Christian Kobald : How were both of you involved in the project at the time?
Matthias Lilienthal : I was the dramaturg. Christoph Schlingensief had come up with it along with Luc Bondy, the head of the Vienna International Festival at the time. It came together pretty late, and the Festival cancelled its staff party so they could put the fifty thousand deutschmarks into this project. The basic idea was to borrow the structure of Big Brother and tie it to the deportation of asylum seekers.
Anselm Franke : It was just around the time when I stopped working with Schlingensief. But I took pleasure in it. It was unsettling.
ML : Yes, in a strange way. Even how it was organised was weirdly bumpy. Everything was ready to go, but then the Vienna city administration didn’t want to issue a permit. It could have also all fallen apart when the Vienna State Opera objected to the shipping container being placed next to its building. The project stumbled through countless dead ends until suddenly there it was. At first the container didn’t have any asylum seekers in it; there was only this sign saying ausländer raus (Foreigners Out) on top of it. A coach drove by with Israeli tourists on their way into the city from the airport. When they saw the sign, the bus turned around and went straight back again.
AF: My experience was that Christoph’s projects worked differently in Austria from how they worked in, say, Berlin. Somehow Christoph was successful in his strategy to take [leader of the far-right Austrian party FPÖ] Jörg Haider at his word, to make literal what he was talking about. That’s how it started, after all.
Photo: Didi Sattmann
ML: Do you think he took Haider at his word? I almost think that the project was about the opposite. In the middle of its run, Bondy was invited onto Austrian TV. He totally flopped in taking on the FPÖ. Afterwards, he said to Christoph, “The FPÖ has been taught to make assertions instead of arguments. So the FPÖ says ‘Nigerians are drug dealers’ and not ‘Nigerians are bad people because they deal drugs.’ If you argue against that kind of statement with logic or cause and effect, you haven’t got a chance.” The next day Christoph was on the same programme with a culture spokesperson from the FPÖ who was saying that the project wasn’t art but political agitation. Christoph asked: “Have you ever been to the theatre?” “Yes, I’ve been …” “No, you have never been to the theatre!!” “What you are doing is agitat …” “No, you have never been to the theatre!” All at once, with this absurd, dadaistic statement, which made no sense but raised the question of whether this woman knew what she was talking about, she fell to bits and was out of the game. And in hindsight, during the discussion about whether Haider was gay, it was easy to feel that both he and the FPÖ often said things merely to trigger populist responses, which could just as easily go against to their own convictions. That makes it worse than if they really believed what they said. And this fictionalisation of populist politics was what the project was about.
AF: The action 7 Tage Entsorgung für Graz – Künstler gegen Menschenrechte (7 Days of Waste Disposal for Graz – Artists Against Human Rights) in 1998 was already playing with taking things literally, in my opinion. Its adversaries – the FPÖ and the Kronen Zeitung – took Christoph literally when he said he would proclaim Graz the European capital of the homeless. His proposal to throw the funding for his contribution to the steirischer herbst festival into the crowd as a last-ditch attempt to save capitalism was literally about the provocation or the scandal of taking at face value the idea of throwing away public money. In Graz it was about showing what happens when your adversaries take you at your word and letting the projections that are released coalesce into an image, putting it on view, so to speak, as a tableau vivant. For the action in Vienna, Christoph then turned the tables for the first time, starting with the “Foreigners Out” sign on the container. And the whole event was then a literalisation of this demand and again became a tableau vivant. The delirious game with meaning and short-circuiting meaning that this produced was almost circular in its structure. Meaning was undermined by being taken literally in an act of mimetic corruption, of critique through affirmation. It was like a feedback loop – an act of replication, taking propositions literally, and then everything falling apart again.
Photo: Johann Klinger
ML: Throw money away to save capitalism! He always made the same kind of gesture: make money valueless and at the same time claim to be stabilising the system. The work now referred to as “Foreigners Out” wasn’t called “Foreigners Out”, after all, but “Please Love Austria!” The two movements are “Please Love Austria!” and “Foreigners Out”. The former could conceivably also serve as the slogan for the FPÖ’s next election campaign.
AF: (laughs) Exactly. That is the psychological structure of the double bind, two messages that cannot be reconciled with each other.
ML : As an old mama’s boy, Christoph didn’t have any problem with that.
AF: He had an excellent sense of where things were headed. What he was ultimately trying to get at was nothing other than a certain normalisation of a fascist mindset and the accompanying readiness to believe things that are not true. He reflected this psychological tendency amazingly well – that it doesn’t matter if something is true or not.
"Not even an early evening series on Austrian TV could have got away with that"
ML: As a system of signification, art is still granted more power than reality in Austria. Attacking this system of signification gave more heft to what he was doing, while Berlin in particular is a much more social-democratic place where social questions play a far bigger role. The reactions to such work are different there, of course.
CK: The people in the container were real asylum seekers, who were protected by their status as actors. But in that moment when the whole thing suddenly flipped and it became clear that they actually were asylum seekers, there was a kind of reality shock for the audience. Was that planned, from a dramaturgical perspective – that that would come out at some point?
ML: Yes, it was crucial that they were asylum seekers and not just people who were acting the part. They came from a refugee centre in Graz. Of course Christoph and I and others involved in the project discussed many anxiety-inducing things, among them whether it was okay to say “Foreigners Out”. I was nervous about that at first. Can you risk the blowback that might come out of that? This is why, for example, the asylum seekers wore wigs and were in costume – in an attempt to disguise their identity. At the same time there were always the asylum seekers who were kicked out at the end of each day. There, too, half the people thought they were really being deported, although of course, if you looked closely, it was a kind of fictionalisation in a nonsense theatre, because Schlingensief ’s factotums were wearing some random police uniforms that didn’t fit properly, or a black Mercedes rolled up that had the word polizei laboriously stuck onto it …. Not even an early evening series on Austrian TV could have got away with that. But because they were taken away violently and in handcuffs, most people thought the asylum seekers would now be taken to the Hungarian border.
Photo: Didi Sattmann
CK: The project worked on every level, including the language used to speak to Austrian politicians and Austrian civil servants. It was like a continuous performance piece without a beginning or an end. And everyone was pulled into its maelstrom. What I find interesting about the right wing in Austria is that they have, for a long time, taken left-wing arguments and turned them to right-wing purposes. While, surprisingly, certain right-wing topics are slowly drifting into the infighting of the left. In this piece, under the guise of a dadaistic harlequin performance, Schlingensief deployed the strategies of right-wing speech. Do you see it like that, too?
"One might call it mimetic critique. You yourself do what you want to criticise, and create a picture of something that only works as such thanks to the smallest of differences."
ML: Definitely. But Christoph didn’t establish a clear system from the get-go; it took shape though long conversations. And he had his “psychotic tunnel”, through which he forced certain things to happen against universal opposition, for example the sign saying “Foreigners Out”. The fear was there that it would find applause from the wrong quarters. The whole project was, after all, very much premised upon being right next to the Vienna State Opera. If it had been on the outskirts of Vienna, it would have functioned quite differently; if we hadn’t managed to get the location, half of the project would have been a dud. The presence of the State Opera allowed him once again to show how much the state of Austria and its official actions resemble an operetta. What he really wanted was for there to be a protest surrounding the container that would mean people could no longer hear Netrebko singing in the opera house.
AF: That’s an old strategy that also comes up in literature and many other fields: to devalue something, debase it, undercut it. To make an operetta out of an opera, a Big Brother show out of an operetta. The low form of what then counted as the low form of television.
Photo: Didi Sattmann
ML: And making visible something that normally happens in the realm of the invisible, like the deportations that are happening right now in Germany, where the police apparatus undertakes everything it can to prevent pictures of what’s going on. Of course it was, on the one hand, massively important that the container was a protected fortress that you could look into only through slots, while on the other hand everything that was said inside was recorded on microphones and broadcast to the public. The first prize was supposedly marriage to an Austrian and the right to remain in Austria. On the first day a Tamil refugee who was fooling around said in accented German: “Don’t hit me please … I only want to marry an Austrian.” His accent wasn’t even that strong but it was exactly the kind of thing that got the heart of the situation. There was of course a huge discussion about whether this kind of thing was aesthetically permissible, and what it was meant to accomplish. Around three weeks before the action I had asked Michael Häupl [the mayor of Vienna at the time] whether he would spend a day in the container as a guest. I think Häupl did nothing but tell the Kronen Zeitung about this. Christoph had asked him to do that, but I don’t think he had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve with it. We weren’t sufficiently tuned in to Austrian politics to know who would set what in motion. But the ground was prepared, of course, since the Kronen Zeitung then had it on the front page every day, starting a week before it began.
AF: In no other project did this allocation of roles work so well – far beyond what one might have imagined or thought plausible. Various people simply acting as themselves became part of this performance, transgressed their own boundaries, and repeatedly put the performative character of their identity to the test, pushing it ever further by making themselves part of a theatrical event that again and again turned against them, or at least against some of them. A script was created out of hardly anything at all; the given structure was minimal. Of course, there were new ideas every day – the daily activation that there always was with Schlingensief. But actually he didn’t do much; the big theatrical event continued as an artwork on the stage of the mass media.
Photo: Didi Sattmann
ML: He took on one celebrity per day, there were German classes, and we made recordings of what people were saying in the container. He pushed again and again for things to happen. There was this one woman who was always shouting her head off, and he provoked her again and again so that she kept coming back. And there were also happy coincidences, such as that it was as hot as in the dog days of an Austrian summer, and the temperature shot up to thirty eight degrees. That meant it was unbearably hot in the containers, but also that the locals were on edge, so the whole thing kept escalating.
CK: It was all very well set up: there was the proximity to the State Opera, this theatrical event that worked in a public, urban setting, and then there was its counterpart on the internet and in the media. It seems to me that it was only possible for this reason – because of this intersection between IRL and online space, as one might put it today.
"Would he, in the current aesthetic situation, attempt to overclock Trump still further, or would he take a moral, rational stand?"
AF: Christoph was always someone who exploited the latest opportunities offered by the Web. He also worked on his own website for nights on end …. As far as form is concerned, it’s very important that Christoph realised, before many others did, that the democratic public sphere that the internet offers us generally ends up being something like a toilet wall; that the medium is extremely susceptible to trolling. That leads to a certain structural set-up that is a fertile milieu for populisms and infections. He used this devaluing and undercutting as a strategy, but at the same time he insisted that it retained a mirror function. Holding up a mirror – like a painter of modern life – is an old idea. But this was a dangerous mirror because it could never be taken for granted that it would remain a reflection. The project was risky because it played very openly with various kinds of racism, and playing with racism is like playing with fire. One might call it mimetic critique. You yourself do what you want to criticise, and create a picture of something that only works as such thanks to the smallest of differences.
ML: Simply through its framing by the name Schlingensief.
CK: All the way to that doubling with these fake Schlingensiefs ….
AF: A double, exactly. This was part of a strategy to repudiate the falsifying doubling of reality in the phantasms of the media. Maybe it’s a form of media critique that doesn’t imagine itself as at a safe distance from the object of study but pulls everybody into a psychotic tunnel.
Photo: Didi Sattmann
ML: Aside from that, people always described Schlingensief as an agent provocateur, which he found very annoying. He came to Vienna pre-labelled with [the key phrase from a previous work] “Kill Helmut Kohl!” That made it clear from the start that it was basically impossible for the project to end up siding with Jörg Haider. But at the time it wasn’t totally clear to me either how much power this kind of framing can have.
CK: Why did you invite celebrities to participate in the project?
AF: That comes out of its genealogy in talk shows: in every broadcast you need a few big names.
ML: Yes. And besides, Christoph always had a thing for celebs.
CK: Do you think it would still be possible to do a similar project in our post-Trump era?
ML: The first thing that comes to mind is that these days Schlingensief would be interested in the troll factories of St. Petersburg. But I don’t know how he would start which argument today. At the end of the day the progressive basic thrust of “Please Love Austria!” was to prevent the FPÖ from being part of a governing coalition in future. It was a very tame left-wing project, if you like. Would he, in the current aesthetic situation, attempt to overclock Trump still further, or would he take a moral, rational stand? Christoph didn’t always think such things through to the last detail. Take these five hundred people who are sitting on the edge of St. Petersburg and helped determine the outcome of the American election ... in heaven, he’d now be thinking, “what outcomes could be swayed with a troll factory in Berlin?” Or he’d be thinking about whether five thousand Europeans could migrate to Syria. He would always try to think the opposite of what everyone else was thinking. He wouldn’t be interested in the suffering of refugees between Turkey and Greece, but he’d say: “a large group of people have moved here from Syria, how can we now set in motion a mass migration in the other direction?”
AF: The conditions were of course different from the 90s until the early 2010s. A methodology that relied upon transplanting a state of exception into normality worked well, so long as there was a relatively functional system of consensus – so long as the fascist psychology was not on the surface. Given that that is no longer the case, Christoph would surely have changed his strategy. This outdoing by undercutting, this doubling by short-circuiting – that, too, has stopped working with parts of the new right, also because it has its origins partly in troll culture: the alt-right on the internet, with its semiotic play with mimicry, memes, undercutting and outdoing, cynicism and ressentiment. Such people can’t be outdone and nor can they be undermined.
ML: But he would be interested in a figure like Steve Bannon and in how you can produce fake news that pushes in exactly the opposite direction. He might ask whether Donald Trump is too smart for his job. In this situation, he would once again have dadaistic propositions to make.
Translated by Alexander Scrimgeour.
MATTHIAS LILIENTHAL is the artistic director of the Munich Kammerspiele.
ANSELM FRANKE is the head of the Department of Visual Arts and Film at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin
CHRISTIAN KOBALD is a curator and an editor at Spike.