Wall fetishism?

Av: Christina Parte

The fact that Eija-Riitta Eklöf (1954-2015) passed away a few years ago would have gone unnoticed had she not been in love with the Berlin Wall. In Lars Laumann’s filmic portrait Berlinmuren (2008), we hear the late Eija-Riitta speak as we are introduced to her world through a collection of objects in her immediate surrounding. This combination of live footage, personal mementos as well as archival material stages her special relation to objects in a subtle way. Eija-Riitta was a self-declared objectum sexual, who was sexually and emotionally attracted to objects with a rectangular form, parallel lines and a dividing function. She saw herself as an animist not a fetishist and believed that all objects were living beings, which were not only invested with a soul but also communicated directly with her. Her home in Sweden was animated by a large number of cats and an equally large amount of scale models including fences, bridges, guillotines and the Berlin Wall. Eija-Riitta allegedly married the Berlin Wall in 1979 and changed her last name from Eklöf to Berliner-Mauer. Ever since she had first seen the Berlin Wall on TV in 1961, she had felt an intense attraction to him. In Berlinmuren, we learn that Eija-Riitta visited her husband several times in situ but mostly contented herself with self-made scale models of the Berlin Wall, which she treated as living extensions of the original. 

Film still, Lars Laumann
Berlinmuren, 2008
video for projection
23 minutes 56 seconds
© Lars Laumann, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

In one of the photographs taken at the Berlin Wall and shown in Berlinmuren, a woman with dark sunglasses kneels against an individual segment, a smirk on her face. What looks like a fairly conventional snap shot, shows Eija-Riitta leaning against and touching the Wall, while in the right-hand corner of the photograph the scale model of an earlier generation of the Wall strikes a similar pose. The small but essential detail could easily be overlooked if Eija-Riitta’s loving hand on the Wall’s base together with the white shopping bag scattered in front of it did not point towards the model, forming an unlikely love triangle.

The fact that the Berlin Wall fell and was eventually demolished, was experienced as a catastrophe by Eija-Riitta, who championed object rights and denounced the demolition of the Berlin Wall after its fall. In Berlinmuren she admitted to having repressed the traumatic event and preferred to see her husband as past his prime. Lars Laumann’s montage of postcards, photos and film clips foregrounds her loving rather than sexual relatedness to objects. Nevertheless, a fetishistic structure of desire vis a vis her object choice comes to the fore. Despite her personal disinterest in politics, Eija-Riitta was well aware that the Berlin Wall embodied the division between capitalism and communism in a city cut into two halves. The overabundance of Berlin Wall models -some of them playfully obstructed doors- accurately revealed their domineering function in her personal space. 

The all too often painfully divisive impact of the original objects she felt sexually attracted to -think of the guillotines!- was displaced by the use of scale models but not entirely erased as the accumulation of obstacles in her house confirms.

Neither on her website nor in Laumann’s video is the Wall as an actual fortification system with its frontline and hinterland walls, its watch towers and death strip ever shown. Eija-Riitta exclusively loved the Western Wall, in front of which she posed for photographs to be taken, with or without a model wall in one of her hands. In this way, not only the Berlin Wall’s symbolic character and historical dividing function but also its material structure was negated, only to re-emerge in slightly distorted form. 

While capturing the arrangement of objects in Eija-Riitta’s house, Laumann’s camera focuses at one point on the attentive eyes of a black cat, comfortably resting in the space between Western Wall model and window. Staring at the viewer from the other side and scanning the terrain in front, the cat’s gaze ironically alludes to a border guard’s weighty responsibilities. The cat is backlit which heightens the effect of being watched and the whole scene reminds of the brightly lit death strip behind the frontline wall in nocturnal, divided Berlin. Eija-Riitta tolerated her cats, whose photographs appeared lovingly side by side with pictures of the Berlin Wall in her house, but she feared them just as well. She felt that her feline companions posed an existential threat to the models’ existence. Unlike the military guardians of the Wall, the cats could always knock over the models and, on the symbolic as well as structural level, overcome their divisive function. In Eija-Riitta’s topsy turvy world cats played games with walls and walls could perish. 

Rather than dismissing Eija-Riitta’s relation to objects as fetishism tout court, this is fetishism with a twist. While Freud taught us that the fetish’s function was to cover up an unwelcome sight – the mother lacking the penis – Eija-Riitta fetishized the dividing agent that created lack in the first place. Instead of phallic plenty, painful forms of division calmed Eija-Riitta’s nerves and delighted her senses. Eija-Riitta did not crave re-unification but welcomed the Wall and was captivated by its form.

The fetish as symptomatic signifier, according to Laura Mulvey, points to a psychological and social structure that disavows knowledge in favor of belief. The fetish is characterized by a double structure. Its spectacular form distracts from something, which needs to be concealed. However, the greater the distraction, the more obvious the need for concealment.

The more harmless and beautifully crafted Eija-Riitta’s scale models appeared, the more disturbing their function in reality, from geopolitical division to beheading, became. Even though Eija-Riitta lived with her objects in a subject to subject relationship, treating them as beings, some of them allegedly wanted to be put on display and thus became objects to be looked at in her small museum or to be hung as pictures on the walls of her house. 

Eija-Riitta seemed particularly attracted to the forbidding character of the first generation of the Berlin Wall, whose concrete block structure was finished off by a y-shaped line of barbed wire. While martial and threatening in reality, Eija-Riitta’s Wall turned into a piece of domestic bliss. As neat embroidery, the first generation of the Wall became perfectly fitting wall decoration.

Film still, Lars Laumann
Berlinmuren, 2008
video for projection
23 minutes 56 seconds
© Lars Laumann, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

By keeping the form but changing the size, material and context of her object of desire, Eija-Riitta appropriated and subverted a symbolically charged and highly contested border wall. Her strategy epitomized a dangerously cute aesthetics, which, in contemporary Japanese culture, as Sianne Ngai points out, is characterized by ambivalence, the oscillation between kawaii and kowai (cute and scary). Takashi Murakami’s Pop Art-inspired trademark Mr. DOB figures, which range from cute incarnations of a cartoon-mouse-like figure to rather disturbing images of beings dominated by their eyes and bare teeth, serve as a good example. Ngai defines cute aesthetics as aesthetics of powerlessness, where the exaggerated cuteness of objects can also provoke sadistic impulses of the subject, who derives pleasure, not from cuddling the cute object, but from testing the object’s resistance to rough handling. In a dialectical reversal, the subject’s veiled or latent aggression can turn into explicit violence. Whether behind Eija-Riitta’s militant activism for object rights was also a desire to master and control them is up to speculation. She certainly turned the issue of the Berlin Wall’s demolition into a political tool when vehemently criticizing so called wall peckers, people, who chiseled off pieces of the Western Wall as personal mementos or for profit after its fall in 1989.

Even more upsetting for Eija-Riitta was the fact that individual graffitied pieces were eventually auctioned off, sold or sent to museums and private collections around the world. The Berlin Wall was not only mutilated but exploited and turned into a commodity for sale. Only one framed newspaper article recalled the traumatic event of the fall of the Wall on the 9th of November 1989 in Eija-Riitta’s house. In her eyes, the Berlin Wall was a German being, who belonged to West and East Germany, which should not have been reunited. The only way out of the dilemma seemed to be screening off an event, which for most of her German contemporaries was greeted with wonder, joy and disbelief. Eija-Riitta’s imaginary identification with and empathy for the Berlin Wall as vulnerable, deformed being, was nurtured by the object’s resistance since some parts of the Wall are still standing. The ability to withstand rough handling, Sianne Ngai argues, shifts control from subject to object, which persists and resists. The aggressed mute object returns as an impotence on the part of the subject and thus, while ruinous and downtrodden, the Wall has not entirely vanished and remains an obstacle for the living. 

Anthropologist Roy Ellen sees the ambiguous relationship between the control of objects by people and of people by objects as one of the defining characteristics of fetishism. Ellen emphasizes the universal human character of fetish-like behavior, which can be found in everyday practices of anthropomorphism and the tendency to conflate, in semiotic terms, the signifier and the signified, the tempting belief that the representation equals the represented object. It is therefore not surprising that graffitied fragments of the Western Wall were kept by many Berliners and tourists as souvenirs, trophies, even relics or turned into commodities for sale. Almost overnight a forbidding military fortification system had become accessible and many desired a piece of the Wall. In the end, the Wall rather than being terrifying, turned out to be terrific.

The successful appropriation of Berlin Wall fragments after its fall reminds of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which had also turned from symbol of state oppression into symbol of freedom. Already in 1789, the potential for the commodification of the fragments of a formerly threatening object such as the Bastille prison was identified by French revolutionist Pierre-Francois Palloy. He started trading in miniatures of the Bastille carved from the dismantled blocks of the former prison. 

The conspicuous consumption of the Berlin Wall however, has a longer history, which is due to the Wall’s paradoxical status. The Wall as fortification system and object of division between East and West Berlin and its ever changing, aestheticised Western façade not only deterred and enraged but also impressed, fascinated and confused the Western onlooker. The continuous technical improvement of the different generations of the Wall went hand in hand with their aestheticisation. Quite intentionally, art historian Michael Diers argues, GDR strategists hoped that an aesthetically pleasing, at later stages whitewashed, Western façade would eventually turn the Wall into an invisible monument. While monumental invisibility was countered by a Western onslaught of colorful graffiti and faux-naïve wall art in the 1980s, the emerging aesthetics of the Western Wall’s façade prompted the growing commodification of the Wall. 

More and more tourists wanted their pictures taken in front of West Berlin’s number one attraction and graffiti writers and Wall artists sought a short cut to fame by leaving their marks on the Berlin Wall. The spectacularized stretch of the Western Wall between Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie functioned as a screen screening off the GDR fortification system and the imprisonment of GDR citizens. Instead, it reflected back its lively, graffitied side to the West. The sheer abundance of inoffensive, if not cute, images overriding the sparse presence of political graffiti, the excessive shine between Checkpoint Charlie and Brandenburger Tor in the 1980s, barely veiled the fetish’s structural violence: a simple, all too often fascinated than sympathetic, look across the Western Wall from a Western observation platform destroyed the illusion. The Berlin Wall was built in reverse order. The fortification system faced East not West. The actual frontline wall was the hinterland wall followed by signal fences, watchtowers, dog runs, control strips, anti-vehicle barriers and finally the fairly insignificant, frontline wall, generally known as the Berlin Wall. 

Brought wonderfully to the foreground through Eija-Riitta’s provocative desire for the Wall’s existence is the underside of the Berlin imaginary. Despite its symbolic relevance and visual saturation, the Western Wall played only a minor role for military strategists and could easily be appropriated for other purposes. Not only Eija-Riitta mourned and rejected the loss of a highly contested object.


The Berlin Wall falls – and Continues to Fall

by Björn Larsson

It was in the late seventies. The ninth graders were going on a school trip. The Cold War was in full swing these years. Contrary to the teachers’ intention, we had voted that the tour would not go to Kufstein in Austria, as it did in the past ten years, but to Berlin. Since the end of the Second World War, the two great powers the United States and the Soviet Union had gradually increased their nuclear capabilities. The number of nuclear equipped robots was greater than any time before, and we were speculating, sometimes, where the first missiles would hit when the full-scale nuclear war broke out.

The Berlin Wall falls / Jan och Bob Bovin, 1990.

There were two ideologies, two contrasting temperaments; and it was West Germany’s capital city, which was the epicenter of this delayed explosion. Maybe that’s why the school trip went to Berlin that year? We wanted to see the ”Wall”, that much was clear. We wanted to see the famous wall between East Berlin and West Berlin, which appeared in so many news stories. We wanted to experience the ”Iron Curtain”, the very symbol of the global polarization that had divided the whole world. In the East German propaganda, the wall was a defense facility against the west and was called ”the anti-fascist protection barrier”. In the West German propaganda, the wall was an anti-democratic, repressive murder machine that kept people trapped in a dictatorship. There were contrasts. There were differences. There were contradictions. There were two different temperaments, two different ideologies, which made the situation explosive and spectacular. Everything was overwhelming, scary and difficult to understand. Perhaps the very sight of the wall could give a clarification, a physical key to how the Cold War could be interpreted? 

The ritual encounter had been going on for several years. And one day in May it was time. We got on the bus in Ockelbo in northern Sweden in the morning, took the ferry from Trelleborg in the evening and arrived early the next morning in Sassnitz. We were dragged all day through East Germany and rolled late in the evening into dark and lightless East Berlin, where barely a man could be seen on the street. When the border police had checked our passports at Checkpoint Charlie, we rolled on into West Berlin where the nightlife was in full swing. The continental night darkness was illuminated by flashing neon signs which advertised night clubs and discos. The contrast between deserted East Berlin and enlightened, vibrant West Berlin was shocking and confirmed our preconceived notions. In the East, it was dark, boring and poor. In the West, one is amused in a depraved manner all night. Already, a tiny question began to bother me. Is the wall there to separate those who have different ideologies, different images of reality, different temperaments? Or is it the other way around? Is it the wall, the border, which creates and reinforces these different ideologies, these different reality images, these different temperaments? 

The next day we went down to the wall, climbed onto one of the custom built observation platforms and peeped into the fifty meter wide ”zone of death”. The wall we saw was the fourth generation of the Berlin Wall. 

It was constructed as late as 1975 and consisted of thousands of 120-centimeter-wide and four-meter-high steel concrete slabs set beside each other to form a cohesive, four-mile-long defensive system.1 Actually there were two walls, one side faced the East German side and one faced the West German side. Between them there were guard as steel dogs. Tank obstacles. Sensors. On the East German side, far away, the houses closest to the border had walled windows. At the wall on the West German side there were memorials adorned with flowers and crosses which served as monuments to those killed during an escape attempt. Thousands had tried. Hundreds had failed and were shot dead. On each of the monuments there was a cross, a name, a year of birth and one of death. Here and there on the wall there was also a single comment painted with white color on the flat surface: well thought out sentiments calling for reconciliation and change, ”Die Mauer muss weg” and similar political messages. The mood at the wall was drab, a peculiar mixture of prison and cemetery. Not a single person could be seen, except the East German guards in the watchtowers. 

A few days later we visited the Wall Museum, which was housed in a worn-out apartment in the immediate vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie. The museum was one of the simplest arranged museums I have ever visited, but there were many people crowded in the small rooms (the wall was after all West Berlin’s most popular tourist destination). The walls displayed cardboard sheets with photographs and newspaper articles that told about the history of the wall, about the escape attempts and of family tragedies, of political developments.

The signs with the museum’s own texts were written with indignant rage over the absurd situation. There were also cars and other vehicles with hidden spaces that had been used to smuggle people into the West, such as a car that had a passenger seat that was hollow and where the person could hide. Central to one of the larger rooms was an escape car, which the driver drove at high speed through the barrier at one of the border crossings. The wheels had come loose and stood leaning against the sides of the car, the bumpers had loosened, and the car’s headlights hung loosely on their cords. The windshield was replaced by a steel plate with small holes, which I took for granted as being bullet holes, but as I discovered many years later when I returned to the museum, they were sight holes that the driver had drilled to be able to see. During the re-visit, I was also able to observe that the wheels and bumpers had now been rearranged, screwed in and moved closer to the car. The change was certainly not intentional, but the result was that the car looked more cohesive in 2010 than it had been in the 1970s.

I still do not understand the connection between the car’s disassembled status and the escape itself. The damage could have hardly been caused by the journey through the border post. The car is mostly like a scrap car, but here a lifelong interest in dismantling and deconstruction was awakened. When I saw the car again, I got the sudden sensation of something broken that was in a healing process. The idea was, of course, completely irrational, but I cannot get away from the idea that the Wall Museum is a museum that, in its historical analysis, sometimes yields to coincidences and improvisations, and that the same thing applies to the symbolic values that have emerged around the phenomenon of the Berlin Wall. Most photographs of the Berlin Wall you see in the media today describe the ”fall” of the wall on the ninth of November 1989. In the pictures you can see rushing West Berliners climbing up the edge of the wall, cheering, stretching their arms in the air, knocking on the wall with hammer and sledgehammers and chanting ”Die Mauer muss weg”.

The storming of the wall was sudden and dramatic, but also the final phase of a process that was going on throughout the eighties. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had taken over as the Soviet Union leader and brought about a storm in the relationship between the two power blocks: east and west. In East Germany, there had long been dissatisfaction with the country’s lagging behind West Germany in terms of prosperity and living standards, which led many East Germans to flee the country. One of the few sources of income was to ”sell” dissidents and emigrants to West Germany against payment in the western currency. In 1989, massive protests were carried out in several cities in East Germany and the situation eventually became unsustainable. At a chaotic press conference on November 9, a politburo member Günter Schabowski read a directive from Secretary-General Egon Krenz which signaled that border crossings would be allowed for private persons. Still today, what was actually said, what was not said, and what should have been said at this press conference, is disputed. But the news went on air in the West German news programs, and spread quickly into the neighboring country because most East Germans could watch West German TV. In the evening, the East Berliners gathered at the border crossings. At twelve o’clock at night, the first border crossing was opened, in the next few hours more and more border crossings were opened, and now traffic between east and west was in full swing.

There was still time for the Soviet tanks to roll in and stop this movement, dismantle the pipeline, install new puppets in the government and stabilize the situation. As in Hungary in 1956. As in Prague in 1968. But yet none of this happened. On the West German side, there was a people’s party down by the wall. The East German concrete offered resistance, but the ”woodpeckers” worked in peace and soon the wall began to give way. Pieces were knocked off. The holes became larger and larger, and finally, some of the two and a half tons of heavy concrete slabs began to twist and bend.

On November 11, East German border troops removed eight of the concrete segments out of the fortification so that a new, improvised border crossing opened. When the images of the removed, freestanding concrete segments with scribbled slogans and murals spread out in world media, the reactions were immediate. The clearly politically-targeted messages painted on the wall in the seventies were accompanied by, or were painted over with more mixed comments during the eighties. Some of the paintings, tags and texts were still political projects intended to question and mock those who took the initiative to build the wall. Other features were of a more philosophical nature or pure coincidence. Here are slogans like ”Set them free”, ”Smash normal politix, act up now!” and ”DDR= Concentration Camp BRD=Dårhus”. Painted on the wall there were laconic comments as “Jenny was here again” and ”Mauer go home” and ”Change your life”, and all this formed a difficult to control all-art work with an internal logic that meant that images and tags were constantly overwritten and deleted. The wall had also been visited by more established artists. In connection with a gallery exhibition in 1983, Jonathan Borofsky painted a running man as a contribution to the exhibition Metropolis on Martin-Gropius-Bau, a gallery located just next to the wall. In 1986, Keith Haring made a painting that covered hundreds of meters of the wall at Waldemarstrasse in Kreuzberg, but as so much else, as the eighties progressed, these works were painted over. 

As ”painting” the wall at this time was a failure, but the unusual combination of minimalism and outsider credibility seemed to strike the right note, it seemed to symbolize something unique. It was like the concrete segments painted with graffiti of resistance were perceived as a representative of the traumatic, wounding period in Europe’s history commonly known as the Cold War and which now seemed to be over. Taken together, the concrete slabs formed an impenetrable four-mile, monotonous and impenetrable wall, but when the segments were placed freely, they resembled tombstones, monuments, epitaphs, minimalist sculptures. It was as if Donald Judd had stepped onto the stage and transformed the entire wall area into a sculpture park by declaring the East German concrete slabs to be modular series constructions, with the difference that these plates were scribbled with graffiti and mural paintings. Business people from all over the world signaled their interest and wanted to buy the wall. The East German government first responded with dismay to the prospective customers. Should the ”anti-fascist protection barrier” be sold to capitalists from the West? The symbolic meaning of such an action could have a detrimental effect on the East German self-identity. But East German trade minister Gerhard Beil soon realized that the dismantling of the wall was a giant project and needed to be organized. The steel concrete slabs in the wall weighed 250,000 tones, and if border crossings between the east and west were now allowed, the wall no longer had any function.

Sales contracts were signed. The West Berlin tradition of ’painting on/writing over’ the wall was shipped off and placed in museums, embassies and companies in the whole world. One slab was placed in the Vatican garden. One was placed in the Argentine foreign ministry’s garden in Buenos Aires. One was placed at the EU Parliament in Brussels. Many of the concrete slabs that were placed at embassies and institutions had the original painting from the Berlin Wall left, some of them even had site-specific paintings. The segment which was placed in the Vatican garden has the original painting by Yadiga Asisi (on the initiative of architect Bernhard Strecker) which represents St. Michael church on Heinrich-Heine-Platz in the Mitte district. 

But many of the slabs that were taken away were also painted with graffiti that did not originate at all from the Berlin Wall. In the Wende museum in Los Angeles, which has about ten segments of the Berlin Wall in its collection, there is “a program to repaint the segments in a coordinated manner”. The goal is, according to the museum, that the segments from the wall should not be treated as “static memorials”, but as ”areas of reflection and activity”. But the rules governing the artistic design of the segments have been changed. One of the segments has recently been painted and now carries a portrait depicting Nelson Mandela. Two others have been repainted with portraits of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Much can be said about the two American ex-presidents in terms of democracy and freedom, but they don’t work well as representatives of the Berlin Wall’s improvised, activist aesthetics. When the popular, creative activists’ heritage of West Berlin is domesticated by the American ”we remember the cold war lobby” and transformed into a recipe for rehabilitating political stances and when the reaction to state-sponsored propaganda is replaced by another kind of state-sponsored propaganda credibility suffers. In the Wende museum the slabs are even painted on both sides, which indeed can be noted as another level in the complicated revision of history that seems to be the fate of the Berlin Wall. The wall’s function as a boundary meant that the flow across the border was stopped and that the policing and oppression, were not the same on both sides of the wall. Kilometer after kilometer of graffiti would have been impossible to find in West Berlin in the eighties, but the Berlin Wall was not in West Berlin. The defense facility with the two walls and the zone between them was entirely located on the East German territory. It was the East German workers who cleaned the walls and cleaned the zone between the walls (as West Germans threw trash and garbage over the wall into the zone for fun). The only part of the defense facility that the East Germans did not clean was the part of the wall facing West Berlin. The West German authorities also did not take responsibility for cleaning the wall. The prerequisite for the painting on the Berlin wall was that it happened in a kind of no-man’s land on one side of the wall, a place which under the circumstances was autonomous. The border’s logic meant a duality. One side wanted to keep the other side away and the control, frustration and human corrosion  which appeared as a result of that were only visible on the side where control was less intense. When segments of the Berlin wall are painted over and painted on both sides, the original historicity is challenged: there is an erroneous picture that the repression being the same on both sides. 

On June 16th 2015, Donald Trump announced that he would run as candidate in the following US presidential election year. In his speech, Trump focused on immigration issues and one of his promises was that ”a wall” should be erected along the border with Mexico to prevent ”illegal immigration”. In October 2017, eight prototypes for a future wall were unveiled between Mexico and the United States in San Diego near the border with Mexico. During the election campaign in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, one of Trump’s promises was to build a ”wall” along the Mexican border with the intention to get the prototypes produced by eight competing companies on behalf of the federal government at a cost of 3.3 million dollars. This would serve as a first sign of fulfillment of this promise. Some months later, a request was submitted to the White House website ”We the People”, by artist Christoph Büchel who suggested that the eight prototypes should be protected from demolition and preserved. Büchel referred to an ancient law from 1908 and claimed that the eight segments could be regarded as ”a great land art exhibition” of significant cultural value. In January 2018, the New York Times jumps on the train and comments on the project in the article ”Is Donald Trump a Concept Artist?” Büchel’s idea of the Trump wall as land art has been perceived by some as controversial. 450 curators, artists and academics have signed an open letter condemning the project calling it an ironic act, rather than an attempt to critically dismantle oppressive structures that undermine the lives of vulnerable people.

The Berlin Wall had during its short lifetime managed to acquire a reputation as one of the world’s most symbolic buildings. The depiction of the conflict between the East and the West had been prominent in the press, in literature, in the visual arts, in music, in conversations so many times that only the name of the wall was enough to evoke a fountain of ominous associations. Some of the associations were about totalitarian state abuse and lack of democracy. Some were about the politically and legally perverse and unethical act of dividing a country and a population. Some dealt with the personal tragedies that occurred when families were split up and relatives went different ways. The term ”The Wall” has come to grow into a general metaphor for a culture-specific system, delimited, isolated ideology, by extension as a symbol of all sorts of feelings of being trapped, longing, social isolation and emotional cooling. The wall symbolized an ideology which separated east from west, but the symbolism of the wall grew to be so strong that it has, in the long run, been used as a symbol of alienation and lovelessness in general terms, a ”separation” between people on a more interpersonal level, not least in popular culture. 

Without even having set foot in the city, Lou Reed produced the music album Berlin in 1973 about a couple of addicts in the city. Four years later David Bowie sang in the pompously bombastic Heroes about a couple embracing each other in the shadow of the wall. The Sex Pistols’ single Holidays in the Sun released in 1977 is a portrayal of a visit to the wall the same year. ”I want to see some history” the band’s singer, John Lydon, sings, describing how he stares at the wall, and that the wall keeps staring back. But Lydon’s paranoia and claustrophobia were equally concerned with the violence and killings in West Germany as well as the trench warfare between the East and the West. Since the beginning of the 1970s, a bunch of young West German revolutionaries who called themselves Rote Armee Fraktion murdered dozens of people, including a high-ranking prosecutor, a bank manager, and a chairman of a large union. In the spiral of violence that developed between the West German police and the wanted persons, the country began to resemble a police state. Like many other songs about the Berlin Wall, Holidays in the Sun uses the wall as, a symbol of alienation and estrangement, but Lydon’s instinctive movement to escape this paranoia is to ”go under the wall”. As if there was a tunnel under the wall, or as if the border problem were a psychosocial problem that could be worked out in the subconscious. The popular cultural story of the Berlin Wall had evolved into a goth-inspired cliché of a divided, anxious, ”depraved” post-Nazi town with a fetish wall that was a tourist attraction, and the Sex Pistols’ song is a powerful coming-to-terms with such a new constellation, just as the punk movement was a criticism of the popular music industry in general.

Graffiti artists, scribblers, Berlin artists created a ”Berlin wall style” as a form of resistance to repression and boundaries. The style consisted of two ingredients: first, the repressive, separating part that materialized through the concrete slab itself (high ”art” in form of minimalism). Secondly the graffiti itself, brought about by the activist, (”low” art in the form of street art), and which was only painted on the side of the wall that faced towards the west. Based on an art-historic and artistic tradition, it is not surprising that Christoph Büchel wanted to incorporate the eight wall segments that are located at the border between the United States and Mexico in an artistic context. It seems that walls, painted and repainted, erected or demolished are always predestined to be incorporated into an artistic tradition. Sometimes bit by bit. Sometimes in all its long glory. In the film The Man Who Stole Banksy, which premiered in the autumn of 2018, the story of the taxi driver who sawed one of the graffiti artist Banksy’s paintings out of the wall between Israel and Palestine and sold it to an art collector is told. Already in 1964 Joseph Beuys presented a theory that the Berlin Wall was and should be raised five centimeters along its entire length, for proportional reasons. The only way to go, said Beuys, was to ”laugh at the wall, destroy it […] to overcome it that is what it is all about”.2 That statement too, caused at its time, disgust and protests.

The traditional wall is a guard, delimiter that excludes and prevents. It can be carelessly built or solid. It can be illegal or sanctioned. It can be permanent or temporary. But the Berlin Wall example has also taught us that walls (and other boundaries) are kits, organisms, temporary constructs that are moved to new places, and are transformed into constantly new symbol-bearing objects with new complex meanings. The horizontal and non-hierarchical relationship between the parts of the wall is reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome: ”It is a liberation from the arborescent models using tree-pillars, branch-beams, and leaf-vaults […] the iron is inserted into a rhythm, and more so: it forms a complex rhythmic person on the sea-bearing surfaces where the ”stems” have different sections and variable intervals depending on the intensity and direction of the force trapped and (armature and not the structure).”3 The autonomous conversation that arises on the back of the walls, in this way becomes a comment on the museum and art world’s boundary against what is outside. On the one hand, there is a forced, mutual consensus (walls can be painted on both sides). On the other hand, there appears a friction (poor taste and unpleasant surprises). On the one hand the reaction is an improvised, do-it-yourself aesthetics. On the other hand, curators and institutions react. The Berlin Wall may have been pulled down, but the symbolic value, between the outside and the inside, between good and evil, between good and bad, this absolute wall is ongoing and “Iron Curtain” shall be its name. 

The wall between East and West Berlin had a lifetime of 28 years. Today it has been gone for a longer time than it existed. The East German engineers who constructed the Berlin wall had no idea that the wall would enjoy a longer life as a chopped, picked apart, kidnapped concrete copy than a boundary between two superpowers. As the individual concrete slabs were lifted up in the air, removed from the border wall and exported, the Berlin wall was increasingly transformed into a ruin: on some stretches where the woodpeckers had worked intensively, there was only a skeleton, the reinforcement left by concrete. The macabre revelation was just too symbolic. The drilled holes in the wall resembled the windows in a prison where the parallel reinforcing bars represented prison window grids. In March 1991, a portable ”crushing plant” was placed at the wall area. The concrete slabs were destroyed in several steps, the reinforcement pulled out using a magnet. The show was open to everyone to witness, and Berliners flocked to see how the wall was broken down (much like when audiences were allowed to attend public executions). In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the process of crushing a concrete slab was described accurately: ”It takes 22 seconds for modern technology to defeat Walter Ulbrichts will”. When the slabs were crushed, the gravel was spread out onto German roads, by that time East Germany had been part of the Federal Republic for a year and Germany was resurrected. Today, there are more than 200 concrete slabs from the Berlin wall “erected” at various locations around the world. Many of them are painted, and painted on both sides, and now serve as ideologically confused ”peace symbols” rather than authentic parts of a wall that was once a boundary, a contradiction, a symbol of all sorts of feelings of grief, horror, alienation, life-long suffering and deadly violence. In Berlin, one still paints on walls today. In the Mauerpark there is a three hundred meter long wall where the wall is scratched, painted and sprayed with uninterrupted enthusiasm – on both sides. An even longer concrete wall called ”East Side Gallery” is also painted on on both sides. In the gift shops in Berlin, graffiti-painted, wrapped pieces of the Berlin Wall are still being sold for eleven euros. How many of those have original painting on them? Nobody knows.

The Berlin Wall falls / Jan och Bob Bovin, 1990.

1. Diers, Michael. “Die Mauer. Notizen zur Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte eines deutschen Symbol(l)Werks“. Kritische Berichte. vol. 20, no.3, 1992, 58-74.

2. Götz Adriani, Winfried Konnertz, Karin Thomas: Joseph Beuys, Leben und Werk, Köln, 1981, sid. 14, Hainer Stechelhaus: Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf, 1987. 

3. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari,Tusen platåer, [översättning: Gunnar Holmbäck, Sven-Olov Wallenstein], Hägersten : Tankekraft, 2015, sid. 489. 



Av: Konstanze Schmitt

Notes for a Performative Research on the Workers’ Theatre

Workers’ theatre emerged in the 19th century in amateur theatre groups and workers’ clubs. It went on to be ideologized, formalized and broadly organized at the beginning of the twentieth century through its contact with the avant-garde. In the Soviet Union the Constructivists developed discussion pieces, and Proletkult (proletarian culture) emerged as a mass movement. Agitprop groups performed throughout the Weimar Republic for the workers’ cause. In particular, the methods of self-empowerment that were central to workers’ theatre stand in contrast to contemporary forms of theatre, which are shaped by the continuous search for (self-) expression. In the following I would like to present a few examples of this diverse tradition, in particular the beginnings of the agitprop and workers’ theatres of 1920s Germany. The text can be seen as an extension of a series of notes I created for Stephan Dillemuth’s project at Konsthall C earlier this year. Similarly to his project I hope this text will show the various relations workers’ theatre had to other art forms, particularly evident in 1920s Germany. But ttoday as well there are artists and theatre makers trying to reflect or update this by referring to the practice of the workers’ theatre.

1. Workers’ clubs

Let’s set the scene: in 1860s Germany, several educational clubs for workers emerged, some calling themselves “co-operatives for the acquisition and increase of intellectual capital”. It was the hope of various leaders of the workers’ movement that once workers educated themselves, the capitalists would no longer dare to offer them such exploitative wages. The workers’ theatre eschewed upper-class amateur theatre and its audiences, and instead shifted the emphasis entirely to the lower classes of society.

However, in the beginning this effort wasn’t consciously pursued, but developed organically as a mode in which to translate and communicate. For example when the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital was published in 1867, J.B.v. Schweitzer studied it thoroughly and published the results in the newspaper “Social-Demokrat”. In order to make the text’s difficult parts more accessible, he rewrote Marx’s theory into a dialogue between two people. The dialogue was not intended for the stage or live performance, but soon began to be performed here and there as a play in German workers’ clubs and soon Schweitzer published a version adapted for the stage: Ein Schlingel. Eine nationalökonomisch-soziale Humoreske in einem Akt. Perhaps more workers and functionaries were introduced to Marx’s ideas through these performances than through the book itself. At first Das Kapital sold badly, in 1867, a year after it was published, it had only sold 100 copies, although by 1871, most of the first edition had been sold. By that time, Ein Schlingel had been performed at least 15 times, and consequently about 1500 to 3000 people had learnt about the important theories of Das Kapital for the first time through the performance.

Imagine a scene: two workers after their shift, meet in a club. There they perform Das Kapital’s chapter “The Working Day” finding ways to openly explain how the working day is comprised of necessary and surplus labour, They discuss the instrumentalisation of their own bodies in the process of value creation, and of the struggle in their own interests, of law, force and class struggle. Everyone in the club, the performers and the audience, come to understand collectively what is at stake.

Moving on; in Germany in the 1880’s, socialism was banned through by state anti socialist law and political groups had to reform themselves. These law changes led to a great deal of cover-up activities. One example of cover up activity was the formation of clubs that advertised themselves as promoting culture and sports. Here workers could meet informally and develop forms of collectivity, free of the demands of party politics hence liberated from political or cultural top-down agendas. The workers could also organis events such as “Bunte Abend” (colourful evenings) similar to a variety show where all participants contributed with their specific interest or skills, giving space for all sorts of performances. The evenings consisted of singing, dancing, acting, tableaux vivants1, recitals, proclamations. Between 1880 and 1900 this type of participatory theatre “by workers for workers” had grown popular among the working class and was an important tool for self-education. However, at this point, the state authorities began to regard these performances as a form of highly dangerous agitation and therefore censored them. Yet, the soon-to-be official socialist parties also prohibited them, as they considered the activity as a waste of time, advising the participants to rather engage in straightforward political work and/or the reading of the German “classics” — thereby promoting a bourgeois and canonized idea of culture.

From 1890 onwards, the movement of the German system of “Volksbühne” (People’s Theatre) became a competitor to the self-made theatres of the workers. In Volksbühne, it was more “professional” writers and actors that were illustrating workers’ topics. Originally intended to attract an audience of workers, their aim was rather to entertain a new class of low-wage white collar workers with more-or-less populist and socially oriented productions. Instead of making an independent theatre, with the idea of entertaining and educating themselves and others (“education and agitation”), the workers were to be attracted by entertainment alone in the framework of bourgeois sentiment. Nonetheless, smaller groups maintained the earlier, more left-wing approaches of the first workers’ clubs. They became important models for the development of the “agitprop troupes” in the 1920s. One of the first “professional agitation troupes” was Boreslav Strzelewicz’s “Gesellschaft Vorwärts”, a group of three people who toured different workers’ clubs, theatres and festivals. Their programme included songs and poetry recitals, but also short farces and comedies. The group could react quickly to local events in the places they visited, and incorporate current political developments immediately into their programme. In order to address their audience more directly, names and locations were left open in their scripts. Their songs, poems and farces were not primarily instructive and informative but tended rather to be emotional and full of pathos; nevertheless, their idea of a revue with a variety of different acts provided an entertaining structure for propagating socialist issues. Such a “Nummernprogramm” (or varied programme) could free itself from the “unity of action, time, and place” demanded by classical theatre. News and other printed matter of political relevance just needed to be put into the form of a dialogue or worked into a montage. Thus the troupe paved the way to the political revue and agitprop which developed in the years following the First World War.

2. Party and Protagonism

Agitprop (agitation and propaganda) emerged in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 as a way to politically agitate the masses and to convey the new political and social form of communism. At the forefront was the call to contribute to the construction of the new society. For the agitprop troupes it was about flexible, rapid, on-site deployment; productions were made with little to no scenery or stage, and costumes were replaced by overalls or similar uniform work-wear. The mostly short pieces alternated between the various scenes of the piece and a speaking choir. Songs were also always used; while the audience was being presented with recognizable situations during the scenes, the choir would commentate and appeal to the workers as a class. The pieces were adapted to current political realities and locations with the intention of criticizing, propagating and agitating.

Caption: On March 28, 2010, domestic workers demonstrated in downtown Madrid for labor rights and rights of residence. The women of Territorio Doméstico, a platform of organized domestic workers, individuals, and activists, wheeled this collectively painted wagon through the streets. It was a stage set for several scenes of an agitprop performance within the frame of the demonstration in which domestic workers give an account of oppression and resistance in their daily lives.
Konstanze Schmitt, Territorio Doméstico, Stephan Dillemuth: Triumph of the Domestic Workers (2010). Performance in public space, video, installation.

While in the Soviet Union agitation and propaganda were important political tools from the start, and the
avant-garde took advantage of the “organizing function of art” (Sergei Tretyakov), it took the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) until the mid-1920s to discover that culture and art were important in the struggle for hegemony of the state. A tour by the famous “Blue Blouse” agitprop troupe from Moscow in 1927 sparked an agitprop theatre boom in the Weimar Republic. In 1929, there were about 300 agitprop troupes in Germany. The “Rote Sprachrohr” troupe from Berlin was one of the most influential groups; it was also the mouthpiece (Sprachrohr) of the German Communist Party. The mass organization of workers in education, sports and music clubs, which had existed since the 1860s (and which, especially at the time of the Anti-Socialist Laws, were popular political meeting places), was empowered and politicized through those associations: in 1928 about half a million workers were organized in the Arbeitersängerbund (Workers’ Singers’ Union) in Germany. That is around ten times more than in in 1908; moreover, the movement was no longer dominated by men, as many women had joined the formerly all-male choirs. The communist sports and leisure movement is portrayed in the film “Kuhle Wampe”, 1932, directed by Slatan Dudow and written by Bertolt Brecht.

The image, of the Rote Sprachrohr’s performance practice, is from their film appearance in Brecht/Dudow’s “Kuhle Wampe” (1932).

The Rote Sprachrohr also wrote about their practice, e.g. in “How to build a scene?”, published in 1929 in the newspaper Rote Fahne (Red Flag), they described their approach, the main characteristics of which are:

1. Agitprop is not a spectacle because the performer (“worker player”) expresses her/his own opinions.
2. Making artistic propaganda means: collective writing, i.e. each member of the group participates in the collection of material (mainly from the latest news stories and everyday observations) and in the writing of the text.
3. It is good to use rhymes and songs in the text as these can be memorized more easily. If the group works quickly and efficiently, current events are sometimes communicated even “faster across the stage than they are in the press.”
4. All performers have the task, besides working on texts and scenes, to educate themselves politically.

The Rote Sprachrohr circulated its plays and songs under what today would be referred to as a Creative Commons licence. To make their texts and their practice accessible to as many people as possible the group published the magazine Das Rote Sprachrohr, in which they also gave advice on how to produce their plays: “We have intentionally not provided precise performance instructions for individual scenes. The type and form of the performance must be based on the troupe’s joint discussions during rehearsal. The short directorial remarks should not be viewed dogmatically, but rather as proposals or suggestions for your own, intensive process of working through the material. We want no schematics, no rigidity, we want liveliness. The measure can only be the level of training of the respective group. Scenes that have been written in Berlin dialect must be transferred into a local dialect. Likewise, it is necessary to extend the storyline by using theatrical approaches to local events. It is good to put banners on stage with slogans taken from corresponding scenes.”2

In 1932, Rote Sprachrohr had more than 50 members and 4 brigades: children’s, touring, active and reserve (the latter for courses and new productions).

In the scene “Proletarian Self-criticism”, the private is made political: a female and male worker who live together and always argue when he, of an evening, goes to the party meeting and leaves her alone with the housework. She tries to persuade him, with the prospect of food, cinema and sex, to leave politics be and “spend more time on things that matter to both of them”. There follows a “Stop”, in order to shift the scene: both then wash the dishes and go to the meeting together.

In “So oder so?” (“Like this or like that?”) the basic principle of Forum Theatre by Augusto Boal has already been created. Forum Theatre is a form of agitation theatre and is the central method of the Theatre of the Oppressed. Augusto Boal developed it in the 1950s and 1960s in Brazil. Unlike agitprop theatre, Forum Theatre often takes place with groups who know each other because they work, study or live together. Through conversations the group develops a scene around a particular problem. This is often performed by actors and uses all available theatrical means; characters are often stereotyped (the entrepreneur, the landlord, etc.). At the end of the scene, the performers ask the audience whether they agree with the depicted reality or with the solution to the problem. Those who do not agree take on the roles that they want to change, the others continue as before. The original cast remain in an advisory capacity on stage. One of them takes on the directorial role, explains, moderates, makes sure something is happening. It should become clear to people that it is up to them to change the reality and that it is not simple, but also not impossible. Discussions take place at intervals throughout and at the end.

Agitprop theatre is somewhat more authoritarian; the audience remains in its role. Nevertheless, the chosen
form — playing a scene twice with different outcomes — makes the same statement as a scene in Forum Theatre: reality can be changed. (And the private is political.)

3. Collaborations

The development of the Epic Theatre – the not illusionary, not dramatic theatre – in Germany can be traced from the early proletarian festivals and the “Bunte Abende” of the “workers’ self-help” through to the variety-programming of the “Gesellschaft Vorwärts” and chorus chants, right up to the more widely known theatre of the 1920s: the agitprop troupes and Political Revues, as well as the revolutionaries of the bourgeois theatre and music, Erwin Piscator, Bertolt Brecht, and Hanns Eisler, who developed new forms of theatre in collaboration with the workers’ movement.

Hanns Eisler for example developed songs for Rote Sprachrohr, as well as theory and pieces of music for the workers’ singers’ movement (Arbeitersängerbewegung). For Eisler the “Neue Musik” was a coherent tool in the struggle of a new movement: ”The revolutionary sections of the working class always took a progressive attitude towards musical matters because the workers knew very well that the struggle of the working class, led by new ways of thinking and organizing, is also in need of a new style of music.”3

It is in this sense that Brecht further developed the Epic Theatre: in order to achieve the active participation of workers in the realization of art/theatre and in political discussions, he produced, together with the composers Paul Dessau, Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill, the avant-garde concept of Lehrstücke.

In 1930, Brecht and Eisler created the Lehrstück “Die Maßnahme” (“The Measures Taken”). It was the first great work made in collaboration with the workers’ singers’ movement. For the premiere three Berlin workers’ choirs rehearsed the piece (for the most part untrained singers without knowledge of musical notation). Fittingly, the rehearsals took place in the evening, the premiere beginning only at 11.30 p.m. Hanns Eisler wanted “to write a piece for those it is intended for, and for those who can make use of it: for workers’ choirs, amateur theatre groups and student orchestras, so for those who neither pay for art, nor get paid by art, but rather those who want to make art”. This definition corresponds with one of the definitions of the Lehrstück: That above all it is those on stage, developing and discussing the piece, who learn. Like all forms of workers’ theatre, the Lehrstück is about the dissolution of the boundary between producers and consumers, towards a form of art in which all participants are active.

“Die Maßnahme” was banned because of its “incitement to class struggle”; the Communist Party on the other hand found it too idealistic. At the time, the realism debate was in full swing, the experimental art forms and ambiguous “queer” forms of representation were dismissed. The doctrine of the Communist Party praised Stalin’s “socialist realism”, which suppressed the aesthetic (and political) experiments of the coming decades. The music, however, was praised by all sides.

In the workers’ theatre of the 1920s and 1930s there emerged a new image of humanity, one that was not only discursive, but one that was also characterized by industrialization and the rational(ized) approach to the body. In the Soviet Union, Vsevolod E. Meyerhold developed “Biomechanics” as a system of movement for actors. In New York, a dance scene emerged that was largely shaped by migrant women. Both movements are fundamental to our current understanding of the body on stage.

4. A New Learning Play
There has been several contemporary attempts to re-use workers theatre methods. Two examples:
In Stephan Dillemuths work at Konsthall C in Stockholm, workers theatre techniques were re-implied and performed by a group of 16 members who rehearsed, re-performed and discussed their working conditions throughout the making of the project. Workers theatre in Sweden has a different history: It began in 19th century as folk theatre festivals in the countryside, where the factories were. Workers performed in the forests on stages with scenes made of bushes which later led to the development of slapstick or “Buskis” Theatre. Stephan Dillemuth’s final installation consisted of a stage with a built forest. The trunks and branches of the trees consisted of plaster casted body parts the theatre member’s use when they work, forming some sort of ”human-forest machine”, yet the political subtext to Dillemuth’s work also appeared when standing and looking at forest from a particular point in the gallery, as the trees, branches and limbs of the workers merged together and formed the word ‘STRIKE’.

Also the Russian collective Chto Delat has updated and re-implemented the idea of Brecht’s Lehrstücke in recent years with their Learning Plays (Lehrstücke), that have taken place in various (mostly art) contexts and with changing participants. In the introduction to their learning play: Where has Communism gone? (2013), they write:
“The ghost of communism still wanders around, and to transform it into a commodity form seems a good way to finally get rid of it. Conferences and artistic events dedicated to the idea of communism are going on one after another, speakers are paid or non-paid, advertisement production machines function well, and the sphere turns round as before. But beyond this exhausting machinery of actualization and commodification, we still have as a potentiality this totally new desire of communism, the desire which cannot but be shared, since it keeps in itself a “common” of communism, a claim for togetherness, so ambiguous and problematic among the human species. This claim cannot be privatized, calculated, and capitalized since it exists not inside individuals, but between them, between us, and can be experienced in our attempts to construct this space between, to expose ourselves inside this “common” and to teach ourselves to produce it out of what we have as social beings.”4

In the attempt to update workers’ theatre, it is clear that its form and content are inseparable. Walter Benjamin’s call for the necessary connection between tendency and quality5 is proved — in the amateur theatre of the workers’ clubs in the nineteenth century, in the revues and agitprop performances of the Weimar Republic, in the Lehrstücke, but also with those who, like Chto Delat and Stephan Dillemuth, pick these methods up and take them further. It is not simply a call for something common: the class, the spirit of communism, the emancipation of people. Aesthetics too are concerned with this issue — the question of producing something in common, a ”commonism”6 among all participants.

Konstanze Schmitt is an artist and theatre director. She lives and works in Berlin.


1. Tableaux vivants which means ”living pictures” is a form of theatre in which participants depict an image through a freeze-frame method whilst a narrator describes the presented situation.
2. Published in: Rote Fahne, 1929. Quoted after Hoffmann/Pfützner: Theater der Kollektive. Proletarisch-revolutionäres Berufstheater in Deutschland 1928-1933. Stücke, Dokumente, Studien. Berlin 1980.
3. Hanns Eisler, Werke, Leipzig 1982, p. 257
5. See Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer (1934)
6. Political scientist and economist Friederike Habermann developed this term to describe a society based on common-based peer production.

Tillbaka till numret. 


For Women Who Are Difficult to Love

Av: Warsan Shire

you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
forget you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him travelling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do, love
split his head open?
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.


Innehållsförteckning #130-131: Tid


Maidan Square

By: Oleksiy Radynski ‬‬

On December 8, 2013, an angry crowd of Maidan protesters toppled a Lenin monument in central Kyiv. This act was absurdly greeted by liberals in Ukraine and abroad as a final cutting-of-ties with communism—almost a quarter century after it had already fallen. At the same time, skeptical voices claimed that this outburst of mass frustration directed at a historical statue revealed the total impotency of the movement. Soon, monuments to Lenin fell in many other Ukrainian cities. Anti-communist iconoclasm became an important feature of the first movement in twenty-first century Europe whose outcome at least vaguely resembled a revolution.
The site of the Maidan movement in Kyiv is intimately linked to revolutionary ideas and practices, and not only by the old Soviet name for Maidan square—“the Square of the October Revolution”. The urban structure of central Kyiv itself, as envisaged by the Stalin-era city planners, was meant both to commemorate the event of the revolution, and to prevent its repetition by rendering expressions of dissent on the part of Soviet Ukrainians impossible. Maidan square and nearby Khreschatyk Street were designed to accommodate mass communist rallies and demonstrations—as long as these celebrated state policies. The Haussmannian proportions of the central squares and avenues were designed to make it easy for police forces to contain any public unrest.
The monument to the October Revolution, erected in the late 1970s at what later came to be known as Maidan square, was an astute commentary on the relationship between the revolutionary masses and their revolutionary leaders. In this monument, the figure of Vladimir Lenin was surrounded by the four pillars of the October Revolution—the male worker, the female worker, the peasant, and the sailor, all represented in bronze. The figure of Lenin stood apart from the masses not only in size—it effectively dominated the composition—but also in medium: his likeness was made of red granite, suggesting that he belonged to a different, transcendent mode of being. More than twenty years after the October Revolution monument was removed during the Soviet Union’s collapse, this spatial relationship between masses and leaders was re-projected, or reenacted on a different level, during the Maidan uprising. Although the Maidan movement did not have clear leaders or did not accept those who claimed their role, the representatives of the movement were clearly visible and constantly appealed to the assembled public via the large, mounted screens that broadcast the revolution in real time from the square. In this way, the relationship between the screen and the televised demonstrations actually reenacted a familiar, monumental representation of the revolution.
During the Soviet years, October Revolution Square was the site of so many pseudo- or counterrevolutionary rituals that it is hard to imagine it as a site for a genuine uprising. This cynical use of fake demonstrations led to the discrediting of the very idea of public assembly. In 1986, the square was the site of perhaps one of the most cynical uses of public assembly in history. Thousands of Kyivites marched through the square during the official Labor Day parade without knowing that five days earlier, a disaster had taken place in Chernobyl, about one hundred kilometers away. Soviet workers were made to march through the radiation-exposed streets for the sake of communist ritual. While the Labor Day ritual was not cancelled by atomic disaster, little could be done to prevent the Soviet society from its subsequent atomization. Very soon, the Thatcherite formula “there is no such thing as society” was realized in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states in its most radical form.
The 1992 documentary Levels of Democracy (directed by Georgiy Shkliarevsky), which portrays various political assemblies that took place in and around Maidan square in the late 1980s and early 1990s, grasps the ultimate transformation of Ukrainian (and, more broadly, late-Soviet) society into a post-social assemblage of individuals overwhelmed by the need for personal survival. The film’s opening scenes are filled with the joyous exultations of the masses, who for the first time had been granted the right to celebrate their national identity. In 1991, however, the situation changes drastically: the protesters stop caring about national identity, since they are suddenly faced with a collapsing economy and the urgency of physical survival. People still assemble—but instead of listening to performances of Ukrainian national anthem, they now listen to a teenager singing Yegor Letov’s songs on a guitar, or to a speech by a paranoid anti-Semite preacher. When freedom of assembly finally becomes a real constitutional right, practicing it is very difficult due to a sudden lack of basic goods.8
In the early 2000s, when the effects of economic collapse and social degradation started to wane, the Ukrainian people started to reclaim Maidan as a place for assembly and dissent. In the winter of 2000–2001, protesters set up an encampment in the square and called for the resignation of Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, who was accused of ordering the murder of the opposition journalist Georgiy Gongadze. The encampment was dispersed, and in order to prevent any further use of Maidan square for public dissent, President Kuchma ordered that it be redeveloped as a consumer space—a shopping mall combined with a para-historical sculpture park. The new surface of Maidan, dotted with kitschy sculptures and glass domes linking it with the promising shopping mall underworld, was supposed to prevent large crowds of protesters from gathering there. Instead, the public was supposed to assemble in the shopping mall underneath for the sake of pure consumption. On the spot where the October Revolution monument previously stood, a notoriously ugly monument to the independence of Ukraine was erected in its place, its use of imperial Corinthian order absurdly reverting Ukraine’s post-colonial imaginary. But Kuchma’s plan for doing away with Maidan as a public space failed— probably because his corrupt tendencies led him to award the project to a group of wealthy businessmen who had no prior experience in the construction business. Kuchma’s stated reason for redeveloping Maidan was the tenth anniversary of Ukrainian independence. Instead, the second decade of Ukraine’s alleged “independence” saw a tremendous proliferation of protest activity at Maidan square.


Innehållsförteckning #123-124 På torget



By: Olav Westphalen

Here’s the scenario: I am on my way to some release party with DJ-battle at Taverna Brillo. It’s the night before the Swedish national elections and I get into a heated argument with a group of young nationalists waving flags on Stureplan. I shout something along the – admittedly idiotic – lines of: “I am a fucking immigrant and I pay more taxes than you!” And I go on: “Why are you so scared of immigrants? Because they have bigger dicks than you? Because they get to fuck your mothers and you don’t?” I am a bit surprised that they don’t just beat me up. I credit that, both, to the police watching us from a distance and, maybe more importantly, to the fact that I look like a Type-A Aryan myself. There’s something in the heart of young fascists that makes it hard for them to pummel the face of someone who looks like the father they always wanted to have, I guess. 

Once I run out of insults, I end up having sort of a conversation with the kid who seems to be the brains of the operation. Not nuclear scientist type brains, but more than you need to wave a flag and not fall over backwards, which is what the rest of the crew is fully occupied with. (Here’s a really basic problem I have with fascism and militarism: It requires a number of rather intelligent individuals to spend most of their time with a lot of really stupid people. Who has the patience? Fascists, I guess). Anyhow, Brainy Nazi asks me with disgust in his voice how I can possibly deny that there is a Swedish Culture worth defending. I tell him that I have no idea what a culture is, and how come everybody else seems to know so much more about it? I also say that I find it impossible to determine what is properly Swedish about Swedish culture. Where do you draw the line between Swedish culture and German culture, Samie culture, Finnish culture, Russian culture, American culture, Greek culture, Turkish culture, Kurdish culture, Ethiopian culture and many others? It’s all gradients of overlapping, interlaced cultural expressions. I mean, what’s really Swedish? Matjessill? Talk to the Poles, the Dutch, the Russians, the Ashkenazi Jews, because they all think it’s theirs. It seems to me that those types of demarcations are always arbitrary and most often faith-based. 

As I enter the bar at Taverna Brillo, where they usually hold their performances and art events, I am still quite worked up over the ruckus outside. Behind the DJ-set, the artist Klas Eriksson is jumping up and down like a panda bear on speed. It’s the Release Party for his fanzine. Klas is playing his usual mix of Britpop, eighties electro and soccer chants. There’s humor at play here, but it still makes for a pretty testosterony atmosphere and I am not up for it right now. I am not really up for anything. I kind of slink away to some dark corner having “the thought”. You know, the thought scientifically proven to be the thought most frequently thought at art events around the world? It goes like this: “What the fuck am I doing here?”

A friend introduces me to Macarena Dusant, an art historian, who tells me about this magazine, the one you are holding in your hand. Although at the time there is no magazine yet. She is going to be the guest editor for the upcoming issue. And she wants to produce an entire issue on menstruation. I haven’t met her before. She hasn’t read anything I have written. Hell, I am not even a writer. And yet, after a couple of minutes, she suggests that I contribute a text. Somehow I get the feeling that I’m not the first man she has asked. I am right. She’s happy to confirm that she has asked many and that so far only Andreas Gedin has agreed to contribute a text. (Andreas holds one of the first PhDs ever awarded in artistic research. Maybe that makes him fearless.) But the guest editor is still in a tight spot, because gender balance cuts both ways and for some reason gender balance seems to be a concern here. It’s not my concern. I mean, how many magazines, anthologies, encyclopedias have there been without a single word written by a woman? So, why not an issue of Hjärnstorm without men? But instead of just telling her that I have nothing relevant to say about menstruation, as I bet the other male writers have done, I say: sure, why not? 

The next day I tell my wife that I agreed to write about menstruation for very little money. She has to laugh out loud, and I don’t think about the money. I leave the house for a walk. On Nytorget I bump into a friend coming out of Urban Deli. She just bought some luxury chocolate bar for 60 Crowns and when she unwraps it, it has that white, crystalline deposit all over it. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s like psoriasis for chocolate. She is really upset. I tell her about my writing gig to make her feel better. I don’t mention the fee, but she still laughs out loud. She is kind of a big-deal linguist at one of the universities. She researches gender and language, gender performativity and such things. She seems surprised that there is a new magazine on menstruation coming out. She says, she thought that that was all pretty much worked through by now. Cool. I am going use that line on my daughters when they reach puberty: “Hey! What are you so upset about? That’s all been figured out decades ago.” Anyhow, before the linguist heads back into Urban Deli to give them a ticking off about her expired chocolate bar, she asks me for my thoughts about menstruation. 

When I think about menstruation I think about a comfortably left-leaning couple at a party I went to recently in Midsommarkransen, who were making snarky comments about the fact that the liquids featured in commercials for tampons or sanitary pads are never red, but rather some sterile blue. Come on! Really? If you were the art director, would you use actual blood in your tampon commercial? No you wouldn’t. You’ve got merchandize to move and a job to lose. I don’t think blood sells, unless you’re advertising hamburgers or war. By and large people are squeamish when it comes to blood, perhaps especially squeamish when it comes to menstrual blood. Why would an adagency that’s selling people a product to maintain their phobic habits try to cure them at the same time? It’s their job to dig their fingernails into your weak spots and pry them open so they can shove products into them. If you don’t like that, you don’t like Capitalism. So, maybe start making snarky comments about that.

I think it’s amazing that the term “douche” (or “douche-bag”) has become such a broadly used pejorative for someone useless, boring, self-satisfied, usually a man. It doesn’t really carry an obvious, sexual connotation anymore and it is used by liberals, rather than by conservatives. John Stewart loves to say it on TV, because it doesn’t get bleeped. If the vaginal douche is used to sanitize and deodorize the vagina, I’ve got to wonder, could menstruation-suppressing drugs like “Seasonique” or “Librel” make equally good curse words? “Seasonique” might be better. It retains that phony tone of French refinement, which makes “douche” so ripe for ridicule. Try it! “Come on, don’t be such a Seasonique!” 

The Swedish railway services used to provide very nice and sturdy plastic bags for sanitary pads in their on-board bathrooms. They were light blue in color with some white and darker blues in it. Across the front they showed a realistic depiction of a massive monster-wave, a big-wave surfer’s dream, just at the moment of cresting. Across that image of awesome force it had in white, rather elegant letters the word “Madame.” There’s something about the French language. 

Is it just a coincidence that so many volcanoes have women’s names? Hekla, Katla, Etna, Mount St.Helens, Iztaccíhuatl or The Woman in White, Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santa Isabel, and Kick’em Jenny (an actual volcano in the Caribbean). Or is it because a menstruating vulva looks like an upside down volcano? But then, if you think about it, nobody has ever seen an upside down volcano. 

My sister is about a year older than myself and she got her period early, while I was a late bloomer (whatever “bloomer” is supposed to euphemize when you’re talking body hair, sweat glands and vocal register). For some years we inhabited opposite ends of the universe. She had become an alien being, two heads taller than me with bushy, black hair in new places and a mystifying need for bathroom privacy. I remember that I wasn’t repulsed by her body, or by the smell of it, which had changed as well, but that I found her own discomfort with her body extremely hard to take. It wasn’t that her exploding sexuality seemed shameful to me, but that her shame was painful to witness. And at that age, when projecting a minimum of confidence was a question of social survival, requiring constant vigilance and shifting alliances, my sister’s pubescent gloominess and physical awkwardness were something to stay the hell away from. As if it was something I could catch and which would wipe out my precarious social standing[1]. In high school, dominated by the entitled offspring of successful lawyers, businessmen and tennis-playing doctors, small boys had to be ruthless not to be trampled on. 

Love is red, and so is Communism. They have each been described as all-consuming floods, tearing down order, mores and laws. During the Weimar Republic one of the literary images most commonly mobilized by nationalist writers to characterize the international Communist movement was that of rising, red floodwaters (“die Roten Fluten”). The Red Flood would dissolve in a bloody soup all that was solid, manly, civilized. Later, during the war, the same metaphor was applied to the Soviet Union’s Red Army.

Klaus Theweleit devoted some 75 pages of his analysis of the culture of White Terror in pre-war Germany[2] to documenting the collective literary construction of the image of the Red Flood. Through an impressive accumulation of historical sources he gives evidence of the systematic, rhetorical splicing of the notions of “woman”, “communism”, “fluids” (floods, streams, tidal waves) and “blood” (spilled in battle, birth and menstruation). When writers described the looming cataclysm of the Bolshevist revolution they also, implicitly, gave voice to their fear of an unfettered, female sexuality. In the right-wing imagination, the revolution was a violent, seductive woman. Theweleit elaborates the emotional amalgam of fear and attraction, disgust and desiring anticipation, proto-fascist writers displayed when they fantasized about the onslaught of the Red Flood. The powerful desire to disappear into that maelstrom of revolutionary upheaval (to unite with that murderous woman) was so laden with fear and shame that it required the construction of a formidable, male armor (i.e. military discipline, physical exercise, paramilitary corps etc.) as well as preemptive, murderous aggression against the threats of communism and female sexuality[3]. 

In 7th grade biology, we were told by a teacher, speaking to us through an empty toilet paper roll held in front of his mouth to better project his voice, that having pubic hair and underarm hair constituted an evolutionary advantage, because they trapped smells and pheromones which played an important role in attracting mating partners. For me this was difficult to hear, not acoustically difficult, he was good with the toilet paper roll, but emotionally, as I was still waiting for my pubic hair to come into its own. There is an entry in an old diary of mine from around that time which reads “some thicker black hairs, but mostly just thin blond.” 

In contemporary, industrialized societies, shaved genitals are so prevalent that pubic lice are becoming an endangered species[4]. If I were in 7th grade today, I would be psyched. I’d be parading my hairless Justin Bieber body around the locker room, pitying my more evolved classmates who would be covering their swarthy flesh in oversized towels, constantly waxing and epilating everywhere just to fit in. 

But seriously, what does it mean that we are giving up the competitive edge of our pungent bushes and armpits? Are we done with evolution and mating? Or has the olfactory completely lost out to the visual as an effective stimulus, so that it is no longer of any advantage to shower your love object in your personal perfumes? But even if the visual has indeed become the main mode of sexual attraction, it doesn’t really explain our changed attitude towards pubic hair. A completely shaved set of genitals is not a simple thing to behold. It’s ambiguous to say the least. If you’re high-minded and are willing to look past the razor bumps and rashes, you can perhaps think about smoothness, purity, idealized beauty. You may see the connection to the perfectly even, marble bodies of antique statuary, an ideal you would be sharing with neoclassicists and fascists alike. But you have to admit that shaved genitals also always look like kid-parts, like inflated, stubbly coochies and wee-wees. I think it’s worth asking how it can be that this seems to attract us so much more than the old-time pheromone cocktail. Or is it olfactory, sexual attraction itself, being lured in, fogged in by intimate gases, which doesn’t appeal to us anymore? But then again, maybe my biology teacher was just wrong and the smelly approach never worked.

One more thought: what does menstrual blood look like coming from a hairless, shiny vulva? The image of blood on childlike genitals brings up a set of disturbing associations. Is that why menstruation- suppressing drugs and douches have the markets they have, because menstrual blood doesn’t work with our new, infantilized sex organs? 

In that same biology class, through the same toilet paper roll, we were informed that intercourse leads to “a pleasant tingling sensation” and that women who get their period bleed for about seven days. (It’s amazing what a simple thing the human body was in the late 70’s: Human Sexuality, week 28. Week 29 through Week 35, the Fruit Fly). Kai Sturck, a boy from my neighborhood who later grew up to become a star-photographer for tabloids and yet later ran a successful law firm and then died of cancer in his forties, couldn’t control his alarm at that thought and burst out: “What do you mean, they have to sit on the toilet for seven days?[5]” I still wonder how his thinking went. He lived with his parents, two houses down from us. If his mother had spent a week per month on the toilet, he should have noticed that by then. So, he either assumed that his mother would just never do such a thing as menstruate, or maybe she was really gone for extended periods of time and he thought he finally understood where she was going and why. 

I once spent a weekend with a woman at a fancy spa-hotel on the coast of Maine. I fell in love then and I guess she did too. We became a couple and stayed together for some years. But when we first met and had sex at that hotel we didn’t really know much about each other. She had just gotten her period, full-force. For two days we would basically commute between the bed and a huge bubble-bathtub in the corner of the room to wash her blood off ourselves. There was a private patio outside the room. This was one of its selling points that you could take a hot tub in the room and then sit out on the patio and cool off in the fresh air and look out over some rugged landscape. We didn’t get to do that, because as soon as we sat outside there was this gang of raccoons that went totally crazy about the smell of her blood. They were like kids on a sugar rush. We could barely chase them off and they kept coming back. So in the end we had to stay inside with the doors and windows locked. Her grandfather had been an American pilot during the war, while my grandfather had been a more or less convinced Nazi officer on a small naval vessel in the North Sea. Sitting up to our bellies in red, bubbling water we tried to recall what we had been told about where our grandfathers had fought. At some point she laughed and said: “My grandfather bombed your grandfather.” And the raccoons were banging their heads against the glass door.[6] 

There’s a video being projected, onto the tiled wall of Taverna Brillo. I am looking at it over the shoulder of Macarena, the guest editor, who’s telling me that I probably have very interesting thoughts on menstruation. I recognize the video and get distracted. It has no apparent connection to the music or any other aspect of the event. It’s Jean Painlevé’s 1934 underwater film “The Seahorse,” which documents in stunning underwater sequences the conception, gestation and birth of seahorses; the seahorse being an unusual fish not just because of its shape and upright posture, but because its embryos are carried to maturity in the belly of the males, who eventually give birth to them under great pain.

I am not surprised that male writers aren’t lining up to write menstruation pieces. The topic is a tricky one. Any male writer risks to come across as either an ignorant douche or as an over-eager teachers’ pet, reading up extra thoroughly on menstruation just to end up mansplaining it later. He risks inadvertently offending women, and he risks the consequences thereof. But I wonder if those fears (which aren’t really that scary when you come to think of it) aren’t further buttressed by a more general fear of the phenomenon of menstruation itself. Either way, it’s safer to respectfully state that, as a male writer, one doesn’t have anything to say about this. But then, how could that be? Generally, male writers don’t have problems writing about issues they haven’t experienced first hand. They love writing about politics in faraway places, about all kinds of received ideas and about other peoples’ money, fame or fate. And think about this: without menstrual cycles there wouldn’t be any male writers. But apparently menstruation belongs to a different category of topics. The topics you don’t speak about if you haven’t experienced them yourself. Or, as the Swedish electro-band Chu Mulu puts it: 

Don’t joke about the holocaust, unless you’re Jewish 

Don’t joke about gangsters, unless you’re black 

Don’t joke about Aids unless you have it 

Don’t joke about Ebola, unless you’re dead 

Don’t joke about hamsters. Period. 

But then, what about women who don’t menstruate? Do they, by the same logic, feel they lack the entitlement to discuss menstruation? What about transgender men or women, who aren’t menstruating? Do they have nothing to say? 

The video program segueways into Painlevé’s hilarious “The Love Life of the Octopus,” from 1964, a grotesque, knotty entanglement of rubbery, unidentifiable parts; a silly, alien underwater orgy of a film, which I love. And I think to myself: Look, here’s Painlevé, an old, white, privileged, malegazer, a dead one, who nevertheless somehow through the use of esthetic tools, visual techniques and narrative makes immediately sensible to us some profoundly other types of bodies and sexualities. And that is something. Modest as it may seem, it is one of the few things that art can do. It can go beyond critiquing reality and reiterating subject positions to afford us a glimpse of a world profoundly reshuffled, where we are not just what we think we know we are, or what we are told we are supposed to be. A space where our cultures, our bodies, our politics become reorganized in new ways, assume shapes and form arrangements that we could not ever have predicted, where drawing a line between this and that, between right and wrong and putting a flag on it would be arbitrary, faith-based and… I don’t want to say fascist, so I say… criminally boring and bigoted and unnecessary and, most of all, fundamentally against life, which a great, bloody mess.


1. Note that the text establishes an associative connection between menstruation and infectious disease. 

2. Klaus Theweleit, “Männerphantasien,“ Frankfurt/M, Volume 1, Frauen, Fluten, Körper, Geschichte (1978) pp. 235–310. 

3. Incidentally, the flood could also appear in the form of a volcanic eruption. And these tropes were not exclusively coined by the right, but employed by the left as well. See the lyrics to The International: “La raison tonne en son cratère, C’est l’éruption de la fin,” or in the Swedish version: “Det dånar ut i rättens krater, snart skall utbrottets timma slå!”. 

4. Attention has been called to this phenomenon by Swedish artist Frida Klingberg in her project Bevara Flatlusen/Save the Crab Louse (2013). 5. Note how, expressed through an innocent child, an association between menstruation and defecation is established. 

6. Note how this episode connects menstruation to animals and nature, but also how images of war and menstruation become linked in the bathtub motive.


Innehållsförteckning #120-121: Mens