Post by Erica Fagen
Freddie Rokem, the well-known theatre scholar, describes theatre and performance as a form of “witnessing.”[i] He argues that in theatrical performances set against actual historical events like French Revolution or the Second World War, the actor often assumes the place of the now-dead witness.[ii] They also play the role of historian or “hyper-historian” in a sense, as they “serve as connecting link between the historical past and the ”fictional.””[iii] Though his work relates to theatre specifically, it is nonetheless a useful method to think about performance as an act of . In order to understand the role of photographers like PM Cheung and others, it is useful to understand their role as photographers as the “witnesses” and “hyper-historians” Rokem describes. When they document the anti-Nazi rallies they attend, they assume the role of the actor and become witnesses to the events unraveling, and thus the authority or “hyper-historian” who will be documenting the events which passed at these demonstrations. To think of the anti-Nazi demonstrations and rallies as a performance and the photographers as an actor/witness/hyper-historian, one can better conceptualize how to think of Flickr as a centre of history-making, and thus can help historians understand how social media can help bridge historical understanding.
The photographs of PM Cheung, Thomas Rassloff and Boeseraltermann contain strong elements of performance. Both anti-Nazi and neo-Nazi demonstrations have performative aspects to them, as Fabian Virchow emphasizes. Neo-Nazi demonstrations, explains Virchow, have a performative nature to them, which includes “its symbols, marching order, slogans, etc.”[iv] Anti-Nazi activists, whose message is obviously quite different from that of neo-Nazis, use slogans and symbols for their rallies and counter-demonstrations. The performative stance of anti-Nazi protestors, whether it be through slogans, or more creative means like balloons, are of utmost significance to discuss. Performance for these anti-Nazi activists takes place at first on the street, and continued through social media. These anti-Nazi protesters, documented by PM Cheung and Thomas Rassloff, are “performing” their activism, and the photographers are there to document and “witness” their actions.
In order to better understand how people perform their activism on the street, it is useful to consult Paul Routledge”s article on “sensuous solidarities.” In this piece, he discusses the CIRCA organization which was present at the G8 protests in Gleneagles, Scotland.[v] CIRCA is a group of protestors who dress up as clowns to demonstrations. The image of the clown or the jester is associated with humour and ridicule, and has been the case for centuries.[vi] The performative nature of CIRCA’s protests is crucial to consider. They present themselves as a clown army, performing their activist stance through their bizarre costumes. It is the notion of the absurd, of the creative, which merits the most attention, as activists who combat neo-Nazism also use creative means. As Routledge explains,
“clown faces exaggerated the absurdity of the notion of a clown army. While military uniforms are associative of war/security (in the form of the regular army) and aggression/militancy (in the form of certain types of grassroots activism), the (deconstructed) rebel clown multiform in combination with the usually friendly clown face was a deliberate attempt to undermine the intimidation and violence associated with alter-globalization protests. Clown faces and multiforms served to magnify activists’ commonality and enabled activists to act together, while at the same time attracting media attention.”[vii]
These clown faces encapsulate ideas of the bizarre and absurd to protest, and can thus be seen as a creative form of demonstrating. Routledge goes on further in his article to discuss rebel clown logic, which he describes as “an associative logic, based on visual signs, wordplay and emotional resonance. It drew explicitly on key elements of clowning, attempting through playful confrontation to exaggerate and invert the social order, retextualizing it in order to reveal its absurdity, and invite others (such as the public) to reconsider it. Rebel clown logic was combined with the multiforms, clown faces, and clown manoeuvres in order to attempt to subvert the hegemonic logic and the taken-for-granted world articulated by the G8.”[viii] It is important to consider that Routledge emphasizes both the playful and subversive nature of CIRCA’s protests. Like the clown costumes Routledge describes, the activists in PM Cheung, Thomas Rassloff, and Boeseraltermann”s photographs use both playful and subversive themes to get their message across. Cheung and Rassloff capture playful and subversive actions with their photographs of balloons, while Boeseraltermann does so with his photographs of Hitler caricatures and toilet humour. These three photographers fill the role of the actor/witness that Rokem illustrates; they are in the thick of the action, of the protests, documenting what they see. They also act as hyper-historians, not only for the reason that they are telling, or narrating the stories of anti-Nazi demonstrations, but also because their work is presented the global Web audience to discuss and share.
Thomas Rassloff, PM Cheung, and Boeseraltermann’s work with unconventional imagery can be interpreted as playful and subversive. Both men document and “witness” an anti-Nazi rally in Neuruppin, located in eastern Germany. What is particularly striking about these images is that they feature orange and white balloons with the message “Kein Ort für Nazis” (No place for Nazis) written on them. They can be seen here and here. The performance of the young boy is particularly striking, as it raises questions of who is involved in protest and why photographers feature certain images.[ix] These performances through the use of balloons give scholars a lot to ponder. Like the clowns, people are using images not commonly associated with protest. This performative aspect of protest, by using balloons as a kind of prop to share their voices and opinions, can be thought as creative, like the CIRCA clown protests. Using creative means to protest is not limited to Flickr and social media; creative forms of protest, it should be noted, can be found elsewhere. For example, Nabil Echachaibi in his article explains that North African youth in France use radio as well as hip-hop and rap music to express their discontent with French politics.[x] For them, using music is a means of performance, creativity and activism. Going back to social media, creative and playful performance is exemplified in this photo taken by PM Cheung. This image depicts anti-Nazi slogans such as “Nazis – Nein Danke!” written in red and blue on white building blocks. This photograph encapsulates both the playful and subversive themes highlighted earlier, and further strengthens the argument that PM Cheung and Thomas Rassloff act as “witnesses,” as they are documenting events from demonstrations. Playful and subversive images can also be found in the photographs of Boeseraltermann. Boeseraltermann, who describes himself as an activist against neo-Nazis, takes photographs of swastikas in garbage cans, of slogans and illustrations comparing neo-Nazis to excrement, as well as other humourous images. One of of these images can be seen here. By using the absurd to protest, Boeseraltermann is documenting alternative ways to combat the far-right. As a “witness” to events happening, he is documenting the events that are unfolding.
Boeseraltermann’s actions as an actor/witness goes beyond the theatre of street protest. He and other photographers on Flickr act as “alter-activists,”[xi] to borrow a term from Jeffrey Juris and Geoffrey Henri Pleyers. The authors write that alter-activists “participate in broader global justice events, including regional and world social forums, but they do so by keeping ‘one foot in, and one foot out’, maintaining a critical attitude toward internal hierarchies and non-democratic practices. Alter-activist discourses and practices, which are characterised by creative forms of action and an emphasis on process and experimentation, are found among young people around the world, but are more prevalent in Europe and North America.”[xii] What the authors argue describe Boeseraltermann’s role quite well. He sees himself as an activist, which he makes clear in his Flickr profile.[xiii] Most importantly, however, is that Boeseraltermann, along with PM Cheung, Thomas Rassloff and other photographers documenting opposition to neo-Nazis, is that he is participating in a creative, playful, and subversive form of action. By using Flickr and interacting with other users, whether it is by favoriting their photographs or following fellow activist amateur photographers on Twitter,[xiv] Boeseraltermann is engaging in a creative form of protest. He is taking photographs poking fun at Nazis, such as a garden gnome with an uncanny resemblance to Hitler giving the “Heil Hitler” salute, to which it is crossed out in red and the words “Nazis Stoppen!” written underneath. In the same album,[xv] there is a photograph of a man with his face obscurred holding a cardboard sign with a caricature of Hitler and “Nazis sind doof” (Nazis are stupid) written underneath it. Boeseraltermann continues to be creative with his more witty, subversive photographs such as this one, which depicts a Port-o-Potty with a sign on top which reads “Braunes ins klo,” and a swastika going into the toilet. Creative activism, which encompasses playful and subversive photo subjects, is central to Boeseraltermann’s photo-taking and photo-sharing skills, and one that historians should seriously take into account.
The photographs of PM Cheung, Thomas Rassloff, Boeseraltermann and others should be seen within the context of performance and of “witnessing,” but also as involvement with more creative forms of protesting. Viewing their photographs and Flickr as a medium fulfill what Belinda Davis, Timothy Brown and Lorena Anton argue regarding protest. Davis explains that Europeans continue to write their history of protest,[xvi] with Brown and Anton who argue that protest is no longer limited to the streets, but to a number of spheres.[xvii] The photographers in discussion are Europeans who, as hyper-historians, are writing their history of protest, and are doing so on the sphere of social media. Freddie Rokem’s words resonate with this new, digital format of protest – these photographers, by their involvement in the performance and theatrics of protest, are “witnesses” to the production of history.
[iii] Rokem, Performing History,13.
[iv] Fabian Virchow, “Performance, Emotion, and Ideology: On the Creation of “Collectives of Emotion” and Worldview in the Contemporary German Far Right,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 36, no. 2 (2007): 158.
[v] Paul Routledge, “Sensuous Solidarities: Emotion, Politics and Performance in the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army,” Antipode, 44, no. 2 (2012): 428-452.
[vi] Routledge, “Sensuous Solidarities,” 432.
[vii] Routledge, “Sensuous Solidarities,” 436.
[viii] Routledge, “Sensuous Solidarities,” 438.
[xi] Jeffrey D. Juris and Geoffrey Henri Pleyers, “Alter-activism: emerging cultures of participation among young global justice activists,” Journal of Youth Studies 12, no. 1 (February 2009): 57-75.
[xii] Juris and Pleyers, “Alter-activism,” 63.
[xiii] He writes, in German, of his activism and frustration with neo-Nazis and major news outlets. “Christian Jäger (Boeseraltermann)”s photostream,” Flickr. n.d., accessed May 17, 2012. http://www.flickr.com/people/boeseraltermannberlin/
[xiv] Thanks to David Cranswick”s work on Evernote, I was able to find the Twitter accounts of Boeseraltermann, PM Cheung, and Thomas Rassloff. When I looked through their followers and followees, I found that these three men follow eachother.
[xvi] Belinda Davis, “What’s Left? Popular and Democratic Political Participation in Postwar Europe,” The American Historical Review. 113, no. 2 (April 2008): 390.
[xvii] Timothy Brown and Lorena Anton, eds, Between the Avant-Garde and the Everyday: Subversive Politics in Europe from 1957 to the Present, Vol. 6, Protest, Culture & Society (New York: Berghann Books, 2011): 1.