We need to create alternative Moments of Commemoration

A conversation with Yael Bartana
by Florian Malzacher

In: Two Minutes of Standstill. A Collective Performance by Yael Bartana. Eds. Florian Malzacher & Stefanie Wenner. Sternberg Press Berlin: 2014. 12-23.

You proposed Two Minutes of Standstill as a project to Impulse Theater Biennale with the aim to interrupt the daily life of the city of Cologne on June 28th, 2013 for two minutes. What was the initial idea behind this collective performance?

I was thinking about what it would mean to lend the ritual of the Yom HaShoa – the Israeli memorial day for the victims and heroes of the Holocaust – to Germany. Every year on this day sirens in public spaces sound all over Israel, and the whole country comes to a halt to observe two minutes of silence.

I have been exploring state and social rituals for many years in order to understand how they form national identity. The first work I made about this was Trembling Time (2001), a video about the Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Soldiers Memorial Day, which functions in practically the same way as the Holocaust Memorial Day. These rituals are national ceremonies and anchored in state law. In Trembling Time I tried to come to a more distant and at the same time more personal interpretation of this very emotionally charged ritual. What does it mean for an individual – for me as a citizen of the state of Israel – to be raised with such collective rituals? How can one stay an individual and self-responsible within this situation?

But do collective commemorations then make sense for you at all? Or is that something that can only be done individually anyhow?

Well, the purpose is to create a narrative of a nation, an identity for the state – that is not unique to Israel. I am not against that but I want to question and to analyze it.

The regulations on how to commemorate are quite defined, there is only a small established path on which one can move. It means that commemoration becomes a pre-formulated routine – instead of being lived and lived up to.

I strongly feel that Germany needs to create alternative moments of commemoration which, for example, also include newcomers – a ritual that refers to the present day and future and not only to history. Thousands of younger Israelis have moved to Germany in the last years. And many of them – like me – live in mixed relationships. That makes it even more obvious. We have to deal with our history together. So rather than talking about guilt, it is more about what history means to us today. We ought to commemorate the past but acknowledge the present.

By this we can recognize the chain of effects caused by the NS politics up till today – for example that in today’s Germany there can exist a terrorist movement like the NSU1 that sees itself clearly in the tradition of the Third Reich. In this regard the performance seeks to make the act of commemoration available to other cultures. It also wants to give thought and respect to the tragedies still taking place today. This is how we can give the past meaning in the present.

It was exactly the idea of also making this commemoration available to others and the underlining of the continuation of national socialist ideologies that were harshly criticized by some. The conservative German daily paper Die Welt for example called your proposal a “Porno for Intellectuals”.2

These critics focused on the initial text describing your undertaking: “The Third Reich and the Holocaust are not just historical events – they also have long-term global chain effects that reach into the present day. Not only is the founding of the State of Israel based on a UN-decision such a consequence, but so is the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. As are escape and expulsion in Europe and the Middle East up to the NSU murders.“

Yes, a lot of the reactions were directed towards this text and not to the work. There was a strong wish by some to stop the project before anyone could actually experience it. It sometimes felt like it had less to do with the project itself but rather the political agenda of some groups or individuals concerning history. There was no attempt to understand what we were actually proposing. Very conservative reactions.

I remember very well how during the performance and later in an organized discussion at the university about the project some people from the context of Antideutsche3 distributed a leaflet stating that I am “the postmodern offspring of a long series of useful Jews”4 – that was quite a shocking surprise to me. I was not expecting such a clear anti-Semitic reaction. Of course it is a minority, but it exists.

  1. NSU (Nationalsozialisitischer Untergrund – National Socialist Underground) was a far-right terrorist organization which remained undiscovered till November 2011 despite murdering nine, mainly Turkish immigrants between 2000 and 2006 as well as a policewoman. On June 9, 2004 they detonated a pipe bomb in Keup-Strasse, Cologne, the center of Turkish business life in the city and wounded 22 people. At the beginning police excluded the possibility of a terrorist attack but – as in the other cases – suspected a mafia connection or rival Turkish and Kurdish groups.
  2. Alan Posner. “Porno für Intellektuelle,” Die Welt. May 5, 2013.
  3. Antideutsche (Anti-Germans) is a term used to group several political tendencies within the radical left in Germany and Austria which define themselves mainly by a strong support of Israeli politics in opposition to what they consider the structural anti-Semitism of large parts of the German left.
  4. “… der postmoderne Sprössling einer langen Reihe von nützlichen Juden …”. Quoted from a leaflet distributed by a group called Georg-Werth-Gesellschaft Köln. For an extensive description and analysis of this debate and the project itself also see: J. Isaksen. “Die Besitzstände des Grauens,” kassiber.net, June 29, 2013. http://the.kassiber.net/die-besitzstaende-des-grauens