Schlingensief’s remains: Crisis and cruelty

This post was workshopped in the graduate seminar “Framing Migration,” taught by Prof. Deniz Göktürk of the UC Berkeley Department of German. In this post, seminar participant Christine Korte analyzes the way in which a play by performance artist and theater/film director Christoph Schlingensief engages (and provokes) discourses around European cultural politics and the potential of avant-garde art. A version of this post is a part of Christine’s larger dissertation project on the Berliner Volksbühne, which she is currently working on and which will be finished and published soon.

Christoph Schlingensief, the late enfant terrible actionist and director of theatre, opera and film, who died at the age of 50 in 2010, left us with an unsettling legacy. This includes gory excesses, ethically-challenging provocation strategies, and the establishment of an entourage or charismatic community comprised of disabled persons and former Fassbinder stars (with Schlingensief at the helm). We can safely say that no contemporary German artist risked the personal and physical stakes in their artwork in such a public way as Schlingensief: exposing and sacrificing himself in the avant-garde tradition of the artist-as-martyr, albeit always in highly pre-planned actions.

For now, let’s bracket the absence in the current performance landscape in Germany in relation to the refugee crisis with consideration of how he might have responded. Schlingsief’s social type—the enfant terrible, the taboo transgressor, the tricksteris conspicuously absent today amidst more collective and documentary artistic efforts such as the Center for Political Beauty, or the postdramatic theatre of Elfriede Jelinek.

However, we must consider Schlingensief as part of the “vexed legacy” of the European avant-garde, as well as addressing his positionality by looking at the way he dealt with the events of September 11th in his production Atta Atta at the Volksbühne in 2003. Schlingensief’s artistic oeuvre could be summarized as making visible representational frames. His entire body of work is a subversive re-staging of media representations of otherness, from disabled persons to former neo-Nazis to refugees. Each production or action hovered on the edge of cruelty, questionable ethics, and audience assault, but managed to precisely locate the contradictions of the social order.

With Atta Atta, we must grapple with Schlingensief’s unsettling staging of European “Orientalism” and his over-identification with the actions of the suicide bombers. Yet, in spite of my unease with aspects of his work, I am trying to make a case for Schlingensief as avant-garde trickster who still has something to offer us, particularly in terms of destabilizing borders and vivifying social contradictions, as well as conveying the unresolved stakes of highly-gendered vitalist action. For Schlingensief, life-affirming action—or the will to creative agency—is part of a deeply human need to participate in narrating and shaping one’s world and hence to find a productive, sublimated form for fear, aggression and violence. By considering the bombers’ actions through this lens, Schlingensief explores the limits and ethical implications thereof by making himself the object of a working through of these propensities, both latent and overt, within himself.

Atta Atta, which premiered at the Volksbühne on the 23rd of January 2003, was a response to the attacks of September 11th, as well as to comments by the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who claimed that September 11th was “the greatest artwork of all time.” This quote—its invocation of simulacra and postmodern malaise—simultaneously re-stated the aims of the avant-garde to fundamentally alter the world. In the tradition of the historical avant-gardes specifically, this meant an “assault” on the Western European bourgeois order and its institutions ailing from decadence, conformism and solipsism. In The Century (2007), Alain Badiou calls this the avant-garde’s “passion for the real” and marks it as definitive for the 20th century.

As Stockhausen’s comment made explicit, Badiou’s observation that “the century does not hesitate to sacrifice the image so that the real may finally arise in the artistic gesture” seemed apt for considering the twin towers bombings as a manifesto-like intervention into the real, replete with the aspiration to martyrdom that defined the avant-garde historically. Stockhausen was obviously berated for the monstrous insensitivity of his comments, in particular by the German Left, who perceived his privileged position as an elite European male composer.

Schlingensief wasted no opportunity to seize upon the scandal and to probe deeply into the relationship between art and violence—between media representation and creative agency—in an “Attaismus” seminar, performance, and film. It was, however, difficult to discern at what level Schlingensief’s conceptual project was operating: a Dadaist mockery of an elite institution seriously “investigating” September 11th as “artwork”? A serious Left-wing interrogation of what Badiou cites as the West’s “desire for the real”?

The title, Atta Atta, for example, conveys Schlingensief’s deconstructive enterprise, his engagement with Derridean différance and Dadaist word play. Mohammed Atta, the name of one of the bombers, was the inspiration for Atta-Atta, which is like Da-da. Attavism (or Attaismus) refers to the avant-garde isms or to atavism, which derives from the Latin atavus meaning “ancestor”. Atavisma term rooted in evolutionary study—refers to instances when an organism possesses traits closer to a more remote ancestor, rather than its own parents. This endless chain of signification reveals shared traces and traits. It implies an ancestral connection between Mohammed Atta and Schlingensief, and anticipates the eruption of aggression and violence in Schlingensief that will further link them (here as elsewhere I am deeply indebted to Brechtje Beuker’s analysis of Atta Atta, which appears in this volume).

The two hour action-performance under discussion was filmed on March 23rd 2003 was comprised of two parts: the first, Part I, was more structured. On stage right: there was a couch for a fictional Prenzlauer Berg “art collective” that Schlingensief and his entourage are a part of. Stage left: another couch representing Schlingensief’s parents’ living room. In the middle: an artist’s painting studio. Two video screens above stage right and left show a group of well-known German actors meeting up “live” at the Brandenburg Gate to begin a march towards the Volksbühne. Shot in black and white, with indiscernible motivations guided by a live moderator, the footage was devised to create a feeling of uncertainty and danger.

The first part of the performance consisted of a series of loosely associated vignettes. We are privy to Schlingensief making an appeal to have his art collective’s film accepted into the Oberhausen festival, whilst making fun of an anaemic, ineffectual Berlin art scene which, in the face social crisis, “sells waffles in galleries at midnight”. His high school girlfriend “Inge” (played by Fabian Hinrichs) is a part of the collective and with her he discusses their traumatic- failed love affair, as well as a violent appendix eruption he had as a teenager that first unleashed his will to creative agency. Failed art projects, failed love and a first experience of excruciating pain launch the artist’s existential crisis and aggression.

The next scene is his parents’ living room. Schlingensief re-enacts his frustrated relationship to the petit bourgeois world of his parents and their inability to accept their son as artist. Failure and crisis in all domains lead Schlingensief to grab a chainsaw and enter a third space, a painting space, where he begins aggressively painting “NO YORK” on a canvas and shouting the slogan, “we have to organize the world otherwise!” The idea behind action painting in the 1950s and 1960s was about “presence”—it was about resisting the framework of the art institution and about the artist’s liveness and gesture. The highly-gendered tradition of action painting is heightened by Schlingensief’s chainsaw (a reference also to his 1990 film, The German Chainsaw Massacre).

Schlingensief undercuts the seriousness of the action first by penetrating his painting with a sausage, and then destroying it in a kind of chainsaw ballet. As such, Schlingensief wavers between a commitment to a retro-modernist and avant-gardiste belief in the pure, anti-institutional art gesture and postmodern self-reflexive parody.

In what seems to constitute Part II of the performance, the more conventionally theatrical set of Part I breaks apart to reveal an open performance space—a morphology which Schlingensief dramatically orchestrates from the top of a tall structure that invokes a minaret with Wagner’s Tannhäuser blasting. Schlingensief dons a North African caftan, a turban, and plays master-conductor over his Gesamtkunstwerk that includes disturbing tropes of the European “Orient”. The performance space has turned into a retro German camping ground (which is obviously meant to invoke the training camps of Al Qaeda).

Ruling over the camp is actor Dietrich Kuhlbrodt playing the Vienna Aktionist Hermann Nitsch, who created the “Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries” in the 1970s—a cathartic, ritualistic theatre using blood and animal sacrifice. Over the next 70 minutes, Schlingensief and company perform various ritualistic actions from the Vienna Aktionist tradition, the point of which is to facilitate abreaction: the acknowledgement and purging of personal, collective or site-specific trauma and violence.

There is a great deal of anarchist chaos and difficult-to-follow-banter in the second half of the performance including Schlingensief’s girlfriend Inge claiming that “Arab media artists are winning 1:0”. If Arab media artists are “winning” in Schlingensief’s Dadaist-absurdist rendering, it is because they have taken up Schlingensief’s earlier appeal to “organize the world otherwise”. This is buttressed by the art theories of Joseph Beuys, whom Schlingensief now channels on stage by holding Beuys’s dead hare and thus re-citing a Beuys performance by explaining “theatre” to the dead animal as a non-rational, sensorial experience.

Moreover, Beuys’s revolutionary concept of the social sculpture (soziale Plastik) conceived every individual gesture as sculpting and changing the world as both an art work and as a form of political engagement. Hence, Part II of Schlingensief’s production has taken the shamanistic and ritualistic principles of Beuys and Nitsch to concertedly and ritualistically work through the aggressive and violent impulses that Schlingensief has located in his own traumatic past.

The inability to shape and creatively impact one’s world is accentuated by banal bureaucratic conceits (that dominate art institutions and festivals) which Schlingensief complained about earlier from the couch of his art collective, as well as the totality of the Western media’s spectacle, which has the monopoly on the world’s pictures. Schlingensief’s answer thereto is to find agency within the German Romantic tradition from Novalis through Wagner to Beuys, wherein “every individual is an artist” and every concerted effort to participate in re-framing the world’s images is understood as participation in the social sculpture.

But what does it mean, ethically, to see the acts of September 11th as a Beuysian social sculpture? Moreover, what about Schlingensief and his ensemble re-enacting inverted Christian rituals and shouting “Allahu akbar” reproducing the tropes of the Orientalist gaze? Schligensief would agree with Edward Said’s premise in Orientalism, namely that, “From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.”

In fact, the hegemonies of Western institutional ideals and epistemologies are precisely what are at stake for Schlingensief. He would claim that his performance is a working through of colonial baggage as part of own traumatic inventory. This is part of the abreaction idea behind the Vienna Aktionist movement. It is also part of the associative thrust of his work: to find shared links between Catholic ritual, the historical avant-garde and Islamic concepts of martyrdom and utopia.

The fundamental desire to self-constitute, narrate, change, destroy or negate the frame is, according to Schlingensief, primordial (like the death drive). This is, for the avant-garde artist and for the dispossessed, at the heart of highly-charged transgressive gestures wherein the individual assents to life to the point of death. In other words, to embrace a meaningful life sometimes means to risk or embrace death in a life-affirming event or pure action. In a highly subjective and self-reflexive way, Schlingensief’s Atta Atta dissolves the borders between self and other, East and West, solipsistic self-dissolution and political platform of social justice.

In this way, Schligensief is both trickster and Beuysian shaman, and must be understood in these archetypal categories. Schlingensief makes a neo avant-garde case for actionism and ritual as changing the world, and creates a vision for creative agency and responsible individual catharsis (although the success of his catharsis as ‘responsible’ is sometimes questionable). However, with the rise of more “ethical” or “politically-correct” collective, documentary responses to humanitarian crisis on the current performance landscape in Germany, and the retreat of the anarchist and chaotic terrain of the avant-garde trickster, we lose a living archive and the archetypal transgressor.

The typological feature of this disappearing type is precisely to transgress borders and/or to vivify their arbitrary nature. The trickster enables the obscured, repressed and abjected parts of ourselves and society to come into full relief. This type can expose contradictions by violating the principles of the social order and disrupting normal life, thus holding up a mirror to himself, as well as to the collective society’s complicity in Europe’s crisis at hand.

Schlingenisef’s posthumous retrospective at MoMA Psi in the summer of 2014 transformed him—in a not untypical trajectory—from Till Eulenspiegel-type figure and tabloid favourite, to canonized member of the neo avant-garde actionist lineage.

Christine Korte is a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada. 

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