Skip to main content
eScholarship
Open Access Publications from the University of California

Contemporary Remediations of Race and Ethnicity in German Visual Cultures

Articles

Contemporary Remediations of Race and Ethnicity in German Visual Cultures

Introduction to TRANSIT, Volume 9, Issue 2, Special Topic: “Contemporary Remediations of Race and Ethnicity in German Visual Cultures,” guest edited by Angelica Fenner and Uli Linke.

The New Diversity and the New Public: Impressions of dOCUMENTA (13)

Long before dOCUMENTA (13) opened in 2012, designated documenta director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev pledged that “her” documenta would stay clear of what she called the “Biennale-Syndrome.”  What was the Biennale-Syndrome, and why did she want to avoid it? What seemed to be the challenge here? The Venice Biennale - the first art biennale founded in 1895 – has traditionally defined itself as simultaneously a spectacle and as a representation of nation states through works of visual art. Is it possible for an international art show of its size and prestige to avoid the trend of further festivalization, and can it divest itself of re-mediations of cultural, racial, ethnic, and, in particular, national categories as artistic and aesthetic criteria for includson or exclusion? dOCUMENTA (13) became a record breaking show, visited by 860,000 people in 36 places in Kassel. As such, this 100-day show was, without any doubt, the most popular European art spectacle of the summer of 2012. It appeared, however, remarkably unspectacular. Although featureing the work of 188 international artists hailing from more than 50 countries, nationality did not seem to be a relevant issue. This article takes the reader on a journey back in time, reviewing the past 60 years of the documenta in order to diagnose its paradigmatic shifts. We will tour the 2012 documenta to determine what made Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s show stand out from previous documenta exhibitions and the ubiquitous biennials. Drawing upon Levent Soysal’s concept of “Public Intimacy,” and relying on his idea of the “new individual” who engages accordingly with her surroundings and her social environment, the article will discuss how dOCUMENTA (13) enticed its visitors. In turn, Bruno Latour’s “thing theory” will help explain how this most recent documenta rendered nationally defined diversity an obsolete analytic for the presentation of art.

A Path through the Woods: Remediating Affective Landscapes in Documentary Asylum Worlds

In his book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama argues that an engagement with the legacies of German nationalism requires a track through the woods: throughout German history, forests have played a key role as origin myth to found a national identity (Schama 1995). In today’s forests, these entanglements between the forest landscape and the nation acquire a strange and unhomely twist: in former East German states, such as Brandenburg and Thuringia, asylum seekers—many of them from Africa—find themselves living on the ruins of abandoned military barracks in the forest. Their isolation in the forest is the outcome of post-unification asylum policies that responded to a heated nation-wide asylum debate and xenophobic attacks against urban refugee shelters in the 1990s, by relocating refugees to remote new ‘homes’ in rural East Germany—often on former military barracks in the forest.

Engaging with Forst, a documentary film produced in collaboration between refugees and European film-makers, this article asks about the possibilities of a mode of analysis that follows Schama’s call to embark on a track through the woods and shed light on contemporary entanglements between landscape, race and nationalism. Forst breaks with documentary—and ethnographic—conventions of creating empathy via the portrayal of individual life stories, or “cases”. Instead, the film situates its story almost entirely in the claustrophobic environment of a gloomy forest in which refugees live. Doing so, it provokes affects and environments in order to invoke the visceral dimensions of borders and nationalism—a method, I argue, that can be mobilized for social inquiry of both the mediation of racialized exclusions in contemporary asylum worlds in Germany—as well as their material and visceral effects.

Hardboiled Performance and Affective Intimacy: Remediations of Racism in the Cenk Batu Tatorte

Although not around to stay, the first Turkish German detective to be featured in the Germany’s most popular television crime series, Tatort nonetheless represented a major TV event (2008–12). In his sixth episode as an investigator in a series famous for its continued engagement with topical social issues, Cenk Batu would be killed off after his loyalty to the German state had been tested by the schemes of a ruthless killer trying to exploit Batu’s love for a woman. Cast in the role of an undercover agent rather than regular police investigator, Batu’s portrayal more fully tapped into—and reworked—the topoi of the hardboiled genre than did most Tatort detective teams. In this sense, the Batu episodes can be read as a performative remediation of Germany’s heightened debates on Muslim immigration taking place at the intersection of post-September 11 anti-Islam(ist) culturalisms and an established, cross-media tradition of stereotyping Turkish German ‘thug’ masculinity. However, paradigms that deploy performativity as both a critique and reconfiguration of hegemonic discourse only partially capture the nature of the cultural interventions undertaken in these episodes. Via innovative aesthetics that blur the lines between cinema and TV, the Batu episodes also contributed to a twenty-first century visual culture focused on experiences of sensation, perception, and affect. This aesthetics of sensation challenged Tatort audiences to affectively engage with their first Turkish German Tatort investigator. In exploring remediations of racism in this context, this article rearticulates established paradigms of performance studies by bringing them into dialogue with recent conceptualizations of affect and of narrativity.

Ming Wong’s Imitations

The article "Ming Wong's Imitations" analyzes the installation Life of Imitation, created by visual artist Ming Wong for the Singapore Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009. Life of Imitation restages a key scene from Douglas Sirk's 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life, in which the African American character Annie visits her daughter Sarah Jane who is passing as white. In Wong's restaging three male actors from different ethnic groups in Singapore reenact the scene, but switch roles at every cut. The article traces the shifts from the original literary source, Fannie Hurst's 1933 Imitation of Life to John M. Stahl's 1934 film of the same title to Sirk's version. Emphasizing melodrama's organizing structure of "too late," I show how Sirk shifted the melodramatic emphasis from the white mother/daughter pair's romantic conflict to the African American mother/daughter pair's racial conflict. Addressing the question whether such a shift implies a progressive politics, I turn to the contentious discussion of Sirk's earlier film work in Weimar and Nazi Germany, pointing to ideological and formal continuities.

In contrast to these significant shifts in the different instantiations of the text, I propose that the different versions share the subordination and disavowal of ethnic difference in order to construct a racial binary, which then becomes the setting of the passing narrative organized around the 'tragic mulatta'. I illustrate my argument with the instances of ethnic passing of the writers, directors, and actors involved in the different versions of the text. However, I also show the appeal of racial passing narratives can have for a gay camp imagination, identification, and appropriation. I conclude the article with a discussion of Wong's double move in Life of Imitation of returning ethnic bodies that have been excised from the original diegesis to their significance and appropriating the gendered melodrama through cross-dressing. After a survey of the term "remediation" as it emerged from the discussion of new media, I show that Wong's piece belongs to a group of works by visual artists who remake film in digital media in the environment of the art space. I conclude with reading the effect of rotating the actors at each cut, which does not subvert spatial and temporal continuity, but challenges spectators' perception of ethnicity and gender, and produces unstable identities.

 

Remediating Fassbinder in Video Installations by Ming Wong and Branwen Okpako

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.

Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School, by Marco Abel; Christian Petzold, by Jaimey Fisher

Review of Marco Abel, The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Rochester: Camden House, 2013) and Jaimey Fisher, Christian Petzold (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013).