Theater of Cruelty

Recent art activist projects

ACTIVISM / The growing part of contemporary art intervenes in ongoing political debates and uses the relative autonomy of art as a starting point for art activist interventions outside the art space.


On November 22, 2017, the German politician and leading member of the far-right party woke up alternative for Germany (AfD), Björn Höcke surprised in his fine old wooden house to the sound of machines and craftsmen who were busy erecting a number of concrete structures on the neighboring plot. After five days of work, it turned out to be an extension of Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, which had been erected just outside the windows of Höcke's brown three-story wooden villa in the otherwise quiet village of Bornhagen in Thuringia, below a picturesque castle ruin.

It was the Berlin-based art group center für politische Schönheit#, which was behind the construction of the 24 gray concrete stele right next to Höcke's house. In January 2017, Höcke, who is one of the leading forces in the so-called 'social-patriotic' wing of the AfD, criticized the Holocaust memorial in a speech and demanded "a 180 degree turn in German commemorative culture". No more monuments that commemorated the terrible events of Nazism. It was time to move on and be proud of Germany, stated Höcke, who has on several occasions gone a step further and relativized the crimes of Nazism and, among other things, stated that Hitler "also did several good things".

Center for Political Beauty

The Zentrum für politische Schönheit had secretly acquired the house next to Höck, and at the end of November 2017, work began on the construction of the local, scaled-down version of Eisenman's monument. The action sparked a major debate in the German media, and Höck called the Zentrum für politische Schönheit terrorists and, together with his party AfD, filed several lawsuits against the group – but lost them all. And the monument still stands just outside the windows Höckes house.

The Danish political public has acted as racist and derogatory as possible towards socially constructed others, not least people from the Middle East and Africa.

The Zentrum für politische Schönheit itself calls their actions 'political performance art' and describes itself as an 'artistic attack group'. The group's work is a very good example of the growing part of contemporary art that intervenes in ongoing political debates and uses the relative autonomy of art as a starting point for art activist interventions outside the art space in order to fight late-fascist politicians and racist migration policy.

Center for Political Beauty

Two new books contribute to the analysis of this development. The American artist Gregory Sholette has written an excellent overview of art activism from the 1960s onwards, and the anthology The Routledge Companion to Art and Activism in the Twentieth Century, edited by art historians Lesley Shipley and Mey-Yen Moriuchi, contains a series of case studies on recent art activist projects. As both books show, in the past 10 years we have seen an increasingly large part of contemporary art moving outside the white cube and either acting critically provocative as the Zentrum für politische Schönheit or using art as a starting point for a more practical solution art that does not simply propose solutions to social problems, but contribute to their solution.


An example of the latter could be Trampolinhuset in Copenhagen, who participated in last year's Documenta in Kassel.

Trampolinhuset is a self-organized refugee community center that today exists as a weekend offer in the Apostel church in Vesterbro. Until 2020, Trampolinhuset existed as an actual community center in outer Nørrebro, where refugees and asylum seekers came to get legal advice and Danish lessons, but also to meet other asylum seekers, volunteers in the house and citizens of Copenhagen. The house was established after two workshops at Center Sandholm and Center Kongelunden – two Danish refugee camps – organized by artists Morten Goll, Joachim Hamou and curator Tone O. Nielsen with students from the Academy of Arts and the School of Architecture in 2009.

The aim was to create a social space that could improve the living conditions of asylum-
residents in Denmark. A country whose asylum policy in recent decades has been characterized by one more horrifying tightening after another. In the Danish political public, across party lines, it has been customary to act as racist and derogatory as possible towards socially constructed others, not least people from the Middle East and Africa. The trampoline house existed as a physical house for ten years, but had to close in 2020 due to lack of financial support, and it now exists as a weekend offer. The project is a good example of the type of contemporary art that does not content itself with presenting possible alternatives to the ruling order, but tries to create other worlds within this world, in this case a racist asylum system.

The trampoline house

If the Zentrum für politische Schönheit uses a critical gesture of provocation, where they make fun of Höcke, Trampolinhuset works within the system and strives to make a difference for the asylum seekers who have come to Denmark and are isolated in refugee camps. Both projects operate in a context characterized by xenophobia, where Western European political systems, confronted with a global economy in great difficulty, entrench themselves behind notions of national communities.

It is located in the center for political beauty, provocation aesthetics and trampoline houses social plastic finder vi performancen The healing, which took place on the exterior Norrebro in Copenhagen in the public housing Lundtoftegade on 29 November 2020. The action took place that day because the Danish Ministry of Transport and Housing a few days later, on 1 December, would publish the annual ghetto list over so-called ghetto areas in Denmark. The ghetto list is one of the clearest expressions of the xenophobic policy that has been hegemonic in Denmark since the late 1990s. Bourgeois as well as social democratic governments have participated in this turn.

Richard Prince's photography of Marlboro advertisements was an example, or Cindy Sherman's staging of popular cultural female roles.

The Ghetto Law was introduced in 2018 by the then right-wing government under the leadership of Lars Løkke Rasmussen, and with it in hand it became possible to characterize certain residential areas as 'ghettos' if they meet two of four criteria that deal with employment, crime, income and education and if the proportion of so-called «non-Western immigrants and descendants» exceeds 50 percent. If a residential area meets the criteria, the proportion of general family housing must be reduced through sale or demolition. The result has been that families have been forced to move and that housing companies have had to demolish apartment complexes, despite a lack of housing in cities such as Copenhagen and Aarhus. At the same time, the legislative package has also made it possible to introduce double punishment if a resident of a so-called 'ghetto' is convicted of a crime.

It was the fear of appearing on the ghetto list again that was the starting point The healing, where artists and residents moved in a procession through the area dressed in lion masks, cardboard faces and costumes in gold, orange and black carrying long rolls of colored banners. It was the artists Marie-Louise Vittrup Andersen and Mette Nisgaard Larsen who were responsible for the performance, but a number of other artists took part in the procession along the way and performed various rituals or actions, all intended to function as a «near and far healing» of the ghetto list. It was a last desperate gesture, the residents had done everything possible to get off the list, so they now resorted to art, which they hoped could reverse the discrepancy between the state's view of the area and the residents' view of themselves and their home. Three days later the ghetto list was published, and the healing was successful, because AB Lundtoftegade no longer appeared on the list.

The performative turn

For a long period art activist practices did not fill the art scene much, but since the late 1990s and especially within the last decade this has changed as contemporary art has taken a political turn. As early as 1993, the video of Rodney King was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, together with a series of artworks that thematized anti-black violence, and in 2002, Documenta 11, curated by Okwui Enwezor, was a large-scale attempt to think the processes of globalization postcolonially. After a long period of expressive painting and representational critical art in the 1980s and early 1990s, many contemporary artists began to orient themselves again towards the more committed art practices of the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1990s, the French curator Nicolas described Bourriaud, how a number of younger artists worked with relationships, and mind you, not representations of relationships, but with the aim of artistically producing relationships between people. The relational aesthetics was a reaction to what was perceived as the one-dimensional image criticism of representational critical art, where the criticism was always presented in the form of new, often sampled images, which were admittedly critical of the many mass media images – Richard Prince's photography of Marlboro advertisements was a example or Cindy Sherman's staging of popular cultural women's roles another – but remained stuck in the spectacular image space. There was nothing beyond the pictures. For Bourriaud and the series of artists for whom his theory became a signifier, it was time to replace image criticism with the production of relationships inside or outside the art space.

Richard Prince Photography Of Marlboro Advertising
The trampoline house

In this way, relational aesthetics marked a turning point in contemporary art, which was followed up by other forms of practice that worked performatively and often collaboratively. Painting, photography and video did not disappear, of course, but the performative practices came to occupy more space in contemporary art. If for Bourriaud it was a question of updating the critical perspective of late modern art, however, it quickly became clear that the performative practices fit very well with the expanding museum culture, where performances and artistic actions were not simply an enticing, immersive experience for the global art audience, but also did well on social media. In retrospect, relational art's notion of the production of relationships appears somewhat naive, but we must remember that it was developed in a world where the production of online identity through social media was not yet sine qua non.

The period since the mid-1990s is also the story of the ever-increasing interweaving of speculative financial capital and art as an investment object and contemporary art as an object for the mass tourism of the global bourgeoisie. The politicization of recent decades has thus paradoxically gone hand in hand with a development where the relative autonomy of art not only makes art a vanguard for capital's development of new lifestyles and unpaid forms of work, but also functions as a refuge for the super-rich who do not want to invest in production, but would rather have huge collections of art stored in so-called free ports, like the German artist Hito Steyerl brilliantly described it in his book on Duty free art.

From the top:
Guerilla Art Action Group
Decolonize This Place

In a historical perspective, art activism can be seen as a reaction to the rapid cancellation of the political potential of the performative practices and the standardization of the relational art, which quickly became part of an expanded experiential culture. Where the relational and performative works to a large extent remained in the institution, art activism is characterized by either moving outside the art institution or articulating a radical critique of the institution in the margins of it. Trampoline House, Zentrum für politische Schönheit and The healing are all examples of the former, where art is either transformed into creative dissent or put to work in the solution of social injustice outside the art institution.

Decolonize This Space and the other groups and campaigns are a reactivation of the various action groups of the 1960s.

Examples of the second form of art activism includes groups such as we and WAGE (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), which respectively focus on decolonizing museums in New York and establishing proper working conditions for artists and cultural workers, not least obliging institutions to pay artists for exhibitions. In a Nordic context, it is i.a. groups such as The Union, which works to de-centre whiteness in art institutions, and Anonyme Biledkunstnere, which, under great attention, threw a plaster bust of Fredrik V from the Festsalen at the Art Academy in Copenhagen's harbour.

Decolonize This Space has been behind several campaigns against museums in New York, focusing on issues such as the representation of Native Americans and the financial interests of board members. In 2018 coordinated Decolonize This Space a campaign against the vice chairman of the board of the Whitney Museum, Warren Kander, who owns the Safariland Group, which makes tear gas and military equipment such as bomb detonation robots, bulletproof vests and gun holsters. Tear gas that i.a. another is used on the US-Mexico border to deter immigrants from trying to enter the US. After 100 staff at the Whitney signed a letter urging the museum to deal with Kander's company, Decolonize This Space staged a large demonstration in the museum's lobby, carrying large banners with texts such as Tear Gas Is Deadly, Warern Kanders Must Go! og Whitney Museum: No Space for Profiteers of State Violence. They also burned sage, sage is an old medicine that, among other things, counteracts inflammation, and the fire department interrupted the demonstration as clouds of sage filled the foyer. In conjunction with the opening of the 2018 Whitney Biennial, Decolonize This Space organized weekly demonstrations at the museum and also organized a demonstration that ended at Kander's private home in Manhattan. When eight artists and the group Forensic Architecture, all of whom were to participate in the biennale, withdrew from the exhibition, Kanders finally resigned from his post. The campaign against Kanders is just one of several such campaigns that art activist groups have mounted over the past ten years in the United States, Great Britain and a number of other countries. The campaigns have often revolved around artists' working conditions, but also about the art institution as a place for money laundering by companies involved in arms production, surveillance, financial speculation or fossil capitalism.

It is obvious to see Decolonize This Space and the other groups and campaigns as a reactivation of the various action groups of the 1960s, where, not least under the influence of the Vietnam War and the general mobilization during the 1960s among young, black, migrant and women put pressure on art museums, demanding radical reforms of exhibition programs and better conditions for artists. Groups such as the Art Worker's Coalition and the Guerilla Art Action Group demanded that David and Nelson Rockefeller be removed from the board of MOMA in 1969, citing the Rockefeller family's connection to companies that produced the napalm used in Vietnam that killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. The Art Worker's Coalition was a large, loosely-knit group that included more critical voices such as the feminist art critic Lucy Lippard, who demanded radical changes to the art institution, but also artists who questioned the relevance of politicizing art such as Robert Smithson.

The Guerilla Art Action Group was a small action group that went a step further and organized actions in the museums, where they mimed the barbarities of Vietnam, threw themselves screaming on the floor covered in blood and dramatized the demands for reforms of the museums' exhibition and acquisition policy, but also pointed towards a more comprehensive critique of American society.

The new anti-institutional protests are like the campaigns of the 1960s, naturally motivated by the protests that take place in the streets. Today, it is not least the extensive protests against police violence that have taken place in the United States since 2014. The Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd revolt in the summer of 2020, but also MeToo and the earlier Occupy movement have caused a more general radicalization, which appears in art. As Sholette argues in his book, since the mid-1990s the art scene has functioned as a laboratory for criticism in a period in which there has been no wider system-critical left-wing public. Art exhibitions and catalogs have for a period functioned as a place for the presentation and discussion of subjects that, for good reason, have no place in the political and cultural public spheres. In this way, art has functioned as a preparation for a more comprehensive critique of the system, which of course cannot remain within the existing institutions, but takes place in the margins of them or on the street. Only to the extent that art activism brings about an actual transformation of the institution, and not just a renewal of it, will it live up to its project. This will require the connection to the ongoing class struggles to become even clearer.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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