Wanna Play? Game Over
Sometimes ethical claims about public space and 'free expression' conceal private interests and violence against the oppressed. Jacob Bard Rosenberg on the case of Dries Verhoeven and some problematic presuppositions of relational and post-internet art practices
Nationally funded surveillance art is still surveillance – Imri Kahn
A rage has been percolating through the social media of the art scene and the queer scene of Berlin during the last week. The art world and its market still thrive on scandal. This is a story of how an artist, in his work, attacked the gay community in Berlin, and how the rage his attack created was transformed into the sort of scandal that the art world could easily absorb and exploit.
In the middle of last week, Dutch artist Dries Verhoeven set up a large portacabin in Heinrichplatz in the centre of Kreuzberg. One side is made of glass, with white curtains shielding the artist from the clear view of passers by. On visiting the work on Sunday afternoon, the other side was emblazoned with gaffer tape reading ‘RAPIST IN HERE!’ At the corner of the cabin stood a group of locals, met by two stocky skinhead security guards. Verhoeven’s artwork ‘Wanna Play? Liebe in Zeiten von Grindr’ [Love in the times of Grindr], was commissioned and curated by Hebbel am Ufer Theatre (HAU), one of the larger and older arts organisations in Kreuzberg. It was funded jointly by HAU and the Dutch government, as part of the series ‘Treffpunkte’ [meeting places], an artistic exploration of intimacy in the public and private spheres, supported by the Haupstadtkulturfonds [capital city cultural trust.]
The work was due to run from the 1st to the 15th of October. During this time Verhoeven would live in the cabin and communicate with the outside world through the mobile app Grindr – an app designed for gay men to find partners for dates and sexual liaisons. The conversations that he was having with men through the application would be both projected in the square and also streamed on the internet. Although it was claimed that all pictures projected would be anonymised, in fact they were just put into negative so people could still be recognised, and anyone photographing or downloading them could return them to the original image at a click of a button. Verhoeven’s plan was to invite men into the trailer to take part in non-sexual activities.
The visual aesthetic of the piece, with its sleek-but-cheap white lines crammed into a trailer cabin brought to mind some moment in the last years of the 1990s: the first series of Big Brother, and the invention of the iMac. Perhaps this was a conscious decision of the artist: better to make it look like something from a time when the formal aesthetics of the work – the late-1990s craze for ‘Relational Art’ – was still in fashion. But in discussion Verhoeven showed little consciousness that his work was so hackneyed.
Kreuzberg 36, the area around Heinrichplatz, is socially one of the most diverse in Berlin. It is also the centre of the Berlin queer scene. Alongside Kreuzberg’s famous image as a home to the radical Autonomen, and vibrant squatting and punk scenes during the 1980s and 1990s, it also has become home to successive waves of immigrants from Turkey (both ethnic Turks and Kurds), from many countries in the Middle East and the Caucasus, and most recently it became a home to many refugees, mainly from Africa, who set up camp in Oranienplatz, the other end of Oranienstraße in 2012, before they were forcibly evicted by the local authorities, leading to violent clashes between the local community and the police. Many of these migrant communities have also established queer scenes and spaces in the area – at times totally integrated into the cosmopolitanism of Kreuzberg and at times maintaining some separation.
By Thursday last week, the second day of the work, a statement had appeared on Facebook, written by a man named Parker Tilghman. It began, ‘I just experienced the most violating and infuriating experience of my life. I have never felt rage until this evening.’ Parker’s message continued by detailing how he had begun chatting with Verhoeven on Grindr, as well as exchanging pictures, and had been deceived into believing he was being invited to a private address. When he arrived at Heinrichplatz he discovered that their conversation had been projected into the square. He entered the cabin, punched Verhoeven and was subsequently removed. The statement continues, detailing what Parker screamed in Heinrichplatz that afternoon:
you are violating people’s lives, you are publicly mocking people and projecting the pictures and words onto a screen that an entire city block in one of the busiest parts of kreuzberg for everyone to see. what you are doing is digital rape. you are a digital rapist. at no point did you have my consent or notify me that you would be doing anything of the sort. you cannot exploit people like this for your bullshit hipster berlin art world crap.
Parker asked for people to contact HAU to complain, and his statement was widely shared on Facebook. By Sunday a small protest had been organised again on Facebook under the title ‘“Wanna Play?” Not a chance. THIS IS NOT ART.’ But by the time of the protest, HAU had organised something of an alternative: Verhoeven was to appear in ‘public discussion’ that evening at one of the HAU theatres, a mile up the road.
Several hundred people, mainly drawn from Kreuzberg’s gay community and art scene (the two are often closely intertwined), filed into the HAU theatre on Sunday night. In front of them sat four figures on an otherwise empty black stage. The discussion began with Annemie Vanackere, artistic and business manager at HAU announcing that after discussion with Verhoeven they were ending the artwork. She then said that she likes to think of HAU, the theatre, and the art space as a safe place to disagree, and that she was sorry that this safety had been violated despite all steps to secure it.
Verhoeven then began speaking by saying that it felt like being brought to a slaughter house. But his simile was way off the mark: far from the bloodiness and anonymity of the abattoir, the event took a form quite obviously borrowed from the culture industry: this was to be a chat show à la Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle. The two guilty parties, Verhoeven and Vanackere sat together. They were joined by sexologist Prof. Martin Dannecker playing the part of pop psychologist, while dance and theatre theorist Eike Wittrock would play the part of the host. This was one of the most swish pieces of theatrics to grace the stages of Berlin in 2014. A brief history: as tragedy leapt the Atlantic into the TV studios of New York and LA it was given a Christian twist: no longer was the hero to be condemned by fate for his hubris. Instead the everyman would become the little-man, whose archetypal portrait was given in Dale Carnegie’s 1930s self-help manual How to Win Friends and Influence People. He, as amoral as the market he must serve, is set up to be cleansed, his demons exorcised, and his character expiated by the fire of public opinion; but he would live to return to work another day, just as every little-man must. The form is exported back across the Atlantic from the obviously commercial set-ups of the TV studios to an art scene that will still proclaim, albeit falsely, the separation of its activities from the motive of profit and the demands of big capital.
Parker Tilghman then made a statement, which was subsequently posted on Facebook. After an introduction in which he said he thought that the public discussion should not be happening and that he found HAU’s attempts at reconciliation trivial, he said,
I want to make one thing very clear: I have never given, and still do not give my consent to be a part of this project. It should be known that I forbid Mr. Verhoeven to use these encounters, my likeness, my name, or any other reference to me in this current project and any future project. Mr. Verhoeven and HAU cannot profit from my suffering or the suffering of others affected by this project. It is important to me that you understand that I am not ashamed about having my information broadcast in this way. While I still believe it to be illegal and unethical, I am traumatized but not embarrassed about what transpired between us. I am a proud person with no qualms about my sexual desires or public representation.
The discussion continued, albeit at times raucously, but little of interest was said by those being held to account. Everything remained unambiguously contained within the chat show aesthetic. Meanwhile, both Verhoeven and Vanackere refused to answer questions on how much had been paid for the work. When asked about what he would do next, Verhoeven mentioned that he would like to do the same sort of project again but using Tinder instead of Grindr ‘as it has an 80 percent heterosexual user base’ – obviously having learnt nothing from the experience.
Much was intimated about how this artwork is truly innovative in its use of technology – that it is an investigation into the transformations of subjectivity, intimacy and privacy on an online platform. There is no doubt there is much to say about these topics in general, although one finds the significance of the digital often overstated in the art world today due to its attraction to funders. Furthermore, there are genuine social questions about the use of online platforms, and how they change social relations, as well as how people deal with the genuine security risks posed by these applications, ranging from the data leak from Grindr reported just two weeks ago, to the Cambridge University paper which claimed last year that it could predict with 88 percent accuracy the sexuality of Facebook users based on ‘liking’ data. Verhoeven had either intelligently or fortuitously pitched his artwork at the intersection of two artistic trends that continue to dominate in Europe: Relational Art and Post-Internet Art, but perhaps most striking about ‘Wanna Play’ is its absolute failure to engage reflexively with the technology and technical transformations it hoped to explore. Indeed, its form was little different from something that could have been done long before the Internet and Grindr: putting a floodlight and CCTV cameras on a cruising ground. If this work had anything at all to say about the technology of dating and cruising apps, it was merely that using them to out people and to undermine the privacy of gay men is, in 2014, more socially acceptable and more likely to accrue public funding, than a project of turning on the lights in dark rooms of gay clubs. Its conclusion is not only obvious and entirely uninteresting, but was predicated on a cunning thought on how technology might make the abuse of a community socially acceptable.
The argument Verhoeven’s work hoped to make about the technological governance of the distinction of the public and private was also extremely old-fashioned. Already by 1947 Adorno and Horkheimer had remarked that ‘the step from telephone to radio has clearly distinguished the roles. The former liberally permitted the participant to play the role of subject. The latter democratically makes everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations. No mechanism of reply has been developed, and private transmissions are condemned to unfreedom.’ Verhoeven had coupled this to the bizarre notion that the use of Grindr meant a return of gay men to the closet, describing it in a blurb to the work as ‘die Tragik eines neuen Phänomens in den schwulen Communities’ [the tragedy of a new phenomenon in the gay communities]. Despite the fact that much of what happens on Grindr was never uniformly happening in the public eye, he had assumed that by bringing Grindr into the public sphere he would sublimate those apparent repressions that led people to use the application. He failed to notice that his surveillance of the gay community was itself a repressive measure. That is, he failed to understand that the public sphere continues to be in itself repressive.
It probably need not be stated again, but there unfortunately remain many and various reasons, both globally and within Kreuzberg, why people might not come out. Little was said Sunday night of the fact that it was a white, male, successful artist, backed by a well established institution, who was making the decision to out those people in Kreuzberg using Grindr. No questions were asked nor answered about what knowledge or experience he had of dealing with the diverse ramifications that the diverse users of Grindr continue to face in Kreuzberg. And it is worth remarking too, that while Kreuzberg historically has been a place where those disowned by their families and communities have often found support, this is made significantly more difficult by the evictions of squats and enormous increases in rent in the area over the past few years.
But Verhoeven’s misunderstanding of what is at stake in the maintenance of public and private boundaries rests not just on an obtuse stance with regard to a piece of technology, but also on a poetic problem. Relational art takes as its arena the public sphere, but relational art has for the most part refused to acknowledge a dialectical complexity of the public sphere in its bourgeois form: precisely that which is considered public (from the streets to the polity to the ruins of the institutions of the welfare state) are constituted from and conditioned by private interests. We might remember Kant’s famous answer to the question, ‘what is Enlightenment?’ There he says that ‘the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.’ But then quickly adds the caveat that the private use of one’s reason may well be curtailed, and that in particular one ought not to expect to be able to use one’s reason freely at work: that is, in the spaces governed by private interest. But Kant’s public sphere was always a mere fantasy. By the time he wrote these lines any commons had been enclosed. The centuries ushered in by the French Revolution would be an era in which the social totality would be governed by private interests.
Alongside the relational artwork with its claims of an absolutely public arena, belongs a concomitant mode of criticism that would describe itself as ‘ethical’. Ethical criticism and relational art belong to, and justify the continued existence of, the same public sphere. The question of the ethical criticism of art underpinned a great deal of the discussion last night, both in terms of suggesting that the criticism of artworks in the public sphere ought to be ethical, and in suggesting that the ethical critique of artworks is not sufficient to justify their destruction, defunding, or censorship. Indeed, the question of the legitimacy of ethical criticism of artworks has been on people’s minds recently as white South African artist Brett Bailey’s work ‘Exhibit B’, in which black actors were exhibited in cages at the Barbican in London was shut down by protestors two weeks ago. The piece had also been shown around Europe and had resulted in protests when it was shown in Berlin.
Tilghman remarked that he had been attacked by people for his original Facebook post – he was called a Nazi for the suggestion that an artwork should be stopped. To understand what is at stake in these ethical criticisms – which are bolstered by Vanackere’s claims for an art space as a safe space for disagreement – requires a historical setting. As is well known, the 20th century saw much repression of artworks. In Germany the key reference point remains the designation of artworks as degenerate in the 1930s, although the post-war history of the performances of Wagner – particularly Die Meistersinger, with its final chorus ‘Ehrt Eure deutschen Meister’ [‘honour thy German masters’] remains another touchstone. This Germany history is quite different from the comparatively tame matter of the 1960 Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial in the UK. Although the issue in Germany requires a longer history than I can give here, it rests broadly on the establishment of enormous organisations for art in the public realm in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, such as the summer schools in Darmstadt for music, and Documenta for the plastic and visual arts. The appeal to art in the public sphere continues to return its gaze to the national working through of the past through the establishment of these institutions.
The appeal to this historical aspect encourages a mistake in recognising what these protests against artworks are. Must we really consider them ethical, or assume that they need to be couched in these terms? It is certainly true that many purely ethical arguments do not even approach the mark of addressing the matter of the art itself, or its right to existence that they may hope to extinguish. Yet behind the description of these critiques as ethical is an assumption that the aesthetic comportment towards the artwork ought to be distant, contemplative, and leave the artwork (publicly) intact. As with everything else, the public sphere of the art world remains riddled with private interests. The defence of the public space of art refers almost ubiquitously to the maintenance of artworks by art organisations as saleable goods. But an argument can be justifiably made that the attacks on ‘Wanna Play’ were indeed the hard work of aesthetics, an engagement of interpretation, reflexion, critique and response to these works in a way that cannot be reduced to a discursive and purely public ethics. Furthermore, the response from the people of Kreuzberg – an aesthetic comportment of sorts – has begun to address the incision that ‘Wanna Play’ made on both a public and a private plane, with more nuance than the theatrics of HAU.
The point of saying all of this is to comment on the form of the discussion on Sunday night at HAU, and to say something about why a ‘public’ discussion might allow this arts organisation to reconfigure the events of the last week as the sort of productive scandal that has driven artistic valorisation since the Second World War. The issues that we are dealing with function on the boundary of the public and the private: sexuality, trauma, art, have all long been known to have both social and asocial elements. On both sides a troubling leap has been performed: for the private sphere the old bourgeois subject, whose social modus operandi was to secure its individual identity, is revealed to be a mere husk: an apparatus devised for security is exposed to have been empty; the subject is fully dissolved into a figure of pure automatism. Meanwhile, this emptying of the subject is echoed by the establishment of the public sphere as a tabula rasa, a public world devoid of dreams. The persistence of sexuality, trauma, and art gives the lie to these intellectual leaps.
The artwork that takes as its presupposition that it is absolutely public invariably rebounds back into the enduring private realm. We have seen this elsewhere: in 2012 underpaid and precariously employed workers found themselves having to divulge intimate elements of their personal histories to members of the public in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall for four months as part of Tino Seghal’s work ‘These Associations’, and at the end of the work, Seghal thanked those workers for giving to him their personal lives. The distortion and deformation of the private realm remains an interesting question for art, but the assumption that the deformation of humanity by social processes can be combatted by the opening of the private sphere into the public sphere as it is currently constituted is erroneous. As is any suggestion that the artwork is already a public space for public disagreements which can always be conducted safely. This is not to say that all works that hope to lift something private into the public sphere are uniformly bad, nor to denigrate the rich history of artworks that have engaged in this practice. But it is to say that it fails as a universal method, and where it is taken as a presupposition of art it will always lead to a redoubling and reinforcing of the distinction of the public and the private. If there is to ever be freedom it will arise from taking on not just the private as it currently exists, but from challenging the relation of the public and the private as they are mutually and historically constituted.
The conclusion must be that we cannot deal with the fallout of ‘Wanna Play’ in a ‘public discussion.’ And the attempt of HAU to do so, to create a public peace ceremony, is itself a problem: it demeans – and makes more difficult – the intensive private work that those affected will have to undertake in the coming months to come to terms with what has happened, while transforming the violence of the artwork into something HAU think they can be proud of.
It extends the same public sphere that on one day exposed the private elements of people’s sexuality to the public of Kreuzberg into the realm of prophylaxis. Any working through of what has happened, and any protest against the public sphere and its mechanisms of continued surveillance and repression is forced to take place under its glaring lights. The public sphere of the theatre, its platform for conversation, is identical to that which people’s private lives were violently subjected to. In the terms of Adorno and Horkheimer’s thought about the transformation of the telephone to the radio, a mechanism has been designed to reply: the victims of the artwork are to be offered a mouthpiece that will only speak again the same violence with which they were afflicted.
Jacob Bard Rosenberg
 Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. E. Jephcott, pp. 95-96
 For an interesting discussion of this protest see Wail Qasim’s article, ‘Why is the depiction of black slavery considered art, and the protests against it censorship’: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-is...
 For accounts of working within this artwork: Rose Anne Gush, ‘Contemporary Service/Work in Tino Seghal’s "These Associations"': http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2012/11/rose-anne-... and Robbie Ellen, 'Accessible Confrontation' in Mute, 9 Jan 2013: http://www.metamute.org/community/reviews/accessib...