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BERLIN — Kasper König is one of the gatekeepers of the German art world and long-time director of renowned museums such as Portikus in Frankfurt am Main (which he founded in 1987) and Museum Ludwig in Cologne (where he served as director between 2000 and 2012). Every two months, he holds a panel discussion in a Munich municipal theater, Munich Kammerspiele, where artists and curators are invited to the “König Series,” talks which aim to deepen understanding on topics ranging from art and culture to social issues.
On November 12, the panel was set to discuss the term “Heimat” (a German word roughly translating to “home” or “homeland”) with Cana Bilir-Meier, a contemporary German artist of Turkish descent, and Henrike Naumann und Wilhelm Klotzek, two artists of German descent. The goal was to examine the far-right turn in German politics.
In a Facebook post published a few hours after the event, Bilir-Meier accused König of racist behavior for making off-hand remarks about Turks as petty criminals and Mercedes-Benz-driving nuisances. During the talk, König made references to the idea of an ethnically pure Germany, void of Turkish migrants (translated from German):
Those guys [referring to German-Turks], all have these fancy, matte-coated cars, they drive around with a kind of aggression like assholes. All the while the women have to sit outside, smoking [gesturing shisha] Well … [Quoting imaginary Turkish car owners] ‘That is then … Our territory!’ [Stops quoting] But, that can’t really can’t be true. With what kind of aggression! One kind of aggression simply leads to the other. But in this case, like in Kreuzberg, where tourists walk around and actually find this all of this chic, because, that is so to say, a multicultural extreme. And, having lived many years in New York, I would say that something just isn’t right there. There is an attitude constructed in opposition to each other, which in no way binds a sense of society.
The municipal theater posted on its Facebook page (translated from German):
On November 12, 2018, in Chamber 3 of the Munich Kammerspiele, a discussion took place in the “König” series, in which Cana Bilir-Meier, Wilhelm Klotzek and Henrike Naumann were to be in discussion with Kasper König as moderator. The term “Homeland” was the topic and with it, its fitness for the art world and the accompanying aesthetic political discourse around the concept was to be discussed. This attempt missed his goal. In this respect, statements made by the host, which can be understood as degrading in particular to (post-)migrants; Kasper König has apologized to the artist, Bilir-Meier. Matthias Lilienthal, as director of the Munich Kammerspiele, apologizes for the fact that in an event he has been responsible, he has been chosen to have insulted both Bilir-Meier and (post-)migrants in Germany. A discussion on the subject is in planning.
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic over email, the Munich Kammerspiele elaborated:
[A]s you might know, migration and diversity are central topics in the work of the Münchner Kammerspiele, also with regard to our choice of directors, actors and employees in general: Who is represented on the stage and “behind” the stage? We deeply regret the incident, and we have expressed this in a public statement. At the moment we are planning a panel discussion, which will be dealing with structural racism in cultural institutions. Cana Bilir-Meier has expressed that she would prefer not to be on the panel in person, in order to shift the perspective from the incident at Kammerspiele to a more general analysis of what we call in German “Alltagsrassismus.” She has told us, though, that she supports this plan and we stay in touch, when we discuss more precisely the subject of the panel and who will be participating.
Bilir-Meier’s semi-public Facebook post has galvanized many members of Germany’s arts community. Soon after, an open letter began circulating, signed by a group of over 100 artists in solidarity with what Bilir-Meier had experienced.
The resulting text, entitled WE’RE SICK OF IT! (published in full below), insists that König’s remarks unveil the deeper, more systematic structural issues of racism in German-speaking countries. The open letter is intended to draw attention to the more widespread culture of racism in Germany, and by extension, how it manifests — often through inconspicuous, off-hand racist ideologies — allowing gatekeepers like König to exercise racist views without consequence.
The letter goes further and accuses many cultural institutions in Europe more broadly of practicing structural discrimination. Marginalized artists, they say, “are only interesting [to major German institutions] as long as our criticism does not interfere with the everyday praxis of the institution/person, but instead helps them improve their image.” They add that art and cultural institutions “want to critically reflect on racism, migration, colonialism, but then only white people get well paid, non-precarious jobs.”
Earlier this November, a controversial German ad campaign funded by the Interior Ministry started to appear on billboards all around the country, offering cash to migrants who volunteered to go back to their native countries. Many commentators online noted the subliminal racism of the ad, which reads: “Your country! Your future! Now!”
The advertisement and incidents like the panel at Munich Kammerspiele have provoked a conversation around the structural racism that exists in a society that purports to be open and welcoming.
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Read the open letter in response to Kasper König below:
WE’RE SICK OF IT!
Who we are: Migrant/Black/Indigenous/Lesbian/Queer/Trans* Artists of Color
On November 12, 2018, artist and filmmaker Cana Bilir-Meier was invited to take part in a public conversation regarding Germany’s political shift to the right at the Münchner Kammerspiele. The talk was organized and moderated by curator Kasper König. After the talk, Bilir-Meier wrote a Facebook post in which she talked about König’s racist behaviour and wordings, both before and during the discussion. She also posted a video clip of a short excerpt from the talk.
The entire event (german) can be seen here.
With this letter we would like to emphasize our solidarity with Cana Bilir-Meier. We have witnessed how the discussions that followed this incident have been reduced to Cana Bilir-Meier as an individual. We insist that this incident is not an isolated case. It is not at all about an interpersonal conflict between two people. On the contrary – this incident reveals mechanisms that we as migrant/black/indigenous/lesbian/queer/trans artists of Color have experienced numerous times.
While our individual experiences of discrimination might differ, we have all been confronted with racism. Hierarchies in the art world and the dependencies they produce (yes, even we have to live from something!) do not always allow us to speak out and defend ourselves against discrimination. Cana Bilir-Meier however defended herself, giving voice not only to the discrimination she faced, but also to that faced by many people!
- We observe that the structural levels of racism and discrimination disappear when we express our criticism, and that we are accused of being aggressive or self-pitying when we call it out! WE ARE SICK OF:
- Constantly explaining that capitalism, nation-states, hegemony, heteronormativity and various forms of discrimination are entwined with one another.
- The fact that forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, anti-semitism, anti-muslim racism/islamophobia, and transphobia are used to judge, to select and yes, ultimately, to kill. They are employed to enable participation in and access to economic and political orders for certain people. They are always employed in order to sustain structures of domination.
- The personalization of structural discrimination, which trivializes and conceals its political and socio-economic impact.
- how people express solidarity, profess anti-racism and position themselves against racial discrimination, but then are unwilling to change anything structurally.
- Institutions acquire „critical“ knowledge without assuming responsibility, and thus reproduce forms of discrimination! WE ARE SICK OF
- An art world that, on the one hand, deals “critically” with migration, racism, colonialism, etc., yet reproduces discrimination at the same time.
- The fact that people talk to us, but then make our perspectives and voices invisible. That we are invited, but are only interesting as long as our criticism does not interfere with the everyday praxis of the institution/person, but instead helps them improve their image.
- The fact that institutions only temporarily bring in critical artistic, political positions from outside and accuse us of belligerence or of being uncooperative as soon as we express ourselves critically about racism.
- How big art and cultural institutions want to critically reflect on racism, migration, colonialism, but then only white people get well paid, non-precarious jobs.
- The same people and institutions all too often remain silent about discrimination(s) and that they still have to be made aware of it.
- People and institutions embellishing themselves with “openness,” critical consciousness and discourses, while decisions and actions never change.
- What impact does structural discrimination have on our lives and our creativity? WE ARE SICK OF
- Being judged and having stereotypical images constructed about us.
- Being objectified by art and cultural institutions and universities, them determining what art and knowledge production must look like, which language they can be articulated in, who talks about whom and how.
- The ways in which power structures and gazes define what thinking, feeling, writing, learning and seeing are.
- Being accused of making “personal and constructive conversations” impossible because we are not willing to have these conversations behind closed doors and in an individualized manner.
- Hearing that we simply misunderstood and that it wasn’t meant like that, that we are exaggerating and it has nothing at all to do with racism.
- Of our opinions being discredited because discrimination affects us emotionally and we are not involved on a purely factual level.
Betül Seyma Küpeli
Abiona Esther Ojo
Verena Melgarejo Weinandt
Claudia Sandoval Romero
Naomi Afia Brenya Güneş-Schneider
Julia Yael Alfandari
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Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu
Ana de Almeida
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