Theater of Cruelty

Refugees: Art project stranded

Strong protests made Franco "Bifo" Berardi's planned performance Auschwitz on the Beach on Documenta 14 instead turned into poetry reading and panel debate.


In full knowledge that thousands of people are dying in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean, European countries have adopted an increasingly stringent immigration policy to "protect their values". Through agreements with Turkey, Morocco and Libya, the EU has in practice outsourced border control to neighboring continents. People's right to escape from war is no longer respected. What does it mean to society that we are able to accept this development? The idealist solidarity of the Left seems to have been thrown overboard in favor of egocentric capitalism, which has no room for "the others". A new mentality has taken over, based on racism and nationalism, where human rights are something that only applies to its own citizens.

Performance Project. Italian activist and writer Franco "Bifo" Berardi fears that we are about to commit a new Holocaust. During this summer's artwork Documenta 14 in Kassel in Germany, he planned a performance called Auschwitz on the Beach, based on one of their own poems. The poem themed the growing fascism in Europe by pointing to all the refugees who have been stranded in Libya because of Europe's strict immigration policy. Concentration camps on the other side of the Mediterranean, financed by Europeans, are the starting point for the controversial name selection. Like Overland's "You Must Not Sleep", the poem should serve as a warning that history is repeating itself; Today's refugees have become the new Jews.

Bifo: “My purpose is provocation. To provoke means in Latin 'to cry out', to show what is hidden. "

Ny Tid has talked to Bifo about Auschwitz on the Beach and the advancement of racism. "I got the idea for the poem last year, when refugees died daily in trying to cross the Mediterranean. Both the Italian and European press as well as the general public regarded these deaths as regrettable, but without acknowledging that they were a direct consequence of Europe's disclaimer of its own colonization and warfare. To put it into perspective, I felt it was necessary to dramatize it all in a provocative way, namely by referring to the worst crime the world can remember, ”explains Bifo.

Taboo and cancellation. But the title's Auschwitz reference stole the attention from the message, and that which should be one wake-up call became a dispute over ownership of history. Many German newspapers and centers of Jewish culture strongly criticized the reference to Auschwitz, and the criticism did not wait for the Jewish environment. Charlotte Knobloch, former president of Central Council for Jews in Germany, called the establishment grotesque and believed any relativization of the Holocaust should be prohibited. However, Bifo points out that the reactions were mixed: “After a meeting with Sara Nussbaum Zentrum für Jüdisches Lebeni Kassel, I invited the organization to the panel debate; one of them even made a post. She said Europeans' attitude to migration today reminded her when the Americans and British in 1938 rejected hundreds of thousands of Jews who wanted to emigrate from Germany. Many of the same Jews later ended up in Auschwitz. "

Many German newspapers felt that the memory of Auschwitz had to be protected from such relativizations. To this, Bifo says: “The majority of German journalists have turned out to be conformists, inclined to follow the regime in every case. This is nothing new. The German press followed the Nazi regime in the 1930s; nationalism never disappeared in that country. But it must be added that some of the newspapers completely changed their attitude and printed some very objective articles after the panel debate. Philipp Ruch wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that perhaps was the title Auschwitz on the Beach brutal, but there are also concentration camps in Libya. Ruch argued that artists have the right to be brutal when the situation demands it. "

The German Minister of Culture asked Documenta to withdraw the Bifos performance from the program. Boris Rhein, Minister of Culture in the state of Hesse, where the Documenta exhibition is held every five years, stated that any comparison with the Holocaust was unacceptable, since the Nazi crimes were unique.

Finally, Bifo and the festival organizers agreed on a compromise solution: The artist read the poem, and then opened a panel debate under the name Shame on Us. The purpose was to include all the different voices in a discussion about the new fascism and the need for collective action.

The message is most important. In retrospect, Bifo has seen the benefits of replacing the planned performance with a debate: “The most important thing in this case was to convey a message, which is best done by inciting the audience to discussion. I certainly did not regret, rather the contrary. The cancellation of the show only led to increased attention. " Although Documenta in this case chose to adhere to the criticism, he sees no reason to doubt the festival's integrity. “I made the decision to cancel myself; this was not about censorship. On the other hand, German authorities are actually trying to tie the festival – to force it to follow the rules of commercial normality. It is important to remember that Documenta was created in an attempt to overcome nationalism and racism in Germany. Now both nationalism and racism have returned in Europe, and so Documenta is in a vulnerable situation, ”says Bifo.

What was supposed to be one wake-up call, became a dispute over ownership of history.

Freedom of speech vs. provocation. But when a performance is canceled due to references to the Holocaust, many are perceived as an attack on freedom of speech. When asked what he thinks the role of the artists should be, he diminishes the value of freedom of speech per se: "The problem is not freedom of speech, as I see it. We have a lot of freedom of expression, precisely because what the artists say doesn't matter as long as they are not part of the market. My purpose is provocation. To provoke means in Latin 'to cry out', to show what is hidden. It is the which is the artists' task: to expose the hidden. What is hidden today? Europeans' racism, their white supremacy and fear, the last crisis of colonization. "

Contemporary forces in turn. Right-wing populist parties are currently gaining a lot of support by playing on foreign fear in the wake of the refugee crisis. I ask Bifo what he thinks has created this trend: “Racism is increasing because the white working class has suffered a defeat; they have been humiliated by the financial market and the dictatorship of capitalism and the promises of better economic conditions through reforms that were never implemented. The white working class has seen its privileges disappear as the civil rights movement in the United States, the women's movement, the LGBT movement and other 'minorities' have been prioritized over the 'white man'. Thus, these are left with an indignant notion that they have the right to recapture their heyday – 'Make America Great Again'. From there comes the anti-immigration policy we are witnessing today; as a last resort, the white workers will take revenge on those who are weaker than themselves: refugees and foreigners who also want a piece of the cake. "

"The new Nazism repeats Hitler's words: 'You are not oppressed workers, you are white warriors.' This is how fascism arises. "

According to Bifo, Europe is waging an inhuman war based on racial discrimination against the "unwanted" people who knock on our door. A workers' nationalism has once again prevailed, and if we want to avoid a new tragedy like the one that took place in Auschwitz, among other things, we must learn from history. "Hitler told the defeated and poor German workers in 1930: 'Don't think you are oppressed workers, think you are white warriors.' This is how Nazism originated. Today, the white workers are again oppressed and humiliated. Hitler's words are repeated: 'You are not oppressed workers, you are white warriors'. This is how fascism arises. And this is how the global civil war begins, ”concludes Bifo.

See The power of impotence

Emma Bakkevik
Emma Bakkevik
International freelance writer for Ny Tid

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