BY Sarah Khan in Opinion | 25 NOV 15
Featured in
Issue 21

Acting up

Action art in Berlin’s government district, from Christoph Schlingensief to the Center for Political Beauty

BY Sarah Khan in Opinion | 25 NOV 15

Zentrum für Politische Schönheit, Der Marsch der Entschlossenen, Berlin, 21 June 2015 (photograph: © Nick Jaussi / Zentrum für Politische Schönheit)

Who is Philipp Ruch? He calls himself the ‘Chief Negotiator’ of the Center for Political Beauty (CPB). His title is borrowed from the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was the main architect of the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia. During its week-long action in June 2015, The Dead Are Coming, the CPB made headlines in Germany following a burial ceremony for a drowned Syrian refugee at a Muslim cemetery in Berlin-Gatow and a ‘March of the Determined’ to the Federal Chancellery. As part of the march, symbolic refugee graves were placed on the lawn of the Reichstag.

But in the context of theatre and action art, isn’t the term ‘Chief Negotiator’ rather contrived and exhausted? When I meet him to talk about the CPB in the context of action art, Ruch, who has a doctorate in political science, thinks not: ‘Chief negotiator is a very precise description of my work.’ He says he is now collaborating with people who worked previously with German artist Christoph Schlingensief: Claudia Kaloff, listed on the CPB website as ‘Chief of Production’, and the set designer Nina Wetzel. According to Ruch, the legacy of action art has been forgotten since Schlingensief’s death. But now Ruch is here, possessed of the kind of berserk energy that is required to move memorial crosses or refugee corpses like mountains, energy that outclasses the daily drag from bar stool to rehearsal space of any conventional director. Ruch is a Siegfried, in Schlingensief’s terminology: an implacable idealist who bathes not in dragon’s blood but in morality.

‘Schlingensief once said that Berlin never worked for him, that all of his Berlin actions failed with the exception of his plays at the Volksbühne’, says Ruch. Schlingensief’s Berlin problem was the fact that his work was completely tolerated here: he hardly managed to provoke the public. In contrast, the CPB has seemed to cross the line for many commentators. The broadsheets saw ‘political pornography’ at work (Süddeutsche Zeitung) or justified the irreverent means by underlining the good intentions (tageszeitung), while tabloids celebrated the day that the grass grew back over the now-ruined lawn. No one knew for sure if this was art, a new NGO, or a case of divine retribution for Europe’s abominable failure in the refugee crisis. Ruch had been taken seriously, and whether it was art seemed not to matter. But now that The Dead Are Coming is over, the work finds itself in phase two (according to a model proposed by Boris Groys in his essay ‘Artistic Self-Exposure’, frieze d/e, No. 1/2011): having failed as politics, it can now lead a second life as art (an option not available to non-artistic political failures). Ruch, who demands that ‘Germany must become a humanitarian superpower’, is now revealed as a dramatist whose face is masked with streaks of dirt. But how come Schlingensief never broke through the tolerability barrier, even with his various rowdy talk shows in Berlin between 1997 and 2007 (including Talk 2000, Freakstars 3000, DIE PILOTEN)? ‘He never lived in Bonn’, says Ruch, ‘he should have gone and stood outside the Chancellery in Bonn.’ But Schlingensief did do this, in 1998. And perhaps it marked the starting act of Ruch and all those who stand outside the Chancellery in Berlin with artistic-political intent today: addressing the state by making a scene. The way Martha and George make a scene in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962): two intellectual alcoholics who cruelly expose each other by rhetorical means.

This scene has been played out often in Berlin of late – be it by the CPB in various actions (Federal Emergency Programme, 2014 in addition to the recent The Dead Are Coming), or by the writer Juli Zeh who protested against NSA data snooping in 2014. Something must always be handed over in front of the Chancellery – a box of signatures, a Holocaust survivor in a wheelchair, a coffin. The actionists seem to be looking for a clever key to get through the gated entrance to the provocatively empty-looking Federal Chancellery (Schlingensief said in 2005: ‘The empty Chancellery is the biggest artwork in this republic’). In front of this building, everything gets blown away like a fart in the woods, so the drama takes place a few yards from a porter sitting behind cameras and barriers. This scene is miserable but typical of its time, and it takes place on a stage created by Helmut Kohl, the architect of German reunification, who was also responsible for the Federal Chancellery’s move to Berlin between 1997 and 2001. The government district – empty and tidy, faceless and windswept – is Kohl’s legacy, as is the edifice in which Angela Merkel and the rest of the government hide. Rather than making it come alive, they have anaesthetized it, and now they must reckon on an almost daily basis with action artists making a scene at the gate.

CHANCE 2000 – Partei der letzten Chance Baden im Wolfgangsee, 1998, photographic documentation of Christoph Schlingensief’s action, 2 August 1998, Lake Wolfgang, St. Gilgen (Photograph: © Tobias Mosig)

Someone breaking into the Chancellery uninvited is a feat associated with Kohl’s successor Gerhard Schröder. At the end of the 1970s, while chairman of the SPD’s youth organization, he is supposed to have rattled the barriers at the Chancellery in Bonn, shouting ‘I want in!’ Since Schröder really did go on to become Chancellor, such fence rattling is surrounded by a kind of magic reminiscent of King Arthur (the sword scene of power-grasping). In 1998, Schlingensief re-enacted this scene at the original location in Bonn. With his political party Chance 2000, he was on the election trail, campaigning against Kohl and Schröder. Schlingensief approached the fence, rattled it, and (captured by a few cameras) shouted: ‘I want in!’ The re-enactment brought him no luck; Chance 2000 didn’t even get the 0.5 percent of the vote required for the reimbursement of campaign costs. In terms of how the government district was used, however, Schröder’s time in office (1998–2005) was a period of transition: local football teams played on the lawn in front of the Reichstag, Schröder regularly invited artists and writers of equal prominence to today’s Juli Zeh and Philipp Ruch (such as Peter Schneider, Martin Walser and Moritz Rinke) for a beer and a chat at the chancellery, and less than a hundred yards from Schloss Bellevue (the official residence of Germany’s Federal President) Arab and Turkish families still barbecued herds of mutton on the Tiergarten lawn. The area smelled of anything but vegetarianism, but there was something anarchic in the air that can still be sampled today at Tempelhofer Feld. But then came the dispute over costs between the Federal Parks Department and the local municipal authority that brought an end to these everyday practices. As the space came to be used primarily for representative, commemorative and touristic purposes, artists arrived at the government district to play with and evolve the above-mentioned gate scene. Luther, who was able to nail his revolutionary theses to the church door in Wittenberg, seems to have had it much easier.

In West Germany, right up to the end of the 20th century, a popular form of demonstration against nuclear power involved traipsing lengthy kilometres to rural nuclear power plants in order to display the tenacity and weatherproof credentials of the protestors. In contrast, the problems of protest marches with regard to media visibility became clear to the CPB in June during its ‘March of the Determined’: over a relatively short demonstration route from the Brandenburg Gate to the Chancellery, the CPB contingent could hardly be seen among the thousands of marchers. The planned scene got out of control, as the participants empowered themselves by kicking over the fences round the Reichstag lawn and digging up the ground with their bare hands (the CPB members brought soil with them in plastic bags, heaping it up and laying flowers on top). This can only be read as an emancipation of the audience if it does not counteract the aim of the action. Schlingensief, too, struggled with such problems: his election campaign action Baden im Wolfgangsee (Bathing in Wolfgangsee, 1998) was disrupted by publically copulating members of the APPD (Anarchist Pogo Party of Germany) – although with little success, as the media saw through this cheap trick and punished the fuck squad by ignoring them. Things have not been as easy for the CPB: the group was recently taken to task for political hijackers – both extreme right-wing and radical left-wing – who photobombed their events.

Comparing Schlingensief with the CPB, it is striking that Schlingensief not only failed to break through Berlin’s tolerance barrier, but that he also displayed no sustained libidinal interest in Germany’s federal institutions. He was a man of the shopping precinct, of the railway mission, of the theatre square, someone who got in the way of passers-by. His loudly political actions Tötet Helmut Kohl (Kill Helmut Kohl, 1997) and Tötet Möllemann (Kill Möllemann, 2002) were West German folklore, a dance round the German garden gnome who belonged to the nation of perpetrators. On the one hand, Baden im Wolfgangsee was meant to make Germany’s six million unemployed visible, but it was also about bathing in the mystery of Germany by submerging oneself in homeopathic amounts of Helmut Kohl’s summer piss.

But the CPB is not dealing with the kind of Germans who set fire to refugee homes at the same time as being the world’s top tourists. Instead, it reflects the terminology, modus operandi and speech acts of the world of office managers, political consultants and campaigners, pursuing them as perpetrators behind desks, harassing them with morality, and exposing them on their own grounds. ‘How important is Ms Merkel as the addressee of your actions when you go and stand outside the Chancellery, Mr Ruch? What does she mean to you?’ And Ruch replies: ‘Who is Ms Merkel?’
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Sarah Khan is a writer who lives in Berlin. In 2012 she was awarded the Michael Althen Prize for criticism. Her latest book Die Gespenster von Berlin: Wahre Geschichten (The Ghosts of Berlin: True Stories) was published by Suhrkamp in 2013.