From Farce to Tragedy

Ruangrupa’s documenta has done German’s culture warriors the favour of becoming the perfect enemy through its mind-boggling, bumbling obliviousness, i.e. its blindness to antisemitic tropes in a mural by the collective Taring Padi. The half-hearted excuses don’t help. This is a betrayal all who have been trying to move the conversation about Germany’s instrumentalized and weaponized Erinnerungskultur forward (or to start such a conversation under near-impossible conditions).

The tragedy here is that the affair plays precisely into a well-established Culture Wars playbook, and it makes it more difficult than ever to get out of a carefully designed and maintained vicious circle. In the process, it obscures a number of simple points that hardly amount to rocket science.

Noch mal zum mitschreiben:

-The antisemitic, fetishistic concretization of capitalism and imperialism in the figure of The Jew is anathema to any and all forms of emancipatory politics and culture.

-Solidarity with Palestinians and the rejection of Israeli settler colonialism must be grounded in a refusal to buy into the equation of Israel with The Jews, and the Israeli state’s self-image as the only legitimate home of Jews.

-Antisemitism can and must be analysed within the overarching framework of modern racial and colonial necropolics without denying its specific history and distinctive features, or its continuing virulence. Context doesn’t erase specificity; it brings it to the fore.

-BDS is not intrinsically antisemitic. There are legitimate reasons for supporting the campaign; reasons that one may find problematic, but that can be debated—or could be debated, if German political demagogy did not make this all but impossible. Then there are other reasons for supporting BDS.

-Specific cases (such as that of the Taring Padi mural) will often be used not to critique those cases, and the patterns and structures they may be part of, but as confirmation that all artists and intellectuals from Muslim countries are representative of some antisemitic Islamist hive mind. This is a transposition of the logic of antisemitic “reason” into the much more salonfähige register of anti-Muslim racism.

So what can we learn from this mess wrapped inside a train wreck wrapped inside an omnishambles?

-If you’re German, try to control your urge to turn intellectuals and artists from the Global South into racist caricatures. Hey, perhaps even question that urge, and your entrenched habits and privilege coated in self-righteousness. And if you’re coming from elsewhere to Germany to participate in an exhibition, be aware of the context, and try to confound the expectations of self-righteous racists.

-You try to shift the terms of debate and develop ways of living and organizing otherwise? You think of your practice as prefiguring postcapitalist forms of life? That’s just grand, but deserting from the Culture Wars requires tactical awareness and skills; otherwise you’re just blindly blundering into a minefield. Be mindful of context and perceptions. An opaque surface can quickly become a projection screen.

-It is up to you to make clear that your Anti-Zionism is not a front for antisemitism. It is up to you to prove that your “anti-antisemitic” critique of artists or intellectuals from the Middle East, Africa or Asia is not neocolonial cultural warfare.

-Don’t be anybody’s useful idiot. Try not to be a useless idiot either.

-Try again; fail better.

Anna Boghiguian

A conglomerate of three museums and the Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König has just published a catalogue dedicated to a number of major recent works and series by Anna Boghiguian. In addition to an introduction by curators Nuria Enguita, Ann Hoste and Thomas Thiel, it contains essays by Quinn Latimer and myself, and a conversation with the artist by Pip Day and Pablo Lafuente.

My own contribution focuses on the motif of the Suez Canal in Boghiguian’s work, which triggers a series of reflections on colonialist globalization and corporate deterritorialization, on mimesis and construction, on instrumental reason and artistic research.

Scurrying Towards Kassel

In Germany, a grotesque coalition across the political spectrum has managed to effectively outlaw any substantial criticism of Israeli settler-colonialism, equating such critique categorically with antisemitism. This coalition ranges from the far right and the liberal-conservative center to the ex/quasi-leftists of the so-called “Anti-German” movement, which might as well be called “Utra-German” in its tendency to lecture intellectuals and artists of colour, and critical Israelis, on ze korrekt Dscherman way to deal with the Holocaust. Intellectually dishonest and politically deluded, the Antideutschen have certainly perfected the German art of transmuting feelings of guilt about grandpa’s Third Reich shenanigans into a wonderful sense of righteousness and superiority. Am deutschen Wesen wird die Welt genesen—one more time! Who cares if some vague group of barely human beings is made to suffer, allegedly? Surely they only have themselves to blame for they abysmal failure to be white. Why, many of them are even Muslims!

If the Anti-Germans are something of a fringe movement, they represent an extreme version of what is a suffocating dogma. The Bundestag’s BDS resolution has created a climate of fear. Hosting Achille Mbembe or Walid Raad in your institution might lead to your funding being cut. At its core, we’re talking about an extremely well-orchestrated campaign by a few key players and many, many useful idiots in politics and the media—from general weeklies such as Die Zeit and monomaniacal Antideutsche periodicals such as the loonie haven that is Jungle World to art magazines that ones prided themselves on their critical thinking. For some time now, the campaign has targeted ruangrupa, the Documenta’s artistic/curatorial collective. In the German McCarthyite imaginary, ruangrupa is antisemitic because they’re from Indonesia, which is a Muslim-majority country, geddit?

As a result, the forum We need to Talk! Art — Freedom — Solidarity, which was supposed to provide a platform for discussing these matters, has been cancelled by the Documenta organization, because a “free and productive discussion” seemed “impossible.” A strong contender for the 2022 German Irony Award! Oh, and there’s a whole history of acts of vandalism and intimidation occurring at Documenta-related sites in Kassel, including the ruruHaus and the premises of the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding. Candice Breitz shared a statement by Documenta insiders on a certain platform:

There is, by now, also some good reporting on this in the German press, but on the whole what passes for the deutsche Öffentlichkeit seems utterly incapable of self-criticism and self-correction in the matter. There have been statements by cultural institutions protesting against the BDS resolution, and warning of the consequences; there has been the petition Nothing Can Be Changed Until It Is Faced. I don’t see much of an echo. In the short term, at least, critical interventions such as A. Dirk Moses’ “Katechismus der Deutschen” only seem to have provided more fodder for the dominant discourse; Moses’ decolonial diagnosis of a ritualistic German Erinnerungskultur does not so much fall on deaf ears as its prose is parsed for snippets that can be de- and recontexualized for yet another article that affirms said “catechism.” And another one. And another one.

What is to be done? I wish I knew, beyond something must be done.

Top image: Stickers pasted onto the ruruHaus, Kassel.

Tip for further listening: Recently (before the attack on their premises), Errant Journal did a podcast with The Question of Funding, which can be found on Soundcloud and Spotify.