Sympathy Is a Bridge for Ideology: Phil Collins’s Adventures in Marxism (Afterall, Summer 2011)

The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathise. The answer is inevitable: with the victor. […] Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.
— Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History'1
In a recent essay Hito Steyerl extends Walter Benjamin’s critique of triumphalism inthe narrating of history to the production of documentary images. She emphasises the dubious nature of the documentary genre’s conventional claim to objectivity and historical verisimilitude, even when exercised in a purportedly critical manner — that is, when providing visibility or giving a voice to those who wouldn’t otherwise have it, or when registering the process and/or results of the kind of socially engaged, collaborative work that has become a staple of post-studio art practice since the early 1990s.2 The photographs and films of Phil Collins can, of course, be connected to this gesture with their expansive repertoire of portraits of people who may be seen as victims of particular historical circumstances. But no matter how engaging these images are and what they promise to reveal to us, the viewers, about their subjects — and indeed, about ourselves — ultimately they function as what Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda have called ‘residual traces of a larger aesthetic and conceptual scheme’.3 Typically staged in sites of geopolitical conflict, Collins’s work systematically extracts its subjects from the determining factors that bear down so heavily on their identities as products of turmoil. By placing them within contrived situations — a Smiths karaoke session in Bogota; a dance marathon in Ramallah — individual idiosyncrasies manage to appear beyond what are equally contrived media-generated ‘types’, but they are framed by a camera that is simultaneously generous and exploitative, empathetic and cruel.
Expectations are always present on both sides of any photographic transaction, and Collins’s work makes clear that a desire or mere willingness to be photographed involves either an act of narcissism or a gesture of complicity; often both. With his travels across the globe (mimicking, as it has been said more than once, the trajectory of a photojournalist who is based nowhere but conspicuous everywhere), frenetic production schedules and an overabundance of willing collaborators, Collins has poignantly demonstrated the capacity of the camera to afford him access to people, places and situations from which he might otherwise be excluded. It is rather surprising to see just how far people will go to please the artist and his camera — they undress, allow themselves to be slapped, dance for hours on end, passionately sing songs in a foreign language with lyrics they barely understand — and while specific motives are as varied as the individuals who exercise them, there seems to be a confessional impulse behind the performance of vulnerability that so many of these schema require. In his video and photographic installations involving former reality-show participants in Turkey and the UK, for example (gerçegin geri dönüsü (the return of the real), 2005; the return of the real, 2007), Collins turned the camera onto those who felt victimised by their experience with reality television — the promise of public vindication residing uneasily alongside the possibility of being violated all over again. (Collins’s inclusion of his own agitated presence in these videos is testimony to his potential guilt, as Helen Molesworth has recently pointed out.)4 This work represents an increased gravitation towards more explicitly documentary forms, with the photographic subject given the task of direct narration — even as the conventions used to elicit and legitimate these confessions are made excruciatingly conspicuous. The entire operation, then, appears farcical while still maintaining the ability to affect the viewer with what is, after all, very moving content. This kind of marked tension, or, better yet, dialectic, between the affect produced by lens-based media and an analysis of how these media (and their attendant genres) operate is a constant throughout his work.
As in the return of the real, Collins’s marxism today (2010—ongoing) is a multi-part project that departs from a convocation of individuals willing to recount how their lives took a negative turn as a result of perestroika. During the months leading up to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and its inevitable re-historicisation — with the perpetually revised configuration of historical winners and losers that plagues recent German history — Collins became interested in the fate of teachers of Marxism-Leninism and wondered what it would be like to find them, listen to their stories and ask them to teach again. What would such a lesson look like and what might it mean to an art public better versed in the aesthetic-philosophical tradition of Western Marxism than the orthodox doctrines of Soviet-style bureaucratic socialism? While the collapse of communism in the former GDR is typically narrated by images of Stasi intrigue, political dissidence or even politically apathetic variations of Ostalgie (the inevitable product of the loss of social benefits in the new capitalist system), scarce attention is paid to the experience of ordinary people who subscribed to a set of beliefs that became redundant, in more than one sense, overnight. Given the significance of the educational system in assuring that the country’s youth would grow up to become model ‘socialist personalities’ — a project shared by all members of the Soviet bloc, but particularly urgent in the GDR as an antidote to a Nazi past and the allures of the rapidly advancing consumer society on the other side of the Wall — teachers occupied a role that was vital.5 If less visible than the activities of the Politburo, they contributed daily to the subsistence of Marxist-Leninist ideology, which permeated all subjects taught in primary and secondary schools and was also a compulsory subject known as Staatsbürgerkunde. Reunification meant that the East German school system was largely absorbed by the West German one, with thousands of schoolteachers from the former GDR unceremoniously relieved of their previous duties. Those thought to be politically suspect were dismissed, while others were offered the possibility of retraining in alternate subjects or fields.6 Commenting on these events as they took place, historian Richard Evans wrote in the June 1991 issue of the UK journal Marxism Today: ‘Marx and Marxism are being expunged with all the thoroughness once associated with the Stalinist rewriting of history so assiduously practised in the party institutes of East Berlin. Publishing houses have disappeared, school textbooks have been replaced, […] whole research institutes abolished, university departments shut down — the scale and pace of the transformation is simply dizzying.’7
From the sixty teachers who came forth to be interviewed, ten were filmed and three of these monologues edited into the 35-minute film marxism today (prologue) (2010). The manner in which they are represented is seemingly straightforward. There is no conspicuous staging — this will come later — rather, each interviewee describes what became of her life (the three chosen are all women) after 1989 in a trusting, intimate manner. The effect of complicity is heightened by the movement of the camera— the figure behind it silent but astute in his observations of small, off-topic details like the pathos of the expression on a husband’s face as he watches his wife describe a previous love, or the nervous hands that betray the guilt of a mother who failed to adequately protect her child. These are fairly conventional manoeuvres that help to construct an emotional engagement with the biographies of these women who were chosen, after all, because — although representative of this unwritten chapter of GDR social history — their lives were more extraordinary than others.

The first of them is Petra Mgoza-Zackay, a smiling, cherubic-faced woman who fondly recalls the intellectual freedom and joy she had felt as an educated woman married to an African student and kindred revolutionary spirit. This happiness came to an abrupt end with her husband’s suicide just before the Wall came down — a tragedy compounded by the subsequent loss of her country and her profession. Edited into her testimony are fragments from archival educational films, made to appear as evidence of Petra’s testimony, although they clearly predate the era she is describing. A young, enthusiastic teacher echoes the expressions Petra might have used as she openly addresses questions about public policy raised by her students, despite what she knew to be the presence of classroom informants. In another clip, a group of barefoot female students sits in a bucolic, outdoor setting, enjoying what appears to be a casual and candid conversation with their teacher — a sequence that recalls Petra’s description of the discussions about reviving the socialist system in the last days of the GDR, before they were drowned out by calls for reunification. As her two daughters listen to the story of how their parents met, clips from a television show that featured their deceased father are shown, although he is absent from the included scenes. It is the only archive that can claim a direct correspondence to Petra’s oral memoir, and yet the absence of the protagonist makes it as tenuous a source as all the anachronistic footage extracted from essentially pedagogical propaganda films produced by DEFA, the GDR state-run film studios, that Collins uses elsewhere in the video.
The inclusion of a long segment from a 1968 film, Kontakt, made to train Staats­bürgerkunde teachers, intensifies this sense of uncertainty, which, as Steyerl argues, is endemic to the documentary form but is aggravated by the mediated reality effects of a pervasive and globalised corporate media culture. Perhaps influenced by the Prague Spring and its subsequent suppression — a grave blow to the revolutionary fervour shared by political reformers in capitalist and socialist countries alike — Kontakt shows a staged classroom session that illustrates the spirit of openness with which policymakers sought to counteract the growing disillusionment of the country’s youth. A voice-over at the start of the film states that ‘sympathy is a bridge for ideology […] the trust in teachers and educators crucially determines the extent and quality of learning results’. (This attitude contradicts some scholarship about this period that depicts forceful repressions of student uprisings, in what John Rodden calls ‘the climate of wintry neo-Stalinist reaction provoked by the Prague Spring’.)8 The footage is extraordinary: with its slow panning shots and fast zooms it resembles auteur cinema more than a filmic pedagogical device designed to disseminate state-dictated policy. In a scene that has clearly been well rehearsed, an attractive fatherly figure guides his students into a discussion of exploitation, a concept he knows to be considered old-fashioned among a generation too young to remember the deprivations of the war and the immediate years that followed. The word ‘exploitation' is written slowly across the blackboard with the camera in proximity, its dramatic effect intensified by the melancholic drone of a guitar that imposes a sense of cinematic detachment from this simple gesture, now overflowing with meaning. The discussion turns to the inevitable comparisons of the GDR students' lives to those of relatives in West Germany. The sound-track — created by Lætitia Sadier and Nick Powell — continues for the duration of the scene, which progresses from a moment of tension (the debate between students) to its resolution (the teacher’s proposal that only scientific methods lead to truth, a remark duly followed by a student erasing the question mark from the blackboard). The soundtrack's guitar, now accompanied by humming vocals, eventually cedes to a keyboard solo in a minor key mixed with eerie feedback effects that drown out the words of the actors, and suspends their actions by absorbing the final moments of the scene into the non-narrative quality of musical abstraction.
The other significant eruption of the soundtrack occurs during a clip from a television programme called Von Pädagogen für Pädagogen (From Educators to Educators), which, like Kontakt, is staggered in the video between interviews, so that they all together form a series of equally weighted but historically discordant chapters. Probably filmed sometime in the early 1970s, this particular episode is dedicated to Günther Pippig, a professor who stares into the camera with bulging eyes amplified by Coke-bottle glasses as he earnestly delivers a lecture on the importance of compulsory education. The argument is increasingly contradictory and convoluted; it fades out (along with the subtitles) as the vibraphone and keyboard duet that had been chiming away quietly in the background grows in amplification to drown out the empty babble of his ideological rhetoric. Its melody is subdued and repetitive, reminiscent of the mechanical quality of a music box that lulls its listener into a timeless stupor. The lecture is forgotten for a few seconds as Professor Pippig’s face hovers in the foreground almost like a still image, immortalised in an irretrievable historical past which it is quite possible that he, like so many others, never fully moved on from.
The moment is unexpectedly touching, and produces a conflicted feeling that falls somewhere between the intellectual gratification of historical hindsight and a sense of compassion, or even nostalgia, for the ideals (bankrupt as they may have been) and aesthetic of a previous generation — like ‘the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical’, as Roland Barthes described his ambivalent reaction to photography.9
Of the lives recounted in the first person and then elaborated by Collins as he reconstructs certain memories through the use — and alteration — of archival materials, the most damaged (and quietly devastating) belongs to Ulrike Klotz, an Olympic gymnast whose mother, Marianne, regrets the rigorous training imposed on her daughter at the elite sports college she attended from a young age. Ulrike describes her gruelling regimen as a series of handwritten schedules and childhood drawings are laid out onto a table at an increasingly frenetic pace, as if to keep up with the narrator’s latent anxiety. Perhaps the least convinced of the content of her teachings, Marianne easily abandoned her previous life while her daughter struggled with having to retire from gymnastics and assume the lifestyle of a normal teenager. Clips here show highlights from Ulrike’s career — she smiles for a television news reporter, expertly performs on the balance beam and uneven bars, but then a bad hurdle from the vault sends her body into an awkward contortion. The footage is slowed down and repeated several times, abruptly cutting before what must have been a painful landing. ‘I was suddenly in a body which I didn’t really know’, she says about her physique once she stopped competing. Clips from the 1983 Leipzig Gymnastics and Sports Festival — in which she may or may not have participated — show the synchronised bodies of hundreds of athletes performing choreographed exercises in the massive Leipzig stadium, which was built by voluntary labour several decades previously to host this regular, highly anticipated event: ‘the embodiment of the socialist idea of our state’, according to one contemporary commentator.10 Beyond fostering a Taylorist production paradigm — as sporting events had done during the Third Reich or in capitalist countries like the US — the GDR sports show sought to emphasise the collective values of what historian Mary Fulbrook has called a ‘participatory dictatorship’.11 And it did so, in part, with the added element of the Osttribüne: the eastern section of the stadium’s seating in which 12,000 participants held up coloured flags at designated times to spell out political slogans — ‘sozialismus’ — or to form brightly coloured patterns — flashes of psychedelic swirls, a rising sun — that illustrated the utopian, euphoric nature of the spectacle. This was the other body (social rather than physical) that found itself transformed: its beliefs discredited; its rituals and self-representation abruptly banished to the repository of historical mistakes. These images, once meant to perform the triumph of an ideology, are resuscitated by Collins to document the melancholia of its failure.
The burden of embodying this mistake adds an emotional tenor to the testimony given by the third of the subjects, Andrea Ferber, who describes Marxism as an epistemological method that she never abandoned, despite a successful career in finance after reunification. She is the first of the former teachers to participate in the second phase of the project: the teaching of Marxism-Leninism to present-day students. The experiment begins in Berlin at the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (University of Applied Sciences, previously the prestigious Hochschule für Ökonomie, or School of Economics, where Ferber once taught), and will continue in Manchester — the city where Friedrich Engels famously wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), and where Collins himself attended university and was first exposed to cultural studies in its heyday of the late 1980s and early 90s. In Collins’s use! value! exchange! (2010), Ferber provides a basic introduction to Marx’sDas Kapital (1867) to a roomful of students recruited and remunerated for their attendance (‘because we needed their labour power’, according to the artist). Ferber skilfully navigates through its key concepts, arriving (with obvious zeal) at the fundamental problem of surplus value and the revolutionary potential of this ‘point that provokes outrage’. The lesson is intercut with footage shot by Collins of the recent relocation of the Marx and Engels statues from the centre of a public square near Alexanderplatz in Berlin to a nearby site, one less conspicuous and facing west. An event that received scarce media attention, it is inserted into the film as a subdued act of historical erasure that mirrors the de-Marxification of the educational system. The extent of this erasure is aptly demonstrated by the Berlin students’ rather remarkable lack of familiarity with the terms used by Marx to analyse an economic system that, without its historical demystification, appears completely natural.
What the lesson really seems to be about, then, is the effectiveness of capitalism to produce consumer personalities unaware of what are ultimately more covert, albeit gentler, forms of ideological indoctrination. Or, to put it more succinctly, it is about ideology, a concept that may now seem old-fashioned to a new generation of students with scant memory of the Cold War, the outcome of which guaranteed its discursive suppression. At the end of the lecture, Collins’s camera shows a view of clouds slowly moving in the sky overhead, as if to capture that ‘breath of fresh air’ Ferber says she felt as a young doctoral candidate, and which she now hopes to share with her hired students. The innocent and eager questions that follow give pause to the assumption that their participation in this contrived scenario is purely fictional and not without ‘real’ effects — just as Collins’s art interrogates its own methods to engage an audience without necessarily disavowing the effectiveness of these methods. And so a life cut short by the events (and distortions) of history is narrated and then re-enacted. If, as Jacques Rancière has written, ‘testimony and fiction come under the same regime of meaning’,12 then these two distinct processes become equally redemptive both as aesthetic constructs and as real, lived histories.
  1. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History', Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 1968, p.256.
  2. Hito Steyerl, ‘Documentary Uncertainty’, A Prior, no.15, 2007 pp.2—3.
  3. Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda, ‘The Producer as Artist’, Phil Collins: yeah…, baby you, Milton Keynes and Brighton: Milton Keynes Gallery and Shady Lane Publications, 2005, p.26.
  4. Helen Molesworth, ‘Man with a Movie Camera: The Art of Phil Collins’, Artforum, vol.66, no.5, January 2008, p.236.
  5. In the mid-1970s, the ‘socialist personality’ was defined as ‘…an all-round, well developed personality, who […] possesses a firm class outlook rooted in the Marxist-Leninist worldview […] is thoroughly imbued with collective thoughts and deeds, and actively, consciously and creatively contributes to
    the shaping of socialism’. Wörterbuch zur sozialistischen Jugendpolitik, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1975,
    p.249. Cited in Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker,
    New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005, p.70.
  6. See John Rodden, Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse: A History of Eastern German Education,
    1945—1995, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp.175—217.
  7. Richard Evans, ‘Germany’s Morning After’, Marxism Today, June 1991, p.23.
  8. J. Rodden, Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse, op.cit., p.138.
  9. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (trans. Richard Howard), New York: Hill
    and Wang, 1981, p.8.
  10. Heinz Hasenkrüger, ‘Einige kritische Bemerkungen zur Sportschau 1956’, Theorie und Praxis der
    Körperkultur, vol.5, December 1956, p.962. Cited in Molly Wilkinson Johnson, Training Socialist Citizens:
    Sports and the State in East Germany, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008, p.143. According to Johnson:
    ‘These synchronised exercises were the most politically significant feature of the Gymnastics and
    Sports Festival as rituals of state. Designed to represent the key values of collectivity, discipline,
    and order, they received the most careful attention.’
  11. M. Fulbrook, The People’s State, op. cit., p.12.
  12. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (trans. Gabriel Rockhill), London: Continuum Books, 2004, p.37.