A report from the festival on feminism and public space in Hamburg
Hamburg’s Rathausmarkt is full of performers. It’s a public holiday in Germany and tourists are dotted about the square posing for photos, while a mime painted entirely blue stands stock still hoping to solicit their attention and money. The performance I’m here to see, however, is to the immediate left of the square, on a pedestrian street flanked on each side by shops. I arrive to find a small crowd surrounding the Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo, who is buried up to her neck in a huge pile of rubble. Over the course of the next 45 minutes a group of women work to free the artist by forming a line and passing pieces of the debris from one person to the next, with the last person in the chain creating a new pile on the pavement.
José Galindo’s performance was commissioned as a part of What Time Is It on the Clock of the World* a festival on feminism and public space which consisted of performances, lectures, workshops and concerts spread over four days in early May. The festival is the last scheduled event by Hamburg’s Stadtkuratorin Sophie Goltz, who for the past three years has curated the public art in the city. Given that one of the successes of recent feminism online has been an increased recognition of the everyday sexism and violence that women encounter in public spaces, the attempt to bring the two concepts together is both relevant and timely.
The second performer of the day, Hannah Black, chose not to appear in public at all: her performance was recorded in a nearby location and played via headphones distributed in the square. Opening with the statement ‘the gaze of others irritates the skin’, Black’s stream of consciousness text touched on many of the reoccurring themes of her writing, such as race ‘a movie about a white man with a name fighting Arab men with no names’; interiority ‘what ever is in your head is what is supposed to be in your head’ as well as self-worth and beauty ‘congratulations you’re beautiful now’.
In hindsight I can’t help but view her performance in connection to activist and writer Tyler Ford’s reading on the final day of the conference. As a person of colour who identifies as gender non-binary, for Ford any excursion in public is proceeded by a series of questions: ‘What do I need to wear to become invisible’, ‘Where can I use the bathroom’ and ‘Can my needs and goals be accomplished at home?’ If part of the thrill of live performance is not knowing how the public will react, whether they will accept or disrupt what plays out before them, Black’s refusal to be present was a reminder that people of colour, or those who identify as LGBTQ, don’t need to ‘stage a performance’ to recreate that situation – their bodies are subject to public consumption every time they step outside.
Black’s performance was also live streamed on the Stadtkuratorin website which is fitting considering Black and Ford both rose to prominence through social media. It also acknowledges the importance of online communities for people like Ford who ‘carve out spaces for ourselves online when no space is granted to us in the physical world’.
From the beginning of the next day’s conference it became clear that the festival was indeed not ‘just’ about feminism. In Sophie Goltz opening speech she spoke of organizing What Time Is It on the Clock of the World* as a response to ‘these hysterical times’; referencing the growing neo-fascism in Europe, which is represented in Germany by the success of far-right political groups such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose leader Frauke Petry advocates shooting refugees at borders.
In the opening lecture Boaventura de Sousa Santos laid the groundwork for rest of the speakers by arguing that the three modes of domination: capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy work in concert and therefore have to be targeted simultaneously. For Sousa Santos, women, people of colour, migrants and asylum seekers are the object of discourses on human rights rather than the subjects of human rights themselves, and are, therefore, treated as ‘subhuman’.
The denial of the humanity of refugees and minorities was a common concern for many of the speakers: in Ovidiu Tichindeleanu’s lecture on the ‘new racism of Eastern Europe’, the philosopher and social theorist looked at the worrying trend of prominent intellectuals spouting anti-refugee rhetoric in the former Eastern Bloc; Nikos Papastergiadis touched upon the idea of the ‘deserving’ human/refugee in his talk on multiculturalism and Che Gossett argued the caging and mass killing of black people and animals can be seen as interlinked.
The ‘Manifestos’ section of the conference, organized in collaboration with Berlin-based writer and blogger Hengameh Yaghoobifarah, brought together four prominent queer writers, performers and activists. These performative contributions, by Travis Alabanza, Tyler Ford, Krishna Istha and Womantis Random, were also gathered into a takeaway ‘zine and aimed to ‘draft a glossary on urban space from a queer-feminist perspective’.
This inclusion brought up the most interesting conversation of the weekend for me when, during a sparsely attended roundtable discussion, Travis Alabanza asked an open question about why there were not more non-binary people of colour present at the festival. Questions followed about whose responsibility it was to encourage attendance, which developed into a general discussion about how to reach people who did not have access to the internet, couldn’t afford travel, or may be simply put of by the formidable building of the Hochschule für bildende Künste (HfbK) where the talks took place.
While I don’t want to speak for others, as a former HfbK student I was surprised why more of the student body were not present at events over the weekend. As previous HfbK talks by grumpy, old, white men Olaf Metzel and Dan Graham were packed out, I can only conclude that the students are simply apathetic about the issues of race, class and gender discussed during What Time Is It ... As one audience member put it, ‘Why would people already in a position of dominance want to learn from others?’
One group that were less than apathetic about the programme, however, was the AfD. During the festival Bürgerschaftskandidat, AfD member, Dr. Alexander Wolf, sent the Hamburg Senat a list of six thinly veiled racist questions about the funding and political inclinations of the participants (as he is a member of the Senat, they are required to answer). The subject of the email can be roughly translated as: ‘“Gender-Ga-Ga” at what cost to the taxpayer?’ His flippant tone not only makes light of the very real problems facing women, minorities and refugees but also brings up the nastiness of the not too distant past where when women were labelled hysterics and locked up for not conforming to prescribed gender roles. With one email Wolf proved the value and continuing necessity of events like this one in Hamburg – no matter whether 50 or 5,000 people show up.