CHEMNITZ, Germany — Since 2013, a coalition of fifty artist-activists have comprised the Peng! Collective, a group merging art, hacktivism, and performance –– which they call “weapons of mass disruption” –– to call attention to systemic failures.
Originally conceived in Berlin, Peng! has since scattered into nodes across Germany, with members in Leipzig, Dresden, Köln, and Hamburg. This fall, the collective was invited to contribute to Gegenwarten | Presences at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz. The result is “Antifa: Myth and Truth”: a collection of ten “icons” of modern anti-fascist activism, sourced from around the country with accompanying wall texts written by the collective. Both the show and the ensuing, perhaps inevitable, brouhaha that followed provocatively challenge the mechanisms of the institution to raise vital questions about dominant narratives, ideology, and the state.
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In order to understand Peng!’s latest project, some context is useful: Chemnitz is located in Saxony, an eastern state of Germany. Since 2016, Germany — particularly the east, and particularly Saxony — has been overwhelmed by a far-right resurgence, culminating in a disconcerting tidal wave of xenophobic, anti-semitic, and anti-Islamist violence.
In those intervening years, one particular radical right-wing party has entered the political mainstream: Alternativ für Deutschland, or AfD, a party which has saturated almost all sectors of the state and federal Parliaments. In Saxony, the AfD presence is especially strong, holding 27.5% of Parliamentary seats as of the most recent election in 2019. The results have been overwhelming and dangerous: the normalization of violent and hateful ideologies, increased attacks against immigrants, and the defamation of anti-fascist activism as insurgent extremism. Antifa in Saxony is seen, as one of the Peng! members described to Hyperallergic, like “a black block violent group that’s rioting in the streets. But,” as he continued, “there’s so much more to it.”
As two of the three organizers explained over a video call in late September, the ten objects included in “Antifa: Myth and Truth” have been used as media firebrands: symbols spun by opponents to emphasize a narrative of violent threats from the left. Peng! explicitly aims to challenge this construction, and feels it is historically necessary to do so: “Being anti-fascist should be common sense, especially in a country which is the motherland of National Socialism,” said one of the artists. “You should be anti-fascist. There should be no debate.” But, as the show explores — a notion surely relatable to Americans — once right-wing extremism saturates national politics, facts become difficult to decipher.
To reclaim reality, several of the show’s displayed tokens include multiple “weapons” (a shopping cart; a plank of wood) claimed to have been used in life-threatening attacks against police or far-right politicians. Both of these objects became flashpoints of media speculation and anti-antifa rhetoric before the reveal that the assaults had been greatly exaggerated. In one case, the smoking gun in question (the wood) did not even exist.
Other objects, like a crate of beer, are homages to anti-Nazi activism (No Beer for Nazis) orchestrated in Ostritz: a moment when hundreds collaborated to buy out all the beer in the city before a planned Nazi sympathizer event. The tonal disjuncture between these objects –– us vs. them protests brought to a bloody fever pitch on one hand; cheeky and lighthearted community activism on the other –– creates a nuanced portrait of anti-fascist organizers, one that, as the Peng! artists explained to me, is necessary in contemporary discourse about a variegated movement.
In addition to the conceptual visual element of “Antifa: Myth and Truth,” Peng! has put their money where their mouth is, using their show’s state-allocated budget to donate a total of €10,000 to various antifa groups. (They allocated a portion of their artist fee towards purchasing the objects included in their project directly from antifa organizers.) In classic Peng! fashion, the artists used the show to provoke the state-run institution by criticizing dominant political parties in the exhibition wall texts –– a move deemed so controversial that, a day before the show was set to open, the museum briefly threatened to cancel the show altogether.
Though frustrating, the pushback Peng! received for their show is par for the course with their activism. In some ways, discomfort is desired: a means of highlighting internal hypocrisies the public may be willing to overlook. As they explained: “Antifa is criminalized, especially in Saxony. Giving state money to [them] will most certainly start a discussion about why, whether it is legitimate to move public money there, and why it is important to support their work.” The other organizing artist I spoke with agreed, adding: “It’s a long-established strategy by AfD in Saxony and maybe also in different places to try and depoliticize arts, and say it has to be not political.”
By critiquing the faux-neutrality of the museum show, in both medium and (if unintentional) performance (via its brief threat of cancellation), “Antifa: Myth and Truth” serves as a valuable case study for the present state of activism, extremism, modern global politics, and the ever-elusive truth.
Gegenwarten | Presences continues through October 25 at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz (Theaterplatz 1, 09111 Chemnitz, Germany). The exhibition was curated by Florian Matzner and Sarah Sigmund.