Video by Rafał Żwirek

REFLECTIONS ON THE "PEACE WALL"

BY  NADA PRLJA

With this essay, I aim to reflect on some of the issues that have arisen through the project “Peace Wall” and have shaped my opinion about how to work as a “critical” artist within the public domain. “Peace Wall” was created with the predetermined goal to initiate and externalise specific social, political and ethical processes existing in the area of Friedrichstein in Berlin. This process of exposure was expected to be turbulent – but the reactions to the project for the entire duration of the “Peace Wall” (02.05-15.06.2012) far exceeded our expectations.

 

SELF DETERMINED FORCES

During the time of planning, pre-production and existence of the “Peace Wall”, five robust entities have shaped this project. There is therefore the need to describe each of these and clarify their function within the complex reality surrounding the existence of the ‘Peace wall’.

 

  • The curators, the art institution and the press office (mainly involved in the selection process, finance, support and advice, realization and follow up of the project);
  • Political and official bodies (in this case, the district mayor, local borough committees, art commissioning committees, architects, builders and other institutional bodies involved in the approval and execution of the project);
  • The artist (as creator of an idea and as initiator of the process-based work);
  • The local community (consisting of various players – residents, shop owners, investors, local governmental and non governmental organizations, etc.);
  • The media (the most independent of all the aforementioned entities)

 

All of these entities are self-determined; they all have different agendas and goals and should be seen as forces, rather than as institutions. All of those forces were mutually connected, like “puppets on strings”, where any “move” of a single entity, invariably affects all of the other entities.

 

RESPECT THE ART INSTITUTION

I am interested in conveying political messages or revealing gaps in social and judicial constructions. This can only be achieved through the use of art methodologies and by being a “free floating entity” (an entity that does not belong to any institution). I use subversion and occasionally manipulation in order to deliver the project and to convey its inherent conceptual message. The only “bodies of power” that could essentially support those actions are the curators and the art institution itself; all other institutions of "power" sees the artists’ ideas as purely idealistic, and at times even as perverse constructions, essentially not applicable to reality, or even simply as naive societal observations. The art institution is able to mediate and communicate the project to the political “players”; in this respect, the art institution and the artist become equal political players.

 

I believe, however, that art should instead generate knowledge about more global issues and the world at large. With every project, while trying to fulfill the conceptual goal of the work, I am aware that my own tendencies and methods to achieve this are no less malicious or mischievous than the relations of the “empowered” entities. “There is a positive form of "partisanship" between the artist and the art institution, and an assumption that art can operate as a political intervention.” The “Peace Wall” would never have been possible, if the established power structures did not make it possible. Opposing the structures that make the transformation of an idea into reality - no thank you!

 

THE ARTWORK AND SOCIETY

There is always a reason why an institution is able to support certain ‘devious and shady concepts’ delivered by artists. Why not, then, to use the potential offered by certain art institutions?

 

In 2006, the London-based curator Sophie Hope and myself applied for the realization of a public art project, entitled “Advanced Science of Morphology” (consisting of the temporary replacement of the EU flags permanently positioned on flagpoles at Marble Arch in London, by a series of 26 “morphed” ex-Yugoslav flags). The approval for this temporary replacement, was accompanied by a comment made by Julia Peyton-Jones (the director of the Serpentine gallery and one of the members of the local art committee): “The political agenda of the project is ‘questionable,' but the art-work is great, lets do it."

 

This statement proves that if you are determined, as an artist, you are able to challenge any particular concept. You can even “get away” with building a wall in a city like Berlin, that suffered for decades under a real, truly divisive wall. The action of re-building a wall in Berlin demonstrates, to a frightening extent, what can be achieved if a “power structure” is in place. Intriguingly, the initiative of re-building the wall, does not reflect one’s own position as an artist/individual, but rather, it tests the structures of local power. In the case of the “Advanced Science of Morphology,” it became apparent that the UK did not (and still does not) entirely align itself with the EU, proving the existence of a certain irregularity in the UK’s political stance regarding the EU. However, this project didn’t reflect anything about the artist’s (my own) relation to the UK or the EU.

 

Which hidden political and ‘power’ maneuver made the ‘Peace wall’ possible in Berlin? What was the higher political setting that allowed the ‘new’ wall to be built on Friedrichstrasse and the street to be divided again, two decades later? Does this act of agreement reveal something about the new politics of a city where ‘anything goes’, or does it perhaps show a respect for the cultural industry (one of the more lucrative industries that currently generates 20% of the city’s income). Or does the situation perhaps demonstrate the remains of a guilty conscience on a national level - combined with the persistent cultural liberalism of Germany, and the tendency to see cultural activity as a positive, therapeutic or pedagogic exercise? To what extent is this situation also a reflection of myself, as the initiator of the "new" wall? The "Peace Wall" was a precise example of these factors, which have become transparent through the artworks’ existence.

 

The most discussed issues in relation to the “wall” were: Why and who allowed the ‘wall’ to be built? Who officially granted the required permissions? Why was there no need to request the approval of the local residents and commerce? We (myself and the art institution) followed the rules and legislations but nevertheless, people felt victimized by our actions. Does this illustrate our mistakes (those of the art institutions and the artists) or the lapses of the system itself?

 

THE MEDIA AS AN EQUAL PLAYER

The media coverage of the “Peace Wall” was extensive: more than 30 newspaper reviews, numerous Internet entries, dozens of bloggers and facebook entries. All of this has shaped the project itself has had a direct influence on all the other power structures in this process.

 

The media around “Peace Wall” created its own narrative, a narrative which was beneficial for the project in terms of stirring up incorrect and distorted information, a sense of confusion and the banalisation of the criticality of the project. This counterbalance was necessary for the project itself, which I accepted - welcoming the media as an equal creator and modifier of the project.

 

The media represented the wall in a "black and white" manner, repeating the same slogans over and over, until they came to define the situation. The media was engaged with the creation of purely symbolical meanings, highlighting the use of terms such as “ghetto,” the “rich and poor,” etc. The media did not ask; the media simply attacked the project, making statements such as: “controversial art has disrupted the normality”; “art is artificial”; “art is shit”, etc. The media was instrumental in directing the interpretation of the work away from its own intentions. During the entire period of the ‘Peace wall’s presence (6 weeks), no questions have been raised or facts exposed in relation to the real problems that have been persistent in the area for more than two decades.

 

In public art projects, the media engages with the residents, the passers by, with shop owners etc., which is otherwise highly unlikely to happen within galleries or museum spaces. During conflictual moments of the “Peace Wall”, the media had effectively become a mediator between the artist/art institution and the local community. Through the media, residents and others have become contributors to the project, but unfortunately the media was not seen as a tool that could have been used to gain something for the community itself.

 

Objectively, in the end, none of the real issues in the area were communicated or even discussed of their own accord, and I can therefore conclude that the relation between the media and the community was not productive.

 

ARTIST AND ART INSTITUTION WORKING EPHEMERALLY

When an artist decides to work in a public space, there are two possible ways to work with it – to beautify it (to set up community projects or to otherwise improve the area’s visual appearance, etc.), or to intimidate the community and subsequently accept a confrontation. After the building of the “Peace Wall,” the project was under the pressure of constant changes, the artists/art-institution’s working method proceeded, without knowing what the next step was going to be. Acceptance of this situation of uncertainty and the KW team / BB7 artistic office’s ability to adapt to these constant changes, was exemplary. But the entire project of the “Peace Wall,” was at times on the verge of crumbling, due to the impossibility of following the dynamic (imposed on myself/art institution and various political bodies), by the strategically organized ‘hate campaign’ and negative media coverage of the wall. In this unfolding situation, we were only capable of responding to, rather than creating the dynamics.

 

During those important moments for the project, my most important consideration was to avoid methods used in politics or diplomacy (always a uniform and universal mode of operation). The production of critical art does not need to comply with requests to provide logical answers; it reserves the right not to communicate and to avoid behaving according to an expected routine. At certain times, it was important to maintain the fact that the artist is not necessarily a social worker, or a journalist, or a politician, or on the end not even an artist in the archetypal way but rather, a “radically critical” actor–this integrity characterized the “Peace Wall.”

 

COMMUNITY IN ACTION - PRODUCTIVE AGGRESSION

The "wall" revealed certain “soft spots” of the community: the local shop owners’ frustration for being portrayed as being on the ‘poor side’ of the street; the residents of migrant background did not complain about their underprivileged position in the community (and society at large), but complained instead about the practical and functional problems related to the temporary blockage of the street. Individual memories about the old Berlin wall were re-lived, for the most part without the ability to comprehend or find a way of dealing with these memories. Most of the residents complained about the disruption of their right to drive or park on the street; the ‘wall’ destroyed one of the postulates of the contemporary democratic city – the right to convenience.

 

Although there were many supporters of the wall, the voice of anger has shaped the visual appearance of the wall. The community argued with conviction about the feeling of exclusion, stigmatization, ghettoization. Some of the reactions, mainly directed towards myself, showed a degree of ignorance, but also a sense of superiority and even racism by certain members of the community. The innermost and most honest human feelings have been exposed during the presence of the “Peace Wall.” The community found it hard to admit that there are any problems in the area and that they might somehow be responsible for these issues, or somehow creators of the very situation. With a sense of fear, they disregarded the reality that was uncovered and made public by the “wall.”

 

COMMUNAL CONSCIOUSNESS

The embittered local community graffitied, vandalized and attempted dismantling the wall. They spat and shouted abuse at the wall – why did all of that take place? Was this hatred and outrage simply a sense of envy? Here was someone, an artist, from ex-Yugoslavia, not even speaking their language, who has been supported to bend the rules - the rules that the community otherwise needs to obey on an everyday basis. The ‘wall’ has somehow ‘poked’ them and destabilized their own submissiveness. In that sense, the reaction against the ‘wall’ really did come from within the community.

 

NEVER COMMUNICATE, NEVER DESIGN, NEVER LABEL

Reflecting on the “Peace Wall” now, it is clear that it became a project shaped into two parts: the first consisting of the avoidance of communication (during the first month), followed by a second period of performativity (the second month).

 

The "Peace Wall" clearly demonstrated that "critical" public art should not explain its idea to the community beforehand. Any a priori description, could nullify the project’s process, making the work appear as an ‘art product’, but not as a reflection of the anticipated reality. A meaningful description of the project was intentionally avoided by the artist/art institution during the first month of duration of the BB7. The project worked very much in ‘real time’ and it was shaped on a daily basis by the social interaction and collisions between the various power entities. Numerous layers of graffiti were sprayed onto the wall, advertisements were posted, drawings were drawn. Two meetings were organized next to the wall by independent organisations (on 06.05.12 and 24.05.12). These events were radically critical about the wall, although there were many other, silent voices supporting it. On 23.05.2012 in a heated discussion, the local political parties voted in favor of keeping the wall.

 

Soon after these events, a negative "charge" was generated within the community. This sense of negativity was misused by the local political parties. CDU’s T. Husein, launched a campaign "The Wall Must Fall" ("Die Mauer muss weg"). In his printed leaflet, he states that four local parties have voted for the wall, but that CDU did not. ‘SPD, Greens, Linke (Left) and Pirates want the wall: CDU request is rejected. Only the CDU will continue fighting for the dismantling of the wall.

 

The economic investment interests were evident: the most effective of the initiatives was Interessengemeinschaft Friedrichstrasse e.V., which has been campaigning for the ‘urban development’ of Friedrichsrtrasse since 1992. Mr. M. Hartwich, Managing Director of IG Friedrichstrasse represented the interests of traders (who were directly attacking myself while the wall was there), communicated with the media and the general public, manipulating my own statements and re-appropriating them for their own agenda, which supports the gentrification and political influence of the Northern side of Friedrichstrasse, over the poorer South side.

 

Kreativquartier Südliche Friedrichstadt’s interests in restructuring the area, were the most powerful of all. Mr. F. Schmidt was one of the "users" of forceful symbols and words (such as ghetto’, etc.). He operated mainly through a media: “Through the Wall, the area around the Mehringplatz has been stigmatized as a social ghetto. The local players were not consulted. The involvement of traders was zero, the planning was disastrous. This work may be allowed for three days, but not longer.” F. Schmidt  for Der Tagesspiegel, 05.06.2012

 

From this point onwards, the game moved onto a different level and disengaged from the local residents.

 

PERFORMATIVITY OF THE POWER RELATIONS

During the second month of the artwork, our strategy changed. Using direct self-involvement, I spent two weeks of fieldwork (02.06.12 -15.06.12), talking with people in the streets around the wall. This process gave us the ability to generate further knowledge about the area and to test the ability of the community to engage with issues relating to their own current reality and the prospects for this specific area (the area of Friedrichstein will be “injected” with 27 million euros in the near future, which will destabilize and change the social life of the area).

 

I am not interested in power relations within the artworld, but I am interested in the dynamics of power between art, the community, and politics. My presence was intended as an invitation to the inhabitants to see the situation objectively, to see created situation as an opportunity to actively influence the course of social affairs. Nevertheless, this “objectivity” could only be introduced by myself, through a weird sense of submission (a form of self-sacrifice) and the use of persuasion when talking with the residents. I allowed them to direct their attention to myself, and unwillingly, at this point, I adopted the “role of an artist.” Through this, while working on the site, I became separated from the complex engagement I had formed with the other institutional players (curators, art institution and the mayor). The community primarily expressed their aggression against me - the artist. A group of ‘angry’ citizens were aware of their power over a single individual. The artist was seen as a weak target.

 

At those moments of attacks, I gave the residents an ultimatum (from a position of power encouraged by the presence of the wall). I requested from the residents to demand the premature demolition of the wall with a call, in the form of the community’s demand, directed toward the local leading political circle (which was vulnerable while the wall was in place). I was ready to ‘deliver’ any demands raised the residents and address them to the mayor. This action would have separated my self (as the artist) even further from the institution of my own support, yet I was ready to do this. On the other side, I assumed that the residents would not come up with bold or realistic demands; therefore awkwardly knowing that my position within my own ‘world of power’ was effectively safe. Even facing a 5.5m high, 12m long product of “instrumentalised disobedience,” the community failed to disrupt the conformist behavior embedded in this neighborhood.

 

The “wall” initiated certain processes, but we can only hope that the wall’s desire for individual or organized engagement, will address the long-term social fabric of the neighborhood of Friedrichstein. We can clearly confirm that the community expressed disbelief in the potential for art and culture to influence the course of political reality or social development.

 

WHEN DOES THE ACTION END?

If there is disagreement between the parties involved in the project, such as complaints by the community, as was the case with the “Peace Wall,” the power structures and their relations need to be re-evaluated.

 

When a claim is made for a work of art in the public domain to be taken down, the artist has to take that claim seriously and react to the requests. In the case of the “Peace Wall,” I consider the following issues as important contributors toward my approval for the removal of the work:

 

  • The social pressure around the project increases to the point of possible physical harm to any individuals involved
  • Loss of assets: claims were made that the wall reduced the income of the local shop owners (with a decrease in earnings of up to 50%); others claimed that people had lost their jobs and even their homes (speculations, the validity of which are difficult to ascertain);
  • The work becomes re-appropriated by other interests, which could harm any of the groups involved. Some of these were: the manipulation of the project by different political parties; the re-appropriation of the project for ‘dodgy’ financial influence over the area; the area’s invasive gentrification; the possibility of the project to become a tourist attraction;
  • Supporting bodies of the artwork (the political or art institution) no longer see the possibility of keeping the work in place until the planned date for its dismantling;
  • The project reaches the end of a productive discourse.

 

It is likely that most of the claims that were made reflected the overall situation in the area – which has simply been projected onto the "Peace Wall." But, did I fear for the well-being of the ‘unstable’ man (who had lost his flat and job) and who claimed that he would burn himself together with the wall, if it were not removed? Yes, I did. Did I fear aggression against myself and other members of KW and 7th Berlin Biennale artistic office? Yes, I did. Did the shop owners, the investors, local institutions for community support fear the wall? Yes, they did. Did the ordinary residents - disempowered, homeless, unemployed, etc - fear the wall? No, the wall was just another obstacle in the city, probably similar to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, seen as something imposed by ‘arrogant cultural workers’.

 

All of those factors influenced, to a greater or lesser degree, my decision to agree to the wall’s premature dismantling. The fall of the “Peace Wall,” happened on 15.06.2012, two weeks before its intended dismantling at the end of the 7th Berlin Biennale.

 

The artist needs to show the possibility of creating the impossible; in other words to demonstrate that the impossible is possible. At the same time, however, he/she also needs to demonstrate the ability to listen, to be flexible, to comprehend and be responsive to the complexity of the evolving situation.

 

Over the course of two weeks in June, exchanges took place. The positivism of the discourse was growing day-by-day. Many important issues were exposed and discussed with members of the community, on an individual basis. As soon as the wall was down, the residents felt even freer to independently reflect on the impact of the wall. It was interesting to see how under this new “peace,” some of the citizens openly started discussing the issues in the areas (which was the project’s real aim). This process is still active.

 

AFTER THE "FALL" OF THE WALL

After the fall of the wall, many residents have written emails, apologising on behalf of their neighbors; these more positive voices aimed to organize other events. In the aftermath of the wall, certain voices from within the artworld have expressed their appreciation of the project and congratulate me on my bravery and integrity. Mr. S., the mayor of the district, risks a less secure political position, as a result of the whole experience. Mr. Zint, who lives and works in the area, is preparing an exhibition of his documentation of the wall. The last post on the Facebook ‘hate page’ was uploaded on 15.06 – the day the wall entirely ‘disappeared’ from the site. And what about me? I feel that, I have been able to genuinely glimpse under the surface of a single community, a group similar to any modern European community. By remembering those days and the human relations and interactions around the wall, I still feel fear about the human nature and power structures …

 

The “Peace Wall” has been dismantled and recycled, in order to stop this object from becoming a “monument” of past political and social processes. This community is on their way to establishing their own active and engaged peace.

 

With thanks to JJ Charlesworth

June 2012

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