‘Is this what democracy looks like?’ Immersion: Palast Der Republik, Berliner Festspiel, 8–10 March 2019.

‘Immersion: Palast der Republik’ Photo: Mathias Voelzke/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

Palast der Republik
Billed as ‘art, discourse and parliament’, the Immersion programme at Haus der Berliner Festspiel staged a symbolic reconstruction of the Palast der Republik. As an ideological ‘people’s house’, the Palast der Republik was the seat of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) parliament between 1976 and 1990. It was a bold architectural experiment with theatres, galleries, restaurant, bars and a bowling alley that stood on the site of the former Berlin Palace, originally built in the 15th Century and the residence of Prussian royalty. Damaged during World War II, the Berlin Palace was demolished by the East German Government in the 1950s. Found to be contaminated with asbestos, Palast der Republik was abandoned in 1990, then demolished in 2003. In its place the reconstructed Berlin City Palace is due to open later this year, stirring debate about the politics of remembrance and the legacy of the GDR. The New Berlin City Palace will host the Humboldt Forum, a museum to showcase objects held in Germany’s ethnological collections, drawing criticisms about the providence of these items and accusations of ‘colonial amnesia’. 

Featuring talks, performances, music, films and installations Palast der Republik transformed Haus der Berliner Festspiel into an art, politics and entertainment complex. Recalling the people’s roundtables convened in the interim period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first free East German elections, the programme was bookended by two constitutions. The first day revisited the ‘New Constitution for the GDR’ (1990), a ‘people’s constitution’ drafted by representatives of civil society groups. The last day moved beyond local issues to consider proposals for a Transnational European Constitution to be eventually taken to the European Parliament.  

Eastern Empowerment  
Palast der Republik was inaugurated by an installation, Wolkenreich, by Klaus Pobitzer, who obscured the façade of the Haus der Berliner Festspiel with a thick cloud of fog. Although located in what was once been West Berlin, the bronzed mirrored windows of the Festspiel are reminiscent of those featured on the Palast, and as the smoke cleared and the simulacrum emerged, one could make out an insignia affixed to them. Akin to the GDR’s national emblem that hung above the entrance of the original, here the hammer and compass encircled in a wreath of rye was replaced by the hexagonal design of the Festpiel’s main stage. As patrons made their way into the building transformed, the fading dusk enhanced the theatrics of this first act, as a place out of time.

By one entrance stood an assemblage of the actual chairs used in the GDR parliament. Recovered last year from a warehouse in Berlin, they were presented as found—bent, dusty and strung with cobwebs—as the installation Sturzlage by Gabriele Dolf-Bonekämper. They seemed to pronounce that the Palast was not exhumed for the sake of nostalgia, but rather for critical reappraisal.

Following a short choreographic work in the foyer Odori, the Shit! by Trajall Harrell, the first discursive event was a ‘revue of ideas’, Verfasst euch! (Constitute yourself!) which included keynote addresses by philosopher Susan Buck-Morss and professor of law and novelist Bernhard Schlink. Although from the West, Schlink became involved in the roundtables following a teaching appointment to Humbolt University soon after the fall of the Wall in November 1989. He emphasised that his primary concern in drafting the Constitution was that it could be enforced by the people. The ‘New Constitution for the GDR’ was completed on 4 April 1990, after the first free parliamentary elections on 18 March. Schlink recalled it was immediately eliminated by the new parliament, but did play a role in later discussions and informed many of the protests that followed as the East was restructured.

‘Wolkenreich und Sturzlage’ Photo: Eike Walkenhorst/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

There Is No Alternative
Saturday featured two discussions about the policies of privatisation implemented as the East merged with the West. These roundtables titled Schwarzbuch (Blackbook) focused on the Treunhand, an agency established to manage the sale of East German assets and infrastructure. Described by economic historian Jörg Roesler as a ‘pure privatisation machine’, the Treunhand is regarded as pioneering European neoliberalism.

Berhnd Gehrke, a writer, historian and educator who represented trade unions in the 1989 roundtables, spoke of the mass sell-off of the GDR’s factories and industries leading to job losses and the devaluing of skills and capital. With the ‘credit-worthiness’ of the former East weakened, even those with savings were unable to secure loans to purchase the apartments in which they lived. Thus, the Treunhand paved the way for investors from the West to scoop up buildings whole, causing frustration, humiliation and disillusionment amongst those ‘wage dependent’ in the GDR. Indeed, according to author and filmmaker Inge Kloepfer the Treunhand effectively produced a ‘new German underclass’ and primed the conditions that have given rise to the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) political party in Berlin.

Journalist Aris Chatzistefanou, whose documentary Catastroika (2012), investigates parallels between the Treunhand and the EU Troïka (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), argued that the measures trailed in Germany in 1990 were honed in Greece 2009. Anastasia Frantzeskaki, an activist and dockside trade union representative concurred, claiming that the transfer of Greek state assets to private holdings occurred over a single night.

The discussion concluded as Duvurlar—Mauern—Walls (2000) screened in the balkon-cum-kino overlooking the main theatre. Made by a then young Turkish–North American émigré, Can Candan, the film documented the experience of Berlin’s Turkish communities in the first decade of Reunification, who had established themselves in the city since the 1960s as guest workers, ironically filling the labour shortages caused by partition. Candan’s documentary presents a nuanced discussion of East-West prejudices intensified by gentrification through interviews with vendors selling sections of the wall in streets markets, community spokespersons and first and second generation Deutsch-Türken youth.

It is significant that Palast der Republik opened on 8 March, International Women’s day and a public holiday in Berlin. In her opening keynote Susan Buck-Morss recalled the five-day demonstration held by women in Iran on this day in 1979, as a precursor to 1989 and as possibly the first revolution of the 21st Century. Indeed, artist and filmmaker Elke Rosenfeld, a co-curator of the programme who was a teenager in the East at that time, claimed that non-violent liberation marked the passage into the 21st century, gesturing to a longer history of women’s struggles. In the programme’s first roundtable Nach dem Protest (After the Protest), Tatjana Böhm spoke of the Independent Womens Association and their concerns of work, home and individual rights, reminding audiences that legal abortion remains an issue in Germany. The panel closed with a video message from Bini Adamczak, author of Communism for Kids (2014), who declared that global feminism was the most successful counter-fascism movement, linking together its historical waves.

A performance-installation, Caen Amour, by Trajal Harrell introduced another thread of ‘herstory’ into Friday night’s proceedings. As an imaginative re-staging of the ‘hoochie koochie shows’ that toured the USA in the early 1900s, the ‘all-female revue’ was performed by a mixed-gender ensemble. The audience moved between the stage front, where the exotic dances were performed, and the back of the set where the dancers hurriedly traded costumes. Harrell prompted them to reflect on the dynamics of performing, consuming and reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes and to consider other possibilities glimpsed in these liminal spaces.

Given that Saturday was billed as a ‘circus of ideas’ it was fitting that the second day of Palast der Republik culminated in the queer cabaret CHEAP. As a self-contained mini-event, CHEAP included screenings and projections, interviews, live music, performances and vodka shots, bringing together several threads of the programme concerned with gendered violence in the former socialist states. Defiantly underground, CHEAP shone a light on LGBT+ identities and experiences, using ‘joy, laughter and erotic desire as political weapons’.

‘CHEAP’ Photo: Eike Walkenhorst/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

Passage to the 21st Century
Day three of Palast der Republik opened on a rainy Sunday afternoon for a parliamentary hearing, with the theatre at capacity for the keynote address by former Greek finance minister, Yanous Varifakis. Having resigned from Greek politics, Varifakis is currently the German candidate for the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025. Formed in 2015, DiEM25 is the first trans-European party campaigning for election into the European parliament, building a popular front against ‘austerity, privatisation and socialism for oligarchs’. It is notable that DiEM25 launched in February 2016 at Berlin’s iconic Volksbühne theatre, in what was once the GDR. Varifakis emphasised the role of the European Central Bank as an institution that ‘supports no states but has nineteen states supporting it’, and as a key instrument for a system that generates crises it cannot resolve. He warned that the disaffection brought on by the EU Troïka’s demands for structural adjustments is like history repeating in Europe, and might forsee ‘the hatching of the serpent’s egg’.

One of the first acts of any democratic process is the drafting of a constitution, and the climax of Palast der Republik, gathered together eleven delegates to each put forth proposals. These included the phasing out of plastics, enabling children to vote, the communalising of ‘big companies’, the right to housing, the reparation of objects and restitution of wealth acquired via colonial projects amongst calls to ‘de-Westernise’ Europe. Some proposals were awkwardly put. For example, author and activist Lorenzo Marsili arguing for what sounded like a digital commons phrased it as ‘Google as a human right.’ Indeed Varoufakis pledging that humanity deserved ‘mechanical slaves’ seemed out-of-step with current discussions about developments in robotics and synthetic intelligences.

One notable delegate was the political theorist and author, Vijay Prashad, an Indian national and scholar of the Tricontinental alliances. Comprised of the postcolonial states of Asia, Africa, Latin America and including the former Yugoslavia, the Non-aligned Movement formed as an alternative to the Cold War socialist and capitalist blocs, and were often raised during the programme as a precursor to the formations that were being presently rehearsed. Invited to give the ‘last word’ Prashad’s presence provoked the possibility of a New European Parliament that would include seats for members of all democratic nations, in acknowledgement of the legacies of colonialism and gesturing towards the horizon of global democracy.

‘Delegates’ Photo: Eike Walkenhorst/Berliner Festspiel (2019)

Practical Experiences
Immersion’s Palast der Republik elaborated on recent trends in political theatre and art that adopt the parliamentary form. These include the New World Summits founded by artist Jonas Staal, Yael Batana’s What if Women Ruled the World? (2017) and the Rights of Nature Tribunals. Palast der Republik evoked a social space for audiences to move freely between discussion, debate, leisure and entertainment; interweaving different moods and expressions. By deconstructing of the ‘lost dream of postcommunism’ as the preconditions for its reconstitution, Immersion staged what one audience member called ‘practical experiences’ of democracy. Rather than the participatory distractions of post-truth ‘democratism’ it is in the herstorical play of the people’s house that the stirrings of a community yet-to-come are most strongly felt.

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