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The moral washing machine: André Leipold of ZPS

INTERVIEW! Their latest action "Soko Chemnitz" triggered the expected scandal. Zentrum für politische Schönheit use performance art as a tool to shock our numb minds out of what they see as shameful political complacency. Leipold explains.

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Photo by Jacob Spetzler

This past week, their latest action “Soko Chemnitz” triggered the expected scandal. Zentrum für politische Schönheit use performance art as a tool to shock our numb minds out of what they see as shameful political complacency. “Privy Councillor” André Leipold explains.

For their latest action, the artist group launched “Soko Chemnitz”, a campaign to name-and-shame those involved in the Chemnitz riots this summer – allegedly with cash rewards. Reminiscent of the “Soko Schwarzer Block”, the ZPS opened an office in Chemnitz and started an online portal on Monday with thousands of previously unpublished photos of demonstrators alongside tips for employers on how to fire far-right employees. After launching, it took just a few hours for masked protesters to gather outside the ZPS’s new HQ, the Saxon police to break in, removing all wanted posters and changing the locks – and the landlord to terminate their rental contract.

On the one hand, many sharply criticised the group’s vigilante justice and denunciations. But, in a dramatic twist on Wednesday, the ZPS posted a cryptic picture of their own brand of Soko Chemnitz honey: aka, a honeypot! The whole action had been a trap to gather more information on the far-right.

With the help of algorithms and facial recognition software, ZPS were able to reconstruct neo-Nazi networks connected to the protests this summer, identifying an even greater number of those who took part. As the fallout from their controversial action continues, a bundsweite debate has been ignited, filling the pages of Germany’s feuilletons this week.

You’ve been very secretive about Soko Chemnitz. Are shock and surprise part of the programme?

Definitely. But it varies from action to action. One might need an initial shock, the other doesn’t. We often use this shock like a defibrillator. But also, if you start revealing too much too soon, you get confused, you start to have doubts.

You’re the Privy Councillor of the centre. What does that mean exactly?

Those are just stage names we have. Stefan is our Chief Escalation Officer. If anything, they just allude to the fact that we’re moving in a carousel of categories: you never really know who you’re dealing with. We’re an institution of our very own making. And we’re as much a think tank as we are an artist or activist group. This nickname of privy councillor actually comes from Goethe. Alongside his dramatic output, he also worked in politics in the privy council. He had his own balancing act between politics and art. But perhaps this comparison is somewhat megalomaniac of me.

What’s your goal here?

From the very beginning, we said that art can and should be a part of politics. And that good politics also makes good art. Poetry belongs in politics. The borders between theatre, concrete politics and activism are dissolving. We want to blow up conventional theatre.

You use the term aggressive humanism. Is that not a contradiction?

A jump forwards can also be a jump backwards. You need the past to create something new in the future. I really like this quote from Edmund Burke: “Society is a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn”. And when you set yourself such a high approach, you have to contradict yourself, you have to act dialectically – driving with 100 percent power and pure ideology into a wall won’t work. It’s sort of a marriage between a vision and a political praxis – tactics which we’re trying to shape from our ivory tower.

What is political beauty for you?

A politician acting in a beautiful way won’t just focus on zeitgeist questions. They see themselves as a representative of both the dead and the unborn, working towards a vision that goes beyond their mere selves. They bring a certain artistic impetus, a creativity with them. A perfect example is Willy Brandt’s Warschauer Kniefall, his kneel before the Ghetto. This act has it all. It’s a symbolic political act with a clear message, but it’s also an artistic way of acting. It’s something that comes from deep inside a person, something created in the moment. And when that fits in synergy with political action – that would be politically beautiful. But it’s not sufficient to simply have an idea. You have to be able to formulate it – and that’s where we reach the field of rhetoric, which is perhaps the most classical, the most traditional field where politics and art meet. Words matter. They can inspire.

But your work as a centre seems more focussed on actions than words surely?

If you look at our 2015 action, The First Fall of the European Wall, where we took the white memorial crosses from the Reichstagsufer, I feel the power to inspire lay in the rhetoric of saying the white crosses had fled. They had fled to their brothers and sisters in Malia, to those who will become the next to die at a wall at Europe’s external frontier.

Some critics would say you’re instrumentalising victims for political purposes.

But that’s true: we are instrumentalising. And we’re doing it openly, right in front of everyone’s eyes. This instrumentalisation is supposed to trigger a response. It should make the contradiction clear. You won’t achieve a utopia with a soapbox speech, nor will you with a tweet. We need to act and the beginning of action is ugly. You have to get your hands dirty if you want to achieve something. And that’s what we’re demonstrating.

So online petitions aren’t enough?

Certainly not – and neither is a candle march!

Where does artistic freedom stop?

It’s all in the constitution. Artistic freedom in Germany is greater than in almost every other country. And you have to use these rights so that they remain strong and stable, so that they can be seen. That means going right up to the limit of what’s allowed and exhausting them in order to show how far you can go. But that also means hearing during an action “is this still legal?” and that’s exactly our point. This is still legal! And it would be legal for you to do it too.

You often use the term hyperreal to describe your actions. What do you mean by this exactly?

There’s a big difference between what we do and how it’s perceived. That’s partly intended. Our goal is to put the spectator, the participant into a moral washing machine. Ideally, they won’t know which way is up and which way is down. It’s not about us always being morally on the right side and portraying ourselves as doing good.

If you’re off blowing up the boundaries and concepts of theatre, is there even still a place for a conventional political play?

It’s so easy to come off cocky answering this and I don’t want to be arrogant. But my impression is that since 2015, in part influenced by us, a lot of theatres have started breaking through their own enclosed, protected spaces, going onto the streets in what some would call artivism, though I find the term somewhat debasing. But since antiquity, theatre has been much more than just a stage. It’s always been a forum for societal self-assurance and an interdisciplinary space which was seen as an incubator. Sure, we have our own playing field but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one – relevance isn’t just found on the streets. I long for a strictly text-based theatre with a certain timelessness. I would love to see a faithful performance of Faust and not check to see if every sentence had something to say about our zeitgeist. Classical theatre still has a lot of power.

The ZPS turned 10 this year. What’s changed in that time?

It’s become less hands-on in day-to-day life. A lot more people are involved. We work in a larger context with bigger budgets and also collaborate with theatres. More people are watching us and that has advantages and disadvantages. People expect something in particular of us based on the last action. But of course we want to do something new. We’re certainly more politically charged. More people perceive us as a political player and we’re accordingly attacked all the more.

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