Sunday, July 27, 2008

Walking and Blogging

Polish-Canadian artist Kinga Araya, who's been living in Berlin, has just completed her latest project: walking the entire 160-kilometer course of the former Berlin Wall to commemorate her own defection from Poland (which took place on foot) twenty years ago while on an art students' field trip to Poland. Araya's art often concerns itself with walking and its many modes and implications. Sometimes she straps on a prosthetic leg (for her performance piece "Grounded", 1999); sometimes she dances in shoes made of ice ("Cold Feet", 2003). In a different mode, I particularly like her 2004 series of self-portraits, "Domestic Exiles", in which she responds photographically to the work of Walter Benjamin, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Simone Weil, Judith Butler, Martin Jay and Edward Said.
A very basic account of Kinga Araya's Berlin Wall project can be found on her Blogger site Performing Exile; I'm looking forward to the appearance of the full documentation on her main website.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Obama's Love Parade

By most reports the turnout for Barack Obama's speech yesterday was 200,000 people, packing the broad avenue in front of the Siegessäule (Victory Column). This is the same stretch of asphalt that was often the site of the huge annual open-air techno party called Love Parade. And as this Reuters photo suggests, there was plenty of love to go around:

The Tagesschau daily news website posted a poll today asking whether people thought all the fuss surrounding Obama's visit was justified; more than two out of three who responded said no, the implication being that most Germans found his speech uncontroversial if not inspirational. Reporter Corinna Emundts declared that "The senator from Illinois came, spoke and conquered" (, and Michael Schlieben, writing for Die Zeit, calls Obama "a modern hero who meets with approval everywhere from the taz [strongly left-leaning] to the FAZ [conservative]. Not that there weren't other responses. Stefan Kornelius snarks in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that four years after winning an election would have been better timing for a "mass spectacle" of these proportions - though he does also point out that Obama succeeded in making the point, for the benefit of Americans at home, that it might indeed be possible for people in other countries to love the United States again, the past decades' warmongering notwithstanding. The Obama supporters trolling the crowd passed out not Obama banners but American flags, which did indeed get waved - something that would have been unthinkable in Berlin even half a year ago.

In Germany, the notion 'mass spectacle' calls to mind, even now, the Nuremberg rallies and the crowds who flocked to cheer their charismatic Führer. One friend from Berlin wrote to me yesterday that the sight of all those hands ecstatically raised to hold digicams aloft reminded her of the old films of crowds making the Nazi salute. This isn't so much a comment on Obama and his speech as a basic discomfort with the very concept 'charismatic politician.' Looking at old films, it may be hard for us to understand how it was that Hitler was able to summon the charisma to galvanize large crowds, but clearly that was his specialty. It would be hard to imagine a less Hitler-like figure than Barack Obama, but some Germans seem to be made nervous by the very fact that they like him so much.

By the way, it turns out that Obama had a German great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama ante portas

Barack Obama's scheduled appearance in Berlin later today got me thinking about the history of Berliners as audiences for and commentators on Americans, American culture and American politics.

Berliners have a special feeling for America and Americans that can be explained only by going back to 1948-1949, the year of the “Luftbrücke” or “air bridge.” After the Soviet Union cut off supplies to West Berlin in an attempt to force the city to become part of the Eastern Bloc, the American government flew in a steady stream of food on airplanes affectionately referred to by locals as “raisin bombers.” The Airlift lives on in the hearts and minds of Berliners. So does John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, held at the Schöneberg district town hall to reiterate America’s support for a democratic West Germany after the construction of the Berlin wall. A few days after September 11, the broad steps leading up to this very building had vanished beneath a sea of flowers—not wreaths deposited symbolically by some government agency, but many thousands of small individual bouquets brought by neighbors who wished to express their sorrow over the tragedy that had befallen their American friends.

The Berliners love us like brothers and sisters: They not only wish for us to prosper and flourish but feel pained by our flaws. Germany has its own problems with racial violence and xenophobia, not to mention the legacy of murderous anti-Semitism that is a source of trauma and grief for most Germans today. But Berliners are simply shocked at the existence of racism in America, particularly given their positive experience of the American military as a multi-racial institution in the years following WWII. African-American soldiers liberated concentration camps and were among the “friendly” occupiers of West Berlin, a far cry from the grim military presence in the city’s Soviet sector.

This sisterly-brotherly love was very much in evidence before the Brandenburg Gate on September 14, 2001, when 200,000 Berliners gathered to express their support for the United States in its hour of need. The Gate itself and the stage mounted before it were draped in banners printed with condolences and reaffirmations of Gerhard Schröder’s initial response to the catastrophe: a promise of “unconditional solidarity.” But now—as the first drumbeats of war were being sounded in Washington three days after 9/11—the message was augmented by a second one, a call for “Besonnenheit” or sober-minded reflection. This word, spoken by German Federal President Johannes Rau, was echoed by hundreds of hand-made signs held aloft by Berliners wishing to convey a more complex message: America, our hearts bleed for you, but please don’t go to war!

The Berliners I know see in Barack Obama’s dramatic success as a presidential candidate a hopeful sign that our country is turning over a new leaf, even at a moment that finds us embroiled in what most Germans are quick to condemn as a tragically misguided military intervention in Iraq. Finally, we seem on the point of choosing something that will make our brothers and sisters in Berlin proud of us: an American presidential candidate who stands for an end to militarism and racial injustice.

By choosing to speak not just to German politicians but to the people of Berlin, Obama is wisely tapping into a deep current of German-American goodwill and fellow-feeling: the same sort of grassroots appeal that has served him so well on American soil.