The Art of Being Many - Calling Assemblies

 Margaux Weiß


The so called financial crisis that is ongoing since 2008 brought one question to the forefront of political struggle: What is the relation between the many and the few? This question is not only raised each time the crisis proves to foster the concentration of capital in the hands of the fewer and fewer, it is also raised when given instruments of representative democracy, given procedures of political representation, which were designed to make the few stand, speak and decide for the many, once more prove to be dysfunctional. On a different scale, the scale of our own agency as cultural workers in art and activism, the relation between the few and the many is at stake with regard to how we organise resistance and alternatives. How is the relation between the few and the many articulated in our own work?

Since 2003 most of geheimagentur’s projects have tried to open up passages from an economy of shortage to an economy of gift and abundance. Many of these projects were situated between reality and fiction and used the tension between the two as a space for experimentation. They employed an as-if-it-were-real-approach to interventions into the everyday by trying to make a desirable, seemingly fictional, association as real as possible.

The first real fiction geheimagentur produced was the Bank of Burning Money, which opened its counter at the bottom of the towers of Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt in 2004. Eight years later, one of the most real real fictions was the Schwarzbank Oberhausen, the Black Bank of Oberhausen, a bank that issued its own currency and consisted of a network of shop owners, cultural workers and other citizens of the bankrupt city of Oberhausen.

Sooner or later most of these real fiction projects took the shape of assemblies, assemblies of the network of alternative bankers coming together in the theatre of Oberhausen, but also more improbable ones such as, for example, assemblies of those who give each other alibis to cope with neoliberal working conditions, assemblies of tricksters or assemblies of real and wannabe pirates. geheimagentur has not been the only art collective that experimented with improbable assemblies in the past two decades. On the contrary, the mode of the ‘as if’ allowed for the development of a whole new art of assembling, an art that at the same time changed and rearticulated the relations between the few and the many in performance and live art.

One important aspect of this experimentation has been the address, in other words: Who is called to assemble? I first witnessed an experiment with the address when I took part in the Conference of Fare Dodgers by the collective Hygiene Heute in 2002 (Kampnagel Hamburg). Invited and addressed were fare dodgers of all kinds, but at the same time usual audience members, who were addressed ‘as if’ they were fare dodgers and therefore were free to decide for themselves if they actually identified with how they were being addressed. In cases like this it becomes evident that the address resembles a performative paradox or maybe the paradox of performativity itself. Michael Warner described it in his book Publics and Counterpublics: To address a specific public is to presuppose its existence, though it is actually only produced by the address itself, which potentially calls it into being (Warner 2005). In regard to this paradox, working on a real fiction is similar to calling an improbable assembly: It means postulating the existence of an organization, an institution or a network, whose existence is desirable, yet improbable. It means acting as if the respective group actually existed, and thereby calling it into being. This may sound simple but it is not. It is magic, and like all magic, it sometimes works and sometimes does not. Nobody knows beforehand how real a real fiction is going to be, because in order for it to become real, wishful associations and improbable assemblies have to be collective endeavors, happenings which involve friends and strangers. This is why a real fiction is not about the few performing for the many. It is about a few people who start to act as if they were many, to act as if the entities and practices, the wishes and necessities in question already existed, and thereby they might turn out to be many later on. To allow for different degrees of realness to develop, the ‘as if’ has to be a strictly performative one, a gesture of presupposing something which is thereby possibly transformed into collective action. The performative ‘as if’ generates a space for playful experimentation, because even if a real fiction remains fiction and does not become very real, and even if something happens that is very different from what was expected, it can still be an interesting piece of art, a good performance. One could call this ‘the gift of cultural production’. Obviously, this gift is twofold and can be critiqued in terms of commodification. Nevertheless, it creates an experimental space in which we are able to go for the improbable in the first place and to face results just the way they turn out to be. The ‘as if’ enables the few who start to act as if they were many, to imagine the spatial, temporal, dramaturgical shape an assembly might need to take and to setup gatherings accordingly. Beyond the address, other important aspects of this performative shaping of improbable assemblies are the mode of theatricality that is underlying an improbable assembly, the setup of the assembly in terms of material space and media tools, and the modes of participation that are encouraged. All of these aspects were crucial for calling the assembly of the Many.

- Written by Sibylle Peters of Theatre of Research (Germany)


Buy: The Art of Being Many - Towards a New Theory and Practice of Gathering

Eds geheimagentur, Martin Jörg Schäfer, Vassilis S. Tsianos

geheimagentur is an open collective working in Performance Art, Cultural Studies, and activism. Martin Jörg Schäfer teaches Literature and Performance Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. Vassilis S. Tsianos teaches sociology at the University for Applied Sciences Kiel, Germany.