“When you strike the word ‘beauty’ and the word ‘politics’ together, you create the spark for a revolution” Philipp Ruch
The ‘Zentrum für politische Schönheit‘(Centre for Political Beauty) or short ZPS is a Berlin-based association of artists and activists headed by theatre director Philipp Ruch. They describe themselves as an ‘assault troop’ (Sturmtruppe) who aims to establish “moral beauty, political poetry and human liberality.” Since 2010 the group has raised awareness for political matters and unfairness, such as the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. It does so through actions that dissolve the boundaries between art, theatre performance and activism. Floating in a politically charged space that is yet to be securely defined the ZPS’s actions are based on conceptual performances, internet-raised awareness and the public’s willingness to become an accomplice. All of it is translated into direct, often shocking and (thought)provoking action or ‘hyper realistic theatre plays.’
1 November 2014, Berlin government district: around lunch time a handful of members of the ZPS armed with a drill and a wheelbarrow dismounted seven white crosses which are part of a memorial to commemorate the victims of the Berlin wall. A couple of days later the white crosses, shown in a video message published by the ZPS on YouTube, resurfaced at the boarders of the European Union. Meanwhile, the ZPS started an Indiegogo campaign to crowd-source the funding of a trip to the European outskirts. The centre hopes to transport busloads of people armed with bolt clippers to the outskirts of the EU to deconstruct the fence that separates the Spanish city of Melilla from Morocco. Leaving Berlin on the 7 November, the day of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the trip is part of an action conceived of to raise awareness for European boarder politics and the mass of sub-Saharan refugees who in their attempt to travel to and cross the border get killed and injured.
However good the intentions, this kind of political art-activism employed by the ZPS is as radical as much as it is problematic. Firstly, how are they radical? The ZPS’s actions are original and profound. The ways in which the group operates seem to take art-activism one step further to where it has been previously residing; that is mostly in symbolism. Art-activists like Liberate Tate (with admittedly very different incentives for their activism) often engage in gestures of protest that remain inherently symbolic. For example, ‘License to spill’ (2010) saw the group staging an oil spill at the Tate Summer Party to raise awareness for the controversial and environmentally unethical conduct of the oil company BP, the primary sponsor of Tate.
In contrast, ZPS complements the symbolic removal and dislocation of the crosses with a direct call for action through its Indiegogo campaign. At the time of writing the campaign has raised around 21.700 Euro, enough to bring two busloads of people to the EU border. Through contributing their money, as well as through the possibility to go on the trip, the general public, you and me, can become an active and vital part of the action. An action which potentially shares responsibility between many and at the same time multiplies impact is, in principle, admirable.
Nevertheless, there are several problems with the ZPS’s activity. As direct as the act of bringing people to the border and physically destroying the fence is, as much is this act a calculated theatre performance. I would be surprised for Philipp Ruch to be as naïve as to believe that this act will bring immediate improvement to the refugee’s situation let alone the associated policies. Secondly, the comparison that is made between the victims of the Berlin wall and the African refugees is quite simplistic and flawed. While in both cases people are suffering from a type of cage-like border constructed to restrict their freedom, there is a massive difference between forcefully separating a people that belongs together and separating two people with different cultural backgrounds from each other. Just because it says wall refugees on the package it doesn’t contain the same thing. No doubt in both cases human rights were and are violated, however the circumstances are very different. In this sense, the activism of the ZPS is too idealistic and it seems not completely thought through. Nevertheless, it is at least partly successful in the way in which it has already raised a lot of awareness for the issues of the European refugee policy. It remains to be seen how exactly the activism of the ZPS will play out this weekend and next week, and moreover, how the media will react. In any case, I will be following closely.