The Spectacle of Surveillance

AUSLÄNDER RAUS! SCHLINGENSIEFS CONTAINER (Austria 2002, Paul Poet) Official Trailer from Paul Poet on Vimeo.

Christopher Schlingensief and Paul Poet
Auslander raus!
Site Specific performance and installation/Documentary video/Installation
Dimensions variable – one week/90 minutes/Dimensions variable
2000/2013

I had myself readmitted to my Master’s program this semester, under the condition that I have to take two extra courses, as a penalty for overstaying in the program. One of those courses is an art criticism class. This is an exercise in “interpretation,” from that class.


Ausländer raus! Schlingensief’s Container (tr. Foreigners Out! 2000) is a sculpture and performance that took place over the span of one week in Vienna, Austria. As the name suggests, the performance itself took place inside a shipping container, which in turn was installed on the grounds of the Vienna State Opera House. Auslander raus took its final form as a 90-minute film drawn from a 24-hour online stream of the lives of 12 actual asylum seekers. Both were directed by artist and documentary filmmaker, Paul Poet.

There are layers to this work, the first being artist Christopher Schlingensief’s casting of the twelve who would be made to live in the container for a week. Filmed in the summer of 2000, the show was realized as part of Vienna’s Wochenfest, which directly translates to “weeklong fest”, but falls within the grander tradition of European summer festivals – held to celebrate things we who live closer to the equator often take for granted, like blue skies, sunshine, and not freezing to death while walking down the street.

The twelve Schlingensief casted were, as mentioned earlier, actual asylum seekers–a fact that bears repeating because of the inherent absurdity of the phrase wherein, yes, Schlingensief actually did play with the fate of twelve people who are compromised not only by global capital, but by historical and political circumstances over which they had no control. Yes, these manipulations (and probable transgressions) were broadcast for the highly-literate and overeducated Viennese audience of the Wochenfest. Yes, this played out inside a concealed container van which for an entire week stood before one of Vienna’s proudest temples to high culture – an eyesore erected by an international artist as if to besmirch the Opera House’s legacy.

I had the good fortune of seeing some remnants from the afterlife of the work: first as an installation at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, where the container itself was installed behind a wire fence, with clips from the film being shown on screens. The second time was during a workshop with Viennese curator, Kathrin Rhomberg, who used Poet’s documentary (which we viewed in its entirety) as a case study in public engagement.

Watching the material filmed inside the container, it seems obvious that Schlingensief is not only courting the audience’s incredulity, he is pandering to that visceral reaction; a sensation from which the viewer might find that Schlingensief’s medium is not simply performance, as his materials were not just the choreographed bodies of actual human beings living human lives. The dominant material in this case is performative: it is the crowd’s appetite for racism and their need to respond to it, whether in the affirmative or as resistance. This cannot be choreographed, rather it develops alongside an existing system, moving according to a socialized choreography. 

As a large scale, multidimensional form (or illustration) of Social Sculpture (to borrow from Joseph Beuys), the crowd in this case was as integral to Schlingensief’s container as it was to the rest of the Wochenfest, as indispensable as the presence of a ruling elite might be to an institution like the opera house, or like the Culture with a capital C that a Cultural Capital like Vienna would hold so dear. What Schlingensief’s container appeared to point out–in simpler terms that appealed to oncoming populism–were the shared roots between both racism and high culture; where to sustain the illusion and prestige of the opera house, some (or many) must be kept aus.  

In the year 2000, the same year Schlingensief and Poet collaborated on the many layers that made up Ausländer raus!, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), under the leadership of Jörg Haider had been elected into the National Council of Austria and formed part of the new government. To say Haider had Nazi leanings was an understatement. Under Haider, Austria was not only being led by, far right extremists, they were seen as colluding with them, which would then lead to diplomatic sanctions imposed by other national councils within the EU. 

This was the political climate Schlingensief was responding to as he led the filming of auslanders forced to negotiate this difficult historical impasse. Done in the tasteful tradition of the UK’s Big Brother series, the container’s resident auslanders were voted not only out of the container, but out of the country–much to the delight of the performance’s FPO-supporting spectators. This way, deportation as spectacle was not only a matter of history repeating, but of humanity bearing witness to its regression in real time. 

This dimension of the work merged spectacle and surveillance, politics and entertainment in a seamless commentary and magnification of how the two really do merge in real life, shining a light on how Austria’s morbid fascination with a racist like Haider was not only increasing his visibility in the eyes of the voting public. This same visibility bore dire repercussions on the lives of those who would have preferred to fly under the radar or would have preferred a more empowering representation. 

And if this sounds familiar, that’s because it is still happening in real time. Schlingensief may have made Auslander raus close to two decades ago, but the ruckus and reflections it generated are still very much felt in the shadow of Trump, in the populist politics of leaders like Duterte, and the authoritarian surveillance and censorship that gave rise to the spread of disease and violence under XI Jinping, as well as the rampant Sinophobia that followed. Auslander raus will continue to matter so long as fascists are still elected as leaders.

Under Haider, “those” were not nameless statistics, but migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers – the very terminology of asylum being rooted in the need for peace, quiet. For a place to recover from the chaos of a world gone mad. The container gave them that space to hide from public view, a container being a literal enclosure. The comforts of being enclosed however could only be felt on the condition of forgetting that someone was filming, which was the very same condition that the original Big Brother such a success. Surveillance then became a precondition for existing, and a laudable existence involved making peace with surveillance.

At the end of the day (or the week, in this case), without surveillance, there could be no performance – only asylum. Only performance however could guarantee permission to stay or orders to leave. What the audience does not see however is the extent to which this performance is also a reflection, a notion which is also at the center of Social Sculpture, defined by Beuys as the capacity of all to live creatively once everything can be seen as art. What Beuys did not include in his definition however was how the impulse to destroy (as in the case maybe not of Auslander raus! But of the FPO itself) could be seen as a creative impulse as well. And in this climate of destruction/creation, we are all fighting for permission to stay in our countries, to feel at home, to be useful to a system we did not design, to continue existing in structures not of our making. In this way, we are all foreigners, and we are all in danger of being voted out.

State of Nature

The Outdoor Murals of Manhattan Parkview Tower

Waterfall

I had myself readmitted to my Master’s program this semester, under the condition that I have to take two extra courses, as a penalty for overstaying in the program. One of those courses is an art criticism class. This is an exercise in “description,” from that class.


In a prime section of a commercial center in Quezon City stands a waterfall. 

Or rather: a painting of a waterfall, a mural to be even more specific. The mural is about 10 feet tall and it extends across the three walls of the space – a vestibule crammed between two restaurants in the New Frontier Theater, a self-described “classic landmark of the ‘60s”. 

At the bottom of the mural, where the wall meets the floor, the artist has rendered a calm river in in acrylic and gouache, pebbles peeking through its surface. This river continues across the floor, where it has been scratched by and scuffed by the shoes of numerous passersby, and is occasionally littered with cigarette butts and other bits of trash. To the sides of the room are plant boxes which also house the bright yellow spotlights used to illuminate the mural.

The waterfall itself at the center of the mural is a valiant attempt at rendering the violent foaming gush of falling water. It is flanked by a forested mountainside, and above that, the blue sky peeking through the slotted windows of the building’s exhaust room. With the exhaust is behind the painting, the viewer might (above the din of foot traffic and your usual ambient mall noise) link the perpetual drone of industrial fans to the roar of falling water. This exhaust room also happens to be the very reason why this painted vestibule cannot be rented out to other commercial tenants. 

To a casual viewer, the work suggests nature, suggests peace, suggests the spaces undisturbed by humanity – spaces that could not be farther from where we are, in Araneta Center. 

If one were to walk just a little further, they would find themselves in Manhattan Parkview Tower; curiously named because while, yes, it is a tower, the park for which it offers a view is nowhere to be found. So while a Parkview suggests the presence of a park, the mural in turn seems to say, “this is the only park we have.” 

Proof of Life

Mek Yambao
Is this How You See Me?
Metro Gallery
27 July 2019

“Most people think that unless you use a camera, you’re not seeing anything. But that’s a 20th century disease. I like looking at it with my brain, where the language and the I/eye are in total cahoots.”

– Masha Tupitsyn

 “I believe that there is power in vulnerability especially when the world forces you to be tough” wrote Mek Yambao, in preparation for her second solo exhibition, Is this how you see me? The title is not a question, but is simultaneously a desire and a demand in which several layers of imagery come into play. Six large paintings magnify our view of the self on a phone screen – a view which has rapidly become the default setting for how we see the world and the life within it. As instruments of contradiction, the camera (or rather, the phone, because what is a phone without a camera these days) appears in these paintings as a means to conceal as well as reveal the subject.

Here, painting becomes part of a process, somewhere in that space between modification and acceptance, in which one must realize the place of the image within an ongoing discussion. That Yambao does not hide the use of photographs in painting these life studies is in itself a statement on the blurred line between the image and self – what Masha Tupitsyn referred to as a “disease” in the epigraph that opens this essay. To Yambao however, the image is saddled with potential, with the question “Is this how you see me?” posed both as a demand for visibility and a desire for normalcy. Normal, in her words, is “not to be stared or gawked at,” but seen – a word that has become so burdened in an age where accelerated connectivity and access to information have also resulted in oppression and erasure. 

“I remember the tipping point when I was younger and had to come to terms with it…that people are gonna look anyway.” Yambao is referring to a rare skin condition called lamellar icthyosis. While neither life-threatening nor particularly debilitating, she shares that is has caused her some discomfort throughout her life, especially at the social and psychological levels. In high-concept terrain of contemporary art, a conversation around skin would typically be dismissed as superficial, relegated to the cosmetic and ornamental along with other feminine concerns. “Skin care” as a domain, after all, posits that our skin is a thing that we wear. 

To talk about skin however is impossible without talking about the politics of appearing. To demand to be seen is therefore a political demand – a demand for the reconciliation of difference, whether that difference is cast by complexion or by ability. For anyone not born into the default settings of the world (read: white and flawless – a setting which the art world is greatly and often unapologetically complicit in), it can sometimes feel as if it is your skin that wears you. This is also the case for rare genetic conditions, like for Yambao. With this, she draws us to her preoccupation with textures: the smooth glass of a mirror, the well-worn ergonomic comforts of our mobile phones, and the grain of the wood on which she is painting all of this.

Wood grain is consistently visible throughout Yambao’s work, in that it is sometimes used to stand-in for the skin of her subjects. Is This How You See Me? however is her first time to use that texture to focus on what ails her. The manufactured smoothness of the board – the evenness of the surface, the grain that can only be made to appear through excessive sanding – draw a link between sanding a surface down and the socially conditioned need to erase a “flaw.”

What art history can teach us about painting is that the very practice in itself heavily deploys the erasure, concealment, and smoothing over of the flawed surface. Consider the idyllic scenes in a Vermeer, where the artist turns away from civil unrest to show that life goes on. Or closer to home, consider the choices of Fernando Amorsolo, whose endless series of rural landscapes was finally interrupted by the burning of the intendencia during the Second World War. 

Prior to the Expressionist and the Dadaist, to paint was to reimagine the smooth surface, and to consider the grain of the material was something a viewer could only encounter by accidentally seeing the back of the work – the untouched, unvarnished surface that was meant to be kept against the wall. 

Beyond desires and demands to be visible and to carry on normally, Is This How You See Me? is ultimately not only about seeing, but about considering that texture as lived experience. It asks a viewer to go beyond that accidental encounter with the proverbial back of the painting and really think of what it is for a concern to be skin-deep. To see as one feels is after all at the root of empathy, and to ask to be seen in this case goes beyond the visible and into the restorative.

Food Journal no. 3, The Usual Haul

IMG_20190502_153429

The nearest grocery is about half an hour away, on foot. Gerlingen, a small town just on the other side of the forest surrounding Schloss Solitude, has a Lidl on one of its main streets, and a much larger Real, not much further (although I have yet to set foot in it). Because a trip into the city by bus usually sets you back by at least 5 euros, I usually opt for the long often idyllic but always dull trek into Gerlingen on days when I just need certain essentials.

I can safely say that one of the things that sets living in a country like Germany apart from, say, the Philippines is how healthy food is easily available at every market sector. This is easily contested in places like the US, which characterize some of their smaller, less wealthy areas as food deserts, but I have yet to come across a German town where this is the case (then again, I am in Baden-Wurttemberg, which [again] is one of the wealthiest regions in an already very wealthy country).

There is a little bit of shame in buying everything from a discount grocery, like Lidl–something that tells people you don’t take your diet seriously and are willing to subsist on substandard produce and possibly unethical supply chains. My inner snob sometimes causes me to spit the name out half-jokingly when responding to questions like “Where do you get your herbs?”

“Oh you know,” blink, apologetic smile, “Lidl.”

I don’t know yet if these feelings come from expecting more of myself or not wanting to disappoint my peers. Coming down from a space like the Akademie, which is supposedly housing forerunners in intellectual labor, only to acquire all the necessary provisions at…a discount store? What is wrong with me? Are we not supposed to be leading the way in terms of consumption practices and does this not begin with simple everyday acts, i.e. changing the way we eat and which producers we choose to support?

I wish it was as simple as making the wiser, kinder choice when one has the means, but is it even necessary to frame these decisions in such a complex manner when the truth of the matter is “I’m really just hungry, dammit.” Also, I’m too cheap to take the bus. What more with paying 3 euros for a bag of onions that could be had for 80 cents at the nearer grocery?

Take into account that other, not so kind aspect of acquiring provisions: the fact of having to hike through a forest just to get them. That means having to hike back, groceries in tow. I once had fantasies of living in Europe meaning wine in the cupboard and a consistent selection of fresh fruit and cheeses. The reality of this is when everything you acquire is packed not into the trunk or the backseat of a car, not even into a bike basket, but onto your shoulders, you not only choose to shop based on proximity, but based on weight.

This means, when choosing between wine and milk, milk wins. I’m anemic, so between eggs and fruit (if we are going for similarities in weight and care in handling), the eggs win. Same goes for choosing between leafy greens and starchy vegetables or root crops.

It’s boring, but coming to these decisions has made up a sizable chunk of my time in residency at the Schloss, most of which involves not just producing research, but producing a life in a foreign country. On my worst days, I will whine and complain endlessly about not having been productive, about having let another day pass without getting any work done.

“What about going to the grocery? What about feeding yourself?” several residents have asked. “Is that not work?”

It is, and throwing it under the lens of working in a setting as absurd as Solitude, under circumstances as exceptional as a fully-funded residency casts a harsh light on what gets credited or discredited under capitalism. Without exception, we all know what we’re doing here as artists. We all had a project or some form of research to propose, and we have been given space to practice it. The odd thing about the Akademie though is that we are not under any pressure to produce it – the pressure comes with having been given this much time and this kind of space, but there is also the pressure of coexisting with others in the same situation.

“Imagine if you had to ask me for food,” joked one fellow.

“I would wither into nothingness,” said another.

Knowing how to live without depending on others becomes magnified. On some days, I am the one asking a neighbor for cooking oil; on others, someone is knocking at my door for onions or tea. I have two months to go here, but the clearest takeaway about it is that regardless of the bizarre utopian idyll of this castle in the woods, there is no way we would survive without each other.

Food Journal, no. 2: Five Kinds of Pudding from my Filipino Aunties

I did not think I had it in me to party for five hours straight. But I also haven’t experienced being away from my friends, family, and everything familiar for more than a decade.

Dragging my tired body from the Stuttgart Central Station–after a birthday party in Baden-Baden that meant taking a morning train to Mannheim which then connected to Karlsruhe, and then back again–I texted Wiam about our own little potluck at the Schloss. “Is the dinner still happening? I have four kinds of pudding from my Filipino aunties.”

It was cancelled, she said, on account of “collective Sunday lethargy…but four kinds of pudding from my Filipino Aunties sounds like it should be the title of a story or a memoir.”

I had been a little shy about taking food home from the party, not wanting to be fussed over by strangers. But this is what it is, or what it is becoming, to be working with Filipina women who have developed a reputation across the diaspora for providing this specific type of labor – that of care. Eventuallly, Madencia, 71 years old, born and raised in Tondo before coming to Germany as a domestic helper in 1982, noticed me and introduced herself.

“Do you have any food to take back with you?” came after the usual opening of, “What’s your name?” and “Where in the Philippines are you from?”

“You can’t not take something home,” she said, gesturing to a table piled high with desserts, before ambling back to the kitchen to find me a container. I follow her there and stop her as she’s asking for a massive aluminum baking tray. “That’s too much!” I tell her in Filipino, and take a paper bowl from a stack in the corner of the room. Madencia gets two more and insists there is no need to be shy before leading me back to the dessert table and filling the bowls with not four as I had thought, but actually five kinds of pudding: cassava cake, maja blanca, kalamay, something sweet potato or yucca based, and biko.

Two weeks earlier, I met with the women from LuViMin e.V. after contacting their president, Lourdes Pfisterer. They had their annual meeting at the Burgersaal Rathaus in Herbolzheim, Neudenau, a small town of 600 about an hour away from Stuttgart, which is one of the Baden Wurttemberg region’s largest cities. Expecting to find my way to the meeting on my own, I began walking from the station in search of something to keep me occupied for the next hour, when I saw a woman waving to me from a parked car. “Alice?” she asked, before giving me a hug and telling me to get in the car.

“We’ll go home first to leave your things,” she said in Filipino, “and then we’ll eat.”

Even if we are living in one of Germany’s wealthiest regions, Lourdes and her family live in a modest home. It has a one car garage, service areas where laundry and housekeeping materials are kept, a kitchen, a small dining and living area where family and friends gather, and the bedrooms. She shows me where I will be staying for the night before I come down for what could be merienda or lunch.

“Is it okay if I take a photo?” I ask her, about the first Filipino meal I would be having in close to two months. She laughs and offers me more of the ginataang kalabasa and rice. “Magkamatis ka na lang,” she says, taking a roma tomato from a package and slicing it into wedges for me to have on the side. I want to ask for fish sauce, but am overwhelmed and my shyness has gotten the better of me again.

Like Madencia, Lourdes came to live in Germany in the 1980s, before the country became part of the EU and before any of the Draconian measures designed to fortify borders came into place.  “All you needed was a passport,” she told me the next day, when I asked about how she first came to Germany.

On that afternoon though, within an hour of meeting me, she tells me to feel at home, finds me a pair of slippers, and offers me a seat at the kitchen table. A few more women arrive: Alice Z, Divina S, and her sister, Christina C. They don’t eat, but they sit with me. And that is how it usually begins, I am told. This is how we find each other.

Earlier this week, in Pforzheim, with Chuchi and Regina of the Philippinisch-Deutscher Verein Nordschwarzwald, I ask how they began to organize as a group, and later, a community. Chuchi laughed, “Oh you know, sometimes we do this,” she says, miming a hand taking a needle and thread through fabric, “Sometime someone needs a siopao recipe.”

It is Chuchi who tells me about the party in Baden-Baden where I meet Madencia and the  rest of the women from the Phil-Deutscher Verein. Chuchi is after all the first one I reached out to and one of a few to reply. She picks me up from the station in Karlsruhe that Sunday morning, and we go and pick up two more of her friends before picking up a lechon and heading to the party. The car is filled with chatter in both German and Bisaya, as Chuchi and her friends are all from the south of the Philippines where Tagalog is rarely if ever spoken. This changes at the party, where women from all regions show up to greet Klaus a happy birthday. His wife, Lita, is from Capas, Tarlac, and for that day she was our host.

Aside from the dessert table, Lita has prepared a massive spread in the kitchen. There is kare-kare, curried ox tripe with steamed vegetables, sitting on the stove; several kinds of noodle dishes, salads made with ampalaya (bitter melon) and pickled mangoes, an assortment of grilled meats and fish, and huge bowl full of shrimp. The women are lively–and they are all women, as very few husbands are present. At Pforzheim, Chuchi had told me about how the wives took these moments of togetherness very seriously. Their husbands just had to support them.

On the way back to the station, relying on the Navi app, Chuchi and her friends notice we’ve gone in what seems like a massive circle. She laughs. “There are many ways to get to Rome,” she says while smiling at me. Thanks to her, I make it to the station in time to catch another train to Mannheim, from where I catch another connection back to Stuttgart, where I can dwell in the comfort that I will soon return to the Philippines and its familiar tastes. For them though, home is a meal shared with each other.  I put my five kinds of pudding away, and go to sleep, exhausted but with a heart full of hope and stomach full of carbs.