Tag Archives: Disobedient Objects

Political Beauty & the Fence of Melilla

“When you strike the word ‘beauty’ and the word ‘politics’ together, you create the spark for a revolution” Philipp Ruch

The memorial comemorating the victims of the Berlin Wall.

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.’

The Berlin memorial after the crosses have been taken down. Photo (c) Zentrum fuer Politische Schoenheit, 2014

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.

African refugees pointing at one of the crosses (or a look-alike) of the Berlin memorial. Photo (c) Zentrum fuer Politische Schoenheit, 2014

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.

Liberate Tate, “License to Spill”, 2010

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.

A schematic drawing outlining the cruel mechanisms of the Melilla fence. (c) Zentrum fuer Politische Schoenheit

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.

(Dis)obedient Objects at the V&A

The exhibition entrance
The exhibition entrance

Disambiguation of disobedience.

disobedience
dɪsəˈbiːdiəns
noun
noun: disobedience
  1. failure or refusal to obey rules or someone in authority.
    “disobedience to law is sometimes justified”

These are not only objects of disobedience, these are objects of defeat and of victory, of pain and of triumph, but most of all of struggle.

They are touching, story-telling objects. They move you to tears, as much as they make you smile, and they embody in every possible way the object agency argued for so vigorously by Bruno Latour.

The danger of objects larger then their physical mass is reflected in the fact, that the museum takes on a design perspective. Expectedly, this is a seemingly fitting stance, possibly pre-determined by the very purpose of its standing as a chronicler and harp-bringer of all things design-related.

Forgoing any kind of explicit political message, staying on the save side, obviously, the exhibition let’s the objects speak. At the same time, the very fact, that they are still moving you deeply and are perfectly capable of telling the story of the human struggle, negates this imposed design-focused a-politicalness.

26 July 2014 – 1 February 2015

Entry is free.

The V&A provides you with a couple of printed How-to guides to take home and make your own ‘disobedient object.’ You can also download them here.

I also recommend the blog that accompanies the exhibition and explores individual objects exhibited and protests represented in more depth.

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Papier-mâché puppets from the American ‘Bread and Puppet Theater.’ The political theatre was formed in the 1960’s initially protesting against the Vietnam War and is still active today.

 

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The costumes and signs used by the Guerrilla Girls (formed in 1985 and still active) to protest against sexism in the art world and the under-representation of female artists in the canonic museums of the world.

 

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Examples of spoof newspapers printed and distributed to gain attention for political causes.

 

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Display of ‘book blocs.’ Signs that resemble book covers are used as shields in protests. These were first used in 2010 in Rome, Italy in student protests against budget cuts and the increase of tuition fees. You can read more about them here and here.

 

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More examples of protest signs.

 

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A bike bloc and sound installation using original sound footage from protests, as well as, sound material that responds to the exhibition.

 

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