The End of the Monolog

Olaf Nicolai, Clouds (2021), watercolor on handmade paper

The Argentine artist Leon Ferrari speaks of the daily madness that is necessary for everything to seem normal. In this sense, our work at Haus der Kulturen der Welt can be understood as an attempt to create cracks in these constructs of normality that make the madness at work recognizable. I would like to demonstrate this approach with two projects that span a coordinate system of our work in recent years.

The artist Maria Eichhorn, who designed the German contribution at the Venice Biennale this year, was invited by us in 2015 to do a project about the site on which HKW now stands. In historical archives she discovered that the former Congress Hall was built on the ruins of a Jewish residential quarter, which included the clinic of the sexologist and founder of the homosexual movement, Magnus Hirschfeld.

In her work, Maria Eichhorn makes the violence hidden beneath and within the structures of the building’s architecture discernible.

Hirschfeld was forced to flee in the 1930s. The Jewish owner of the other buildings was forced to sell her property below value to a German lawyer. He, in turn, sold the property to the state of Berlin after the war for a much higher price. The Jewish owner was deported to a concentration camp. The restitution claim by her sons, who had fled to Latin America, was rejected.

In her work, Maria Eichhorn uses markings to make the old residential buildings that were once located on the HKW site visible. In this way, the violence hidden beneath and within the structures of the building’s architecture becomes discernible: a violence that exterminated the Other, the Jews, in the name of a nationalist idea.

Challenging strategies of forgetting

This project illustrates the persistence of National Socialism in Germany after 1945. The German notary who had unlawfully enriched himself from the Jewish family’s property maintained a renowned law firm in Düsseldorf until the 1970s. The Congress Hall, built in 1957, was a gift from the United States to the city of Berlin. Eleanor Dulles, who was a major driving force behind the project, saw the open architecture as a symbol of democratic freedom that radiated into the Eastern bloc on the border with East Berlin. The building, erected on the ruins of a Jewish quarter, was intended to mask that very past by embodying universalist values in the context of the Cold War. The postwar period was typified by such strategies of forgetting. In the new Federal Republic, they created a surface under which nationalist ideas and National Socialist careers remained hidden for a long time.

In retrospect, it could hardly come as a surprise to attentive observers of German history that an only seemingly “new” nationalist right entered the public stage in the 2010s, seamlessly echoing Nazi ideas and eventually even entering the German Bundestag in the form of the AfD. As a place inscribed with the wounds of this history, HKW therefore saw combating the associated forms of anti-Semitism and exposing its logics as an important task, as was most recently done in the conference Hijacking Memory.

Olaf Nicolai, Clouds (2022), watercolor on handmade paper

Olaf Nicolai, Clouds (2022), watercolor on handmade paper

Exposing lines of memory

But there is a second line of memory inscribed in the house. It was referred to in a project by the recently deceased artist Jimmie Durham, an important Indigenous US artist who had lived in Berlin since the mid-1990s.

In Building a Nation, Jimmie Durham counters the idea of making architecture an instrument of nation-building. In this sense, the work is a commentary on the Congress Hall, which was supposed to be an architectural contribution to the democratization of Germany after World War II. The installation consists of scraps of civilization, from wooden panels to broken whiskey bottles to demolished car parts. The assemblage marks the dissolution of Western civilization at its edges, the implosion of the universalist settlers’ dream to colonize and dominate the world.

Durham’s work includes a direct reference to an inscription in the building that represents the violence that comes from this universalism. It is a quote from Benjamin Franklin, in which he praises the idea of freedom and calls for a world in which a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: “This is my country.” The installation counters this statement by Franklin with quotes in which Franklin and other U.S. leaders describe Native Americans as “savages,” “scum of the earth,” etc. He thereby demonstrates the violence that emanates from the Western project of civilization by excluding others from that civilization in order to colonize and exploit them.

The installation consisting of scraps of civilization, from wooden panels to broken whiskey bottles to demolished car parts marks the implosion of the universalist settlers’ dream to colonize and dominate the world.

This illustrates that the two levels of meaning inscribed in the demand of “Never again!” belong to the founding mission of HKW. In addition to the particular understanding that there must never be another Holocaust against the Jews, there is also the universalist interpretation: the struggle against all forms of genocide that led to the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II. Jimmie Durham’s work draws attention to the fact that various forms of genocide were part of the Western modernist project from the beginning, excluding large parts of the world from universalism through colonialism and imperialism based on racism.

Delegitimizing processes of exclusion

In May of this year, we dealt with these mechanisms of exclusion, which are intended to normalize the modes of operation of the modernity project in Ferrari’s sense, in the project Die Zivilisationsfrage, at the center of which was an examination of the new book by David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. The two authors show how, in the context of the European Enlightenment, a standard model of human history was developed that played a fundamental and legitimizing role for such exclusionary processes. This model was developed to neutralize criticism from other parts of the world about the lack of freedom and the dominance of private property in Europe. The standard model of the history of civilization uses evolutionist logic to describe a linear development of humanity from simple and primitive to increasingly complex social forms, from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies to pastoralism and agrarianism to capitalist developments. In this standard model, Indigenous societies are assigned to a pre-civilization state of nature. This model was continued in the nineteenth century’s “scientific” theories of racism, whose patterns of thought still shape discourses today.

With it, Europe created a world model that both legitimized its colonial and imperial aspirations, and, in the name of progress, at the forefront of which it saw itself, made its own position appear to have no alternative. In this way, the substantial spaces of freedom called for by Indigenous critique were eliminated. The critical self-reflection of one’s own project through exchange with others – genuine enlightenment – was disavowed by colonial and internal power interests.

Olaf Nicolai, Clouds (2022), watercolor on handmade paper

Olaf Nicolai, Clouds (2022), watercolor on handmade paper

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, this leads us to a dual problem, which Haus der Kulturen der Welt has dealt with in further projects. On the one hand, the human-made climate crisis and the further effects of unbridled growth show that the Western one-dimensional evolutionist model of civilization is leading us to the brink of collapse. HKW deals with this crisis in its Anthropocene Project. At the same time, ever more voices are coming forward from the colonized countries that have long been oppressed and exploited, bringing their own perspectives into the global discourse. They are no longer willing to fit into the master narrative proclaimed by the West in order to catch up with a development in which the West is always a few steps ahead of them. This involves a critical examination of the violence and oppression of the past as well as the design of alternative models of living and thinking for the future.

It is equally in the interest of Western societies and the formerly exploited and colonized societies to give up the Western claim to sole representation of reason and thus symbolic supremacy. This is a painful process, since old certainties are called into question, existing patterns of orientation lose their relevance, and interpretive authority over discourses must be relinquished.

Olaf Nicolai, Clouds (2021), watercolor on handmade paper

Olaf Nicolai, Clouds (2021), watercolor on handmade paper

Opening a new political horizon

In this sense, HKW has made it its task in recent years to question the exclusion mechanisms of Western modernity associated with colonialism and racism and to open a new political horizon. The aim is to transform Germany, a country of immigration, from a still nationally shaped understanding of its own identity into a plural and polyphonic society. However, this project can only succeed if the voices of those who have been colonized, oppressed and exploited over centuries are included from the very beginning. The Archive of Refuge project set a very important example in this regard.

We need forms of conversation that reflect the contexts of violence out of which our societies have emerged and that promote negotiation of new world concepts.

The work of HKW in recent years, briefly outlined here, has been to bring home the message that Western-influenced reference systems in art and science, in economics and politics, have put the planet in the crisis it is in today – from climate change to species extinction and unprecedented migration movements. The exclusion of non-Western societies has played a fundamental role in this. A new concept of dialogue is therefore urgently needed. The previous demand for a “dialogue on an equal footing” with non-Western societies was intended to conceal the fact that it was the West that determined the footing to which the others were to be lifted. Such paternalistic gestures, which appealed to the good and the true in the sense of a false understanding of universalism, are obsolete. They were monologues by the West with itself. We need forms of conversation that reflect the contexts of violence out of which our societies have emerged and that promote negotiation of new world concepts while recognizing distinct conflicting interests and forms of perception.

In view of our planetary challenges, we need to differentiate these distinct positions in the future to avoid a destructive battle of cultures and to bring all the voices that are important for the future of our societies to the same table. This is the only way we can keep spaces for discourse open. This is the only way to develop possible solutions to existential global problems. And only in this way can a piece of meaningful, shared reality be wrested from the madness that we regard as normality.

The text is based on a speech given by Bernd Scherer at HKW on August 31, 2022. The essay also lays the ground for the last volume of the series The New Alphabet, The New Institution, edited by Bernd Scherer, with contributions by Eyal Weizman, Adania Shibli, Maria Hlavajova and others, to be released in December 2022.