Christopher Schlingensief and Paul Poet
Site Specific performance and installation/Documentary video/Installation
Dimensions variable – one week/90 minutes/Dimensions variable
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.