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Remediating Fassbinder in Video Installations by Ming Wong and Branwen Okpako

Abstract

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s tackling of race, immigration, and interracial relationships in his early plays and films is often applauded for offering a prescient treatment of topics largely neglected in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His experimentation with and blending of both queer and leftist political styles appeals to contemporary critics and artists grappling with the continuing challenge of ‘decolonizing’ structures of racial feeling. Nonetheless, the politics of race in Fassbinder’s films from the early 1970s, including Whity (1970) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), has also come under more skeptical scrutiny during the past decade. Critics have assessed Fassbinder’s aesthetic alongside the biographical and social context of his filmmaking career, and in particular, his relationships with men of color who also starred in Whity and Ali, among other films. Some note a troubling tension between the professed antiracist politics of Fassbinder and of some of his film characters, on the one side, and the way in which the camerawork allows and invites racist pleasures, on the other. Perhaps due to their very ambiguity, Fassbinder’s films offer compelling objects of attachment and resignification for contemporary artists of color working in Germany. In this article I discuss two video installations by Ming Wong and one by Branwen Okpako that engage films by Fassbinder as productive intertexts for their own artistic reflections on racial oppression, solidarity, and desire in contemporary Germany. Wong’s Lerne Deutsch mit Petra von Kant (Learn German with Petra von Kant, 2007) considers the consequences of appropriating camp, high melodrama, and masochism for dramatizing race and immigration. Can such an appropriation dismantle national or racialized identities, analogous to Bitter Tears’ dismantling of gender? Angst Essen/Eat Fear (2008) hones in on, and subtly revises, the sources of the film’s troubling political ambiguity. Okpako’s Seh ich was, was du nicht siehst? (Do I see something you don’t?, 2002) contextualizes the masochistic figure of Whity with a discussion of black actors’ working conditions. It thereby complements the parodic subversion of white fantasies with a consideration of the agency exercised by racialized subjects’ contending with racial difference in the art world and in so-called postracial societies more generally. The video installations highlight the aesthetic inventiveness of Fassbinder’s films, but also use the political shortcomings of his works and changes in the contexts of reception as opportunities for imaginative appropriations and creative openings.

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