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grey, there are cracks in the plaster on the wall and in some places chunks have fallen off, the furniture looks very outdated, the bathroom fixtures were terrible.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?

Terror Propaganda for the Computer Age – And for the Lazy Content Creator … I guess??

Some time ago – late 2014/early 2015 or so – there appeared a mod pack for the shooter game Arma III that allowed you to play the game as a member of ISIS. In case this needs some explanation, mod packs are software additions to computer games that enable you to change the appearance or the rules of a game beyond the things normally available. Very often these mod packs can be created by anyone technologically savvy enough and are meant to broaden the community appeal of games. Very often this creates almost entirely new games on the framework of the original one.

Screenshot from the original Arma III ISIS mod pack.

Here though, in the case of Arma III, a shooter by a Czech company, that would normally focus more on a western perspective, all the sudden became something very different. That is at least the way the media picked up on the story.

I must confess I did not follow the story back then, but from what I find on the Internet today, it seems more likely to me that at the time a group of script kiddies was merely trying to give the game they were playing a very contemporary appeal. To me that makes sense. Late 2014 saw the emergence of the Islamic State as it swept through huge chunks of Syria and Iraq. It still had a lot of sex appeal to it – so much so that even Vice Magazine reported on it in their fancy style. I have even found a quote in a forum that discusses this mod, where someone comments: “The IS units on the other hand are based directly off of footage from VICE News.”.

The true terror was not fully revealed and neither was the true extend of the oncoming struggle. It just must have seemed like something that was out there and that was new. I might be completely wrong, but from the way I have seen ISIS propaganda develop, 2014 seems to be too early for them to produce this kind of mod pack. But it would have been a great story, since this would have perfectly followed the narrative that ISIS is a highly-sophisticated organization, that follows the US Military in its footsteps.

The US military has indeed quite a history of using computer games as a means to recruit young men (mostly men). The game “America’s Army”, that in 2002 started a whole series that continues up to today, would be a classical example. Targeting young men through computer games – they definitely know their audience!

It certainly would make sense for ISIS and Co to utilize similar mechanisms and I am quite sure that you would find plenty of people who ended up fighting in Syria or Iraq, that indeed did play with the ISIS mod pack, but most people who played it would have since then just moved on to other games.

That does not mean that these groups do not utilize digital techniques, beyond video and photographs, when it comes to the creation of their propaganda. For instance, groups close to ISIS have, in the past, released at least two apps that were aimed directly at children. So maybe a full-scale computer game might be too big of a task, but relatively simple apps are certainly within reach.

Very crude example of CGI been used in older propaganda videos.

The thing that brought me to write this brief text isn’t something interactive, but rather a 6 ½ minute long video that is entirely computer generated. I have seen other examples before, where these visuals appear, but so far these made up only parts of the video and were always of a very questionable quality.

What is fascinating about this new video is, that it tries to resemble closely a common type of propaganda videos, that makes up quite a big part of the propaganda output at the moment. These videos show attacks by little remote controlled drones on soldiers and fighters in Syria and Iraq. The parallels drawn to these videos are striking. The first scene shows two soldiers launching a drone. This drone flies through a dessert landscape and carries out a series of attacks.

Drone flying into the sunset.

It is already striking that the way these attacks – the ones in real life – have spurred an iconic way to depict them. Shot from straight above the first shot shows the bomblet being dropped, then the scene same scene is repeated with the image zoomed in to show the target more clearly and give an idea of the result of the attack. Naturally, since the zoom is done digitally in retrospect, the footage of the second part is quite grainy and shaky – even this is reproduced in the animated video. That I find quite fascinating.

Real attack.
The CGI version.

Even though this video looks quite sophisticated – and to some extent this certainly need some skills –, upon closer inspection it becomes clear, that this is very much related to the example of the Arma III mod pack. Similar story, different game. It is quite clear that the basis for the video is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto series of games. The landscape shown therefore is not originally meant to represent the Middle East, but rather a fictitious Island that is modeled after California. A clear hint is given when a truck is shown and the license plate reads “San Andreas”. This is the name of the main city in the game.

Still, even though much of the work was done using a preexisting game that provides many of the graphics, it would have taken quite a bit of work to create this video. Why bother? Especially, when it tries to copy many of the scenes available as real-life footage? I can only provide some guesswork. One detail worth mentioning is that the Telegram channel that uploaded this video. Was none of the “more official” ISIS channels. And even though it uses the flag ISIS uses as a logo, this flag is on the left side of the image (as far as I have encountered it is always on the right) and the name “Al-Haqq Media” does not ring a bell. I have never heard of this media outlet (please remember that there are in fact different “official” media outlets in the ISIS sphere of influence), nor does a quick Internet search provide much information.

So, the source might be just an enthusiastic individual, or a group of people who have little, if any, real connection to ISIS. But that is so important to me. I find it fascinating that the propaganda that emanates pot from the Middle East has already become iconic in itself. I have mentioned quite a few examples before (the way people are executed, the way suicide attacks are filmed, etc.), yet here, the whole genre of Islamist propaganda, is copied into another medium. The way the storyboard of this short film is developed could serve as the blueprint for a huge chunk of storyboards found in terror propaganda at the moment. True, there are also different types of videos, but the one this resembles (Preparation – Drone Strike – Car Bomb shown – Suicide Attack – Execution of a Prisoner in Orange) is extremely common at the moment.

Even an execution is included in the video.

But then it also reveals the bigotry of people involved in the creation of this kind of propaganda. Of course, whoever has created this video has also played the game. That is just something you do. You are not going to buy or download Grand Theft Auto V as if it were a video editing program with the sole intention to produce a ISIS style propaganda video. You have to play the game first to see its full potential. And the worldview represented by such a video game – love it or hate it – certainly has little to do with the world view of ISIS. And no, I am not going to agree with people who are going to say: “That makes so much sense, ISIS calls for violence and Grand Theft Auto calls for violence, therefore both are related.”. Games like GTA are about violence, they let you envision violence. That is nothing new. The medium is, yes, but there have always been tales of violence and brutality been told within our cultures, very rarely were they meant to incite violence.

 

 

The ghost of van Gogh’s ear and the wonders of being misunderstood

I was at a big event conference recently and during one talk there were two people on stage complaining about the fact that many of the issues they were addressing were taboo and therefore had little exposure in the media and in society. And yet, there they were. On stage, in a room with a couple hundred people, at a conference with some thousand attendees and having their talk recorded to be shared on different websites. And journalists everywhere. Somehow the fact that there seemed to be an audience for their talk did not dawn on them. Even though there were a couple hundred people right there. Just in front of them. I find that amazing. Maybe, just maybe, art could be able to teach us something here.

Ever since, on December 23rd, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh cut off his ear, failure plays a weird role in the arts. Of course, I am aware that at the time no one took notice of this mentally ill man in a small French town, especially no one in the art world – which is part of the whole issue. I am just mentioning this one event for the sake of my argument and to make things slightly more funny. Years later, when van Gogh posthumously started to be sold for huge wads of money, the world finally took notice of his plight. The ear and the fact that he was financially unsuccessful during his lifetime became the material for 500 Euro questions in TV shows and answers in beginner’s crosswords puzzles. And it became a curse.

The story that society fails to see the real genius that hides in plain sight isn’t merely the stuff that keeps untalented hobbyists painting, it rather might form the basis for much of what is understood as “avantgarde”. Every new avantgarde seems in part to feast on the idea of being misunderstood within the surrounding society. It is almost as if this has become a measurement for the real success. Even collectors and gallerists have fallen in love with this mechanism. “Outsider Art” is an ever-changing sub-genre that carries those who are handicapped in a multitude of ways. Once an outsider starts being valued by the market, new kinds of outsiders appear and take over the classification. And then there are bullshit artists like Jonathan Meese, who make lots of money from being “outsiders”.

This might explain the arrogance that comes out of many art schools. Much of what is created is hard to understand – even for me and I studied fine arts. Some time ago, I went to an “photography” exhibition with works from current students at a big art school. There, I tried desperately to explain some of the works to an architecture professor I met there. Desperately, since much of it remained unexplainable to me. I think that this is problematic. If a professor at the same school does not understand what the stuff is about … well, the works seem to lack something. Not necessarily from the perspective of the young artists though. I believe that there is the curse of the misunderstood artist at work here. To them, not being understood might not be an issue at all, but rather a weird sign of success.

Being misunderstood or mishandled, underrepresented or underreported has become almost something like an accolade, not only in the art world. Of course, the world is full of people who are underreported or victims of a multitude of mistreatings, but these are the people we are not hearing about, because they lack a voice. I am rather talking about complaining on big stages that your ideas are underrepresented – that seems weird to me. Reading or seeing statements publicly that begin with “No one talks about ….” almost feels like theatre of the absurd. And the Internet is full of it.

Sure, if you want to be a revolutionary, you should distance yourself from whatever mainstream there is. That is not new. What is new is the sheer number of people, groups or organizations who simultaneously claim to be “the revolution”. Even a billion dollar news-network like Fox News chips in, by trying to pretend not to be “mainstream”. Everyone wants to be an outsider, since only as such you can be a true revolutionary. So, there are millions of little revolutions with little – or no – agenda in place. Who needs an agenda, if you get your justification from the fact that you are misunderstood? The idea that you might not be represented to the full extend, because your ideas are just not worthwhile, almost never occurs. Everyone just smells a conspiracy theory directed against them.

As we have seen with Fox News, today, even representatives of the status quo claim to be the victim and thus demand the role of the revolutionary.

Yet drowned are the voices that really deserve to be heard. But how to find them, since everyone is so much better connected than those who are truly desperate? Now, this might cause anger, since every little group of equal minded people always comes to an agreement that their cause is the most valuable – or certainly amongst the most valuable. This way journalists, bankers, white nationalists and feminists meet for once on a similar playing field.

One way to look at terror propaganda: Grab a beer and laugh your ass off!

Twice the guns, double the scariness? No, it is just ridiculous. The fact that he shoots two guys at the same time? Even more so!

After a recent talk at the Re:Publica 17 conference in Berlin, some people criticized I was criticized that I was trying to get cheap laughs out of the audience. The topic of the presentation was about the visual culture of jihadist groups. To some extent, I was certainly carried away by my presentation – as I normally are -, so I am guilty in that respect. Do I believe that ISIS videos are funny? Well, I absolutely do. More than that, many of the videos and many of the scenes shown are just hilarious. Does that mean that they are not terrible? No, they are terrible and brutal and disgusting – yet hilarity and brutality do not necessarily live in separate spheres.

I could come up with many examples for both, the brutality and hilarity – and even for as many examples, where both extremes meet directly in an environment of absurdity -, but counting or comparing is really not important here. How many funny scenes would equal a terrible on? Treating it this way makes little sense to me. And it would completely miss the point, why I believe that it is very important to treat these videos and documents lightheartedly.

Talking about these videos as if they would be just one homogeneous entity is somewhat simplifying; I am aware of that. Sorting them into different categories under different themes, and analyzing the different goals they might aiming for, is very tempting and as a matter of fact, I do this quite extensively; but here, I would look at these videos, as if they were aiming for just one goal. Instilling fear. And since I am writing this from a Western perspective, I am focusing on the attempt to instill fear in the West.

Judging by the political climate and media reporting in many European countries, Islamist terror groups are currently quite successful in that regard. Having the occasional terror attack certainly helps in the creation of fear, but the propaganda is plays an important role. I am even making the case that the terror attacks themselves should be classified as another form of propaganda.

Terror, pretty much by its definition, feeds on our fears; it needs us to be afraid to work at all. Killing people does have an impact, but this impact is very limited. Propaganda tries to extend this reach. I have mentioned this on this blog very briefly before, but I think that propaganda itself is a sign of weakness. It is the attempt to extend the reach into otherwise unreachable realms. Systems, who heavily rely on propaganda, reveal that they have little influence on parts of the world or parts of our minds, they are trying to occupy. If the words Fascists or Stalinists struggle to make people happy by providing them with the basic needs, to fulfill their urges for freedom or prosperity, they are always relying on propaganda to reach them by other means.

In this respect, terror propaganda, that merely tries to instill fear, is much cruder. Spreading fear, when there is little to be afraid of, is much simpler, than spreading the idea of a wonderful life that is contradicted by the harsh reality that surrounds you. Scaring people is much easier than to make them happy.

There are different ways to let terror propaganda suffer. The simplest way would to just ignore it. Stop reporting about it and that would be it. But in our current 24-hour media cycle, this could never be implemented. Hour long news shows have to be filled. Breaking news must constantly flash our screens. And in-depth analysis has to be written. Plus, not reporting on the propaganda that is aimed at us, would in fact be a kind of censorship.

I am not saying that this constant reporting on the slightest bit of propaganda or any attempted terror attack somewhere is a good thing. It is not. In fact, this over-reporting is the stuff of nightmares, since this is precisely what fuels the fears within our societies. I am saying that, blocking the reporting is not feasible and blocking it might backfire in unintended ways.

But, besides being noticed and reported on, another key element that is necessary for terror propaganda to spread fear is that it is taken seriously. Apparently, this is something that can be quite easily achieved. As a society, taking pity in the suffering of others, is a key element for the functioning of our social structure. This is what many of the terror threats and terror attacks aim for. While showing people suffer in their videos, while making them suffer during their attacks, terror groups grab our undivided attention. We have come to accept that, once suffering is involved in an event, we must block out all the other aspects that might be visible.

Once people are grieving, right response is to join in and grieve with them – that is the rule.  That is true and important. But prohibiting ourselves from finding another narrative for these violent attacks or brutal videos is a missed opportunity to disable many the mechanisms that make them function.

Terror is brutal and violent and as long as we feel terrorized, it remains what it wants to be: Terror. As soon though, as we stop taking it seriously, it does not lose any of its violence or brutality, but it stops being terror.

We can already see part of this at play during some of the last terror attacks in Europe. Take for instance the Christmas market attack in Berlin. The mood in the city did not change all that much. Or, it did change, but life did not come to a standstill as had happened as a reaction to other attacks. Life went on and that limited the reach of the terror attack by quite a bit. It seems as if people did not take this as seriously as they did many other attacks before.

Humor, I argue, might drive this even further. C’mon! Many, if not most, of these videos are ridiculous. It might be tricky to see at first, with all the moral blocks in place, but once one manages to overcome some hurdles, it becomes obvious.

It is the stuff I would have come up with as a teenager, when someone had asked me to scare the shit out of people. There are so many funny and absurd elements and we should wet ourselves laughing, while watching them. There should be enough room to grieve with the victims and the ones they have left behind, but I truly believe that it is our civic responsibility not to take this shit seriously. Because if we did, they would have achieved their goals and terror and fear would continue to spread.

 

Why is it easier to explain the Holocaust than a work by Joseph Beuys?

There is this group of Syrian refugees that I know, that are mostly part of an extended family. Since they are all – on very different skill levels – struggle somewhat to cope with the German language and culture, I take them to different museums from time to time. I find that this is a far better way to teach them some German words or basic concepts than have them cook me some delicious Syrian food and stick with them in their regular environment. There is a huge number of museums in Berlin. And that is great, since it might take a while for us to run out of opportunities.

A work by Joseph Beuys

But whenever I think of taking them somewhere, I also think about the fact that I would not take them to any of the contemporary art venues, like the Hamburger Bahnhof, KW or HDKDW. When talking about this to a friend, I phrased it this way: I could easily explain them the concept of the Holocaust, or why Germans hated the Jews, while visiting the Jewish Museum; but explaining the shit Joseph Beuys has done is beyond my grasp. So, the Holocaust is a much easier concept than contemporary art, and that, I believe, is an issue.

That does not necessarily mean that I myself do not grasp some of the ideaspresented in the Hamburger Bahnhof. Keep in mind, I studied the topic quite extensively and I might even have gained some level of expertise. It is the fact, that much of it is so far beyond the reach of someone less qualified, where the problem lies. It might be that the topics many of these artists work on are just too complicating for mere mortals to understand – I don’t think that this is the case. On the contrary, most of the artists presented in a contemporary setting deal with extremely basic issues and ideas. Yet, the artists and the museums often fail completely when trying to make things accessible.

Other museums, like those who deal with science or history, manage it quite well to make hard to understand topics accessible to a huge fraction of the society – even to people who did grow up in a different country and culture. Sure, they are very often overdoing it in a Disney-theme-park kind of way, with a lot of fancy buttons and lots to touch and awe about. On the other hand, contemporary art functions in a way like “understand it or get the fuck out”. This approach is extremely elitist. It might have to do with a misunderstood concept of Avantgarde. Artists seem to believe that to really be revolutionary, one has to be constantly out of line with society. This is sad.

Medusa and the Taint of Child Pornography

In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa is a monster that looks so terrifying that gazing at her face turns everyone into stone. This even works when once her head has been cut off and is utilized by Perseus as a weapon. I find this story quite fascinating in that it envisions something that is so terrible that even gazing at it briefly taints you beyond hope.

In a way, I would like to draw some parallels to the concept of child pornography in our current cultural environment. I have mentioned this in an earlier post, but child pornography is almost the only thing on the Internet, where merely looking at it is something that is illegal. Maybe it is the only thing, where this is true. There are quite many things, like gore, violence or racist acts, where looking at it might not be too good for your career, but looking at it is more classified as “bad taste”. So, there might be consequences for you, but maybe not direct legal ones. Currently there seems to be a push to move images and videos from certain terrorist groups into a category similar to child pornography, but we are not fully there yet.

But what is it about a certain image that could be so tainting? Please note that I am not talking about the terrible acts that are perpetrated while creating these terrible images, but rather the gaze that looks at them. This is the issue that baffles me. Especially, once we look at the laws that cover it more closely. In Germany, for instance, there is no need for the image to be a photograph of a real person to be classified as child pornography. It could be a fully fictional drawing and the law would regard it as similar to photograph that documents a rape. But the drawing would be the perfect example of a victimless crime. Right? There is no victim that could be associated with such an image and therefor the incriminating aspect must lay within the image itself.

Currently, there are other examples that point in a similarly strange direction. In the US, for instance, teenagers have been prosecuted for having nude images of themselves on their phones, taken by themselves, while they were still underage. Again, I find it quite difficult to point out the victim here.

Under these rules, sharing this image here might be illegal. By the way, that wonderful little Adonis would be me. Normally I would believe that I have every right to decide if an image of me can be shared or not. But oddly, the law seems to believe that there is a gap, that separates me from my underage-me, that cannot be bridged. Somehow the image of me seems to be closer related to this earlier self of mine than me myself.

Wikipedia taught me that, for some time in the US – until the Supreme Court invalidated the law –, porn was considered child porn, when the actors looked too you. For instance, by dressing younger or having braided hair. Again, something that can not easily be explained with a certain victim in mind. It is as if the depiction of violence in Hollywood would not be seen fully different from the real violence it might refer to.

I am not writing about this, because I believe child pornography should be easily accessible. There is far too much suffering involved in these images for me to request that. But I find the way our society deals with these images very fascinating. There seems to be an odd power associated with images themselves. Even some people I was talking to, argued that the reason why these images are buried under so many layers of taboo, might stem from the “fact” that looking at them might tempt pedophiles into committing more of these horrendous acts. But this is the argument that is almost always been used. Violent computer games are supposed to bring you closer to the violent acts. Watching porn might make you a sexual pervert. And so on. I believe that watching sports on TV does not really help with your general fitness. Maybe on the contrary.

To be honest, so far, I have not put too much effort in researching the whole issue, but until this point, I don’t think I have encountered a study that supports the “fact” my friends were stating. Maybe there is extensive research done in this field that points to precisely this conclusion that I am just not aware of.

Sure, the issue that differentiates this topic from others, is that it is children we are talking about. Terrible things are done here to some of the most innocent members of our society. At least that is the wording that is normally been used. But almost all victims of crimes are innocent. So, how can a child that is been raped be more innocent than a woman that is been raped? Maybe cruelty towards children is something that creates easy political consent. Something I have learned through Bill Bryson is that the first organizations working against cruelty towards animals predate similar organizations against cruelty towards children by many decades. Just as a side note.

But to me that still does not fully explain the unique role images play in this very special field.

What bothers me though is the fact that this level of illegality keeps me from researching some topics I am quite interested in. Quite a few of my projects deal with visual environments at the fringes of our visual culture. Surveillance and terrorism, for instance, both react to the developments within the broader visual language, but remain somewhat distanced. The images terrorist groups use for their propaganda want to become as visible as possible, but society fights to keep them secret. On the other hand, the images that are the result of surveillance operations, very often try hard to remain inaccessible. This is a very simplified summary, but maybe child pornography is something of both worlds. It has its niche audience, for which it tries to be as accessible as possible, while at the same time it has to remain perfectly invisible.

So, what is the visual culture of child pornography? How does it develop over time? How do the perpetrators depict themselves? Since my uninformed idea is that these videos serve as a kind of perverted trophy, I would believe that part of the thrill comes from the self-representation of the preparators in these images. How do they do it? Do they pixelate themselves in certain ways to let everyone else know that they are the creator of a certain video? Do the use watermarks or logos?

I would be interested in finding out, but I might never will be able to.

Contemporary Art and the Beautiful Clothes of the Emperor

In general, I am not very patient, when it comes to much of contemporary art. To me at least, quite a huge chunk is bullshit and I always wonder how artists manage to present it without either being so embarrassed that they do not attend the opening or so thrilled about the way they have fooled everybody that they cannot stop laughing manically.  But neither happens very often. Artists attend their openings and little laughter is to be heard.

I know that this expectation might be a deficit on my side. I might just not be able to understand quite a bit of what is shown in galleries and museums. Maybe this is true, but certainly I am not alone in this lack of understanding.

But recently I was amused, when two people on separate occasions made a connection from contemporary art to Hans Christan Andersens “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. I made that connection before, but here it was from someone else. Plus, the two persons I am mentioning here are both working in museums for decades and are normally much more open if it comes to looking at art.

When Marcel Duchamp presented his work “Fountain” to the public, this might have been a critique of the institutions and committees that control the art world – at least this is the way I understand it. To that it was certainly an important statement. But the question of how successful it has been might remain open, even 100 years after its creation. The urinal is just one of many works that before and since then questioned these structures within the art world, but the revolution they have caused did something else.

These works are now symbolizing the idea that everything is possible in art. That much might be valid, but the next step is that, since everything is possible, there should be no way to judge and distinguish. That Is bullshit.

So much of contemporary art does not matter and does not even try to matter. Much of the works that try to matter fall in the first group though. If someone, who works in the art field for decades and who has kept his curiosity ever since, walks out of a performance work that has won a huge award, feeling not just confused, but utterly disillusioned, there is certainly something wrong with the art world. Yet, the artist shown there is going to present her work in Venice this year. And there are definitely going to be many claqueres who keep telling everyone how amazing this work is. This is precisely what the story Andersen was telling is about. When my friend left the performance, there were certainly many people who stayed. And the artist felt acknowledged in what she did.

There is currently so much at stake if we look at democracy and value systems, but so much of the art world does not really care. Just take another urinal and call it “revolutionary work” for the millionth time, that does not serve as the basis of a revolution.

Maybe Duchamp or Beuys had the best intentions, but maybe their revolutions failed entirely and caused more damage than good.

The opposite of the artistic aura

Today’s art world is out of control. Everything can be – and is – declared art. Much of this art derives its aura merely from the claim of established artists, that a certain piece of junk is their creation and therefore to be considered art. If on the surface of the piece, the work is indistinguishable from a pile of trash, at least the “finger of the artist” has touched the work and therefore it gave the work its artistic aura. Pretty much the same as with corporate brands like Nike, Adidas or as a matter of fact with relics.

So I was very amused, when earlier today I read about a lawsuit that has been filed against painter Peter Doig. I am not going to go to deep into the details – please look it up yourself -, but apparently someone claims to own a painting Peter Doig painted, when he was just 16 or 17. The funny thing is that Doig denies that the painting is his. Now a court has ordered the painter to prove that the painting isn’t his. Let’s put away the fact that proving that you did not do something positively is challenging even at the philosophical level, and focus more on the aura of the work.

Doig (who’s painting sell for gazillions) is ordered by the court to grant a certain work its aura, so that this aura emanates from the shitty painting and therefore the work becomes more expensive.

I think this whole story is amazingly funny, since it tells so much about what is wrong with the art world.

Just a few things:

  • some art is so fuckingly expensive, that even the shittiest, most benign “work” could cost millions
  • because of that, many artist declare the most benign shit “work”
  • it is not about content or quality, just about names and provinience
  • and the audience astonishingly takes that shit

The Lazy Side of Corruption

This now might get somewhat angry…. or maybe frustrated.

I struggle with the fact that higher education in the arts is utterly broken in Germany. At least that what it seems like to me. And at least it seems broken, if it comes to the question of how professor positions are filled.

It might be jealousy on my side, since I really would love to teach at a university level and therefore I do, from time to time, apply to certain positions. But I have to be realistic and realize that my chances are zero.

If you apply at an art school, one of the key qualifications that is asked for is something called experience in teaching. Don’t get me wrong, that would definitely make sense, if there would be open and fair ways to gain this kind of experience. But maybe they do not exist. The easiest way would be, if one of the professor you have been studying with, invites you to teach a course at your old school. Maybe after that, you teach another and so on. There is no need for you to go through a tedious application process and that seems very convenient for the professor as well.

Another way would be, getting invited as a guest professor at a certain institution. If there is a application process at all – most of the time there is not -, that would be on invitation only and might be limited to two or three people. But again, most of the time, just one person is invited and that person is to teach for a limited time.

It is quite strange that public institutions – and that are almost all universities in Germany – seem quite happy with such an internal selection process. In both cases, the selection is made by professors behind closed doors, out of a pool of people they already know. That is what one might call a perfect example of networking. To me it does drift into the murky waters of corruption. Sure, if you already get along with someone, the chance seems quite high, that things work smoothly for you. But that is the exact definition of corruption. If you use your position in your interest, that is it.

This system also creates self-replicating networks, I know for instance of one case, where the child of a professor is now the assistant of a former student of that professor. How do we know, that this person is the best choice for this position? We do not know and I am sure, that no one cared to inquire.

Sure, the universities are not breaking any rules, since most laws allow them to fill positions in precisely this way. I still think this is problematic. These lax laws were meant to make life for university staff easier, but the system is broken. Take for instance my alma mater in Berlin. If I trust the information on their website, there are times, when close to fifty percent of the professor positions are filled with guest professors. And I am not even counting the assistant positions, which fall in the same intransparent category. Everything is filled from within the network of knowing-each-other.

I think it becomes a massive problem, once “teaching experience” is a requirement for any chances in an application process for a real professorship. I have to compete with a closed and intransparent network – and I can’t. The system requires a skill, which only members of the system receive. I do not see a conspiracy theory at work here, rather it is a classic example of laziness. But still this causes me quite some troubles.

Yes, yes, it is much easier to just choose someone you know over spending a lot of time looking for someone you do not know already. That is the path of least resistance and this path is a friendly looking, once you are operating on the inside.

A couple weeks ago, I ran into a student at this university and since I did study there before, of course we ended up talking about the way things are going. He mentioned the fact, that some students are currently fighting to keep one of the guest professors as a real professor at the school. Fuck it, the path of least resistance looks so easy. Even these students seem to follow it. The guy they want to become a professor has never applied for his current position and in a way, I was never able to compete against him, no matter how skilled I might be. And now the students want to deny me another opportunity to prove my skills. In some moments that makes me sad, in others I can get quite angry. Currently I feel resignation.

Images, Relics and Nike Shoes

Rocket

Unfortunately the image shown here is of relatively bad quality. It appears to show a rocket that has hit a truck. The rocket failed to explode, leaving a huge gash in the side of the vehicle. No matter how amazing the image might look, the truly astonishing part to me is its usage by different media outlets to document different wars. Depending on your source for news, the picture either shows a truck in the Ukraine, hit by a Russian rocket, a truck in Russia, hit by a Ukrainian rocket or a vehicle in Israel, hit by a Palestinian rocket.

Sure, we can all agree that, at most, only one of these stories could be possible true. But things are more interesting than that, if we just ignore this little detail.

In a way this problem isn’t new. In the middle ages, people in Europe went crazy about Christian relics. People died for them, wars were fought and pilgrims crossed the entire continent just to have a glimpse at the bones of a saint or two. But of course this also presented the perfect business opportunity for fraudsters. Dig up some random bones, put them in a nice reliquary, add the name of a saint in high demand and if you find a willing buyer, you can end up with a huge profit. The problem with this was, that there were more fraudsters than profitable saints and that led to the point, where the same body part of one saint was worshiped in different places. So apparently some saints seemed to have had more than one head, more than one right hand or more bones than a body would normally fit. This inflation was not limited to body parts though. Calvin suggested “if we were to collect all these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo.”

But of course this created a problem. People believed that by touching the relics of a saint, or even by looking at them, they could somehow use the power resting on the saint to their own advantage. Or maybe through the saint they could get a more direct access to God. But what if the bones are not the real ones? Not only would this not work as a direct path to the saintly, but worshiping the wrong bones might even be sacrilegious, since you might even, unknowingly, worship the bones of a sinner. Intellectuals were puzzled by this and came up with a – if find – beautiful solution. They argued that God would not allow you to worship the wrong bones, while you were truly believing that these were the bones of the saint. God would take care of that.

That means that if there are two heads of the same saint, worshiped in two different locations, under the right circumstances both are the real one at the same time. It might not be the case that both are the real one for the same person, but both could be looked at as if they were the real one. On a very deep level, they did become indistinguishable.

To me, that does not sound quite as absurd as one might expect and I find it easy to draw parallels to our world. If we, for instance, take counterfeit Nike sneakers. Which part of “Nike” are they lacking? Maybe they were produced in the same factory, or at least a similar factory with similar machines. They look the same and so does the logo. But still, the Nike company would declare them to be fundamentally different. But what about the person who buys them and believes in their authenticity? To him or her, they are the real thing – maybe until someone raises their doubt. In a way, they can be real and fake at the same time. And the same is true for the “real” Nike shoes.

That might explain, why companies like this shoe maker are so afraid of counterfeits. The part that makes an object “real” in a brand sense, is always artificial.

And maybe – back to the image mentioned at the beginning – we are moving towards a point where our perception of reality in general becomes closer to this problem. What does it mean, if an images is supposed to show a random event in the Ukraine anyway? How could we understand the “reality” behind it? When was it taken? By whom? What was the situation like? What was it like if you looked to the right of left? Who else did see it? And so on, and so on. There is so much that is not covered by the image that might be considered part of the real setting of it, that the pixels present on our computer screen become almost irrelevant.

So maybe, like the relic, and like the company logo, images become a mere illustration that illustrates our expectation of an abstract thing that has no physical imprint in the object itself. In that respect, all three images show the reality they help create and are therefore similarly true.