disintegrate! 3. Berliner Herbstsalon 03/2018, Camera Austria International

Contemporary art, it seems, has officially entered a state of crisis—at the latest since a shitstorm hit the fourteenth documenta, pointing out the budget deficit it created. Although this might be considered ridiculous compared to, let’s say, the dimensions of global art market speculation. It’s been some time since contemporary art has become the plaything of finance capital. So when the Volksbühne theater in Berlin decided to hire former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, activists occupied the venue, condemning the call an action of capitalist city marketing. Given these circumstances many ask: Does art still hold any critical potential?

It is another theater institution in Berlin that celebrates exactly this potential. Inaugurated at the Maxim Gorki Theater in 2013 with around thirty positions and conceptualized as a prologue to the season, the Berliner Herbstsalon (the title refers to Herwarth Walden’s “Erster Berliner Herbstsalon” of 1913) now runs every two years. It quickly gained a reputation in the art world and has become one of the few bigger events not made for collectors and a complacent scene, but an invitation to artists, activists, and the audience to collectively imagine alternative realities. It is embedded in the larger critical agenda of the Gorki program, whose director Shermin Langhoff, with her concept of the post-migrant theater, inspires discourse at the intersections of political culture, gender, and migration.

Calling for the courage to “disintegrate!,” the third edition confidently staged contemporary art as an agent of cultural critique. It showcased a variety of decolonial, feminist, and other critical positions, many of which dealt with the many faces of neo-fascist ideology. A show with an attitude and refreshingly fast-paced (two weeks of runtime with opening hours till 11 p.m. at free entry), it eclipsed established art events and was not afraid to densely line up loud pieces (about hundred works, a number produced for the occasion, flanked by political performances and theater pieces) devoid of complex curatorial context.

The exhibition spread out across the theater building itself, two more historical buildings in the vicinity, and public space. Lara Schnitger opened with the feminist procession “Suffragette City” (2015–17) down the boulevard Unter den Linden, close to which the Gorki is located, protesting against what she calls “a far from post-patriarchal” society. In front of the Brandenburg Gate, Syrian artist Manaf Halbouni installed his sculpture “Monument” (2017) that references a photograph showing an Aleppo road block with three busses, first installed and much attacked in Dresden, the capital of Saxony and hub of the neo-Nazi scene and the far-right “Pegida” movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West). In the Gorki Foyer, emails and letters the artist received in response to “Monument” were on display, many of them reminiscent of the rhetoric against the so called “degenerate art” in Nazi Germany.

One of the historical buildings taken over by the exhibition was the Kronprinzenpalais. In 1919, the Galerie der Lebenden (Gallery of the Living) was established here, the first contemporary art museum in the world (showing the defamed “degenerate art”), which was eventually shut down by the Nazis. The banquet hall later became the site of the signing of the German reunification agreement in 1990. The works placed here thus entered into a multifaceted dialogue with history that added to a critical reading of the present. Elske Rosenfeld presented “Ein bisschen eine komplexe Situation” (A Bit of a Complex Situation, 2014), the outcome of a series of performative interventions into video material documenting the Central Round Table in 1989. In this meeting, different GDR revolutionaries struggled for common ground, hoping for a reformed democratic and socialist state, a hope dashed by the rapidly enforced reunification. Rosenfeld focuses on moments of insecurity, rewinding, and repeating statements and gestures, thus pointing at the fragility of the historical events the present is constructed upon.

The post-revolutionary period in Eastern Germany witnessed the quick growth of an extreme-right ideology and youth culture, which Henrike Naumann, whose work “Das Reich” (2017) was placed next to Rosenfeld’s, found a metaphor for in post-socialist living rooms in the 1990s, freshly furnished with mass products from the West. In these immersive environments, she integrates video and sound works, for which she mainly remixes found media footage. For “Das Reich,” Naumann took as a point of departure the so-called “Reichsbürgerbewegung” (Reich Citizens’ Movement) that questions the legal existence of the German state. The generation raised in the rooms Naumann displayed is the subject of “Alles” (All, 1997–2005), photographs by Tobias Zielony portraying teenagers in suburban settings in the East and the West. Unfolding in a long row of small, unframed prints between Rosenfeld’s analytical questioning of the course of history and Naumann’s sociological approach, Zielony’s well-known work gained new facets of meaning.

While the Reich Citizens are dreaming themselves back to the German Reich in its pre-World War II borders, the protagonist of Sven Johne’s video “Lieber Wladimir Putin” (Dear Vladimir Putin, 2017), which premiered at the Herbstsalon, fantasizes about a future annexation of the German state of Saxony by imperial Russia. He practices a monologue in front of a mirror, while getting ready for the soon-to-be-recorded video message for the Russian president. The work was inspired by a Pegida demonstration Johne observed in Dresden, where Russian flags were swung next to the Saxonian. It reflects upon the complex mental state of a left-behind generation disappointed by Western democracy and capitalism.

Two projects in which the realms of art practice and political activism merge joined forces. The People’s Tribunal “Unraveling the NSU Complex,” an activist alliance founded in 2015, takes the point of view of those targeted by the far-right terror group NSU (National Socialist Underground), a point of view radically neglected in public discourse. With a series of presentations and publications, the alliance sheds light on the experience of the relatives of those murdered, one that is marked by structural and institutional racism. At the time of the killing of twenty-one-year-old Halit Yozgat in an Internet café run by his family, an internal security agent from the State Office for Constitutional Protection was for instance present, but later denied having noticed anything. The research group Forensic Architecture led by Eyal Weizman investigated his statement and proved it wrong. The results were presented at the Herbstsalon and earlier at the documenta in Kassel.

The many established and young positions, of which only a few can be mentioned here, imagined an impressive variety of alternative forms of criticism and activism. Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf developed the video work “4. Halbzeit” (4th Halftime, 2017) for the exhibition, dealing with football fans and ultras in the context of social uprisings, such as the Gezi protests or the Arab Spring, where they’ve played central roles. For the photo series “I Pissed on Your Land” (2017), Selma Selman peed on the former Adolf-Hitler-Platz in Weimar in front of the former Gauforum that today hosts Thuringia’s state government and a shopping center, drawing attention to the genocide of the Roma during National Socialism. Delaine and Damian Le Bas (the latter having just recently passed away) collaged media that transport marginalizing European policies in their installation “Safe European Home?” (2011–17). They also created the artwork for the Gorki production “Roma Armee” (Roma Army, 2017) directed by Yael Ronen that deals with the European drift into neo-fascism and calls for a self-defensive Roma army. For “Everything’s Coming Together, While Everything’s Falling Apart” (2016–17), Oliver Ressler showed three videos documenting climate activism against an economic system dependent on fossil fuels. Whether the present ecological, social, and economic crisis will be overcome, he states, is primarily a question of political power. It is also essentially a question of imagination, of awakening from a capitalist narcosis to be able to imagine alternative realities. To “disintegrate!,” in this sense, for contemporary art practice must also mean to break out of the neoliberal context of art production (and presentation) to be able to reimagine its critical potential.