuclear Football now seems to have uncannily presaged the US’s failing mechanisms of power.


The work documents Bush’s arrival at Tegel Airport, an official reception ceremony at Schloß Bellevue and his departure from the same airport the next day. If these visits were a kind of choreographed ritual that the media collectively filmed as an extended photo op, Korpys/Löffler still found room to deviate from the prescribed script. After obtaining official press accreditation, it was simply a matter of looking askance, aiming their camera elsewhere or lingering on a seemingly insignificant detail. Beyond the symbolic handshakes, ceremonies and salutes, The Nuclear Football reveals the banality of the fanfare: members of the press standing dumbly on a grassy traffic island, personnel exiting Air Force One from the service door, the awkward pauses in which the President shifts his weight from side to side and smiles tersely, awaiting his next cue. The events unfold slowly to Brian Eno’s minimal Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). The film is narrated in a rhythmic, strangely syncopated man’s whisper that divulges the backstage mechanics of the presidential security detail: ‘The President waits for the go sign by the Secret Service Agents,’ the voice whispers. ‘The President wears a bullet-proof jacket […] His limousine is code-named “Stagecoach.” His limousine provides its own supply of oxygen …’ These secretive revelations give us a glimpse at the backstage machinations of political power, which, when we are given the right clues, are in fact right before our eyes.


But George W. Bush is not the star of their film. Instead, that role goes to an inanimate and unremarkable bulky leather bag – the Nuclear Football – which is carried by a military aide who accompanies the President and contains the launch codes for a nuclear strike. The Cold-War-era intrigue of nuclear launch codes in a secret suitcase – an image as recently passed into history as Eno’s soundtrack, once hailed as the dawn of ‘ambient’ music – signals the anachronism of not just this presidential ceremony, but of American power itself. In footage of the honour guard and marching bands performing for Bush at Schloß Bellevue, Korpys/Löffler present the pomp and circumstance stripped of import: The American President parades around an old castle, the German battalion marches in antiquated uniforms with fifes and snare drums. What is so powerful about seeing this film today is that these well-rehearsed but meaningless rituals appear to be parading the last vestiges of American political dominance.

In a trilogy of short films Korpys/Löffler made while visiting the US in 1996, they focused on the sites of covert and public exchanges of global, political, financial and military power: World Trade Center, United Nations and Pentagon (all 1997), were made only a few years before two out of the three sites were targets of major terrorist attacks. The three works, filmed in Super-8 and accompanied by a proto-electronic soundtrack, were inspired by Hollywood movies the artists watched in their youth: The everyday coming and going of the buildings’ employees looked, as they put it, ‘as if those people were living in a film set.’ What they filmed at the World Trade Center is reminiscent of spy films in which a sting has been set up, and the camera homes in on regular loiterers or pedestrians in a way that suggests they could be undercover agents. The scene becomes charged with suspense: a woman loitering in a trench-coat begins to look suspicious, men in business suits seem to walk in lock-step, someone pushes a baby carriage past a trash can that keeps reappearing in the film. Pentagon and United Nations are even tenser, showing the arrivals of helicopters and motorcades at security checkpoints. The artists’ camera sometimes scans the area as if looking for something, or as if they could be casing the joint – filming long takes of ventilation grills, pacing guards or a security-gate opening. In hindsight the films are even more haunting today than the artists could have intended.


In an essay about this trilogy, Korpys recalls that the ‘Police, private security guards, FBI or secret service officers were constantly performing in ways that derived quite clearly from the cinema. In public they behaved like actors on a film set, only nothing happened – no shot was fired, no explosion was heard. As if caught in a scene before the event, they ran through the same suspense loop over and over again …’ This repeated, cinematic performance of power became the centrepiece of their 2009 work Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of Young Men). As the film opens, the camera pans across the lobby of a German government building; off-screen, we hear a loud crack and then a man groaning in pain. Another crack, another moan, then someone calmly intoning instructions in German: ‘I’ve got you. Stay calm.’ After nearly two minutes, the camera finally enters the room – a lecture hall or auditorium, full of police officers who have assembled to test non-lethal weapons that deliver a high-voltage shock, temporarily paralyzing their victims.

Shot after shot, each policeman submits to being pierced in the back with the barbed electrical darts, while two men standing either side guide him face-first to the ground. Some laugh as they remove the barbs from his back and inspect the holes it has left; one policeman even asks for applause for his performance. Gradually, though, the action slows, and the camera moves in front of the victims. In slow motion we see the shooter taking aim and each officer’s agonized cries, while the discordant music – Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–6), the first musical piece to mix electronics and the human voice ­– becomes like a main character. The lightness of mood evaporates, and the film turns toward the sinister, as each man willingly submits to the ritual initiation. The barbs are pulled from each one’s back as if he were a hooked fish on a ship’s deck, like something from an Orwellian future.


The poignancy of Korpys/Löffler’s body of work is that it shows us how power looks from a distance, as well as from close range. Watching The Nuclear Football as an American expatriate in Germany, I also had to consider what American power looks like from abroad, whether the country carries its supposed dominance gracefully or convincingly, or whether it stages and restages it ad absurdum. Korpys/Löffler’s work attests that even if we are granted only certain views of power, we can always look closer or look differently. Their practice constitutes a kind of survey of the overlooked: not solely a matter of ‘access’ to what is hidden but also about keeping our eyes open to what’s hiding in plain sight. Their acute sensitivity to the very near future, or that which will soon pass, makes their works seem unbelievably prescient. In the pomp and circumstance of displays of power and the banality of workaday life in the centres of power in America and abroad, Korpys/Löffler pictured a future that, only a few years later, we’re now living through.

1 In purely formal terms, this work has a less smutty predecessor in a work in which Slominski threw a peacock's egg at a gallery wall, _Pfauenei_ (Peacock’s egg, 1994).
2 Massimiliano Gioni: Stop Making Sense. Notes towards the misunderstanding of Andreas Slominski, in Udo Kittelmann, Marion Kramer (eds.) _Andreas Slominski_ (Cologne, 2007), p. 22

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.