Journey through Time in a Fiat
Essen in the sixties: Europe’s biggest mining city, known for its raw materials processing industry, an economic centre of continental significance. Labor and laborers are collectively organized in classes and unions. The success of the national economy is based on the principle of inexhaustible resources. At the same time, however, the gradual structural transformations which, over the course of the coming decades, will permanently change the industrial landscape of the Ruhr region – once the motor of the steel and mining industry – and with it the city of Essen are already looming on the horizon. There are countless strikes, even on a mass scale, in support of the forty-hour week, holiday pay according to tariff, job preservation, social security. Today, a good forty years later, we once again find ourselves faced with fundamental structural changes: globalization, flexibilization and privatization of labor, shortage of specialized personnel and the demographically induced end of intergenerational solidarity. Essen, Aldi Nord headquarters in Eckenbergstrasse, on the afternoon of 16 July 2010. A small, old-fashioned car with two megaphones mounted on its roof pulls to a stop in front of the main entrance. A man gets out and, speaking to the hermetically sealed façade, calls for a strike: “Strike! It is simple and transparent for everyone. What we need is a true strike…”, first in German, then in Italian. The announcement is addressed to a specific counterpart, but remains general in intention. Then the car is gone again. Over the course of the following ten days, the compact 1964 Fiat 600 turns up repeatedly at certain locations in the city centre of Essen. The addresses visited are company headquarters, for example those of the chemical, energy and real estate enterprise Evonik, the steel company ThyssenKrupp, the energy giant RWE, the media group WAZ and the construction company Hochtief. The headquarters of Starbucks and Karstadt, the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, a branch of the Deutsche Bank, and an Aral petrol station are also on the list. The same call for a strike is recited regularly at all of these locations. Calling themselves “M+M”, the artists Marc Weis and Martin De Mattia have been developing collaborative works for fifteen years. For their “reactive projects” they often use ambiguous references to literary or cinematic narratives. The performative action Call Sciopero realized by the duo for the exhibition Hacking the City quotes the opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film The Red Desert of 1964. The work by the Italian neorealist Antonio is about self-alienation in the world of desubjectified industrial labor. It begins with historical contextualization in the 1960s economy, using images of the industrial landscapes in the Italian town of Ravenna to set the mood. In front of the grey wall surrounding the industrial zone, a grey Fiat drives up, equipped with megaphones. The men sitting in the car get out and address their strike appeal to an invisible crowd behind the wall. The words “Call Sciopero” are written on the vehicle’s windows. The quotation from the film became the title of M+M’s remake of the scene, for which they
also purchased a vintage car – the Fiat 600, an affordable model in the 1960s driven by many laborers and in fact often used for strike activities. Using various additional props likewise inspired by the film, the artists carried out a portion of the strike calls in Essen themselves and left others to the exhibition team. The announcement provides no answers to questions such as “What is the strike for?”, “Who is calling for a strike?” or “When and where will the strike take place?” It is a summons to the employees of a company to become aware of their position in the hierarchical system, and of their own needs and rights. It is a reminder of the employees’ most effective means of power – the refusal to work – and, in its lack of specificity, of the gentle, passive, but nevertheless forceful resolution of Melville’s Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to.” The call for a strike reveals the will to initiate a dialog between like minds, the desire to create a community of like interests. The action poses inherent questions about noncompliance, power structures and protest in the public realm. Yet the artistic remake is not just a journey in time by virtue of the film quotation and the props. The call to strike action is moreover a borrowed gesture from an era in which a strike was a proven means of asserting shared interests. By transplanting the restaged 1960s film scene into the reality of the present, M+M interweave the memory of a period of extensive strike culture with an inquiry into the readiness for – and function of – such refusal in the post-Fordist age of the present. The artists’ interventionist action creates a kind of deliberate confusion whose absurd logic targets resistance as one option for action in the endeavors toward participation, self-determination, community and social utopia. It is no coincidence that this intervention took place in 2010, the year of the “Wutbürger” (enraged citizen) – a term coined by German columnists to denote the newly awakened civil protest culture against radioactive waste transports to Gorleben and railway station plans in Stuttgart. What is being celebrated as a new attitude of denial, however, is not necessarily the rediscovery of resilient political communization of the kind that took shape as strike culture in the age of industrial hegemony. One
question raised by M+M with their work is: how much of the present-day temporary, hedonistic, even partially sensationalist identification with community can be harnessed for political objectives – here and now, in view of a form of capitalism which absorbs all contradictions in its discursive consensuses and isolates them as individualized
searches for meaning? The politically active community does not have an easy time of it in the age of neo-liberal self-responsibility and the subjectification and globalization of risk – but it should nevertheless not
allow itself to be discouraged. The strike – that powerful communal gesture of class warfare and fraternization of fate – today seems (almost) to have had the ground pulled out from under it. What can take its politically effective place? What can the strike be today? M+M had their strike appeals recorded on video so as to be able to link the film clips with the respective company addresses in Essen using the web-based mapping service GoogleMaps. They had already employed it in the development of the project, when the artists “spied out” the density of business enterprises in Essen and planned the “campaign” route; now they intended to use GoogleMaps to publicize the actions on the Internet. Nothing came of that plan, however. The commercial provider’s control mechanisms identify undesirable clips and delete them the instant they are linked. Now excerpts of Call Sciopero can be viewed on the Hacking the City website. Does the Internet propagated as an open medium under the label “Web 2.0” thus prove to be more restrictive than the public realm? It is this questioning of the boundaries of systems that motivates the artists to test various means of infiltration. The subversive tactics of infiltrating society’s systems plays an important role in M+M’s artistic work. To plan their interventions in various realms of communication and negotiation, media marketing networks and atmospheric layers, organic (foreign) bodily processes and the road network, the artists acquire the imagery and specialized language inherent to the respective system. The work Autobahnschleife / Motorway Loop (since 1996), for example, consists of several data visualizations, professional construction plans and cost statements for the construction of an additional – and entirely superfluous – 360° curve in a section of motorway by Vittorio Veneto (Italy). The actual construction has been stopped in its tracks. Yet there cannot be the slightest doubt as to the seriousness of the endeavor, and every examination of the explanatory report published by M+M further underscores the authority of their expertise. M+M avail themselves of the methods and game rules of systems in order to comment on precisely those systems with absurd interventions or staged narratives. With this strategy, they achieve more doubts than certainties, more impulses than convictions, more possibilities than definitions, more experience than postulates. And that is precisely the aim of the two artists, whom Wolfgang
Ullrich refers to as “agents” (in: Collateral Profit, artist catalogue, 2004, pp. 150–51). With their works, M+M provide an extension of the means of conceptualizing social realities and expose the interests that lie entrenched within perfectly organized mechanisms.