A few days before the start of the new campaign, Philipp Ruch and Stefan Pelzer, the two heads of the activist collective Center for Political Beauty, sit in front of their open computers and pass the tiniest balls to each other.
How tall is Olaf Scholz? One meter and seventy centimeters. I need it exactly! One meter and seventy centimeters, are you even listening to me? Do we have a GoPro camera? We'd have to send it. Do bike couriers work on Sundays? I'll find out. What about the gifts for our crowdfunding donors? How about the "Down with the AfD" T-shirts? No, I didn't want to have a pig! I am in favour of selling off the stock first. What about the AfD prohibition games? Are the artworks for Skat and Quartet already with Sven? I don't have any artwork at all!
Things like that, in a hurry. There is an astonishing amount of work to be done when everything has already been done and the big picture has already started rolling. And as the activist collective Center for Political Beauty (ZPS) has to attest, they always get a lot rolling. Otherwise, they wouldn't cause a stir with almost every action. This will also be the case this time, when the ZPS subversively works its way through the AfD.
First of all, in a nutshell: With the help of artificial intelligence and direct letters, the art activists try to elicit criminally relevant statements from AfD members. The goal: to push for a ban on the party, which is in parts right-wing extremist. On Monday morning, a few days after the visit to the ZPS office, an installation was unveiled in front of the Federal Chancellery in Berlin: a kind of prison building in which functionaries and notorious AfD partisans sit as prisoners.
This can be considered "completely lost", as the »Süddeutsche Zeitung« reported. It is also legitimate to find action art "manipulative," as government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit wrote on X earlier this week. The ZPS action is no joke, he posted, it stirs up uncertainty. That's intentional.
Without uncertainty, there is no debate. And that, at least that's what the group wants to suggest, is what they're all about. That's why they have already "eaten refugees" and built an offshoot of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial in the immediate vicinity of the home of AfD politician Björn Höcke. Again and again, actions like these cause massive criticism, again and again the ZPS has to hear that it is acting brutally and complacently.
This week, too, the question arises: How far can uncertainty be pushed in charged times like these? At what point does it tip over into cheap self-dramatization?
And, in practical terms, how does the ZPS actually work?
In the ZPS office, a sprawling old building in Berlin-Mitte, a few days before the publication of the AfD project. As the berserk "escalation officer", Stefan Pelzer is the organizational engine of the collective, while Philipp Ruch, who tends to be sunnier, appears more as an external affairs officer.
The criticism with which a left-wing scene sometimes meets the left, and the ridicule that the art world has for the artists, hit Ruch first and foremost. This also applies to the hatred of the right-wing extremists, which the group attracts as if it were a magnet specially constructed for this purpose. This threat is tangible and concrete. In 2017, for example, Ruch appeared on a terror list. One could almost take this as proof of the effectiveness of their work. Now Ruch lets his gaze wander through the chaos and sighs: "The AfD must ask itself: What kind of shabby democracy is this that puts up with something like us?"
Around noon, Olaf Scholz is suddenly in the office. For a while, the Chancellor stands stiffly in the way with his sly smile, as if the hectic hustle and bustle were none of his business. He is congratulated on his courageous "Address to the Nation," then someone grabs his shoulder and puts him in the corner. Meanwhile, a rough cut of "his" speech runs on the computer in a continuous loop. Again and again, the Chancellor seriously declares that he intends to apply to the Federal Constitutional Court for a ban on the AfD "on the fifth anniversary of Walter Lübcke's death on June 2, 2024."
The Scholz in the corner is, of course, made of cardboard – and a harmless gag. The Scholz on the screen is made of pixels – and an essential part of the artistic-political intervention, which has been prepared for months in great secrecy.
Ruch, founder and, in his own estimation, "something like an association chairman" of the ZPS, can be happy about both. About the cardboard cutout for 44.99 euros from Kaufland, "because we've been looking for something like this for ages". And about the deepfake of the chancellor, i.e. about the manipulated video of his speech, even if Scholz's words and lips are not really synchronized. More important to him than a complete deception is to put a certain quote into Scholz's mouth: "Nothing belongs to the past. Everything is still the present and can become the future again."
The sentence comes from Attorney General Fritz Bauer, it serves Ruch as a warning – and as a practical justification for actually everything that the ZPS has produced in the past 14 years under his direction in terms of controversy.
In the current action, the aggressive use of artificial intelligence is the main source of opposition. One can ask oneself whether the danger of video manipulation, which has so far been known more from the right, is trivialized by an action like this.
After all, the clip has fulfilled its advertising purpose of drawing the public's attention to the ZPS's tip platform: For months, the group has collected alleged evidence of the AfD's hostility to the constitution and finally processed them digitally. The platform serves as a database of "incriminating information" that comes from various sources and is to be personally assigned to the "suspicious persons" – from top officials to backbenchers to supporters.
Fluctuating resilience of the clues
But the meticulousness does little to hide the fluctuating resilience of the clues. Some references do not stand up to scrutiny. There is no doubt that some of the quotations constitute incitement to hatred, for example. In the case of other statements, it is likely to be a matter of interpretation whether they are covered by freedom of expression.
Ruch has also noticed this: "There are sentences that we also know from the CSU." For this reason, the "incriminating information" had been examined with legal care. But he does not draw the consequence of further tightening the criteria.
Not only is the population – encouraged by "Olaf Scholz" – to contribute their own finds. With a fake cover letter, the activists addressed a large number of AfD members even before the platform was activated. In it, they pretend to be the "federal executive" and, in the name of a "screening commission," ask for e-mails, photos, chat histories and other material that could possibly be incriminating for the party. To be on the safe side, says Ruch, the focus was on party members "over 60 and without a doctorate" – in order to take advantage of their supposed naivety in digital matters.
The AfD promptly clarified that there was no such "screening commission" and warned its members against an attempt by suspected left-wing extremists to obtain information from inside the party. The ZPS claims to have already received "masses of information" – especially members who have dropped out are currently taking advantage of the low-threshold opportunity.
Without programmers, graphic designers, historians, filmmakers, producers and legal advisors, such a comprehensive hacking attack on the political sphere is not feasible. At times, up to 2023 people have been working on this project since March 100, according to ZPS. The center is kept afloat by the private donations of around 3000,<> so-called "accomplices," whom Ruch effusively calls "the spearhead of civil society." Those who work at the center do so without exception out of idealism – and usually still need a day job, they don't want to get more specific. Provocation can be a precarious genre.
Measured against the almost official size to which the center has grown, its beginnings were still political cabaret. In 2009, for the European elections, the collective had an actor wrapped in a black cloth sneak through the government district and into the polling station of the then Chancellor as the personification of melancholy ("Europe: The Continent of Melancholy"). At the time, street theatre hardly caused a stir among its declared addressee, a lethargic public.
Ruch remembers that they had to make do with only 5000 euros for this modest performance: "We couldn't even pay the director for that today." There would be no public cross-financing. However, on particularly expensive occasions, the Maxim Gorki Theatre has occasionally contributed some money.
Year after year, the activists professionalized their approach and looked for more concrete opponents. And focus on causing a stir.
Ideal subject for his "aggressive humanism"
In 2010, they piled the shoes of those murdered in Srebrenica into "pillars of shame" in protest against the inaction of the United Nations. In 2012, they offered a "25,000 euro reward" for the capture of the owners of the German arms company Krauss-Maffei Wegmann. At the same time, they had construction plans developed for how the Swabian headquarters of the arms company Heckler & Koch could be rendered harmless with a "sarcophagus Oberndorf" in the style of Chernobyl.
In the refugee crisis of 2015, the center recognized an ideal subject for its "aggressive humanism," which it wanted to make shine particularly brightly as a contrast to the prevailing phlegm of the powerful. The activities became visibly more visually powerful, more elaborate. The group finally entered a second phase.
In Sicily, they exhumed a drowned boat refugee and transferred the remains to Berlin for burial ("The Dead Are Coming", 2015). They deployed a firmly anchored rescue platform in the Mediterranean and called for a bridge from Africa to Europe ("The Jean Monnet Bridge", 2015). In a specially set up enclosure for tigers in Berlin, refugees were finally to be "eaten" (2016).
The centre has already established itself as a lawyer and agent of human rights – without a mandate, but with a licence to get on your nerves. The focus is now on the misery of the refugees. Again, a problem that cannot actually be solved with the playful drilling of thick boards. Of course, there's nothing wrong with at least trying. Where politics doesn't even take up the fight against it, art can even fail successfully. At least that's how Ruch sees it. One can understand the argument, but perhaps Ruch is making it too easy for himself. After all, what if art gets more attention than the problem it wants to fail at?
Just as musicians collect their gold records, so Ruch arranges his collected futilities. From his desk in his office, he looks at the wall opposite, where the photos of each provocation are framed and lovingly arranged. Many of the pictures show Ruch with the typical soot on his face – which he wants to be understood as a trace of "the collision of history and the public". Sure, that's a bit cerebral and probably also narcissistic. After all, just like art, masking is only successful if you don't have to explain it. Ruch always has to explain.
"We always fail," he laments, looking at this collage: "With everything we set out to do. We can't think of anything anymore because we have done everything we can against the refugee defense policy. But the mass extinction goes on and on!" he says, sounding like he's telling a good joke and at the same time hoping that someone will explain the punch line to him.
In 2017, when Björn Höcke called for a "180-degree turn in the politics of remembrance" in front of supporters in Dresden, the center entered its third phase. Since then, it has failed to combat right-wing extremism. The artists erected the "Holocaust Memorial" in the AfD politician's front garden in Bornhagen. And as "Soko Chemnitz", they blackened participants in the right-wing extremist marches in the city to their employers.
There was the tastelessness of placing a column in front of the Reichstag supposedly filled with the ashes of victims of the Holocaust ("Look for us", 2019). And before the 2021 federal election, there was the Eulenspiegelei to offer itself as the AfD's "Flyerservice Hahn" as a distributor of election campaign material - only to then destroy it en masse.
Did these interventions cost the AfD even a single vote? It must be doubted.
»Provoked by reality«
Pragmatic people, given the polls and election results, would at some point consider adapting their methods to reality. ZPS people, however, feel "provoked by reality" to intensify their efforts.
Because he is willing to use any means to achieve this, Ruch cultivates a very tactical – one could also say: theatrical – relationship to the truth. Have the life rafts in the Mediterranean really saved lives? Was there really ashes of victims of the Holocaust in the column in front of the Reichstag? Who wanted to check that? And how exactly does the ZPS claim to have obtained the contact details of more than 20,000 AfD members? The more persistently you ask him, the more fairytale-like Ruch's answers become. It's as if he wants to test how far his story can go – in order to escape into another, even more adventurous fairy tale, if necessary. Or into the truth, which is often smuggled in where the audience does not expect it.
The ZPS wants to be the better protection of the constitution, the more responsible Bundeswehr, the actual Federal Agency for Civic Education. Sometimes Ruch pushes the mimicry so far that he even tries to empathize with his political opponent: "In a way, I'm also the AfD," says Ruch, "just the better AfD – without all the enemies of the constitution. That's the piece. That's the theatre."
Now Pelzer comes back to the office, his mobile phone to his ear: "Quick! How tall is Olaf Scholz? Exactly?" Ruch gets up, grabs a tape measure and places it on the cardboard cutout in the corner: "One meter and seventy centimeters."