Sven Lütticken on the Volksbühne Occupation

Art as Immoral Institution

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This September, on the weekend of Germany's national elections, activists occupied Berlin’s Volksbühne, which is newly headed by ex-Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. His program, the occupiers argued, promises a homogenized global art-in-general that would foremost serve the city's capitalist event-culture – rather than serving the city's residents and reflecting the hybridity for which the Volksbühne is known.

Here, Sven Lütticken unpacks the dynamics of the Volksbühne occupation in light of current political changes and the German media's role therein.


UPDATED 11 OCT. 2017 Minor clarifications and corrections added. For an overview (in German) of events transpiring in the two weeks since the drafting of this text, see: https://berlinergazette.de/zukunftspotenzial-streit-volksbuehne/. For a statement on the eviction (in English) see: http://www.b-books.de/montagspraxis/index.htm


I

On Friday, September 22, Berlin’s Volksbühne was occupied by a coalition of activists protesting against the theater’s new artistic director, Chris Dercon, who is taking over a post held, since 1992, by Frank Castorf. In contrast to Castorf’s career in the theater, Dercon comes from Tate Modern and is seen as an exponent of contemporary art – and further, is viewed by many as a key proponent of contemporary art’s most fully generalized and eventized form: a type of art-in-general in the service of capitalist city marketing and event culture. As the weekend progressed, news of the occupation shared airtime with Germany’s federal elections, held two days later and which resulted in the admission of the nation’s far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party to parliament; the first extreme right party to win seats in the Bundestag in more than 50 years.

Especially in light of the tense election mood, it was interesting that many German newspapers went out of their way to delegitimize the occupiers’ efforts. A writer for the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, for instance, describing her visit in the style of sub-ethnological reportage, smirked at what she characterized as a weird mix of suspicious radicals and normal-seeming people harboring a quaint preoccupation with gender issues and radically democratic procedures; she meanwhile warned of the occupiers’ supposed ties to the Black Bloc and broader autonome Szene (autonomy scene) – both readymade bogeymen after the riots at this summer’s G20 summit in Hamburg. [1] Meanwhile, Berlin’s Der Tagesspiegel, with its invocation of “actually existing socialism,” framed the occupiers politically via the Volksbühne’s own history, which is not only closely interwoven with that of the GDR (a fact that Castorf embraced and to some degree even mythologized) but also a key site of post-1989 leftist cultural practice. It doesn’t hurt that the Die Linke’s party headquarters (Die Linke/The Left being successors to the East-German communist party) are right next-door. The paper not only claimed that the 103 year-old theater had been turned into a S*pielplatz für Spinner* (playground for loonies), but also that it has been declared an obskures Volkseigentum (obscure property of the people), a term bringing to mind the GDR’s volkseigene Betriebe (people’s enterprise, or socially owned enterprise, the main legal form of enterprise in East Germany). [2]

What these reports largely chose to ignore was an outpouring of community support for the occupation – both online and in person (including the likes of, for example, Thomas Oberender, the director of the Berliner Festspiele). And so, while of course one cannot speak of the press as a single homogenous voice, it was still curious that some of the most well respected and visible “liberal” newspapers seemed to go out of their way to present the occupation as the product of a small cabal of professional troublemakers and misguided souls, using imagery that made the occupiers appear to be part ISIS, part genderqueer snowflakes rather than an initiative sprung from a much wider movement. Together with calls for actions from the local CDU, FDP and AfD, the rhetoric in the papers prepared the way for the eviction of the occupiers by the police on September 28.

II.

Occupied Volksbühne, September 2017. Fotos: Christian Philipp Müller

It should be noted that the September occupation came in the wake of scuppered plans for an occupation this summer as well as an online petition, this July, for Berlin Kultursenator Klaus Lederer (of Die Linke) to reexamine Dercon’s contract in hopes of finding legal leverage that could be employed to thwart the ex-Tate Modern director’s plan to institute what many perceived as a generic neoliberal cultural space antithetical to the Volksbühne’s mission (as a sui generis theater operating outside the homogenizing forces of the so-called global art world). More than 40,000 people signed. [3] It is on this basis that the September occupation proceeded.

As a way of moving forward, the "Staub zu Glitzer" collective that organized the occupation proposed that Dercon continue his work at Volksbühne Tempelhof Hangar 5 (the theater’s new, secondary location, which he initiated) but be relieved of his position programming the main Volksbühne at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz. Lederer, to whom the petition was addressed, condemned the occupation, and on September 28, supported Dercon in calling in the police to end it – even though the occupiers had not yet decided on an offer to retreat to the Volksbühne’s Grüner Salon. [4] Right after the occupation started, Lederer published a statement on Facebook: “Yes, the fight for open spaces is necessary and important. For me, it is a central political concern. But the fight for open spaces cannot be carried out through the privatization of and claim to power over existing open spaces – whether or not I like what goes on there.” [5] The use of the term “privatization,” here, is remarkable. In Lederer’s reading of the situation, the occupiers – even as they invited everyone to submit plans for performances, including but not limited to old Volksbühne stalwarts – are to be understood as withdrawing the Volksbühne from the public realm. A more balanced assessment would recognize the occupier’s direct democracy (however formless and thus fraught with the kinds of problems self-organization entails) as a clear attempt at commoning, not privatizing the institution. Furthermore, it might acknowledge that the city’s endorsement of Dercon’s program has, in the words of this summer’s petition, “quite obviously not received the support of many Berliners” and is viewed by many as an “inappropriate top-down decision, from the previous legislative period, about a fundamental structural change.”

In this discursive topsy-turvy world, it comes as no surprise that Der Tagesspiegel chose to describe the occupation as an effort that was turning the Volksbühne into an “event shack” (Eventbude), thereby also charging the occupiers with precisely that which the latter predicted Dercon would enact. [6] Equally ironic—and possibly a strategic reversal of the occupiers’ critique of Dercon—was the Süddeutsche’s framing of the occupation as the work of “activists foreign to theater” (Theaterfremde Aktivisten), which to ill-disposed minds could carry overtones of the fascist slogan of “elements foreign to the people” (Volksfremde Elemente).* [7] Until now, it had been Dercon whose lack of any proper theatrical background has frequently been used against him; critics were suspicious of his qualification being that of a curator turned hyper-networked cultural powerhouse. In an age when contemporary visual art has “generalized” itself to the point of being open to all the other arts, one can imagine the logic behind his appointment: He’s curated performance art, right? He’s certainly done big events; just what Berlin needs!

Reflective of art’s position in culture today, Dercon’s role as “curator” has been a recurring point of contention in the discussion surrounding his Volksbühne program. Consider, for instance, how Der Tagesspiegel, in 2015, made a show of defending Dercon against the accusation that he was a curator upon the announcement of his Volksbühne appointment: “The description of the designated director [of the theater at large] as a curator is already defamatory. Non-stage-oriented [theater] directors can be found running many other theater institutions, where they are indeed not described as curators; for example, the head of the Berliner Festspiele, Thomas Oberender.” [8] Here, two usages of curator become thoroughly confused: clearly Dercon is a curator (of contemporary art), but the impact of contemporary art has been such that now everything is subject to curation, including magazines and Spotify playlists curated by celebrities. Apparently, the only way to redeem Dercon as Intendant (director) of the Volksbühne is to deny his actual profession and skillset.

Informing the protests against Dercon as Volksbühne director is the sense that—as Freud allegedly joked when visiting America—he is bringing the plague. Contemporary art (no need to even add the “visual”) is arguably the most successful art form, and its success has turned toxic. If, in Peter Osborne’s words, the contemporary condition is marked by “con-temporaneity, a coming together not simply ‘in’ time but of times,” with the present being “increasingly characterized by a coming together of different but equally ‘present’ temporalities or ‘times’, a temporal unity in disjunction, or a disjunctive unity of present times,” then “contemporary” art, within this montage, stands for the vanguard of exploitation and gentrification, for value redistribution from bottom to top, for extreme precarity and speculative bubbles. [9] Having retained its feudal traces, “contemporary” art has for some time now functioned as an asset class for a global oligarchy. [10] It is important to underscore here that it is against this contemporary art that the Volksbühne occupants and those supporting them were acting; and that what they were proposing was not a return to a traditional division of labor among the arts, all neatly enshrined in their areas of competence, but rather a different basis for inter- and transdisciplinary practice.

In the Feuilleton (the politico-cultural pages of the serious German newspapers), the theater has long been a fetish, in particular the deutsches Sprechtheater (non-operatic theatre in the German tongue), which has often served as a place of an “unproblematic” German-ness, and as a consensus-building machine. Schiller’s influential notion of the theater as “moral institution” has been foundational in this regard: as a secular counterpart to the church, the theater was an instrument of aesthetic education that could instill moral values and ethical principles in its congregation. But mediation proved crucial; the performative publicness of the theater demanded to be interpreted and transmuted into discourse by Feuilletonisten who function as the representatives of the räsonnierendes Publikum (reasoning public) of Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere. The Volksbühne’s engagement with the Sprechtheater form has long been a critical one, with protagonists such as Castorf or the venue’s celebrated dramatists Christoph Schlingensief and René Pollesch positioning themselves in a genealogy of avant-garde practice, thereby engendering an openness to other artistic disciplines. It is this culture of hybridity (as distinct from neoliberalism’s global homogenization) that occupiers anticipate Dercon’s program will sweep away.

And yet it is the future promised by Dercon’s version of The Contemporary that many Feuilleton writers seem to endorse, freaking out as they did about the Volksbühne occupation on the weekend of the German vote, when Alexander Gauland’s Nazi rhetoric pushed the AfD to its greatest triumph as the country’s post-war welfare state settlement is left to further implode. It was bizarre reading the Feuilletonisten’s anguished warnings against the Volksbühne becoming a second Rote Flora (a famous/notorious autonomous stronghold in Hamburg) and their cautioned words regarding activists with possible links to Die Linke politician Andrej Holm (who has a less than glorious GDR past). This is publicness as a rotting corpse; the zombie apocalypse of the bourgeois press. Many a Feuilletonist has said goodbye to the notion of a Nationalkultur represented by the theatre, which one can applaud; however, in the place of an old sense of German Bürgerlichkeit (bourgeoisie) come barely acknowledged or examines new loyalties.

III.

Occupied Volksbühne, September 2017. Fotos: Christian Philipp Müller

In contrast to the German theatre and its regional Kultur, the culture of contemporary art is markedly international, and English is its lingua franca. Anticipating the changes ahead, a farewell to the “old” Volksbühne was held this summer, featuring a two-part Volksbühnen-Diskurs staged by René Pollesch. Actor Martin Wuttke, delivering a monologue during the first night, spoke about a letter written in support of Dercon by the denizens of this international scene: Wuttke’s persona wondered if these people actually got together in a room and drafted the letter; whether such people actually know what it is to be really attached to a place. It is clear how such a discourse could quickly slide into a reactionary defamation of rootless cosmopolitans. Ironically, however, Pollesch articulates, here, a sense of deterritorialization and loss not dissimilar from that expressed by those who perceive their country being “invaded” by foreigners.

When confronted with Berlin’s influx of non-German artists and intellectuals in recent years, parts of the more provincially-minded German left have indeed demonstrated xenophobic reflexes. However, this does not mean (as many have alleged) that the critics of the Volksbühne’s Derconization can be equated with Pegida or the AfD – either ethically or in terms of the object of their criticism. (The AfD has of course been one of the fiercest opponents of the occupation.) [11] Rather, we are dealing with two parallel responses to the emergence of two different transnational classes. Analyzing this dynamic in der Freitag on the occasion of the September elections, German sociologist Cornelia Koppetsch speaks of a new “transnational upper class” composed of highly qualified workers who move from metropolis to metropolis, and who get called “expats” rather than “immigrants,” as well as a “transnational underclass,” a mobile proletariat of un- or de-qualifed laborers from the Global South. [12] As Koppetsch also notes, a less mobile middle class that is bound to the “national economic and welfare space” is increasingly bereft of effective advocacy in a situation in which the transnational upper class thrives. Even, we might add, its precarians thrive : those who don’t collect art but, though often badly remunerated for their work, make sure that the oligarch class’s investments pay off. It is they, with their Rollkoffer (rolling luggage), who are often seen as the vanguard of gentrification.

Enter the Wutbürger (angry citizens), Pegida, and AfD. A charmingly divided and conflicted left has struggled to get its act together—or to decide what its act should be in the first place. This summer, one theorist, after trying to get a number of German cultural critics to agree on the wording of a letter condemning police violence at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, sighed that it was hopeless to get the Kulturlinke (cultural left) to abandon their focus on individual authorship and agree on collective statements. The term Kulturlinke is deployed not infrequently in German leftist circles, and usually with a certain sarcastic dédain : made up of hedonistic culturati, this “left” is overly concerned with identity politics and trendy signifiers, and cannot be depended upon when push comes to shove. In response to this bad reputation, Klaus Lederer has allegedly stated that “The left can only be a cultural left.” [13]

A few months ago, Diedrich Diederichsen wrote a brilliant précis of the Volkbühne culture war, in which he noted a frontline of leftism running between an anti-racist, feminist and postcolonial left on the one side, and an anti-capitalist and anti-gentrification counterpart, on the other side, which was often fiercely local. [14] Diederichsen broadly counts himself among the former, with its focus on gender and critical whiteness, and lobs some ironic remarks vis-à-vis those who accuse the left of having paved the way for Trump and Le Pen by obsessing about transgender bathrooms. Painting with a broad brush and riffing on Walter Benjamin, one could say that whereas the “cultural” left tends to culturalize the political, the “political” left does the reverse. It is not certain that one strategy, or habit, has been less disastrous than the other. Neither talking about transgender bathrooms nor insisting that the “real” issue is capitalism has prevented the AfD from becoming the third-largest party. It is heartening that in the Volksbühne occupation there were some glimpses of at least a desire to overcome the division. A text by occupiers posted in the building (in both German and English), “Musik ist Kultur”/Music is Culture” stated:


“We create partys, clubs, concerts, festivals, music, art, politics, theatre – and the cocktails. We create moments, we create club culture. Respectful coexistence, acceptance and tolerance for the new and different is an essential part. That’s why we need to build free spaces, so different from the rest of society. […] We are not the Berlin of city marketing, investment incentives, performance rivalry, of social marginalization, of deportations and gentrification. We don’t want to be at the mercy of this Berlin, we want to change it. With our collective structures we protest against neoliberal city politics. We demand a Berlin for everyone!”


There is plenty in here that is easy to pick apart for the Feuilletonisten ; plenty of clichéd, naïve, and clumsy rhetoric. Yet there are a few productive points that stand out. The statement suggests a trajectory from the specific art of music into the general field of culture (as distinct from “contemporary art”) that produces and protects difference, and refuses equalization. Those at the margins of the transnational upper class insist that art becomes an accelerationist hare hunt if the transnational underclass is left out. It’s not about bathrooms versus minimum wage, about culturalizing the political or vice versa, but about acting in the cultural field in a way that acknowledges its implication in ongoing processes of extraction and destruction. If any left has to be a cultural left, a Kulturlinke worthy of the name cannot reduce being left to a lifestyle and the endless juggling of signifiers while everything else remains the same, or rather: while all real change continues to be dictated by other forces.

Title image: Police outside the occupied Volksbühne, September 28, 2017. Foto: Christian von Borries

Notes

[1]Mounia Meiborg, “Belagerungsparty” and Peter Laudenbach, “Die Rote Flora lässt grüssen,” in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Monday, September 25, 2017; the latter online as “Wird die Volksbühne zu einer neuen Roten Flora?,” http://www.sueddeutsche.de/kultur/besetzung-der-volksbuehne-wird-die-volksbuehne-zu-einer-neuen-roten-flora-1.3680270
[2]Rüdiger Schaper, “Hart, aber hässlich,” in Der Tagesspiegel, Sunday, September 24, http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/besetzung-der-volksbuehne-hart-aber-haesslich/20370076.html
[3]See https://www.change.org/p/re-negotiating-the-future-of-the-berlin-volksbühne
[4]Complicating matters, the Grüner Salon had more than a year ago been assigned to the artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff. For more on the eviction, see b_books statement “On the Eviction of the Volksbühne,” trans. Angela Anderson, (Berlin, September 29, 2017) http://www.b-books.de/montagspraxis/index.htm
[5]„Ja, der Kampf um Freiräume ist wichtig und notwendig. Er ist mir ein zentrales politisches Anliegen. Aber der Kampf um Freiräume kann nicht dadurch geführt werden, dass existierende Freiräume – ob mir gefällt, was dort passiert oder nicht – privatisiert und unter eine angemaßte Kontrolle gestellt werden.” https://www.facebook.com/DrKlausLederer
[6]Schaper, op. cit.
[7]Laudenbach, op. cit.
[8]“Schon die Bezeichnung des designierten Intendanten als Kurator ist diffamierend. Der nicht-inszenierende Intendant ist an anderen Häusern immer wieder zu finden, und keiner bezeichnet ihn oder den Chef der Berliner Festspiele, Thomas Oberender, als Kurator.” Peter Raue, “Die Volksbühne braucht neue Impulse,” in Der Tagesspiegel, April 24, 2015, http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/volksbuehne-tim-renner-und-chris-dercon-die-volksbuehne-braucht-neue-impulse/11680452.html
[9]Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London: Verso, 2013), p. 17
[10]Alice Creischer’s glorious literary mediation on the notion of accelerationism (read in the Volksbühne’s Roter Salon on September 27 as part of a critical dictionary) presents a Derconian trio of mercenaries and hare hunters who – smartly outfitted with “boots and hats and thermodynamic loden-fabric sacks” – denigrate dumbly cyclical nature. As winners, as hunters, they are the agents of history, which is to say: of destruction. Call it disruptive innovation if you prefer.
[11]See: https://www.parlament-berlin.de/ados/18/IIIPlen/vorgang/d18-0557.pdf
[12]Cornelia Koppetsch, “Der Trost des Nationalismus,” in Der Freitag, No. 38, 2017, https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/der-trost-des-nationalismus-1
[13]https://twitter.com/Petra_Sitte_MdB/status/880795491910508544
[14]Diedrich Diederichsen, “Weder Wohnung noch Währung,” in Texte zur Kunst, No. 105 (March 2017), https://www.textezurkunst.de/105/weder-wohnung-noch-waehrung/