Promoting humanity through stories and imaginationCandlelight vigils are not enough
The artists’ group “Center for Political Beauty” weaponizes art for radical change, using dramatic actions to draw attention to things we would rather not see. Sometimes, the collective ends up exposing even more problems than even they expected. Read More
The artists’ group “Center for Political Beauty” weaponizes art for radical change, using dramatic actions to draw maximum attention to things we would rather not see. Sometimes, the collective ends up exposing even more problems than even they expected.
In the summer of 2014, the German Ministry of Family Affairs website announced sensational plans to take in 55,000 Syrian refugee children to save them from the ongoing violence in their homeland. At the time, images of the devastating war had dominated the headlines for three years. At least that was how it seemed. It turned out though that the ministry knew nothing about this supposed pledge. At least not until the press office started receiving inquiries from citizens and a few dozen people gathered in front of the ministry with candles and gifts to show their appreciation. Now the ministry faced the unpleasant task of setting the record straight: No, they had no plans to take in refugee children and the website that publicized the claims was not the ministry’s official page.
This supposed “federal emergency aid program”, which was already looking for foster parents for the new arrivals via an online video, was an action initiated by the “Center for Political Beauty” (ZPS) artist and activist collective.
Their faux ministry website was designed to give politicians a ready-made solution.
The group conceived of the plan as an effort to denounce and – if possible – change Germany’s refugee policy. It contended that all the polite requests to dictator Bashar al-Assad asking him to rethink his actions so that no one had to flee Syria were simply not enough, and insisted that Germany’s asylum policy adapt accordingly.
Their faux ministry website was designed to give politicians a ready-made solution. Time would prove the artists right about the urgency of the situation. Just one year later, hundreds of thousands of war refugees flooded to Europe’s borders, a problem the EU is still struggling – and failing – to find a humane solution for.
Art should hurt
Hardly any organization hits the pain threshold as hard as the ZPS performance artists when denouncing problems and human rights violations. They insist art should hurt. In the best case, it should generate resistance, and be provocative at the very least. So they took their action involving the Family Ministry to a new level, because even the fictitious program the ministry received unearned accolades for would not have been enough to deal with the disaster unfolding in Syria.
According to UNICEF, 5.5 million Syrian children were in acute need at the time and the ministry’s supposed program would only have saved one in a hundred. ZPS set up a booth in a Berlin shopping mall emblazed with the motto “1 out of 100”, and asked passersby to select which child out of a hundred should be saved. That hurt.
Far-right politician Björn Höcke probably also felt pain when activists staged an artistic protest in his home village of Bornhagen in Thuringia in 2017, after yet another of his tasteless comments about the Holocaust. The collective erected an 18x13-meter replica of the well-known Berlin Holocaust Memorial right in front of his home featuring the 24 stelae that – like the original installation – commemorate the six million Jews murdered during the Nazi dictatorship.
They insist art should hurt. In the best case, art should generate resistance, and be provocative at the very least.
It was also obvious that the replica was meant to provoke the politician and draw public attention to the “creeping normalization of fascism in Germany,” as the group announced. The far-right politician had defamed the Berlin memorial as a “monument of shame.” Now he looked out at a daily reminder that his opinion was in no way shared by the “people” as a whole, as his AfD party supporters like to claim.
In recent years, founder and artistic director Philipp Ruch and the collective have enacted a number of political stunts.
These include using a remote-controlled printer to rain hundreds of flyers over the streets of Istanbul to call for the overthrow of the Erdogan government and burying a Syrian woman in Berlin who had drowned in the Mediterranean while fleeing her country.
“We won’t win the fight for human rights with candlelight vigils”
Philipp Ruch describes his center as an “assault force,” an “assault gun of humanism”. His aim is to “more uncompromisingly lead the fight for human rights”. The choice to use military terms is quite deliberate, as the initiative’s homepage makes clear. The group claims it seeks to use the “power of history” as a “weapon” and wants the actions is takes to “smash into German reality at high speed.” And anyone who decides to support the group is not called a sponsor or partner, but an “accomplice”.
Ruch recently told German newspaper Die Zeit that this approach is a deliberate attempt to highlight the group’s unique approach compared to other human rights organizations such as Amnesty International: “The fight for human rights cannot be won with hashtags, candlelight vigils, and online petitions,” he said, “it takes stories and imagination.”
The memorial replica set up in Bornhagen set a lot in motion at least. The media reported on the action nationwide and Björn Höcke himself complained publicly, calling the group “terrorists”. The artists promptly took up this epithet and made it their own, publishing a video of an excerpt of the speech on their homepage, and citing Höcke’s accusation: “The Center for Political Beauty is not a group of artists, but a terrorist organization!” It is obvious that they regarded the politician’s censure as a badge of courage.
“The fight for human rights cannot be won with hashtags, candlelight vigils, and online petitions!”
But the group probably never imagined they would actually be investigated by the public prosecutor’s office, not for terrorism, but for “forming a criminal organization.”
The investigation lasted for more than a year, although in all that time no sufficient or circumstantial evidence was found to support the initial suspicion. The undercover operation was only discontinued when it came to light by chance during a parliamentary inquiry – and public outrage and pressure on the public prosecutor’s office became too great.
“The Center for Political Beauty is not a group of artists, but a terrorist organization!”
The media denounced the fact that the prosecutor in charge seemed to have often been guided by his right-wing views. As a result, the prosecutor was transferred and was not allowed to continue working either as a prosecutor for political criminal cases or as a press spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office. The ZPS had shown – albeit unintentionally – that right-wing networks had their tendrils in the judiciary as well. And it had caused at least one supporter to lose his post and influence.
The memorial in Bornhagen was not the last performance piece the creative activists enacted to set a sign – and there will certainly be more to come. The group around Philipp Ruch has another guiding principle: “Signs and miracles don’t just happen; they are created”.