A bridge from North Africa to Europe to save the lives of thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean. What sounds like a concrete political decision to end the humanitarian catastrophe at Europe's shores is in fact the most recent art work by the Berlin-based Centre for Political Beauty. Interview with the Centre's Chief of Staff Cesy Leonard by Annamária Tóth
Far from purely humanistic, the “Jean-Monnet-Bridge” is also a long-term economic investment government needed in times of crisis. Construction of the Jean-Monnet-Bridge, a project of the Austrian government, is planned to end by 2030. Until then, in order to end the deadly drama staged on a daily basis in the sea between Europe and North Africa, the Austrian government has decided to erect rescue platforms (around a 1.000) in the Mediterranean equipped with navigation lights, food reserves, an emergency call device, photovoltaic modules, a flagpole, life belts, a camera and two anchors. “If they were installed in the right manner, the platforms would be a reasonable and practical way to save human lives. How easy it would be for us wealthy countries to end the endless death toll in the Mediterranean – but we do not do it!”, Cesy Leonard, Chief of Staff at the Centre, argues. This is why the Centre for Political Beauty (CPB) has decided to act and has already installed the first island close to the Italian shores, Leonard explains: “The whole work is funded by the Wienwoche [a Viennese cultural festival; editor's note] and this is one of the reasons why we have chosen Austria. The first rescue platform is just a prototype to see how long it will last: whether it will survive the winter and whether it will remain fixed to the spot where we have installed it. We will decide how to continue the project next spring.”
Burying the dead: an impious act?
What can art do and how far can it go? This is a recurrent question when reading about the Centre for Political Beauty, whether they are building bridges from North Africa to Europe, starting campaigns in which German families can take in Syrian refugee children, or are planning the “First Fall of the European Wall”. In their intervention “The Dead are coming”, they exhumed the corpses of two refugees who had died at Europe's Southern shores to bury them publicly in Berlin, thus creating a huge controversy whether it was justifiable to go as far as to exhume, transport and bury corpses for the purpose of transmitting an artistic message. While some described the act as shocking or cynical, others found it impious – and it created an uproar and debate on the death toll at Europe’s shores.
In the end, the question might have be reformulated: How far does art have to go in order to make people react and act? “Reality is incredibly cruel and goes much further [than our interventions]”, Leonard argues. “Just think of it: in June 2015, we buried two people in Germany in a dignified manner. In August, the title 'The Dead are coming' became reality when 71 people were discovered dead in a truck in Eastern Austria. Faced with situations like that, it is not enough to go on the streets to demonstrate or do some 'artsy little interventions'; you have to shock and open up people's eyes.”
Political artists, not activists
Finding shocking stories is one thing – but presenting them in a manner that actually initiates debates is another. And the CPB has shown over the years that they know how to open up people's eyes and stir up controversies by asking the right questions: “At the beginning of each intervention, we work in a very small team. We have some ideas and decide for the catchiest one. We develop this idea further over months and in lots of detail. We read everything we can find on the topic, we travel to the very places in question. Most of the time we already feel that something is going rotten somewhere – as was the case with the corpses we buried [in “The Dead are coming”, editor’s note]. And we ask questions such as: what is actually happening with the many unknown dead people at Europe's external borders? Why does this not happen to us? Why do we not hear from them? The topic of migration and asylum is of course one of the most pressing questions of our times. It just bothers us way too much not to take a stand on it and leave our fingers away from it – but surely, other interventions will also come again.”
For years now, the Centre for Political Beauty has stirred up controversies in Germany with their projects, be it by attacking the armament industry and setting bounties onto the heads of the company KMW or by pointing to the genocide in Srebrenica caused by the international community's unwillingness to act. Often described as political activists or simply as an artist collective, the CPB does not want any labels attached to what they are doing, Leonard notes: “Why is it so important who we are? I am asking this question because we are asked again and again: 'But what exactly are you in the end?'. I for myself like saying that we are artists – artists because this label gives you with the highest degree of freedom, if I were to attach any label at all. Political artists. We are not activists. We prepare our works as art projects; they open up new ways of thinking; we shed a different light on a given topic. Most of the time, we might do that in a very provocative and direct manner, but we do not have clear demands as activists do.”
How the legacy of the past still haunts the present
The CPB's work is rooted in the assumption that the legacy of the Holocaust has left Germans lethargic and too afraid to act. Colouring their faces with black traces, CPB members want to show up Germany's long forgotten hopes and hold up the mirror to today's citizens: why do we say “never again” when things like the massacre in Srebrenica or the atrocities reported from the war in Syria can still take place? In the CPB's theatre play “2099” staged in the German city of Dortmund this year, four philosophers from the future travel to the past – our present – to find the answer to this question.
The CPB also opened this year's Alpbach Political Symposium with a similar work: after remembering the hundreds of dead migrants, a historian from the year 2055 asked the people present – ranging from heads of state and government to ministers and thinkers from all around Europe – to send postcards to their grandchildren explaining them “What did you know? What did you do? What didn't you do?”. Leonard's own answer to this question: “I will have to tell my grandchildren that I knew all about 'it'. And I am also doing something – if it is enough to make the world politically more beautiful is yet to be seen.”
Instead of turning away from the atrocities happening right in front of us, the CPB demands aggressive humanism, as Cesy Leonard's account of a journalist in Chechenia illustrates: “The journalist tells me how, risking her life, she managed to get into an occupied city during the ceasefire with a group of other women who had to leave all their belongings, and some of them also their relatives, behind. She describes the great misery lying in front of her because many did not manage to leave the city. Outside of the Russian occupation zone, human rights organisations are standing. They are waiting for the occupiers to let them in and help. This scene is typical for many human rights organisations. We demand an aggressive humanism because more is needed to save people's lives.”
In conclusion, let us come back to the initial question of how far art can go and what it has to do to make people react. Feeling that something is going wrong, dissecting the topic and pointing to how we are turning away from the catastrophes in front of our eyes is what the CPB is doing in its interventions. Thus, the artists show us utopias (or dystopias) of how things could be, demonstrating that reality could be different if we only had courage to act. But they also show what happens if no action is taken. It is almost ironical to look at the news after reading about the Austrian government’s supposed project of the “Jean-Monnet-Bridge” and the life-saving platforms installed just a few weeks ago. Reality is far away from that: the Austrian Federal Minister of the Interior, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, announced only recently that it is necessary to “build a fortress around Europe” to protect our borders. What would it take to plan a life-saving bridge instead of a fortress?
To go further
On the Internet
“Die EU und ihr ‚Verteidigungskrieg gegen Flüchtlinge’“, Die Presse, published on 30.08.2015, accessed on 23.10.2015
Diez, Georg, „Politaktion: Künstler holen Flüchtlingsleichen nach Berlin“, Spiegel Online, published on 15.06.2015, accessed on 23.10.2015
Kappert, Ines, “Die echte Inszenierung: Aktivisten beerdigen Flüchtlinge in Berlin“, taz.de, published on 16.06.2016, accessed on 23.10.2015
- Olterman, Philip, “Art group removes Berlin Wall memorial in border protest”, The Guardian, published on 04.11.2015, accessed on 23.10.2015
Art interventions by the Centre for Political Beauty mentioned in the article:
- 25.000 Euro Reward
- The Dead are coming
- European Wall
- Federal Emergency Programme
- Jean Monnet Bridge
- The Pillar of Shame
Phoro credits: Philipp Naderer / European Forum Alpbach (Opening session of the Alpbach Political Symposium 2015)