When Art and Activism Merge into One:
The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit - Björn Höckes Persönliches Holocaust-Mahnmal (2017)

by Sofia Ohmer

How does activist art operate? What are the strategies used by activist artists? What challenges and opportunities do they have to face?

Since the increased involvement of corporate culture in the arts and the lack of transparency in the organization and function of some contemporary art institutions, there has been an increase in artists building up their own networks, groups, and collectives outside of galleries and museums. Constantly inventing new forms through experimentation with new artistic strategies, these art activism groups are not only reshaping the art world today, but also various aspects of social life. This fusion of art and activism opens up a wide variety of challenges and opportunities. In contrast to politics, merging art and activism triggers aesthetic experiences that enable the audience to gain new perspectives by revealing present problems and possible new futures.

The art activism group Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS) devotes its creative actions to empower resistance against right-wing views and positions by supporting human rights and democracy. Depending on the project, the number of members constantly fluctuates and involves artists, scholars, intellectuals, or ‘accomplices,’ as they call themselves. Drawing attention to political issues in and outside of Germany, the Berlin-based group critiques political passivity. Visualizing the dilemma of ethical decisions in politics through theatre, they repeatedly leave the classical art institutions and venues behind. Their actions and campaigns in public spaces constantly blur the boundaries between art, politics, and activism. As a result, the ZPS is subject to legal processes and disputes about whether their actions fall under the expression of artistic freedom.

Using the violent political excesses of history to draw attention to contemporary politics, their projects (Zentrum für Politische Schönheit (ZPS)) always provoke the question of what art is allowed to do and where the limit of artistic freedom lies. Thus, their campaigns evoke controversial reactions in the national and international press, and their mode of operation has been "interpreted as a new form of action art, performance art or artistic activism characterized as ‘aggressive humanism.’” This aggressive humanism refers to the ZPS’s perception that the fight for human rights in the West is fought far too politely. In their opinion, offensive, radical and illegal actions are legitimate means to support human rights, and they describe themselves as the ‘radical wing of humanism: a storm troop for the establishment of moral beauty, political poetry, and human magnanimity.’

That the ZPS takes this aggressive humanism as a “literal way to radically contest political disenchantment” can be seen in the campaign Björn Höckes persönliches Holocaust-Mahnmal.

To confront and oppose the increasing normalization of fascism in Germany, the Zentrum für Politische Schönheit executed the campaign Björn Höckes persönliches Holocaust-Mahnmal (Björn Höcke’s personal Holocaust memorial) in 2017 in Germany. The campaign was initiated in response to a speech the AfD politician Björn Höcke gave in Dresden, in which he described the Holocaust Memorial as a ‘monument of shame’ and Germany as the only nation that would 'put something like that in the heart of its capital.' Reacting to Höcke’s antisemitic statements, the artists' collective rented the neighboring property of the Thuringian AfD faction leader and constructed a personal extension of the Berlin Holocaust memorial, rebuilding some of the concrete blocks of the Berlin-based memorial right next to his private home. This copying and replacing of the Holocaust memorial not only confronts Höcke personally, but also functions as a physical and symbolic reminder for all of Germany. Located in a small village, far away from the capital, it reminds viewers of the horrible events of the Holocaust and makes the history in the outskirts of Germany palpable. Moreover, the ZPS pretended to spy on Höcke and walked around his property in flashy camouflage costumes and cameras. ZPS activist Morius Enden describes the working method of the center to the German newspaper Der Spiegel: ‘We use Nazi methods against Nazis.’A few days after the start of the campaign, Höcke commented on the events at the Compact conference: ‘Anyone who does something like this is a terrorist. The Zentrum für Politische Schönheit is not an artistic group, but a terrorist organization.’  

Operating in the public sphere and merging art, activism, and politics, the ZPS uses various strategies to uphold their artistic freedom. They offer the audience numerous clues that accentuate their artworks’ fictional and theatrical nature. For instance, in their appearance as observers of Björn Höcke, with soot-smeared faces and military-looking camouflage clothing, they use a specific ‘battle troop semantic.' In addition, they walked around in spy-like outfits openly on the street and did not intentionally use them for hiding or spying. Thus, the war paint functions as theatrical makeup and the camouflage clothing as costuming, emphasizing the satirical element of the campaign. The ZPS, therefore, deliberately drew attention to the staged nature of their action and, as artists, gave themselves the status of actors.

These theatrical methods used by the ZPS are not only visibly seen but also an integral part of the rhetoric of the artists’ group. For example, they describe themselves as the “Zivilgesellschaftlichen Verfassungsschutz Thüringens” (civil society constitutional protection of Thuringia) and as “Frühwarnsystem der Zivilgesellschaft” (an early warning system of civil society), keeping an eye on anyone who questions the open society. Moreover, filming themselves in their camouflage suits and trench coats for a campaign video, they satirically asked people to participate in Höcke’s surveillance. Using a confident tone paired with music from the German children’s show Die Sendung mit der Maus, the entire video becomes recognizable as hyperbole and depicts the strategy of a successful media staging through theatricality. This seemingly exaggerated, theatrical appearance corresponds to their public image in other instances and campaigns. In speeches, the ZPS often uses rhetoric that alternates between pomposity, smart self-irony, and militant agitation, contrasting a hint of cynicism with friendly idealism.

Nevertheless, the state prosecuted the ZPS for 16 months for allegedly forming a criminal organization under Section 129 of the Criminal Code. Placed on a list alongside terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State, the paragraph of the penal code makes it possible to monitor the group extensively, create movement profiles, and even use undercover agents. Upon inquiry, it became public that the investigating prosecutor, Martin Zschächner, is an AfD donor, and he was immediately dismissed from the State Security Service. This was the first time such proceedings had been initiated against an artists' group in Germany. It represents one of the most severe attacks on artistic freedom—art was prosecuted as a form of organized crime. Even though the proceedings against the ZPS were dropped, the campaign Björn Höckes persönliches Holocaust-Mahnmal (2017) is a vivid example of how difficult it is to distinguish between art, activism, and politics.

Sofia Ohmer, March 2023


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