Herostratus on Steroids

The more I think about it, the more I have to realize that many of my works are somewhat problematic in respect to the topics they are dealing with. The same, I think, is true for other works by different artists, dealing with similar topics, so I would like to try to phrase my concerns.

When Herostratus laid fire to the Temple of Artemis in the 4th century BCE, it is said, that he was aiming for eternal remembrance. So, the reaction by public figures to punish him with damnatio memoriae, or the condemnation of memory, seemed quite sensible, even though this attempt has failed miserably. The names of the people that did condemn him have long since been forgotten, yet the name of the criminal lives on.

If we take the story for granted, Herostratus was no terrorist. The people he was aiming for were not his enemies and he was not trying to instill fear in them that other such acts might inevitably follow, he was rather extremely selfish. He wanted his actions to be remembered and his name to live on. If he would have been a member of a bigger group, that threatened similar acts, the story would be different, but he was giving his life merely for his own cause. He wanted to be glorified – sure, he did something most people would have hated him for, but glorification works in the negative as well as in the positive. The arch villain is a hero in of itself.

I guess, there is little real information on the reaction of his contemporaries, but I would doubt that there had been widespread fear that his action could have merely been the start of an upcoming series of similar events. If bureaucracy worked in a similar fashion 2500 years ago, some guards at the temple were reprimanded for their lapse in security, but that would have been it. The guy who actually did it had been apprehended and executed and no one was ever to mention his name again. That was it.

When looking for the right way to deal with contemporary acts of terrorism. Many media outlets struggle and quite a few resort to a damnatio memoriae for our current media environment. The acts themselves are still reported, but certain news sites for instance stopped to show images of terrorists and refuse to mention their names.


If terrorists would be motivated by similar urges than Herostratus, this seems an adequate way to cope with terrorism. But there is more to that, than just the individuals need to leave traces.

For once, the fundamental claim of terrorism is that there are more things to come. Things that are going to strike us out of the blue. The individual terrorist might indeed partially be motivated by the selfish urge of becoming a glorified hero, but the fact that the claim is made, that his actions are part of a wider movement, is essential. Interestingly, this claim is very often not made by the attacker him- or herself, but rather by the group that defines his whole existence through an ongoing series of attacks. ISIS for instance, keeps claiming attacks for themselves that have little connection to the real planning of this group. To the person who feels under threat, it makes little to no difference who makes this claim.

Whether the above-mentioned response, by some media outlets, to retract the names and images of violent attackers, is a valid response, is up for debate. But maybe this response does not even go far enough and the story of Herostratus might teach us some valuable lesions for the conflicts of the 21st century.

Compared to the role remembrance plays in contemporary conflicts, the actions by Herostratus seem almost like child’s play. He wanted his name to be remembered to become immortal, but today it is all about a continuous place in the 24-hour news cycle. He was up for what we would call today 15 minutes of fame, while terror groups aim for a never-ending state of fear.

Today’s conflicts aim at our perception as the crucial battlefield. Terrorism, for instance, only works once it is been perceived as terrorism. If the single acts of murder are understood merely as acts of a criminal nature, the feeling of terror most likely disappears. If a drunken guy stabs some people in front of a club and is then killed by police, the whole thing is merely reported as news. Something that has happened and that is now over. Just something the public might want to know about. If there is a growing number of such incidences, politicians might face some tough questions by their constituents and might fear for reelection. But little else comes of it.

Terrorism, on the other hand, lives from being reported in a different way than that. To fully function, it needs to be understood as merely part of something bigger. As something that might happen again in a different setting, but that has to be understood as part of the same storyline. Terrorists work hard to make their actions seem as if they were connected. But this connectedness is artificial. What we experience as a constant threat from Islamist terror groups in Europe at the moment, is in fact a series of incidences that are quite few and far apart. Even if it were true that most or all of the attacks were orchestrated by the same group, following the same narrative, this struggle has bears little resemblance of an all-out war. But to many people, it feels like it. Why? Maybe because every incidence is talked about over and over again. And this way, the groups claiming responsibility for these attacks are given constant media airtime.

So, when some news outlets decide not to show the faces and names of the perpetrators, this solves only a small part of the issue. The attacks are still given ample airtime – much more in fact, than many other events, that have a comparable number of casualties.

What reminds me here of Herostratus is the fact that terrorism seems to depend on us thinking about it, for it to stay alive. The more we talk about it, the more the whole issue grows and thrives. Oddly enough other issues are quite similar in this respect. Take for instance mass surveillance. Sure, Big Brother could watch you without your knowledge, but it has always been the more cost-efficient approach to pair surveillance with a heavy dose of paranoia in your targets. Have them be afraid and therefore enforce some control on themselves.

In that respect, “knowledge” can be a curse, since what you believe to know, is in huge parts a construct that only exists in our group consciousness. There might be a terror attack any moment or there might be Big Brother watching over my shoulder right now, but the chance that this just isn’t the case is so much bigger. Us, being afraid, easily fills the gaps between accidents or acts of surveillance.

The more attention these topics get, the more important they seem. This is a problem. Not only the classical media outlets do a far too focused job, reporting on terror or surveillance, but it has also become a staple topic in other cultural fields. Movies, documentaries, books, theater plays – I just guess that there are even operas – are dealing with terror. And many visual artists, like me for instance, spend a lot of time drawing even more attention to this issue. The way this is done is very often quite fanciful and therefore gives the whole thing some street cred. Surveillance, war and terror have become cool topics for the coolest kids around.

We might come with the best intentions, but I am not so sure anymore, if we are actually doing a good job. We might have to deal with the idea of us being complicit, when dealing with topics, where the actual danger is not so much out there in the real world, but rather in our internal response. By shedding even more light on these topics, we serve the agenda. When ISIS, for instance releases new videos, people like me instantly flock to them and make them part of the debate.

If it comes to these topics, there should be debate, but the question is, which debate. I have no conclusive answer, but I want to show that I am struggling.

When did the barracks at Auschwitz get the last coat of fresh paint?

I had a conversation recently with a photo student, who wants to do a work on some Stasi related issue. She was mentioning to me, that she was planning on taking pictures in a former Stasi prison in Berlin. Since the Wall came down, this has been turned into a museum. When asked why, she said something about the authenticity of this place and quoted some people that had been imprisoned there saying something like “the smell is very special and authentic, the real smell the place had back then”. To that I say: bullshit.

The wall came down 28 years ago and the prison was closed shortly after. No smell in the world lingers on for that long. No matter what chemicals would constitute the smell, their composition would change over time and therefore the smell would certainly not be “the same” as thirty years ago. Plus, back then, the building was in use. People worked their every day and other people were forced to live in this very building. We all have experienced that the smell of our apartment seems to change, while we were on vacation for a week or two. It might be that the smell did not change, but our perception of it has, but in the long run, we certainly play a role in the olfactory composition of the place we live and work in.

I am not that interested in the mechanics of smells, rather the way this student was talking did remind me of a general issue I am having with the culture of memory.

We tend to expect of certain places of historical importance, to give away part of their story through their outside appearance. A terrible place needs to look devastating to fully trigger our moral switches, and a bad scent certainly helps in this regard. The more devastating a place looks, the more devastating a place it must have been back then. I guess, this can easily become a feedback loop.

When talking to the student, I asked her, what the place looks like right now. I have been there twice myself, but I wanted to hear it from her. Of course, everything looks grey, there are cracks in the plaster on the wall and in some places chunks have fallen off, the furniture looks very outdated, the bathroom fixtures were terrible. How is this authentic? I am quite sure that back, when the prison was still operational, the paint would have been much fresher, cracks in the wall would have been taken care of, and both the furniture and the bathroom fixtures were quite close to what people had at home.

I am not saying that back then this place wouldn’t have been a terrible place to be imprisoned. I am trying to make the point that a place does not need to look terrible to be terrible. Take Auschwitz for instance – just as a thought experiment. There was a time – maybe a very short one, but still – when the barracks were brand new. Maybe they even smelled of fresh sawn lumber, the paint was fresh and maybe the trees outside were in full bloom. Auschwitz at such a moment was as much of a terrible place as Auschwitz at the time the Red Army liberated the place. But it does not really fit our mental image.

Now, when these places – Auschwitz and the prison in Hohenschönhausen – are preserved for the future, much care is taken to preserve the general spirit of the place. But what spirit might that be? I guess it is the spirit we expect to find. If the decision is made to do some work on the place to preserve it for the future, this work is one of restoration, rather than renovation. But wouldn’t a place like the Stasi prison be better off with a fresh coat of paint, that aims to set the place back in time by 20 years, rather than a careful touch-up of the weathered paint that has come to represent the grey image we expect?

This also reflects in movies that try to show the terrors present at these places. To me, this seems quite natural. A location scout is sent to document the place, the movie is going to depict. He or she finds it in a carefully preserved state of despair and comes back with a set of images that depict precisely that. This material then is given to set designers to replicate. If a movie-goer, after seeing the film, visits such a place, the images encountered in the movie tells what the place needs to represent to “feel” real. This is a circle.

A similar thing can be seen in the depiction of inmates. Of course, places like Auschwitz did provide a terrible sight and starvation and murder were rampant and these things did take a toll on the inmates. But there might have been many people suffering, where this did not present itself in a similar fashion on the outside. Well-fed people with clean clothes and tidy faces can be killed and traumatized as well.

I believe that this isn’t merely a question of aesthetics, but this carries with it real life consequences. We may have reached the point, where we distrust a place or situation to be terrible, if it does not appear the way we expect these things to appear. During the current refugee crisis, politicians took the stage pointing out that many of the refugees carried smartphones and had nice clothes. The logic behind that seemed to be that only those in rags with dirty faces could be the ones that had an excuse to flee their countries. Surely, a nice-looking environment cannot be filled with trauma. Right?

This might exactly be the point the US government was aiming for, when creating the new housing at for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the images coming out of this place, look more like a very clean hospital, than a place we’d associate with torture. This is not done by accident, but our expectation that terrible places look a certain way, makes it very easy to fool us. And just because a camp for refugees is made to look nice, does not mean that it isn’t a terrible place.

But back to the smell at Hohenschönhausen prison. I find it fascinating that not just we, the spectators, fall for this trap. But even people who had been imprisoned there alter their memories over time. That way, the place is going to look more and more like the place should look like to suit the terrible things that took place there. I wonder though, how much the growing despair in the outside appearance, is going to influence the way the stories of despair are told – and maybe even the way they are remembered?