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  • Seymour Gris: Walls and death, past and present


Seymour Gris: Walls and death, past and present

An artist group has come up with the perfect provocation on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Image for Seymour Gris: Walls and death, past and present

Zentrum für politische Schönheit

The Centre for Political Beauty. The name of this organisation ruffles my feathers. It conjures images of self-righteous first-world activist-artists in love with themselves and their “work“. And this time their work is truly provocative. If you haven’t heard about it yet, this is what they did: last Monday they stole 14 white crosses memorialising victims who died trying to escape East Berlin to the West. A couple of days later, the crosses (or actually copies of them) showed up on fences not in Germany but on walls and fences that mark the southern boundaries of the European Union in Greece, Bulgaria and Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco. All in time for Sunday’s grand commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. The reactions were foreseeable: Much of the press was in uproar. A firestorm of comments decrying the “desecration“ of a memorial for political gain ensued. An equal number of comments defending the action as well as positive media reaction across the world from Spiegel Online to the Guardian. Despite my initial cringe, and despite the fact that the comparisons between the Berlin Wall and Fortress Europe are patchy at best, I soon felt that the broad reaction alone made this somehow self-absorbed project worthwhile. The sheer media reach, the level of buzz… was perhaps more than the occupation of Oranienplatz and the Ohlauer Straße school ever achieved. Of course there were actual third-world refugees there – the actual flesh and blood victims of the collective failure of our societies. But somehow first worlders’ Agit Prop seems to be more effective than the actual plight of actual people. Plus it looks cool, and it’s available online, all over social media. No need to actually go and ‘experience’ the dirty mess on Oranienplatz. Please all press the like button!

And then comes part two of the Erster Europäischer Mauerfall action: on Friday 100 volunteers left Berlin for Bulgaria in two crowdfunded buses, allegedly armed with bolt-cutters with the intention of cutting through the new chain-link fence that divides that country from Turkey. On Sunday, as we’re watching 8,000 illuminated balloons rise into the air to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in this city, the self-described “combat unit against inhumanity“ will be trying to cut through the militarised borders of today. Unlike the peaceful revolutionaries of 1989, they will fail – and not just because Frontex agents will have been informed in advance of the action, but because there is no obvious desirable outcome or easy solution to the vast, complex problem of Fortress Europe. Is not having a fence, and total freedom of movement really a solution to the massive waves of refugees and asylum seekers originating in the Middle East and Africa? Probably not. But the status quo is unbearable from an ethical, political and humanitarian perspective. Hundreds of people died trying to escape East Germany. Every death a tragedy. Today, thousands die in their attempt to get into Europe. Every death a tragedy. We need to understand that. We need to be aware of it, discuss it and find new policies. The alternative is too horrific for Europe – the continent from which the very notion of human rights originated but also the continent which produced the Holocaust – to live with.

An interesting side scandal of this action is the involvement of the Gorki Theater. The departure of the buses for Bulgaria was presented as the kick-off of Gorki’s “Voicing Resistance“ festival (of which Exberliner is a media partner) that goes for most of the month. The buses actually left from the theatre’s doorstep and the police showed up to allegedly make sure no bolt-cutters were on board. I’m sure they can pick some up on the way between here and Bulgaria.

It also turns out that the replicas of the stolen crosses were produced in Gorki’s workshop. Simply by promoting and supporting the project, the theft of the crosses and the destruction of the border fences, Gorki’s director Shermin Langhoff and her team are “accomplices“. A state-funded theatre supporting a crime against the state? A non-violent crime, at least. I was at the Gorki yesterday, and talked to some of members of its staff and there seemed to be a lot of work for lawyers right now. I’m sure it will end up okay for them. And meanwhile, Langhoff proves once again that controversy is the best PR.