Four real live tigers prance around impatiently in cages set up in a makeshift “arena” outside of the Maxim Gorki Theater just off of Unter den Linden. What are they doing there? They’re the protagonists of the latest action by the Zentrum für politische Schönheit (Center for Political Beauty, ZPS) and the tigers represent the violence of our new Roman empire which watches refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean like a spectacle at the Colosseum.
At a Bundeserpressungskonferenz (a pun on the German for “Federal Press Conference” meaning “Federal Blackmail Conference”) held today, the group announced it would feed real live volunteer refugees to the tigers by June 28 if German President Joachim Gauck didn’t anull a paragraph in German law forbidding refugees from booking normal airline tickets to Europe instead of risking their lives on illegal boat trips across the sea.
The complicated action is morbidly titled “Flüchtlinge Fressen” (“Munching on refugees”) and also involves crowdfunding an airliner to transport 100 refugees to Berlin. The video with English subtitles below spells out the details.
Whether it involves pretending to be German federal ministries, stealing memorials or exhuming bodies and burying them in Berlin, the works by ZPS tread a fine line between tasteless prank and clever art. Alternately referred to as the German Yes-Men or as vain, egoistic cynics, the Berlin-based group has been producing Aktionskunst (action art) under the leadership of Phillip Ruch, Cesy Leonard, Stefan Pelzer and André Leipold since 2009.
Their target: European politics and their failure to adequately respond to today’s humanitarian crises. The 2015 multi-part action Die Toten kommen (The Dead are Coming) organised burials in Berlin for refugees who lost their lives in the Mediterranean and featured a demonstration that ended with a police confrontation in front of the Reichstag, garnering criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
We talked to Leipold shortly before the details of their latest action were revealed to the public.
So what is “political beauty”?
Political beauty isn’t just the representation of a morally sound world, but actually being involved in its creation. For example, when politicians have the courage to carry out an act that follows the spirit of the Grundgesetz (German constitution) instead of being guided by contemporary phenomena. Political beauty is moral beauty. And that means not only acknowledging the responsibility that Germany has – in its capacity as a world power and in the context of its past – but also using it to work for humanity, for human rights issues. We see Germany as a nation that has a great potential to establish a human rights lobby internationally.
Where does the average person fit into your idea of political beauty?
We are confronted with the naked truth and uncensored images: we see images of dead children on the beach just like images of Germany’s Next Top Model. Everything is spread out before us in a tableau. Political beauty, I think, for the individual within our society, is to be able to filter out instinctively what images, what questions are vital and relevant, and will say something about our time even in 50 years, in 100 years.
Did you foresee demonstrators storming the Reichstag green to dig symbolic graves at the end of the “March of the Determined”, part of The Dead Are Coming action?
Partly. We initiated it, yes, but the moment in which people stormed the green was not staged by us. That was actually spontaneous. So was the grave digging that took place throughout Germany to Austria and Switzerland afterward. That’s the dream of every Aktionskünstler (action artist): a passing of the baton to civil society. But at one point or another we may have anticipated or provided an impetus for it.
The IKEA-style plans for creating symbolic graves published on your website during the action were certainly an impetus…
Yes, but we didn’t provide clear instructions. Personally, I feel a bit ambivalent about it because, while what happened there was beautiful, the truly artistic theatrical acts in terms of a hyperreal theater were the funerals beforehand. These burials were actually the strong, timeless actions for us.
Your Kindertransporthilfe action, in which the federal government would allegedly accept 55,000 Syrian children as part of an emergency program, is also described as hyperreal, but it seems there’s a difference between the two: the funerals actually took place, but the Kindertransporthilfe program was never implemented.
But it could have been implemented very quickly. The family minister could really have said: “You know what? I’ve thought about it and we’ll just do it. You’ve already done all the preparatory work.” And insofar it was close to reality.
And shaped according to a historical model …
A historical model that is also, in its turn, ambivalent.
That’s why I find it so difficult to simply describe the programme as “politically beautiful”. The ideal would have been to accept families, not just the children.
Yes that would be idealism. But for us it was about representing what would happen if we would just begin to act. That meant to rather simulate an ethic of responsibility. You would still have one foot in the mud, but you would also slowly move out of the swamp. One cannot go from one to 100 and change everything completely. But that has changed a bit: the approach in The Dead Are Coming clearly became more fundamental and absolute. And, in that case it was no longer about a hyperreal representation of an ethics of responsibility or the like, but rather about us implementing it in practice and engendering facts. So I see that as a big difference between the two actions.
You’ve received quite a bit of criticism for your actions. How do you respond to it?
Personally, I can say that there is totally justified criticism that helps us progress. Then there is the criticism that one hears over and over again: cynicism, vanity and the like. What is termed vain or cynical, we describe as an artistic motif that’s important for us, and should not be confused with my personal sentiments. Somehow one is also always in Germany, and Germany is a country that loves to think in categories. As soon you get out of these boxes and stop distinguishing politics and art, literature and journalism, etc., the fact that someone is playing a role or that something is fiction is not as readily recognised. It is difficult to distinguish fiction from reality in our works, and that naturally leads to misunderstandings that we created and want. So we have to endure them.
Flüchtlinge Fressen, daily events and discussions through June 28 | Maxim Gorki Theater, Am Festungsgraben 2, Mitte, U-Bhf Friedrichstr, www.politicalbeauty.com