Ruskin student Nathaniel Whitfield on Big Brother for the far-right, and how art alters the immigration debate.
‘Please Love Austria – Foreigners out!’ – the week-long performance / multi-media event by this title was staged in Vienna in 2000 by the German artist film-maker Christoph Schlingensief in his attempt to mobilize public debate about the rise of the FPO (Freedom Party of Austria) and their policies, said to be xenophobic and anti-immigration.
Inspired by the format of Big Brother Schlingensief takes on the role of provocateur within his installation; consisting of a large shipping container in the center of Vienna that served as a temporary dwelling for asylum seekers underneath the blue flag of the FPO and also a banner depicting the slogan ‘Auslander Raus’ (Foreigners Out). The general public were encouraged to vote out their least favorite housemate who would then be sent home with the last one left being declared the winner and be awarded with a large sum of money alongside permission to stay in Austria (if they were able to find an Austrian spouse). The potency of this work can best be understood in the light of the rising xenophobic climate in Austria and also the rise of far-right sentiment in Europe at the time but it also provides an important example of the role a politically engaged mode of performance practise can play in creating a sustained discourse surrounding issues of public concern.
Schlingensief has opted throughout his career to move his work away from the confines of the theatre and out into reality in order to create what he labels as ‘reality theatre’. This, in part, came out of what he saw as a lack of engagement and exchange within the traditional theatrical format of presenting ideas on a stage which, for him, created passive objects out of audience members:
These lying machines bore me in the theatre, where ideas can’t really be grasped, only in an abstract setting.
His staging of ‘Please Love Austria’ was not thought up as a pedagogical project nor was it simply created to actively criticize the FPO (and thus inform the audience of the dangers their politics represent), but within his expanded parameters of his political theatre Schligensief created a spectacle that not only drew in its audience but sought to engage the FPO on their own terms whilst erasing the traditional boundaries between spectator and performer. In a process he termed as ‘self-provocation’ he actively provoked the audience into thinking for themselves.
Schlingensief’s recognition of the rise of interactivity a
s a dominant mode of public discourse alongside the choice to place his work in ‘reality’ meant he gained much notoriety within the media for his undermining of stereotypes and challenging of the status quo. Within ‘Please Love Austria’ Schlingensief’s utilization of the popular format of Big Brother maximized audience interaction, mesmerizing spectators and critics alike, yet paradoxically these spectators remained fully aware of the constructed nature of the reality on display. He also succeeded in boomeranging the ideology of the FPO, led by Nazi sympathizer Jorg Haider, against itself to ‘play out’ in real space its dystopian vision for Austria“I take Haider’s lines and I simply say I’m playing out Haider.” (The FPO used ‘Foreigners Out’ frequently throughout their election campaign). In doing so he manages to create an aesthetic representation of contemporary politics.
It is here, with this politicization of the aesthetic sphere that I turn, particularly in an age of increasingly paranoid border policies, to look at the containers as pointing to the circumstances of their inhabitants, as asylum seekers, in present day Austria as transient and incarcerated. With this reading the container compound references the transnational flows of human cargo (Immigrants / Asylum seekers / Refugees) becoming the latest wave of people impounded on ships, in detention centers and other spaces of transient life. Schlingensief has made visible the invisible forces that discriminate between citizens and non-citizens, creating a model of mobility that addresses the withdrawal of political rights from the migrant. Within the work these contemporary Asylum seekers are produced performatively through slogans, citations, surveillance and containment. Standing underneath the blue flag of the FPO, those trapped within the containers become modern versions of the historical outcast with the FPO as clear perpetrators of political exclusion. Their presence reveals (not just Austria’s) but the West’s power over its non-citizen others. In this light the voting off of a housemate in Big Brother and an Asylum seeker in ‘Please Love Austria’ is shown to amount to the same thing, the exercise of privilege over the other. This radical appropriation of Big Brother gave race ideology a material form gesturing to the social structure of inclusion / exclusion, citizen / foreigner that define a modern sovereign state.
It is this way of working that brings to mind a remark made by Alexander Kluge, “Film is not produced by Auteurs alone but by the dialogue between spectators and authors”. This dialogue is not manifested in its entirety within the film but “in the associations cultivated in the spectators head by ‘the gaps’ between the disparate elements of filmic expression.” The project encouraged its various participants to transcend their engrained habitual perspectives of the world and to question their own socially and culturally determined ways of acting by Schlingensief’s real ‘playing out’ of the potential of the far right to radically transform dreams of freedom into living hell.