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Volksbühne staff on Chris Dercon: We fear job cuts and liquidation


Helen, have you a reference for that? Thanks.

#24 and


ha! that coming from an incoming director is more concerning to me than most of the points raised in the letter…


As a female white German, the provocations work for me as strategy (as one of many strategies out there). Not in the sense of confirming white privilege, but to push my face in it. That being said, I am ok with questioning my own perception. Maybe provocation has a history in art or literature that needs to be examined. At the moment though, erasing references of racism or fascism out of the discussion (for example erasing the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn) in terms of effectiveness is more alienating to me.

The work of Oliviero Toscani is an excellent comparison in terms of confrontationalism. But whereas those pictures lead to a clothing brand, the ads of Volksbühne lead to plays that fill up the space with content.

The usage of Blackletter font for example was a creative decision, ill-conceived or not, that wants to be up for discussion. I wonder how many people even bothered to look into the history of typography before.

In the light of horrendous contemporary political events all over the world however, can we at least agree that no game plan has really worked so far?

As all strategies are thoroughly being discussed, it is heartbreaking to me that you would condemn the VB of all institutions. Due to a specific set of circumstances, it has developed a consistent point of view (or brand, or whatever you want to call it). Isn’t it worth mentioning, that in 2016 one city can stomach both the VB and BB9, which are two extreme opposites, then again, in their totalitarian claim related after all?

If you think the producers and part of the public of VB are lazy, bored and gentrified, fair enough. But can’t the same be said of part of contemporary art and its visitors? I really do not see a winning argument there, on either side.

Coming back to the VB, obviously it is not a mere protest for contracts. Regardless of all personal bitching that happened, I understand the notion of wanting to keep a context. VB presents itself as an organism where e.g. costume designers are not only executioners. (This was included in an article, as statement by a workshop employee at the house who wanted to remain nameless). The solidarity of the directors and actors stresses that for me.
VB has managed to keep a certain aspect of ‚wholeness‘ in its operations (while being internationally oriented) despite all outsourcing, project related funding, underpaying or not mentioning of contributors that is going on everywhere else. They are proud about it- why shouldn’t they be. They might be therefore closed off to outsiders of the clique. They might be an outdated economical model. Again, they present a point of view.

I would agree that the presentation of workers vs leaders limits the discussion, that has expanded into city planning, cultural politics in general, the Berlin Senate in particular, theater/art/design history, political history, BRD/GDR etc.

There is no need to romanticize. Then again, in a time where everybody is stressing the need for discourse, aren’t they so attackable because they have the guts to actually put themselves out there?


Usually I try to avoid commenting in forums, but this time something embarrasses me and is wringing my nipples (of my brain).

As in the short run: I don´t like much of VB productions (or what I have seen in the past years), but the top down decision (of Chris Dercon as a new master of the arts), as well as the discourse and statements of VB seem to me, that both sides are more interested in manifestos and statements, than in process.

I like Chis Dercons efforts for Tate and think he would be a good contribution to Berlin.

But something is wrong in the dialogue, in both sides statements (declaring their manifestos and relational contributions or strategical plannings) as well as here in some of the comments as top down thinking ( like I heard today a talk by Nicolas Bourriaud and was the same time estranged of “relational” backward thinking, back to Courbet, Benjamin, Althusserl and phenomenogical so called critical art of the object (of the 90´s) of e.g. Liam Gillick, announcing the critique of the object of the capitalist re-jection…) .

This is very boring, to declare the manifestos of its own relational thinking as the only progress as process ( or as cementation of the status quo). And thats happening here with 2 different actors.

If now, the friends of Chris Dercon as the undersigners of the open letter propose the rule of the established and the educated, then art, or what is left of it, will not become anymore a discourse and a process, but a declaration of established manifestos on both sides as decorum.

What is needed is process and in-jection, philosophical and subjective thinking from as many perspectives as possible. Hope, that in times of social networks, subjective pluralism will find a stage beyond the digital realm (either call it theatre, or call it exhibition), hopefully NOT as top down decisions from political agendas.


Tagesspiegel Interview: Changes always hurt

Chris Dercon: Volksbühne isn ´t an average theatre. Its one hundred years lasting history is rich of of changes and innovators. Heiner Müller, who also worked at the Volksbühne, once said: “Something has to go, so something can come”

Tagesspiegel: Heiner Müller also said visual arts are years ahead of theatre.

Chris Dercon: Objection ! In Germany, art was very much influenced by theatre. There has been a permanent productive dialogue. German theatre stands alone in the world. In Latin America people know the work by Claus Peymann, Frank Castorf, Rene Pollesch. In London, where I am from, theatre is incredibly boring

Tagesspiegel: German theatre system stands also for longterm tradition and high forces of gravity. You know this feellng right now.

Chris Dercon: You should reach a mix of public and private money step by step. The state is responsible for presenting culture, but there are also other possibilities.

Tagesspiegel: You need far more money for your Volksbühnen ideas, e.g. to play on “Hangar 5” at Tempelhof.

CD: I willl look after that money, of couse. I will talk to sponsors, who already signalised that they ´re interested. That concerns most of all the digital stage we are planning. Berlin is the city of start ups, here we can draw on. A lot of people look towards Berlin, not because of me, but because they think Volksbühne is very thrilling. They want to participtate in Berlin. You also have to think about Volksbuehne ´s capacity utilization, which isn ´t optimal. And you have to talk about ticket prices. On the one hand it s important that a certain kind of people can come for free, on the other hand another kind of people have to pay more.

Tagesspiegel: So, theatre becomes even interesting to sponsors ?

Chirs Dercon: Yes, and the work by Volksbühne was groundbreaking therefore. Not solely, when I´m speaking to museum people, I´m also talking about HAU, Tanz im August, Berliner Festspiele. But its always about Volksbühne, again and again. It s a german product, like Gerhard Richter


An anonymous artist statement in response to the Volksbühne debate, published by Texte zur Kunst:

To Okwui Enwezor, Ulrich Wilmes, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Rem Koolhaas, Hortensia Völckers, Jacques Herzog, David Chipperfield, Bernd Scherer, Thomas Weski, Richard Sennett, Alexander Kluge, Adam Szymczyk, Manthia Diawara, Dirk Snauwaert, Peter Saville, Matthias Mühling, Christine Macel, Philippe Parreno, Konstantin Grcic, Susanne Gaensheimer, Sabine Breitwieser, Friedrich Meschede, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Kasper König, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev,
and the Volksbühne:

Earlier this year, Chris Dercon was appointed the new director of the Volksbühne by the Berlin Senate. The head of one of the largest international exhibition venues, which is mainly geared to city tourism, will take charge of a municipal theatre that, in comparison with Tate, is not large, not efficient, but – as opposed to a rather routine exhibition programme – produces a surplus of specific meaning. This surplus has often enough also been called “surplus of symbolic capital”, and one then also becomes aware of the appetite that business has for this surplus in order to enliven itself by following its coercion to expand.

The last protest letter by the ensemble was followed by a letter supporting the new director, largely initiated and signed by international curator colleagues of his generation. The letter claims that the protests against Dercon are mainly aimed at the abuse of senatorial power, written by a narrow-minded group interested only in their own privileges. The letter complains about “the lack of decorum in the reception of the appointment" and misses a minimum of politeness towards the new director – a disgrace for Berlin as a global location.

Meanwhile, a saying has spread in local Berlin for cockily and ignorantly dismissing something: “I’ll make you world famous.” It is said that Chris Dercon made this unsolicited promise to René Pollesch in the theatre’s cafeteria. He also allegedly referred to his arguably quite excellent address book. Maybe that’s all gossip, but in the end it is precisely this power-conscious behaviour that artists are familiar with – usually in a subtler form – from global curators.

But we are not interested in taking sides in a leadership debate, and also not in calling for an identitarian delimitation of the individual arts. What has hardly been mentioned in the debate so far is the precarisation of working conditions. In this sense, it almost reminds one of a Freudian slip, when the international curators in their statement particularly attack “the privilege conferred by public employment to defeat an individual’s vision.”

Not only for this reason do we find it high time for us, as artists, to write a letter as well. It is also because this unfriendly takeover has an exemplary character. It reveals the paradigm change affecting both fields – fine art and theatre – and following the branding of Berlin as an international hub of the creative class.

When we say that fine art has become the flagship of the neoliberal understanding of culture since the end of the 1990s, we mean not only the question of financing, but also the subjectivity of the actors themselves.

Today, we are usually dealing not with individual curators and artists, but with managers and factories, both exhausted by the desired target of global presence and its demand to fill the void of international prestigious architectures. We are facing the divisions of labour and techniques taking on a professionalised momentum of their own. They often replace contents. As in all industries, what we have is a universal, existential fear breathing down the neck of the actors: being absorbed by the global noise caused by the expenditure of superfluous investment capital. That’s why there are now so many “teams” and “studios” for which the artist-subjects are working, but not to form a collective. They are instead employed, isolated, hierarchized and compete with each other.

We are dealing with the diagnosis of burnout that has become a fashionable word, because exploitation all the way to exhaustion is now ubiquitous for all actors. What we are ultimately talking about here is something that takes place daily in every other industry as well. But we call to mind that this field, just like theatre, once had the self-understanding of demanding other possibilities of living, thinking and feeling as a practice to counter power and lies.

In regard to theatre, we would like to mention that theatrical, time-based and performative modes of working in the field of art have increased exponentially to its neo-liberalisation – yes, they have become the crucial expressive means of this era. Because ‘good performance,’ the liquidity of production and the treatment of humans as resources belong to the catalogue of virtues of this form of economy, just as the attributes of immediacy, the ephemeral, the emphasis on the event have become central for both the performance and service economies. It belongs to the practiced, critical “function of ambivalence” of art that performance is often understood as an instrument of institution-critical meta-reflection on immaterial labour, while one’s own working conditions precisely correspond with their disenfranchisement. One can speak of an industrialisation that is based on shift work, outsourcing, de-qualification and repetition. And indeed, in exhibitions spaces one increasingly encounters a performative precariat that is at the mercy of the time and object status of the museum and its visitors. This applies both to wages and contracts and to the dignity and self-esteem of the performers. “The algorithm responds to the increased scale of contemporary performance as it confronts larger exhibition spaces and longer exhibition durations,” writes Claire Bishop on the work of Tino Seghal in the Turbine Hall of Tate, in which the movement clusters of the performers – now part of the smart building services – are oriented towards the variations in lighting. Therefore, taking charge of a theatre appears quite logical.

We are not interested in painting further horror scenarios regarding the future programme of the Volksbühne or a lean management theatre, as it has been successfully achieved at HAU. Furthermore, we cannot dismiss the “reform” of the Volksbühne as the often cited “creative destruction” of social contexts. We ask ourselves: Why does the imminent reform appear as exemplary as an execution?

The Volksbühne is not only one of the few fortunate examples of mutual inspiration between East and West German culture in an otherwise domestic colonising politics. It definitely prolongs historical knowledge as craft, commons and as the political arena of a leftist intellectuality – it has done so ever since its foundation. It is the venue of long-term ensembles that do not create star directors with their collectivity, but heterogeneous structures of the most diverse characters and attitudes. It is this culture of long-term, collective – and intellectually stimulating – production, this social and intellectual rhizomatics as a social programme and historical memory that is to be destroyed.

The art field of the past decades provides the efficient instruments needed for this destruction.
Berlin, July 2016

Apart from some minor typographical corrections, this letter appears unedited, as received by Texte zur Kunst.